Shikaras in Kashmir were never associated with Kashmiri Pandits. They were owned and plied by the Muslims and used by tourists. It was only much after 1990 when some Pandits started visiting the place that had once been home that they were persuaded by glib-talking Shikara-wallahs to step into those boats to glide across the Dal Lake and pretend nothing bad had ever happened. By choosing to call his film Shikara, Vidhu Vinod Chopra chose to tell exactly that version of the Kashmir story. The version where Muslims pretended what happened in 1990 was an aberration and what Chopra had the nerve to call a “falling out between two friends”!
In the meantime, he roped in a Pandit writer who had written an acclaimed account of our exodus and kept some simple people from the community happy by making them feel they were an integral part of the venture. The trailers were carefully edited to create the impression that he was going to keep his promise of honestly depicting the ‘untold story of Kashmiri Pandits’.
So, despite Chopra’s history of delivering a tepid version of what actually transpired in Kashmir during the nineties, most Kashmiri Pandits were eager to see their plight unfold on the big screen. We kept telling ourselves that with Rahul Pandita as the scriptwriter, the filmmaker couldn’t go wrong. How could anyone, who had experienced the agonising upheaval of 1990, not get it right!
Not being amongst those Pandits selected for a special screening, I made sure to book my tickets and watch Shikara as soon as I could manage. However, hardly after the first few scenes, I had this urge to just get up and leave the theatre. How could I sit through a film that was actually explaining how and why a dashing young cricketer called Latif turned into a terrorist? Was this a film about the oppression, persecution and genocide of Kashmiri Pandits or the celluloid version of the usual ‘headmaster’s son forced to become terrorist story’?
There are scenes in Shikara that could have made a powerful impact but seem to be deliberately toned down to make the reality look less harsh. In reality, Pandits’ houses were burnt down by murderous mobs, comprising in many cases neighbours who spared no one and nothing. In the film, it’s just a group of men setting fire to houses and walking off without killing the occupants. The threatening Islamic slogans that were blared from mosque loudspeakers and chanted by mobs everywhere are hardly intelligible in the film. Was it my feeling or is the audio in the film actually lower when ‘inconvenient’ truths are being shouted?
The almost fixed, vacuous smiles on the lead pair’s faces negate the pain of loss, displacement and suffering. Why weren’t Kashmiri Pandits chosen to enact these roles more meaningfully? Did Chopra realise he was rubbing salt into our wounds by not choosing Pandits for both roles? Or was this his idea of presenting a ‘secular’ version of the persecution that was solely perpetrated on the basis of religion?
There are so many discrepancies and anomalies in the script of Shikara that they, by themselves, make it unworthy of being called a ‘Kashmiri Pandit story’. Romances between the two communities were neither encouraged nor talked about openly, as is shown in the film. Ours was a conservative, discreet community and our women maintained a low profile due to obvious reasons. Shanti prancing around with her hair left loose and frequently hugging her husband in the presence of elders is not what Pandits of those times were used to doing.
The Kashmiri Muslims referred to us as ‘Battas’, the term ‘Pandit’ began to be used more frequently after 1990. Shiv and Shanti Dhar were too young to have used their ‘life’s savings’ to build a new house in Chhanpura. That neighbourhood was synonymous with so many houses painstakingly built by middle-aged, salaried Battas using up their previous savings to move into better dwellings. Most of them didn’t get to live in their new abodes for more than a few months. Obviously that pathos of dispossession and loss cannot be conveyed by a young couple.
There is too much that is not right about Shikara for it to pass muster with a community that has waited for three long decades for the truth to be told. The lingering attachment between Shiv and Latif, even after the latter becomes a terrorist commander, is unrealistic. It makes light of the killings, rapes and humiliation that we were subjected to, in the name of āzādi.
I took exception to the scene where Shiv assures a dying Latif that he’s with him and not with the Army officers who’ve brought him there to help in the interrogation of the terrorist. Kashmiri Pandits have always unstintingly supported the Indian Army, which is one of the reasons why many of us were targeted and killed as ‘agents’ of the army.
Reacting to one of my tweets on Shikara, a Kashmiri Pandit girl, brought up in the Mishriwala Camp in Jammu, complained about the scene where Pandit kids are shown chanting “Mandir wahin banāyenge“. As she rightly points out, the displaced community’s kids knew nothing about the (Ayodhya) mandir or (Babri) masjid; their focus was on studies and how to get out of that hell. These are just two instances of how Rahul Pandita has used the script to foist his personal views on the whole community.
Shiv Dhar turns to the president of the United States for help. Is this Chopra’s attempt to project Kashmir as an issue that can only be resolved through international mediation? Or is it a continuation of the diabolical attempt that the film makes to blame ‘external forces’ for the Jihad that almost wiped out the KP community? I wonder why Kashmiri Muslims asked for the film to be banned; it fictionalises their role so deftly, justifying the taking up of arms and even adopting their myth of ‘Kashmiriyat’!
Shikara neither depicts the depth of the colossal human tragedy that othered a whole community of Kashmiris because of their religion nor shows a plausible romance. It is just another commercial film with a few scenes of arson and threats that disrupt an idyllic life lived by a young couple in a heritage mansion. There is never any pain discernible on the faces of the ever-smiling love birds. Shanti dies a natural death while Shiv goes back to his deserted village to educate the local children. The kids come to take a peek at him because they’ve never seen a Kashmiri Pandit before. The Kashmiri song that plays along with the credits at the end, is the only one that blends with the theme.
Shikara is a film that mocks our pain, that skirts the horrendous scenes of brutality and that refuses to pin the blame on the perpetrators, finally ends on a note of despair. Why on earth would any Kashmiri Pandit go back alone, to the ruins of his ancestral house and a life of penury and uncertainty? Kashmiri Pandits will certainly not forgive Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Rahul Pandita for delivering this politically correct charade that falls flat and fails to move the audience. The truth, Mr Chopra, has no ‘versions’! There is only ONE truth but few have the courage to tell that truth.