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The Kashmir Files review: Disturbing yet riveting saga of the Pandit exodus of 1990

Release Date: 11 Mar 2022 / Rated: A / 02hr 50min

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Suyog Zore

The storytelling is so engaging that the film's nearly three-hour duration doesn’t weigh it down.

The Kashmir Files begins with the radio commentary of a cricket match between India and Pakistan. Sachin Tendulkar, just 16 years old, is on strike and the commentators can't stop singing the teenager's praises. The camera moves slowly to two kids, probably six or seven years old, playing cricket. Shiva Pandit is batting. His Muslim friend is bowling. Each shot Shiva plays is in synch with the radio commentary.

This tender two-minute sequence offers the only solace in this 170 minute-long disturbing, frightening, yet riveting saga of the exodus (genocide, according to Mithun Chakraborty's IAS officer Brahma Dutt) of Kashmiri Pandits from the Himalayan state in January 1990.

One issue with the recent surge of films publicizing the right-wing world view is that they mostly focus on the case they want to make, without paying too much attention to how they are conveying the message. This is where Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri's film differs.

The filmmaker has clearly done his research before writing the script. Agnihotri and co-writer Saurabh Pandey give equal importance to the separatist movement and its point of view. The film presents some lesser known facts about Kashmir that seem to back up the demand for separation. You begin to think that maybe, instead of painting one community as the villain and singing the new right-wing tune, Agnihotri has decided to show the whole bitter truth and leave his viewers to draw their conclusions. But as the plot progresses, the filmmaker slowly reveals his hand. By the time you realize the intent you have been had.

The Kashmir Files is split into two broad time periods. The first captures the harrowing experience of the Pandits in those early days of 1990 as they are thrown out of their homes by extremists led by Farooq Abdul Bitta (Chinmay Mandlekar) who is shown to enjoy the support of some politicians of the state.

Despite several requests from Brahma Dutt and state police chief Hari Narain (Puneet Issar), the central government pays no heed to the atrocities being perpetrated on the Pandits by the separatists. Even pregnant women and toddlers are shown no mercy. Many die gruesome deaths.

As the number of Pandit refugees arriving in Jammu swells from the hundreds to the tens of thousands over the first few months of 1990, a mostly middle-class, highly educated community finds itself reduced to living in tents in squalid camps far removed from the home and hearth they have left behind. While government officers stand idly by, the media, at the government's behest, claims the Pandits left the valley willingly.

Anupam Kher as Pushkar Nath Pandit

The Kashmir Files revolves around one such Pandit family. The film has a great emotional charge and some haunting imagery. Anupam Kher plays retired schoolmaster Pushkar Nath Pandit whose family has to face the wrath of the separatists. In a haunting scene, Bitta kills Pushkar Nath's son and makes his daughter-in-law Sharda (Bhasha Sumbli) drink her husband's blood to spare their sons. This is just one example of the many shocking scenes in the film.

The second period is set in the present after the revocation of Jammu & Kashmir's statehood and special status under Article 370 of the Constitution and its division into two Union territories. While the situation in the Kashmir valley is volatile, some students in the national capital led by professor Radhika Menon (Pallavi Joshi) rally in support of the separatists. They say Kashmir cannot remain a part of India any more.

Krishna Pandit (Darshan Kumaar), Pushkar Nath's grandson, initially supports this movement, but his quest for the truth after his grandfather's death reopens old wounds and uncovers some secrets from the past that give him a new perspective.

With this film, Agnihotri, who earlier made films like Hate Story (2012) and The Tashkent Files (2019), accomplishes something rare. He takes a story that has rarely been shown in mainstream cinema and creates an engaging, emotional drama. The filmmaker stops at nothing as he shows the devastating consequences of terrorism.

It has been more than 30 years now since the Pandits fled the valley. Over the decades, the circumstances of their departure and their desire to return to their homes has fed the Hindu-Muslim polarization in India and become a potent issue for the votaries of Hindutva, or Hindu political mobilization.

But the movie itself alternates between lyricism and propaganda. Along with scenes of evil Muslim separatists and their atrocities on innocent Kashmiri Hindus, the film shows how the state and central governments were also responsible for the outcome. It recreates some infamous real-life incidents while also stating the filmmaker's position on Article 370, the 'vilification' of the army, the 'selective' outrage of the media, and the mythology and ancient history of Kashmir.

Pallavi Joshi as professor Radhika Menon

The film is heart-breaking and accessible, but what takes it a notch higher is the performances by the cast, in particular, Chinmay Mandlekar as the cold-blooded militant chief. The actor has limited screen time but perfectly embodies the cruelty of a man who will not mind killing his own parents if the need arises. His mere presence on screen will send a shiver down your spine.

Another artiste who steals the show is Bhasha Sumbli as a devastated woman trying her best to save her sons. The actress expresses the helplessness of a woman whose life has been destroyed and who is shrouded in pain. Strangely, Anupam Kher's performance did not hit me as hard. Also, his character gets lost in all the chaos.

Darshan Kumaar as Krishna Pandit

The other casting choices are also good. Darshan Kumaar excels as a confused young man trying to find out what happened to his people 30 years ago. Mithun Chakraborty, Mrinal Kulkarni, Prakash Belawadi, Atul Srivastav and Puneet Issar all do justice to their roles, though the roles themselves barely scratch the surface. If only the filmmaker had infused more emotional depth in these characters.

Though the film runs for nearly three hours, the storytelling is so engaging that the duration doesn’t weigh it down. The deliberately slow pace also does not hinder the viewing experience. In fact it elevates some scenes, especially the climax. There are no fancy shots to glorify the beauty of Kashmir. Instead, Udaysingh Mohite's camera captures the violence and devastation without any sugarcoating and lets you feel the sheer barbarism of the extremists who show no mercy even to children.

Some might dismiss the film as mere propaganda, but one can't deny that The Kashmir Files makes intelligent and bold use of the medium of cinema to promote the filmmaker's political agenda.

The Kashmir Files was released in cinemas across India on 11 March.


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