For the longest time, I believed I would never have a more impactful cinema watching experience than Sairat. I watched it multiple times as a late teen and each time the entire packed house danced madly on Zingaat. When Archie kept staring at the shy Parshya with her big eyes, you could feel everyone smiling in the theatre. And after the horrifying climax of the film, there was an unnerving silence. People barely talked to their friends and family as they walked out of the hall. And if you look closely you would find people hiding and crying their hearts out in a corner.
But after seeing the videos of passionate hate speeches given after its screenings, the impact of Kashmir Files cannot be ignored as well. When was the last time a sitting Chief Minister’s house was vandalized for making a casual remark about a film and its promotion?
I went to watch the film being aware of the theatrics outside the screen and was even secretly waiting for it. That didn’t happen. But even before the film started, the mood of the hall was set. The usual slogans of Bharat Mata ki Jay and Vande Matram were raised after the National Anthem was played; but as soon as people were trying to adjust their seats and sit again, someone started shouting Siyavar Ramchandra Ki Jai and Jai Shri Ram repeatedly and almost everyone responded in one loud voice.
It was sad to see that their excitement did not last till the end. Perhaps because the almost three-hour-long film is not as engaging as it is advertised. Leaving its poor filmmaking aspects aside, it felt that even the ones who agree with Vivek Agnihotri’s worldview were expecting more depth and detail from the film. But what they received was sloppy at worst and exploitative at best. The word Files in the title suggested something investigative, but besides very few incidents and characters which might be new for them, it presented a narrative that they read and share every day.
I was watching Kashmir Files and I couldn’t help but think how it is inspired by tweets, that too of Agnihotri himself.
In the promotions, he kept talking about how they researched for years and collected testimonies of hundreds of displaced Kashmiri Pandits for this project. In an interview, he said even the dialogues for it were written by different Kashmiris — including Muslims. Sadly, after watching the film, it feels that they are simply an extension of his Twitter rants.
In one scene in the film, all the four old men who are trying to make ghar wapsi and the brainwashed university going ignorant named Krishna, blame each other for their actions during the exodus.
One of them, who is a journalist, tells Krishna that the foreign media goes to certain areas of Kashmir to report where people are given 500-500 rupees to create a false narrative of victimhood. Here women and children are used as weapons, he says. This is straight away lifted from the many tweets on Shaheen Bagh during the Anti-CAA protest. Agnihotri had even said that Shaheen Bagh has become Kashmir and asked why are ‘illiterate Muslim children & women’ being used as weapons by the Urban Naxals? At another place he said that many Mini-Kashmirs were created in North East Delhi, implying that 1990 was repeated.
The most concerning part about this scene is how it discredits all the atrocities and injustices happening in Kashmir.
In one of the flashback scenes, Krishna is cutting the nails of his grandfather played by Anupam Kher. While talking about the exodus, Krishna says, “It has been too long, just say sorry and move on.”
This is the exact line Vidhu Vinod Chopra has said in an interview during the release of Shikara. Agnihotri has made ferocious attacks on him over this small clip of a few seconds specifically. It wasn’t surprising that even this line was twisted in the movie. Anupam Kher’s character – Pushkar Nath – replies to him by saying “How can we be sorry to ones who carried out our genocide?” Chopra clearly meant the opposite.
After this, Pushkar Nath goes on to give a dangerous monologue where he says how there was a 100% Hindu population in the valley but ‘they’ converted them. When Krishna asks why they converted, he shouts, “From terror, from the swords of Sufis.” This is repeated in more detail in a dramatic climax speech.
This narrative is of course a classic in the hardline Hindutva Twitter universe and has been used as a dog whistle and a reason to justify crimes against Muslims for the longest time.
Historians like Ashok Kumar Pandey, writer of Kashmir Aur Kashmiri Pandit: Basne Aur Bikharne Ke 1500 Saal, have said that the claims made in the film about Muslim rulers carrying out seven exoduses of Kashmiri Pandits are false.
There are many more similarities between the lines from the film and tweets from the likes of Agnihotri. This includes labelling journalists, police personnel and even Kashmiri Pandits, who do not support the Sangh Parivar’s stand, as treacherous. But where he got his dialogues from is unimportant, what matters is how dangerous a narrative it builds.
While playing a game of cards, the friends are seen discussing some political leaders of the 1989-90 timeline. After calling out names of Farooq Abdullah and Rajiv Gandhi, they go after Shaikh Abdullah. One of them explains how he was a hypocrite – a communist in one place and a communalist in another- and the another replies, “These people are called secularists.”
In case you are unaware, following secularism – the basis of the Indian constitution – is openly and strongly despised today and is considered as betraying Hindu ‘brothers’. The star of the film, Anupam Kher, even endorsed it by uploading a video of an overtly emotional man abusing secularists after watching the film. The message is clear.
Agnihotri is the one who had made a list of prominent personalities in media, literature and academia and called them Urban Naxals- a term which just like his Twitter timeline is as dangerous as it is stupid. Hours later, activists including Sudha Bhardavaj, Varvara Rao and Gautam Navlakha were arrested.
