The Kashmir Files review: Vivek Agnihotri gives persecuted Kashmiri Pandits the film they yearned for years

Mindless reopening of old wounds or lending a ear to the cries of the victims? That is a call that only the persecuted can take but director Vivek Agnihotri’s film has its pros and cons.

Rating 2.5 / 5

By Mayur Lookhar

A week into its release, filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files [2022] is creating waves across the nation, at least in the Hindi speaking belt. The staggering box-office growth is testimony to its wide acceptance. There is anger on two fronts. First among those cinemagoers who feel the then political mandarins are to be blamed for the persecution of the Kashmiri Pandits. Then the left-liberals, and allegedly biased critics, who Agnihotri labels them as Urban Naxals, are quick to run down the film as another propaganda.

Agnihotri’s last film, The Tashkent Files [2019] faced similar criticism. Whilst yours truly found the story intriguing, but it lacked the creativity that such a subject merited. Like The Tashkent Files and Buddha in a Traffic Jam [2016], Agnihotri tells The Kashmir Files through the eyes of a confused youth.

Krishna Pandit [Darshan Kumar] was a toddler when Pakistan orchestrated terrorism struck Kashmir [historically and legally bound territory of India] leaving death, destruction, and lakhs of Hindu minorities, mainly Kashmiri Pandits, displaced from their motherland. Krishna is now a student in an unnamed top Delhi university, presumably the controversial Jawaharlal Nehru University that is notorious for its student politics. 

Is Agnihotri then using the pain of the Kashmiri Pandits to strike at the Urban Naxals of JNU? The left-leaning critics think so, but the filmmaker plays it smart by putting his protagonist into the mix of student politics. Here’s a Kashmiri Pandit initially intrigued by the ideology of a left liberal activist Radhika Menon [Pallavi Joshi], perhaps modelled on JNU professor Nivedita Menon who copped criticism for her controversial statement on Kashmir during the 2016 protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Menon had denied the anti-national allegations but her controversial comments are there in the public domain.  Viewers can draw their own judgment.

The empathy for Kashmiri terrorist Afzal Guru and some allegedly anti-national sloganeering that day made Menon-like characters unpopular with the nationalistic citizens.  Call it propaganda if you want but the ideology of people-like Menon, Arundhati Roy had for years changed the focus from the atrocities, against Kashmiri Pandits to the Pakistan backed false narrative of Kashmir’s freedom struggle.

In any persecution across the globe, the casualties are often under reported for a variety of reasons.  In the context of Kashmir, the persecution of Kashmiri pandits seemed to have lost chord with the then political mandarins and with time, society, too, occupied itself with other distractions. There has been the odd-film here and there on terrorism in Kashmir, but very few dared to expose the atrocities against minority Hindus in Kashmir.

Cinema of 90s was often guilty of ignoring the victims, but empathizing with the terrorists. Mani Ratnam’s Roja [1992], later Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission Kashmir [2000] copped similar criticism. But the Kashmiri Pandits were left bitterly disappointed with Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara [2020] accusing it of totally ignoring the genocide against their people, and instead pandering to the radicals who killed their beloved and threw them out of Kashmir.

Was the tragic episode genocidal in nature? The official death toll won’t suggest so. Hey, but if the perpetrators of these crimes represent a belief system where killing one innocent is akin to killing the entire mankind, then surely the many killings in Kashmir would be termed as genocide.

Reopening old wounds would never give justice, and definitely no closure for the thousands of victims. However, we haven’t faced persecution. The few gruesome scenes in The Kashmir Files are very disturbing but if the Kashmiri pandits feel this is the kind of barbarism they faced, who are we to question them? Vivek Agnihotri gives the persecuted Kashmiri Pandits the film that they cried for all these years.

The argument against the film, and perhaps a fair one is that while it depicts the killings of Kashmiri Pandits, but it hasn’t shown the killing of Muslims by radical Islamic terrorists. Many well-meaning pro India Kashmiri Muslims were gunned down by terrorists then and many more have been killed in these 32 years. It’s only in his final speech that Krishna Pandit mentions about terrorists killing not just Pandits, but also Muslims, some Dalits and Christians too.  This selective atrocity perhaps threatens to disturb India’s pluralism.  Maybe it fans vengeance, an eye for an eye ideology.  Hollywood has countless films on Nazi genocides, but have we heard of any Germanophobia? Many desi critics don’t flinch at watching at tales of Holocaust in Western films, so why should one have reservation over brutal human rights violation depicted in our films?

All talks of hurting religious sentiments should be avoided. Agnihotri’s film has few disturbing scenes, but it’s not a violent film altogether. You tend to find more violence in Bollywood films that glorify underworld dons, hardcore criminals.  What Agnihotri does well is to bring that grim, fearful atmosphere in Kashmir during 1989-1990.  Sadly, that was totally missing in Shikara [2020].  Often terror empathizers use oppression as the cause for picking up guns, but as Pushkar Nath Pandit [Anupam Kher] points out, “Despite the oppression, no Kashmiri Pandit ever picked up arms”.

