Shikara movie review: Vidhu Vinod Chopra film aims high, falls short

Shubhra Gupta
shikara movie review

Shikara movie review: Shiv and Shanti hark back to a time when Hindi movie lovers had the power to make you smile.

Shikara movie cast: Aadil Khan, Sadia, Faisal Simon, Priyanshu Chatterjee
Shikara movie director: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Shikara movie rating: 2.5 stars

In his telling of the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from their homeland, Vidhu Vinod Chopra uses a tender lens to create a romance between two individuals, which is wholly lovely and believable. You look at Shiv Kumar Dhar and his beloved, Shanti, and you sigh. And then you look around at the beauty depicted on screen, slowly being ground to dust, and you ask why.

Why did this happen? Why was a particular community and its people forced into leaving the valley at gun-point? Shikara takes vague jabs at setting the context. We get throwaway remarks about ‘not being able to gather because of Section 144’, ‘elections not being free and fair’, ‘India chale jao’. We see militancy being encouraged and supported from across the border (actual scenes of Benazir Bhutto raising slogans of ‘azaadi’ on black and white TV), but nothing goes deeper. That the Muslim residents are slyly eyeing Pandit homes and property finds repeat mention, but what has caused the rift stays strictly on the surface.

It’s certainly not my case that a feature film has to bear the burden of examining every single aspect of a complex situation. In this instance, the special status of J&K, which stands abrogated, was the result of a multitude of reasons, and to unravel those strands would take a lifetime, and reams of material. But a film, which is specifically about the subject, needs to tell us a little more of what went on before 1990, when the trickle of Pandits leaving the valley became a flood.

The meet-cute of Shiv (Khan) and Shanti (Sadia) during a film shoot reminds you of a bygone era, in which Kashmir was used as a romantic short-cut in Hindi cinema. The floating shikaras on the Dal Lake, with the houseboats lining the backwaters, were, for years, the backdrop for movies featuring popular stars. Close your eyes and you will see Shammi and Sharmila dancing-romancing: Shiv and Shanti bring back memories of a more innocent time when things were calm, and the Hindu Shiv’s best friend could be a Muslim (Simon) who wanted to play cricket for the Indian team. This doused-in-nostalgia summer of love aspect is the film’s best part, as well as the fact that the lead players all look and feel authentic. They look like they belong, not playing at fancy dress in their pherans and overflowing silver ornaments.

Almost all through the ’90s, when J&K was amongst the most dangerous places on earth, we barely caught a glimpse of it in the movies. It’s only in the past few years that we have sporadically been allowed access to the ‘paradise on earth’ both on and off screen. But the state has never left the headlines, because something as complicated and vitiated doesn’t lend itself to an easy solution.

Part of the Kashmir ‘problem’, the word used to blunt all complexity, has been the unaddressed wounds of the Pandits, who had to take refuge in make-shift camps in Jammu, and have scattered all over in order to recreate a life. But the hope of going back is never forgotten, and that runs like a crying ache through the film, which stands to reason because it is personal to the director. The credits tell us that Chopra’s mother (also called Shanti) left the valley in the late ’80s, and could never return.

We see the long line of cars, trucks and buses laden with humans and their belongings crawling across the hillside as they leave: we see it as a panorama, and more than once, and the weight of that leaving is considerable. But there is no mention of the decades of human rights violations by the army, or the security personnel, or the collateral damage that has taken place on the ‘other side’, or the political machinations by parties of all hue: yes, the best friend turns into a militant, but what caused the love to turn into indelible hatred?

Shiv and Shanti hark back to a time when Hindi movie lovers had the power to make you smile: they take their time to reach optimum intimacy, and you get a tad impatient, but the pay-off is worth it — this is a couple who’ve lived together for a life-time, digging into their reserves of resilience, and we can see and feel that strong connection. It shows us how present-day Bollywood has forgotten how to do romances.

A sequence which has the couple return for a short, painful reason, sees them making a quick stop at the home they had to flee. They walk up the steps, see the changes, and the family of the man they trusted huddled in a room. And there it is, staring at us, the shame of the interloper, the betrayal and loss. It’s near-wordless, and for that, powerful.

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You see this part and you are moved, and then you are back into questioning mode: why this narrow-casting of such a thin slice? A more nuanced sense of history would have made this film much more complete, even if you were to put aside the enormous irony of watching a film about a place which has been in lockdown for the past six months: when will the people in the valley be able to watch Shikara, and tell us what they think?