Shikara Review: An Incomplete Narrative on the Exodus of Kashmiri Pandits

Bollywood

Shikara Review: An Incomplete Narrative on the Exodus of Kashmiri Pandits

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The closing credits of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara contain the film’s most haunting moment. Chopra, who returns to directing a Hindi film after over a decade, ends the film with a montage of the house that once used to be his home before his family was uprooted in the 1990 Kashmiri Pandit exodus. The house that we see on screen is rundown, deserted, and untended, a ghost of the home that Chopra might remember growing up in.

Although these spare, worldless shots last for mere minutes, it vividly confronts the longing for the idea of home, of suddenly being denied your identity derived from belonging. That these are accompanied by the director dedicating the film to his mother who never returned to Kashmir after 1990, lends the dissonance of displacement a greater meaning. It’s this montage that drives home the point that just like the thousands of Kashmiri Pandits, home for Chopra is destined to only be a place in time, stored away in the crevices of memory – always in the past tense.

The rest of the 120-minute film is spent trying to replicate this very feeling, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Co-written by Chopra, Rahul Pandita, and Abhijat Joshi, Shikara spans three decades, offering an elliptical view of the exodus and its aftermath through the eyes of its two protagonists, Shiv Kumar Dhar (Aadil Khan) and his wife, Shanti Dhar (Sadia). When the film opens in 2018, Shiv and Shanti – presumably in their 50s – live in a frugal refugee quarter in Jammu. We’re told that for the last 28 years, Shiv has been typing out letters to various American Presidents hankering for a meeting, seeking to throw light on the fact that Kashmiri Pandits have been living like refugees in their own country.

One fine day, it seems as if his wish is finally granted: The duo make their way to Agra for a night, staying at an expansive Presidential Suite, a stark contrast to the cramped existence that they’ve otherwise been used to. It’s here that the movie switches to flashback mode, going all the way back to 1987, beginning with chronicling Shiv and Shanti’s first meeting, which turns out to be an inventive meet-cute at a film set, that gains from the easy chemistry of the two lead actors. Even their eventual wedding and domesticity is charted out with a pleasant earnestness that is for the most part, easy on the eye. Chopra also traces Shiv’s devoted relationship with Latif (Zain Durrani), his Muslim best friend, whose dreams of being a cricketer are whiffed out by insurgency, with a poignancy that affords the film much of its sentimentality.

It just replays the highlights with a touch of nostalgia.

As Shikara keeps taking a yearly leap until January 19, 1990, the day of Kashmiri Pandits’ forced flight from the Valley, the stakes keep getting higher. Houses are burnt, the obsession with preserving religion takes a sinister turn, loved ones are killed, and Kashmiri Hindus like Shiv and Shanti are left with no option but to reconcile themselves with their status as refugees eking out an existence in a makeshift Jammu camp.

The portions of Shikara set in the refugee camp are arguably, the film’s weakest link – Chopra films these parts in such a melodramatic way that they serve no purpose other than demanding only the viewer’s sympathy. The film’s screenplay plays by the beats of an upheaval, straying away from offering a distinct perspective on the sociological and political repercussions of the exodus. Instead, it just replays the highlights, with a touch of nostalgia that at times feels indulgent, if not unbearably showy. Take for instance, the fact that Sadia plays Shanti with a bumbling naivete that overstates the nobility of Kashmiri Hindus.

Yet an even bigger flaw for a film that revolves around a Valley, that remains under a crippling lockdown even today, is that Shikara glosses over the sullied history of Jammu and Kashmir. The timing of the film sticks out undeniably like a sore thumb, given that Shikara doesn’t situate itself in any context – the lone scribble and chant of “Azaadi” sounds like any other word. Chopra chooses to look at the Kashmiri Pandit exodus in isolation and not in relation with the continuous othering of the state by the governments of India and their armed forces. Any interrogation of historical injustice is redundant without also acknowledging of the forces that prompt it, more so in a state that has internalised injustice as a way of life. Hindsight is as much a luxury as it is a responsibility. In that sense, not only does the film come across as visibly apolitical (the lead protagonists for instance, completely ignore the privilege of their religion) but also an incomplete narrative where quite a few pieces of the puzzle are missing.

The closest Shikara gets to taking a stand, besides, casting two Kashmiri Muslims as its Hindu leads, are in two brief albeit revelatory scenes. In one, a TV clip of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazzir Bhutto expressing her solidarity with Kashmir’s pro-independence movement is used in the background as the camera zooms into the the burning houses of Kashmiri Hindus. And in another, a bunch of Hindu kids chant “Mandir wahin banayenge” at a refugee camp in Jammu. You can sense the obvious objection in only one of these scenes.

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