‘Shikara’: Pandits’ Pain Shown With Empathy. What About Politics?

Contrary to the raging discussion on social media, Shikara is not a film about fixing the blame on the culprits of the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits or making a political point. It is a humane tale of love and loss.

Tailored around the romance of Shiv and Shanti, the story depicts the gravity of loss – of home, culture, heritage and the watan of the Pandits. In a simplistic narration, it shows us the life of Kashmiri Pandits before the exodus, the strong bond that the community shared with Muslim counterparts, the events that lead to the exodus, and the life of the couple in exile.

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The Unravelling of Kashmir

The early part of the film is set in the Kashmir of 1987, where Shiv meets Shanti at the sets of the movie Love in Kashmir. Both unknown to each other, they are asked to partake in a scene of the film. The journey of their love begins at that moment. Shiv makes many efforts to woo Shanti – without much luck. Subsequently, Shiv's best friend, Lateef Lone, meets Shanti to hand over a poem written by her beloved, and she dismisses it, suggesting that Shiv ask for her hand in marriage from her father. Lateef and Shiv share a deep friendship, as do their families.

It emerges eventually that Lateef has turned to militancy, and soon, Kashmir starts to unravel.

Things go out of hand with the serial killings of Kashmiri Pandits. The fear felt by the community is palpable, as are the subtle threats they receive from their neighbours. On the night of 1990, all hell breaks loose and Shiv’s family leaves Kashmir the next morning, witnessing immense brutality at the hands of armed militants.

The film evokes a deep empathy for the Pandits owing to the conditions under which they had to leave the Valley; life turns upside down as the paradise that is Kashmir is replaced with gruelling days in the camps of Jammu where they live in 8 feet by 8 feet quarters.

Not to forget the tyranny of the Kalashnikovs that the Pandits escaped.

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‘Shikara’ is Unpardonable to Perpetrators of Kashmiri Pandit Exodus

The film narrative is unpardonable to the perpetrators of the Kashmiri Pandit exodus; particularly the predators who were eyeing the properties of the exiled. In a turn of events, Lateef Lone, who turns to militancy, later insists (somewhat politely) to Shiv to leave Kashmir with his family.

The lens of the filmmaker shows some degree of empathy towards Lateef, even though he killed many members of the community. Compared to the ire that is received by the vile men – among them a man who occupies the house of Shiv and another who makes bids to buy it – Lateef, sadly, comes across as less of a villain. Our protagonist doesn’t let the revelations made to him 21 years later colour the opinion of Shanti regarding Lateef.

The undertones of the film are very subtle and delicately avoids crossing red lines. It is thus full of humanity and empathy albeit, with a caveat – the film, like many others on Kashmir, fails to bring a nuanced depiction of the pain of the ‘other’.

As is true for most texts (visual or otherwise) on Kashmir, Shikara presents – albeit, beautifully – only one of the many aspects – perhaps the most horrific – of the complex story of the Kashmir conflict.

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A Shoddy Job of Depicting Politics of the Time

At the same time, the film does a shoddy job of contextualising the political scenario of Kashmir before and at the time of the exodus. A passing reference to the election of 1987 as the main reason for the breakout of militancy, is too simplistic. It doesn’t refer to the communal riots of 1986 that happened in Anantnag nor does it take into consideration the growing influence of the Islamist organisations like Jamaat e Islami which had muddied the waters much earlier than 1987. Or for that matter the political upheaval afflicting rest of the country. There is no reference to the fact that the government at the center was an alliance government of the BJP, how very little was done to save and later on rehabilitate the community. Somehow the American president is the central political figure of film and the eight prime ministers of India who have failed the Pandits, don’t deserve even a whisper of criticism. For a subject that dominates the national discourse, the film is politically too shy!

Shikara does a great job of depicting the culture of Kashmir in a realistic sense. The scene of Shiv and Shanti's wedding is a delight to watch. Some of the scenes are so real that you can smell and feel Kashmir. For instance, in one moment, where Shanti tastes freshly cooked Rogan Josh off her palms, one is transcended to a Kashmiri daankuth (kitchen). Overall, the acting is stupendous without pretence or the burden of appearing genuine.

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Loss, Betrayal, Memories of Pain

The most devastating scenes of the film show us how after 30 years, the culture and identity of Pandits are at risk of getting subsumed in the overwhelming noise of alien communities and cultures.

Visually the film is average. It has missed out on capturing the beauty of Kashmir and the banality of violence. At some points, the transitions from one scene to another are too quick. The climax of the film could have been more powerful. The scenes depicted after the credits roll show the real travesty of the exodus and why the community is integral to the idea of Kashmir.

However, there could not have been a more humane way of portraying the pain, the sense of betrayal – the loss of culture, identity and heritage of a Kashmiri Pandit – on screen.

For an ordinary Indian, this cinematic piece will serve as an introduction to the plight of the Pandits, who, after 30 years, continue to yearn to return to their home in Kashmir. But this film, in no way, pleases the commando-comic prime time warriors who in general are bereft of aesthetics and knowledge of art.

Shikara can become a starting point for serious conversation, acknowledging the suffering of the Pandit community and galvanising the public opinion towards their dignified return. Therefore, the film is an important intervention in the story of the Kashmir conflict, where the truth is often met with denial, and realities are myriad.

(Khalid Shah is an Associate Fellow at ORF. His research focuses on Kashmir conflict, Pakistan and terrorism. Khalid was previously associated with leading news channels of India and did a brief stint as a correspondent in Srinagar with WION News, reporting extensively on the conflict. He tweets @khalidbshah. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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