The Kashmir Files isn’t kind to then chief minister Farooq Abdullah, who is often considered a moderate voice in the valley. The film also questions his father Sheikh Abdullah, the lion of Kashmir. Former Chief Minister and the then Home Minister the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, too, isn’t shown in great light. Their respective parties, supporters will naturally see red, but if a Narendra Modi was villainized over Gujarat riots, then how can the then mandarins of Kashmir escape scrutiny? The political mudslinging has naturally started, but honestly, the people of India don’t really care for it any longer.

One man though who is largely absent here is Jagmohan Malhotra. He is thanked for in the opening credits.  A Congress party leader, Jagmohan was appointed by the then Prime Minister V.P Singh as J& K governor. He did leave the Congress and later joined rival Bharatiya Janata Party, who one mustn’t forget was a coalition partner in the then National Front government, that was led by Janta Dal’s V.P Singh.

Over the years, Jagmohan’s evoked contrasting views. Is he the man responsible for the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits? Or the man that saved lakhs from persecution? The rescued Kashmiri Pandits can answer better. But the follies of the National Front government is never really explored.

Agnihotri’s civil servant here is Brahma Dutt [Mithun Chakraborty], the man who witnessed many killings but bizarrely, the terrorists never killed him.  But as Agnihotri’s main antagonist Farooq Malik Bitta says [Chinmay Mandlekar], “Someone needs to stay alive to tell the Indians of the horrors of today”. This character is a combination of two dreaded terrorists Yasin Malik and Farooq Ahmed Dar, aka Bitta Karate.

The other key men who survived the massacre in Agnihotri’s film are DGP Hari Narain [Puneet Issar], broadcast journalist Vishnu Ram [Atul Srivastava] and Dr. Mahesh Kumar [Prakash Belawadi]. Their rendezvous years later is like the loud discussion among eminent personalities in The Tashkent Files. Each of these artistes appear misfit in this Kashmir conundrum. 

At near three hours in length, The Kashmir Files feels way too long. It’s key message and the dreaded visuals only come through the final 30-35 minutes.  Initially, we feared whether Agnihotri is resorting to the Urban Naxal sub plot as propaganda, but it is only befitting that a false narrative about Kashmir is beaten with the cold truth of 1990.

 The Kashmir Files’ message would be lost if the film triggers vengeance attitude, or threatens India’s pluralism. While reminding Kashmir’s history is fine, but the outpour of emotions by Krishna in his final act has already triggered Islamophobia.  Some have pointed out how the late Indian Airforce Officer Ravi Khanna’s wife had taken the film to court over distorting certain facts. In her petition, Nirmala Khanna has only pointed out how her husband was killed on the day of a curfew, and he didn’t distribute any chocolates to school students as shown in the film.  However, she hasn’t disputed the killing of her husband by Yasin Malik and other Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front terrorists.

Not a slow-burn but The Kashmir Files drags a bit longer for our liking.  The performances too lack consistency. Pallavi Joshi, Darshan Kumar, Chinmay Mandlekar are fairly competent, but the rest of the cast are below par.  A particular Kashmiri language is welcome, but Anupam Kher’s performance borders on melodrama.  Its ironical how on one hand the film condemns the media for suppressing truth, but Brahma Dutt’s Kashmir Files carried clipping of atrocities against Kashmiri Pandits. So, some media did their job well. It’s a fair argument though that with time, certain section of the media moved away from the Kashmir issue.

Here was an opportunity to deeply expose the role of Pakistan in this entire mess, but there is no focus on Hizbul Mujahideen or other Pakistan backed terrorists. Few soundbites of Benazir Bhutto’s hate speech is telecast on news, but it’s no secret that the late former Pakistani PM was the one who instigated Kashmiri youth through her communal speeches. Pakistan’s evil designs remained unfulfilled till date, while the communal leader paid for her sins, killed by her own.

Whether by choice or design, Agnihotri has dared to touch upon sensitive issues, but he still lacks the finesse of an experienced filmmaker. It’s an individual right to accuse this film as a propaganda, while Agnihotri has the freedom to tell stories that he desires.  The Kashmir Files is definitely an upgrade from The Tashkent Files, but it still falls short of the creative brilliance that this story so required.

It comes in times where ultra-nationalism flourishes and so it is convenient to tell such a tale. We would urge people on all sides to show maturity, restrain and not resort to any emotional or violent reaction.  The filmmaker’s vision is all about to change the false narrative around the Kashmir issue. If not in the real, but in this film some misguided students eventually pay heed to Krishna’s words. Do lend a ear to Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files.

Watch the trailer below.


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