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Shikara: The better film about the Kashmir conflict, but you chose to make the wrong one a hit – The Indian Express

In a quiet scene midway through director Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara, university professor Shiv Kumar Dhar (Aadil Khan) takes roll call in class. The mood is tense. The Kauls and Bhats are all present, but the Qureshis and Mirs are nowhere to be seen. Kashmir’s Muslim youth, we are told moments later, is taking direct buses from Lal Chowk to Rawalpindi, and returning with guns in their hands and vengeance in their hearts.
Released in 2020 to polarising critical and audience reception — perhaps foreshadowing the divisive times around the corner — Shikara is a soaring tribute to the people of Kashmir, as opposed to the rabid call-to-violence that we’d be subjected to just a couple of years later. In the film’s equally moving final moments, Shiv returns to his ancestral village, now a world-weary man driven by a single-minded goal: to educate the children around him. It’s the first time that he has taught a ‘class’ comprising entirely of Muslims; but it’s also the first time that the kids, born years after the exodus, have seen a Pandit. It’s such a tragic scene, but also a reminder that despite how foolish it may often seem, hope — in ourselves, in the system, and in our artists — is all we have.
Two boomer directors on either side of the ideological aisle were presented with the same socio-political backdrop — only one of them had personal skin in the game, though — but the films they ended up making couldn’t be more different. The more popular one is an irresponsible, hateful piece of propaganda. Shikara, on the other hand, is a humanist love story that honours the pain of a people, and makes a noble attempt to preserve their fast-eroding culture.
The film is inspired, in part, by Rahul Pandita’s memoir Our Moon has Blood Clots, which itself was a moving counterpoint to Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night, a book that examined the Kashmir conflict through a Muslim perspective and formed the basis of director Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider. Both writers also contributed to the screenplays of their respective films. These aren’t the only movies about the Kashmir conflict, though; they’re just the most popular ones. Aamir Bashir’s indie drama Harud, and Musa Syeed’s Sundance-winning Valley of Saints offer a more grounded look at the volatility that engulfed the Valley in the 90s. The harrowing documentary Inshallah, Kashmir features ex-militants recounting in detail the alleged torture they suffered at the hands of the army.
These films couldn’t be more different from each other, but what unites them is that they are all emphatically superior to the only one that you’ve likely seen — the film that made hundreds of crores at the box office earlier this year, catapulted its sycophantic director to cult-leader status, and could, very realistically, be chosen as our country’s official selection for the Oscars. Not that its closest competitor — SS Rajamouli’s RRR — is any better, at least on a political level.
Foreshadowing the mean-spirited turn that society has taken in the post-pandemic era — how stupid of us to presume that collective suffering would unite us — Shikara drew criticism from a section of Kashmiri Pandits during its initial release. I vividly remember a viral video of a woman yelling at Chopra from her seat after the film’s premiere. Chopra, to his credit, didn’t stop her from speaking; in fact, he asked the crowd to applaud her courage. And this, in a way, represents the spirit of his film.
“The truth,” he said, still visibly rattled by the encounter, “always has two sides.” Some called Shikara propaganda, which is ridiculous. Propaganda for what, peace?
This isn’t to say that Chopra twisted the truth — Shikara unequivocally establishes that the first stone was thrown by the government and the army — but he can’t be blamed for showing selective empathy. There were no winners in this conflict, and to highlight the suffering of one community doesn’t mean that one must diminish the pain of another. To not linger on the atrocities committed against the Pandits is a deliberate choice, because Chopra knew that highlighting the violence — any violence; the army is largely absent as well —  in his film would feed a beast that had already reared its head, a beast whose appetite would be properly taken care of only two years later by a person whose name I have decided to not mention in this article. Unlike that person, whose film empowered thousands to choose hate, Chopra wanted to stop the trauma that he had inherited from his mother from trickling down to his children’s generation. Listening to the woman yell at him at the premiere probably proved his worst fears.
Now, some would say — and rightfully so — that not every story deserves the ‘both sides’ treatment. But it should be noted that Shikara doesn’t forgive its most violent character — the militant Lateef Lone — and instead, punishes him for his actions. In addition to being a love story about a Pandit couple, the film also offers a tragic look at how the conflict divided Hindus and Muslims. Lateef was Shiv’s best friend, he adored his wife Shanti (Sadia Khateeb). He participated in their courtship and danced with them at their wedding. But when Lateef’s father is killed by the army, he is drawn to the dark side. Lateef leaves for Pakistan, and returns as a changed man. As his final friendly gesture towards Shiv, Lateef begs him to pack his bags and leave for ‘India’, because there is no telling what could happen to Pandits who stay behind amid growing tensions in the Valley.
The two characters represent their communities, and how external factors — not their actions, but those of others — tore them apart. Lateef turned to violence not because he wanted to, but because he was compelled to. It wasn’t the ideal decision, and the film doesn’t ever try to condone his choices, but it certainly tries to understand the circumstances behind it. Shiv also lost his brother to the violence, but instead of taking up arms, he chose peace. Isn’t that a strong political statement? There’s a reason why he is the protagonist, and not Lateef.
We live in dark times, times that Pankaj Tripathi would describe as ‘ghor kalyug’. People are angry; the word ‘woke’, believe it or not, has been given a negative connotation; from hopelessness, the maniacs have harvested hate. To praise something that aligns with one’s political beliefs is the equivalent of criticising something that doesn’t. Cinema can’t merely be a reflection of reality anymore; it must be morally superior. Which is why putting the achievements of Shikara on blast is vital. Because Kashmiris don’t deserve to be filed away, they deserve to fly.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.
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Rohan NaaharRohan Naahar is an assistant editor at Indian Express online. He cover… read more

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