According to him, anyone who is not with the very hardline Hindutva ideology is an agent of Red terror groups and Islamist terrorists. And as I have gathered from his book and his unending list of videos and tweets – both of them are working together to destroy India; and teachers, students, journalists and filmmakers are directly employed by them. This discourse is a big part of this movie as well.
Pallavi Joshi’s character, Radhika Menon, is a professor at a left-leaning University campus and has ‘deep’ connections with ‘Islamist terrorists’ in Kashmir. Out of all her outrageous lines in the film, one is very important to notice:
When Krishna asks how she has those deep contacts in Kashmir, she replies with a smirk, “Government bhale hi inki ho, system hamara hai” They might be in the government; we are the system/establishment”.
So if you dare to ask who was in power in 1990, what has BJP done in the last 8 years for Kashmiri Pandits or criticised any aspect of the ruling dispensation whatsoever, Agnihotri wants you to believe that the real power is still not in their hands.
That is why he keeps emphasizing that criticizing leftists, writers, liberal media and even the Congress party is more important because they are still the real establishment of this country. One must admit how effectively this move saves the ruling dispensation from any kind of accountability.
Pallavi Joshi’s character in this film is a human form of his Urban Naxal theory. But having studied in similar universities, I could tell that her character was as researched as her explainer videos of Rafale and GST. And they also served the same purpose – carrying forward one man’s agenda.
And this film is definitely an embodiment of all the hardline Hindutva tweets – completely devoid of nuance and logic; with a few facts, but with manipulated context; and of course, loaded with poison.
At the beginning of the film, a bearded armed man tells a woman before killing her that he will marry the little girl she is holding to his brother and tries to touch her. A red-bearded maulavi school teacher doesn’t teach science but asks students to demand Masjid, makes advances on a Kashmir Pandit woman and in the climax, legitimizes her molestation and murder — all such standard templates of the BJP IT cell network.
Some lines in the films are also lifted from Newstrack’s coverage of the exodus and some from an episode of Aap ki Adalat. And as we know, Rajat Sharma’s show – just like this movie- comes with a few papers in hand, claiming to portray some legit facts and credibility, but goes on with sensationalism, defending the BJP government and many times doing casual bigotry. And the more a line spoken is anti-muslim, the larger is the cheering and whistling from the audience.
One is tempted to call this universe of Hindutva films, news shows and social media content tools of Fascism. But the word feels overused and doubts do arise about using it. But Jason Stanley, writer of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, believes the relationship between Fascism and India is very straightforward.
Stanley, who is also a Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, while talking to The Wire’s Sidharth Bhatia said, “The originators of RSS explicitly used Nazis as a model and talked about imitating what the Nazis did with Jews for Muslims. You have a direct causal influence between Nazism and RSS. And BJP emerges from RSS. That is extremely concerning.”
Some of the features of Fascism mentioned in Stanley’s book are – evoking a pure mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, victimhood and sexual anxiety. Kashmir Files ticks are every single of these boxes.
Ironically, Agnihotri in every interview has compared the sufferings of Kashmiri Pandits with Jews during the holocaust and compared his film with Schindler’s list.
Besides this, he has followed the far-right Hindu supremacist playbooks very sincerely. His Urban Naxal theory is not very new after all. MS Golwalkar, many decades ago in one of his books, had highlighted how Muslims, Christians and Communists are our Internal threats.
Many people, who have seen Kashmir files and Schindler’s List, have pointed out how they are fundamentally different in their intentions and that can also be seen from how differently the audiences have reacted to them. Schindler’s List for decades inspired the emotions of empathy and compassion and not revenge and more violence.
Walking out of the theatre, after watching the film, I saw the poster of Jhund and couldn’t stop thinking about Nagraj Manjule’s last film Sairat on my way back home.
In 2016, when people were walking out silently after watching Sairat with heavy hearts, an unusual thing happened in one of the theatres in Maharashtra. Some inter-caste couples from the audience were asked to come forward and were felicitated by a youth group. People clapped and cheered for them. After watching this film, based on countless real-life incidents of honour killings, many such volunteer groups sprung up to help the brave ‘runaway couples’. Reconciliations were seen where some families asked those couples to return and accepted them with dignity.
We don’t know for how long this will be allowed to happen because Kashmir Files might be the beginning of a new phase of how to make and watch a film.
Vivek Agnihotri has said that his next movie is about different riots across India. Anyone who has followed his commentary on North-East Delhi’s riots can predict what the movie is going to be about. It will of course give a clean chit to the perpetrators and blame Muslims for every violence, with little or no facts and an abundance of sensationalism.
I can imagine the charged mobs – which are now outside the theatres – deciding to march towards my home and my loved ones after watching it, while the Prime Minister will appear on television urging people to watch that film to ‘find out the truth’. The only truth we are allowed to believe.
Imaad is an independent Journalist.