The Kashmir Story

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 31 March 2022

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reading about the film “The Kashmir Files”, its box-office success, its impact and the heated discussions it has generated. Perhaps, after a few weeks, it might become available on some streaming platform and then I will be able to watch it, though I am not sure that I will – from what I have read, it has some very graphic violence and I have no stomach for watching violence.

Poster of I Am

However, reading about “The Kashmir Files” has reminded me of another film about Kashmir and the Kashmiri Pandits – the film was “I Am” (2010), and it was directed by Onir. I think that it was a good film that merited greater attention. I had translated its subtitles into Italian, when it was shown at the River-to-River film festival in Florence.

The Kashmir Story in “I Am”

“I Am” was an anthology of four short films, loosely connected with each other. Among those four stories, the Kashmir short film was the second story of the film. It had beautiful performances by Juhi Chawla as Megha, a Kashmiri Pandit, and Manisha Koirala as Rubina, as her childhood Kashmiri Muslim friend.

This part of the film started with Megha’s journey to Srinagar to sell her house. Rubina comes to the airport to pick her up and is happy to see her old friend. Megha is by turns, angry and anguished, at the memories the return has brought back. She is unwilling to give in to romantic nostalgia about the city, and maintains some distance from her friend.

During the 24 hours of Megha’s stay in Srinagar, there are only a few scattered moments of nostalgia for her childhood home. A visit to the ruins of her uncle’s home who was killed by neighbours, brings back the memories of her terror of those days when they had abandoned their home and ran away to the refugee camp.

An encounter with a group of youth on the road, brings out that the story of the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits has been changed and retold by the locals. In this new retelling, they are the cowards and villains, who had run away from the valley.

At the same time, Megha’s dispersion of her father’s ashes in the river, brings out the attachment of older generations for Kashmir and their dreams about the day when they will return to their original homes.

Those 24 hours also show Rubina’s changed life in the Kashmir valley – she is lonely, living closed at home and is unmarried, while the guy she used to love has left India. Her brother, who had become a militant, has repented and come home, but is disabled and a shell of his former self. Police comes to their home frequently to check because they are a militant family. The city is divided by barbed wires and check-points, which gets deserted as the evening falls and people rush to their homes.

Megha’s righteous anger and resentment at the fate of Kashmiri Pandits, has one final moment of push back from Rubina. A brief exchange between the two friends, brings out the tragedy of changed lives of Kashmiri Muslims, especially those of the women and youth. The awareness that in the end there were no victors among the ordinary persons on the two sides plants a little seed of mutual understanding.

Impact of “I Am”

“I Am” was a film dealing with other difficult themes along with the Kashmir story. Perhaps that is why its Kashmiri section did not receive proper attention. It had a strong impact on me because in the process of doing its Italian subtitles, I had spent a lot of time with each of its scenes.

This part of the film gave precedence to the view-point a Kashmiri Pandit. It was shot in dark and drab colours. It showed a Srinagar of barbed wires, road-blocks and sad people, and not the romantic town of lake and gardens from 1980’s Bollywood.

The whole sequence of Megha visiting the ruins of her killed uncle’s house, had a very strong impact on me. Its background score was filled with the shouts of slogans by angry people asking all kaffirs to leave Kashmir or be killed. I could identify with her refusal of Rubina’s sympathy, when she responds, “Don’t worry, I am not going to cry”.

The film also shows the impact of the events on the other side, through Rubina’s family. They have also suffered and continue to suffer due to the militants on one hand and Indian army on the other. However, I felt that it was more difficult to empathise with them, because their pain was closely linked to issues related to militancy and its violence.

For example, there was a sequence when Megha is accompanied by Rubina’s mother to a neighbourhood shop for buying saffron. The elderly shop-owner remembers that he had accompanied Megha’s pregnant mother to the hospital when she was born. However, their discussion also brings out that it was that same person’s son who had killed Megha’s uncle and later, died as a militant. Megha comes back from the shop full of indignation – “You only had that shop to take me, whose son had killed my uncle?” she asks bitterly.

While I could see the dismay, regret and frustration on the faces of the local Kashmiris, I also had a feeling at the back of my mind that “it was their sons and families who did it”! I think that is the biggest difficulty when we look at victims of Islamic terror, that we are less willing to acknowledge the pain of its Muslim victims.

The Elephant in the Room

I remember talking to Onir in Florence about the Kashmir portion of the film, expressing my appreciation and saying that it was a great pity that this episode of our recent history had been allowed to be forgotten.

To write this post, I watched again the Kashmir portion of “I Am”. I think that there is an aspect of the Kashmir situation which had remained untouched in the film – the rise of more conservative Islam which was linked with militancy. Traditionally, the Kashmiri Islam has been moderate and open, and it had a history of a peaceful co-existence with Hinduism. Over the past couple of decades, the more conservative version of Islam has become more common, but its role and significance in the Kashmiri Pandits' exodus was never mentioned in the film.

Whose sufferings need acknowledgement?

As far as I understand about the events in Kashmir, the problems worsened with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979. To counter that the Americans started supplying money and arms to Mujahideen through Pakistan, which contributed to strengthening of the more conservative ideas of Islam in the region and reached Kashmir through Pakistani militants in the 1980s. Apart from the militants, it impacted different groups of persons, such as -

  • Militants from Pakistan along with radicalised Kashmiri youth killed many Kashmiri Pandits and provoked their mass exodus in late 1980s and early 1990s.
  • Militants and hardliners from Pakistan along with their companions in Kashmir started killing moderate Kashmiri Muslims and those seen as sympathetic or collaborating with India, starting from early 1990s and continuing even now. Around 7000 Kashmiri “political opponents” have been killed, though some say that the Kashmiri victims have been many times more. They specifically target the intellectuals and they can abduct or rape their families.
  • Since the 1990s, Indian army has been fighting the Kashmiri separatists and militants and once again, a large number of victims have been reported, not only among the militants, but also among the civilians. The army rule has also affected general life.

Each of these groups have their own stories to share. I have read of Kashmiri Pandit families weeping at the shows of The Kashmir File - they are happy that finally their sufferings have been acknowledged through cinema. Onir’s film “I Am” did not show that violence directly, it focused on its aftermath.

A still of I Am

I think that one of the good films about the impact of army in Kashmir was Shaurya (2008), which touched upon the human right abuses.

Stories about the situation in Kashmir involve different and complex issues. The views of the Islamic hardliners and militants may not be acceptable or understandable for most of us. However, I think that our cinema needs to explore these different areas and view-points so much more. For example, little is known about the violence against moderate Muslims in Kashmir and it would also benefit from a greater exploration in literature and cinema.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com