Off-centre | The Kashmir Files creates a new language and aesthetics of protest

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It’s been exactly a week since I saw The Kashmir Files at its Delhi premiere at PVR Plaza at Connaught Place (Rajiv Chowk). From Prime Minister Narendra Modi down to humble workers of the ruling party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the film has received a rousing welcome and enthusiastic support across the country. It is still trending on social media, both at home and in the diaspora.

What is more, according to noted movie analyst Taran Adarsh, The Kashmir Files has beaten the Monday blues on Day 4 of its release. It has grossed Rs 15.05 crore overtaking the likes of Suryavanshi (Rs 14.51 crore) and Gangubai Kathiawadi (Rs 8.19 crore). Its total collections so far exceed Rs 40 crore, heading to an opening week collection in the range of Rs 80 crore. This makes the movie a box office blockbuster not only in Covid times, but by any standards. Especially as state after state grants the film the coveted tax-free status, drawing even larger crowds.

In an industry in which money speaks louder than heaps of words, images, and rhetoric, Vivek Agnihotri has broken the bank.

This has implications beyond what is obvious. An independent filmmaker can make an unusual movie, not only getting away with it, but changing the matrix of Bollywood itself. This is the great, disrupting truth that will ring loud and clear from Hollywood to Bollywood. It is an instance of peoples’ power and popularity muscling its way over incredible hostility and overwhelming odds to make the impossible possible.

But what stands out about The Kashmir Files after a week? I think it is the superbly crafted aesthetic achievement of the movie. I had started the first part of my analysis of the film by saying that The Kashmir Files did not make me cry, even if I felt like crying. Why? That is because from pity or karuna to horror or bhayanak to revulsion or bibhatsa to outrage or roudra, the film’s rasa aesthetics is carefully constructed to move its audience in a deliberately driven trajectory. The viewer who wishes to cry as the film unfolds, ends up, in Rakesh Kaul’s words, “roaring like a lion” by the time it ends.

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Watch: Trailer of Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, starring Anupam Kher, Mithun Chakraborty

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In other words, The Kashmir Files will not only be remembered for its content, which is obvious or politics, which is slightly less so, but also for its aesthetics, which is not at all so discernible at first. The film invites deeper analysis and engagement.

Apart from superb performances not just by veterans such as Mithun Chakraborty and Pallavi Joshi, the film showcases relatively new and promising talent — especially Chinmay Mandlekar as Farooq Ahmed Dar (Bitta Karate) and Bhasha Sumbli as Sharada Pandit. Pallavi Joshi excels as Radhika Menon, the ideologue of Kashmiri separatism in a leading Indian university so obviously modelled on JNU.

Darshan Kumaar plays Krishna Pandit, the young protagonist, who returns to his roots and to patriotism after learning the true story of what happened to his family and people. The teacher-student format is reminiscent of Arunoday Singh as Vikram Pandit and Anupam Kher as Professor Ranjan Batki in Buddha in a Traffic Jam (2014). I mention the earlier film because Agnihotri has matured as an independent auteur-activist with The Kashmir Files.

But the most important performance, also the most complex and nuanced, is that of one of the world’s greatest thespians, Anupam Kher, as the teacher, Pushkar Nath Pandit. It is Pandit who is the real hero of the film, defenceless except for the truth of his experience, powerless except for justness of his cause, alone except for the intensity of his compassion. The film makes a spiritual point that reminds us of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha.

File image of Anupam Kher.

Beyond politics and ideology, The Kashmir Files demonstrates that there are so many similar stories waiting to be told. It is almost as if a civilisation is about to find its voice, something VS Naipaul predicted in India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990) over thirty years ago. These are Hindu mutinies, as Naipaul hinted, against the ravages of history, which has erased centuries of their oppression and trauma.

The Hindu Holocaust has been all but blanked out from the annals of history. Only a few, such as the famed Will Durant in The Story of Civilization bothered to make a glancing mention of the trauma of a continent when it suffered conquest, conversion, the destruction of its shrines and civilisation. Or, more recently, François Gautier. But a thousand stories of worse trauma could be told.

But, somehow, there was no space for these stories so far in the overwhelmingly “secularist” Indian space, supported and policed abroad by the left-liberal and, one might add, Islamist networks. A divided India and backward Hindus in need of conversion, reform, or disciplining — such were the dominant themes and tropes, which still persist all over the world, including current offerings on OTT platforms.

Vivek Agnihotri has rebelled against Bollywood and its cliches in telling this moving story. He has shown the power of the medium not only to move people but change the way in which a nation sees itself. The impact of The Kashmir Files has already been seen in the United States, where a sizable Kashmiri Pandit diaspora has flourished. The film will now be shown to parliamentarians in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the film has been banned in the UAE.

In India, after its countrywide theatrical release, Agnihotri has become the conscience keeper of the whole nation. One might say that this brave and fearless filmmaker has finally found his metier. He has arrived.

This is Part 2 of the two-part series. Click here to read Part 1.

The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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Off-centre | The Kashmir Files creates a new language and aesthetics of protest
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