No nitpicking in The Kashmir Files fracas

The disparaging comments on the movie The Kashmir Files by the Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, who headed the Jury at the 53rd Indian Film Festival, continue to reverberate. While NDTV headlined his apology, talk show host Karan Thapar, quoting from his interview with Mr Lapid in The Wire, contradicted it. Refusing to retract or recant, Mr Lapid asserts: “In a way it was my duty, my obligation. I was invited to be frank not to speak vanities.” Israel’s envoy to India attempted damage control, realising that for the Bharatiya Janata Party the movie was a quasi-official rendering of a perspective on the Kashmiri Pandits compelled to abandon heir homes in Kashmir.

Mr Lapid shared that The Kashmir Files left the jury members “disturbed and shocked”, because the film was “vulgar” and mere “propaganda”. In the ensuing uproar, however, Mr Lapid’s comments on the handling of the sensitive subject by writer-director Vivek Agnihotri were confused with the facts of the tragedy itself. The events occurred around 1990 when a Janata Dal government led by Prime Minister V P Singh had succeeded Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government. Governor Jagmohan had just joined in Jammu and Kashmir when the exodus suddenly began, as militants coerced the Muslim majority to turn upon their Hindu neighbours who had cohabited with them for centuries. When the film was released, BJP-ruled states extended tax exemptions and their leaders issued accolades, polarising opinions even before the movie hit the theatres.

Even contemporaneously Time magazine titled its story: “The Kashmir Files: How a New Bollywood Film Marks India’s Further Descent into Bigotry”. The New York Times echoed similar thoughts headlining: “Film on Expulsion of Kashmir’s Hindus Is Polarising and Popular in India”. Singapore banned its screening, dubbing it a “provocative and one-sided portrayal of Muslims”, with potential to cause enmity amongst communities. Considering that FIRs are readily filed in India on the same grounds whenever anything even marginally offensive surfaces it is worth cogitating why the movie was promoted by BJP and its bhakts. Therefore what Mr Lapid has said now is neither new nor surprising.

What, then, is the issue? The debate is an old one, as to whether literature or movies should entertain or educate, or perhaps do both in some mix. Jacob R Drucker wrote in The Harvard Crimson that “movies are usurping written works as the primary means of spreading ideas and educating people”. Thus, movies can become a means of spreading misinformation or misshaping historical perspective. As it is, the BJP is not chary of historical revisionism. Many examples exist of movies reshaping human memory — like the Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet starrer that coloured the recall of the Titanic’s sinking. Similarly Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln or Oliver Stone’s JFK freezes past historical events or leaders in the viewer’s perception.

Picturisation faces a serious challenge when the events chosen are tragic, even cataclysmic. Especially when the viewers have not yet sufficiently distanced in time from them to assess dispassionately. A senior leader like Sharad Pawar said about The Kashmir Files that it “shouldn’t have been released”. Many will ask why not? To answer that, a counter-question needs to be posed, whether the BJP would allow a movie to be made about the Godhra riots or the destruction of the Babri masjid which depicted truthfully all sides of the story?

It is true that all nations make movies portraying their perception of global events, or their self-perception and role in the world. In 1968, at the peak of anti-war protests in the US over the Vietnam war, John Wayne, with active encouragement from US President Lyndon B Johnson, produced the film The Green Berets. Similarly, superhero movie series flow from US exceptionalism and its self-anointed role as global hegemon to guarantee global stability. But there is a dividing line that separates art from propaganda, and liberal democratic ethos from provocative majoritarianism. That is the line that The Kashmir Files apparently breaches.

Filmmaker Lapid was thus not nitpicking in order to run down some Third-World nation. He has been known to do the same at home. He joined 250 Israeli filmmakers to denounce the Shomron Film Fund as it was extending grants to Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, or encouraging filming in or about those areas to whitewash occupation. He explained in his Karan Thapar interview that “Criticising a movie is not criticising what happened in Kashmir.” He added that the tragedy as portrayed in the film can be legitimately criticised without questioning the veracity of the events. He asked if anyone would love “to live in a place where people are scared to open their mouth”. That is the real issue, and not Vivek Agnihotri’s directorial abilities or the jingoism of social media trolls or the peevishness of Government spokesmen. Is India still a place where fact-checking is permissible and Government-anointed reality can be questioned?

The writer is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

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