Vidhu Vinod Chopra directorial Shikara will hit screens on February 7.
Why did you decide to go with the title Shikara?
Shikara is a cultural symbol of Kashmir. The movie is about Kashmiri Pandits’ exodus and while we did discuss various titles, we felt Shikara best represented the pristine and serene surroundings which were once a commonality in this place. We wanted a title which would instantly connect with people and hence the name Shikara.
Why newcomers for such a sensitive subject. How good were they?
Competence and ability to depict an emotion is more important than stardom. I was looking for intensity and innocence. Both Aadil and Sadia are from Kashmir and have lived the horror of the past several decades. Authenticity was the key to draw out the correct emotions of a community displaced from their homeland. I wanted it to be real and relevant.
It is almost 12 years since Eklavya released. Why such a huge gap?
I was involved in the movie-making process. But for me to direct, the story had to be compelling. I had made up my mind that I am going to bring the Kashmiri Pandit story to celluloid and that process itself took me all these years. I was writing, researching, visiting, talking to people, identifying actors and trying to create an authentic story which helps me to dispassionately tell the truth behind the Kashmiri Pandit issue. For me, this is not just a movie. It is a movement of sorts. To make the entire nation realise the trauma this community experienced and the sheer helplessness with which they have been packed off to various
refugee camps across the country. This movie was difficult to write. I worked with Abhijat Joshi and Rahul Pandita for several years before I could bring it to life.
How did the collaboration between you and Rahul Pandita take place?
I have known Rahul for many years. He was an affected Pandit who got thrown out of his house at 14 and has lived life like a refugee. He has written a brilliant book to which I referred several times while writing this movie. Being affected as fellow Kashmiris, our common goal to tell a story was the binding factor, and we collaborated well to bring Shikara to life.
It has been 30 years since the exodus happened. What took you so long to touch this subject since you have personally experienced the pain of Kashmiri Pandits?
I started work on this post my mother’s demise in 2007. The Kashmiri Pandit exodus is a known issue, but the complexities and the build-up of events which led to the driving away of the Kashmiri Pandits is not known. This movie required significant research so that we could tell an absorbing story which is fact-based and helps in bringing this conversation to the fore. I have done much work in those years, but this was perhaps my most challenging as I had to remain dispassionate as a moviemaker to depict the truth and yet make a compelling argument that the only solution to such hatred is love and that is at the centre of
my movie. The love between Shiv Kumar Dhar & Shanti Dhar (the chief protagonists - Shanti is also my mother’s name, by the way) is a binding factor which forces us to think beyond hatred. The shoot was mostly in Kashmir which was under heavy security cover, so we had limited time to get work done. Authenticity was the key. The writing also took significant time as I had to sift through tons of documentation and video footage to bring reality to celluloid.
What memories do you have of the exodus of Pandits from Kashmir?
Deep anguish, helplessness, anger, fear, betrayal - all these emotions were running deep. My mother had come down with a single suitcase to attend the premiere of Parinda in 1989 and could not go back. I could see the sorrow in her eyes in all the years she lived with me in Mumbai, hoping and praying that one day she goes back to her home and dies peacefully. Our friends got displaced. We lost our home, our neighbourhood, our culture and our heritage. It is too painful an episode to recollect.
Do you visit Kashmir often? How does it feel to be there?
Well, I go there every year. The land is still as beautiful as it was, but demographically it has changed because most of the [Kashmiri] Pandits have left. So it is not the same. It has become slightly desolate - and that hits you sometimes. I hope and pray that someday it goes back to how it was.
Do you think successive governments have made efforts to bring justice to Kashmiri Pandits?
It deeply saddens me and leaves me in anger and pain that successive governments, media, civil society and intellectuals turned a blind eye to the Kashmiri Pandits issue. None of us thought that this issue would stretch for so long. The insurgency and our inability to handle the internal conflict within Kashmir kept the focus on Kashmir as a troubled state so the question of the return of Kashmiri Pandits was lost in the discussion. Had the Kashmiri Pandits returned, the region would have been better, more peaceful, economically powerful because local people want communities to come together.
In the current volatile political climate, the issue of Kashmiri Pandits is often used by right-wing groups in order to defend the alleged atrocities against Muslims in the country. Your take?
Hate can never resolve anything. There is no denying that atrocities and killings of Kashmiri Pandits were done, but those cannot be used to kill someone else. It will not help us heal. Those who committed these ghastly acts on Kashmiri Pandits should be punished severely, but we cannot do one more wrong to justify another wrong. Violence in all forms needs to be condemned, and dialogue should be encouraged to get people together to resolve issues.
How do you react to the recent trend on Twitter to boycott your film for saying it is like two friends who have fallen apart? Does the social media trend bother you?
Before I answer the Twitter question, let me clarify the ‘two friends who have fallen apart' issue. The other day during a media interview, I said that it is about two friends who apologise and move on, and I was misunderstood. Let me clarify that position as well. I believe that wrong has happened and the people who did that cannot be spared and should receive the harshest punishment. But for us to ensure that we have a sustainable future, dialogue is crucial. That is when I said that people who were silent spectators - locals or leaders across the country need to apologise for putting the Kashmiri Pandit community though this horror and resolve the issue. On the Twitter question, it is undoubtedly an extremely powerful platform which gives us a sense of how people are thinking and wrong information can mislead them. I am not worried about the comments being made on Shikara because I continue to believe that this movie defies held conventions and narrates the true story of Kashmiri Pandits' exodus.
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Your opinion on the removal of Article 370, detention of political leaders, and clampdown in Kashmir.
For 70 years, we had Article 370. It did nothing good for the people, the economy or overall well-being. Now the current government has made an effort and removed Article 370 to bring these regions into the mainstream. Let us see what it does. I want to see Kashmiri Pandits return with dignity and pride to their homeland and their status restored. I believe in the fundamental principles of democracy and our constitution. In isolation, these steps do not look correct, but I have been told that this was done to rein in any flare-up in the situation and to restore normalcy. If that is the case and it has prevented deaths, then it is like that bitter pill you have to take to cleanse the system. If the actions helped to keep peace in the region, then it is that bitter pill you have to swallow.
What is the future of Kashmiri Pandits in our country? Do you see any chance of their return?
I urge the government to ensure that Kashmiri Pandits return to their rightful homes. I have been an eternal optimist. I believe dialogue will help us restore normalcy. I am very hopeful that Kashmiri Pandits will return. I believe my movie will mark a beginning of sorts in that direction.