Up until now, the biggest valid criticism of the Hindutva side of the Indian political spectrum has been that they are too much into messaging and too little into the medium. In other words, Hindus seemed to lack the craft and sophistication of media (especially traditional or legacy mass media) required to be able to convince a larger audience outside their ecosystem that their viewpoint deserves a fair audience too. And this was not untrue — from YouTube videos to the last ‘nationalist’ movie of the same director, The Tashkent Files, a cringe-worthy 5 is the kindest rating you could have given to Hindus’ attempt to create a space for Hindutva narrative in the media. We seemed to lack not only the skills of the liberal arts but even the willingness to learn seemed to be missing. The Kashmir Files changes all of that.
This Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri movie is causing a meltdown in the left-liberal ecosystem not just because of the ‘what’ it says but because for the first time, the Hindu side has taken good care of ‘how’ as well, showing that Hindutva supporters are not some uncouth barbarians, devoid of subtlety, nuance, understanding of finer elements of humanities, etc. The movie has been made so well, so carefully that despite whatever rancour you may run into about the makers and actors for their political position, you cannot but help get involved in the narrative of the story being portrayed on the screen. And the imprint is not totally erased when you emerge out of the depths. It is the vestigial imprints this movie leaves the sceptic and the fence-sitter with that scares and riles the ecosystem.
The Kashmir Files appears to be made with painstaking and extensive research not just on details of the genocide that caused the seventh exodus of the Pandits, the native Hindus, from the valley in the last 700 years but also on the subtle and effective elements of the filmmaking. Like Gehraaiyaan, The Kashmir Files very carefully and beautifully uses various natural elements like landscape, fire, sky, etc. to drive home deeper the point it tries to make, the emotion it tries to evoke.
There is a scene where, in the camp of starved Kashmiri Pandits, Anupam Kher, as Pandit Pushkar Nath, tries to stifle his hunger, torn between many choices, all heart-breaking — giving in to hunger and eating the last glucose biscuit from his tiffin, giving the biscuit to his starving grandson (or the daughter-in-law, who just saw her husband shot a couple of days back and had to eat rice soaked in his blood to save everyone else), or to extend the morsel to another, starving fellow Pandit woman, singing in the background, inching to death. As the shattered and sobbing Pushkar Nath finally gives in to his survival instinct and sobbing, ashamed of not living up to higher altruism, licks the biscuit and closes the lid, the woman in the background dies and her song is replaced by the wailing of her daughter, and Pushkar Nath breaks down. This one scene itself is rich (though dark in both literal and metaphorical sense) enough to show us how far Agnihotri has come as a filmmaker, but he decides to torture us even more by cutting across to mourners of Pushkar Nath eating chocolate pastry 30 years later in the very next scene. If this is not what good filmmaking is, what is?
As for the star cast of the movie, which Kapil Sharma allegedly did not find glitzy enough to invite to his show, while the protagonist is undoubtedly Anupam Kher, Mithun Chakraborty’s Brahmadutt surprisingly matches him at every step. The sum total of intensity between the two of them is to be seen to be believed. Puneet Issar’s unnamed DGP, Mrinal Kulkarni as Brahmadutt’s wife, Prakash Belawadi as the hapless doctor… are all done exactly right. Nobody is insecure enough to try and hog the limelight — not even Darshan Kumar as Pushkar Nath’s only surviving grandson Krishna Pandit, who might be the ‘hero’ of the movie but not the protagonist or the subject. That being said, the movie is indeed his journey from looking like a Hindu-named crossbreed between Burhan Wani and Umar Khalid to coming to his senses at the end.
Pallavi Joshi’s evil antagonist Professor Radhika Menon deserves a special mention. Not just because of how effortlessly and naturally the actor portrays the character, but also for being the charismatic show-stealer at every moment of her limited, but critical, appearance. Vivek Agnihotri also deserves a special hats-off just for the strictly professional portrayal of her evil — it’s imaginable how tempting it would have been to give a sneak peek at how despicable Menon is in personal life as well, but Agnihotri steers clear of it completely.
Despite being a Marathi Manoos by birth, Chinmay Mandlekar gets the Kashmiri accent so right that those who do not know the origins of the actor playing the Kashmiri Muslim terrorist exit the hall thoroughly convinced that he is a Kashmiri in real life as well.
The movie could not resist some temptation for tropes like the doctor taking a jibe at his journalist friend for being a ‘sell-out’, but they are well-deserved, nonetheless.
The Kashmir Files does have a few weak moments as well. For example, Joshi’s close-up shots do look a little over-the-top. The shaky cinematography does look out-of-the-place at some instances (in most others, it only adds to the film). Kumar’s transition during his speech from aggression to breaking down is a little abrupt, and the largely leftist JNU audience’s ‘change of heart’ is certainly not just stretching but breaking credulity, but those are trifles. In the message, messaging, and medium, this movie not only scores well but also leaves the audience with a pit in the stomach- if you have a conscience of even a mollusc in you, The Kashmir Files leaves you touched.