Director: Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri
Writers: Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri
Cast: Mithun Chakraborty, Anupam Kher, Darshan Kulkarni, Pallavi Joshi, Chinmay Mandlekar, Prakash Belawadi, Puneet Issar, Bhasha Sumbli, Mrinal Kulkarni, Atul Srivastava, Prithviraj Sarnaik
Cinematographer: Udaysingh Mohite
Editor: Shankh Rahadhyaksha
Vivek Agnihotri's latest fantasy-revisionist drama, The Kashmir Files, is a 170-minute rant that draws parallels between the Exodus of Kashmiri Pandits and the Holocaust. A poor appropriation of the famous Schindler's List theme aside, the film reimagines the exodus as a full-scale genocide – where every Hindu is a tragic Jew, every Muslim is a murderous Nazi, where then-CM Farooq Abdullah is a playboy with a golf and Bollywood-actress habit, and where JNU is a university of pseudo-intellectual clowns with sinister connections to the separatist movement. Dramatizing a story of persecution and oppression is not a problem; the lesser-known Children of War comes to mind. Designing it solely to provoke and prey on the insecurities of today is a problem. This is less of an education and more of a defensive political statement and living-room debate parading as a movie.
The Kashmir Files is centered on a JNU student named Krishna Pandit (Darshan Kumar) who, while running for university president, visits his hometown in Kashmir with his grandfather's ashes. His dementia-afflicted grandfather (Anupam Kher) died in Delhi without realizing his dream of returning to Kashmir 30 years after the exodus. Needless to mention, his grandfather's jaded Pandit gang from the past – a bitter ex-politician (Mithun Chakraborty), a regretful ex-journalist (Atul Srivastava), a macho ex-supercop (Puneet Issar), a haunted ex-doctor (Prakash Belawadi) – become Krishna's reality check, transforming him from an armchair liberal to a new-age orator. All it takes are a couple of files with newspaper clippings from the early 1990s, preserved by the four wise old men in the hope that the atrocities against their kind would one day be exposed to the modern world. (Twitter might have done the trick). The narrative flits between not two but three timelines: violent skit-level flashbacks from the '90s, Krishna's life as a (seemingly middle-aged) student under a liberal-snob professor named Radhika Menon (Pallavi Joshi), and Krishna's awakening with the not-so-awesome foursome in present-day Kashmir. All three timelines lack clarity and craft.
Even if I were to buy into the film's dodgy worldview, the film-making is exploitative – geared towards riding the current wave of Hindu nationalism rather than empathizing with the displaced victims of history. None of it stems from a genuine space of understanding or curiosity, with the writing operating on only two extreme levels: verbose discussions and all-out torture porn. People are either speaking or dying/killing; there is no middle ground. If anything, the treatment is so desperate to villainize the Kashmiri Muslims that it ends up reducing the Kashmiri Hindus to cultural corpses; I'm not sure which community might be more offended. When the weakly written characters aren't serving as surrogates for the makers' controversial theories, they're being artfully slaughtered by guns, goons and kohl-eyed masculinity.
At one point, we see 24 consecutive Hindus being shot in their faces, brain shards and all. At another, we see a woman being stripped of her saffron robes before being chopped into gory pieces by a machine in front of her pre-teen son. At yet another, a stunned wife is forced to eat grains soaked with her husband's blood and flesh by a perverse militant (I'm afraid the film might cancel you if you use the term "rebel"). At yet another, Kher's face is painted in Shiva-blue when his family is being terrorized. It's all too much, evoking a vengeful gaze that's out to incite and react – the JNU folks are presented as shallow placeholders (at no point does it look like Krishna is running for president), the conversations between the four men are boring and patronizing, Anupam Kher is in The Accidental Prime Minister mode – rather than simply exist.
There are other basic flaws. Krishna's transformation is immediate, yet when he delivers an impassioned election speech littered with lofty statistics (quoting his sources like a lawyer afraid of being found out) to stun his JNU voters, he looks like a man who has spent his last five years poring through the archives in search of a suitable narrative. His monologue is allegedly so convincing that he is afforded a standing ovation by the newly-humbled JNU elite, who demand to know "more" out of sheer shame. Of all the inauthentic slants in the film, this one – of students switching sides in six minutes flat – takes the anti-beef cake. Krishna can be right or wrong, but he's probably too angry to make sense, just like the film that accommodates him.
The personal angle is cosmetic, too, like a flimsy OpIndia story constructed to villainize one side in order to deify the other. I do, however, like how Kashmir is filmed here – in distant hues of snow (to highlight blood) and darkness (to highlight flames). But as far as propaganda vehicles go, The Kashmir Files isn't as harmlessly tacky as something like PM Narendra Modi; it also isn't nearly as troublingly competent as Uri: The Surgical Strike either. This middling status is strange. I did think the director was angling for Leni Riefenstahl's visual aesthetic when I saw the film's opening shot: the calibrated fluttering of the tri-colour, with the national anthem steadily building in volume. Only later did I realize that this shot was actually the mandatory pre-film anthem. At least I hope it was.