Monday 27, June 2022

India's latest box office smash 'The Kashmir Files' exposes deepening religious divides

News Desk:

"If you don't leave from here, we will burn your houses," a bearded Muslim man in a traditional skullcap cries as he rallies against Kashmir's minority Hindus.

The packed mosque erupts in rapturous support of his disturbing call. "Go away from here," continues the man. "Convert, leave or die."

This is a scene from Indian filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri's controversial new movie, "The Kashmir Files," which is based on the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits members of Hinduism's highest caste, the Brahmin, or "priestly class" from the restive region as they fled violent Islamic militants in the 1990s.

Produced on a relatively small budget of around $3 million, it has become the highest-grossing Hindi film released in India during the pandemic, raking in more than $30 million since it hit theaters last month.

A large part of the film's success may be down to India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While India's government did not fund the production, the movie has been praised by several prominent politicians, with some BJ ruled states waiving tax on tickets and others giving police officers and government workers time off to watch it.

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has previously been criticized for failing to condemn violence against Muslims backed the movie. During a parliamentary meeting in New Delhi in March, he said there had been a "campaign to discredit" the movie before praising the filmmaker for "showing the truth."

Not everyone in India agrees. While there is little doubt that many Kashmiri Pandits suffered at the hands of Islamic militants, critics have questioned the timing of the film's release and argued that its graphic violence vilifies Muslims and reinforces negative stereotypes.

Some have also suggested such portrayals as well as the plot's alleged historical revisionism could exacerbate conflict between India's Hindus and Muslims at a time when religious tensions in the country are increasingly hostile.

Several videos that went viral on social media appear to show audience members screaming Islamophobic hate speech outside movie theaters and calling for boycotts of Muslim owned businesses.

In one, a man can be heard imploring audience members to never watch a film with Muslim actors. In another, a man tells a reporter to "stay far away" from Muslims after exiting the theater. "They can attack us again," he is heard saying.

Several petitions have been filed to prevent the film from being shown in local theaters, out of fear that the movie could fuel or has already fueled anti-Muslim sentiments.

And some Muslims have reported fearing for their safety while watching the movie. Recounting her experience in the Washington Post, prominent Indian journalist Rana Ayyub wrote: "I left the theater, just 30 minutes into the movie, feeling humiliated and physically unsafe. A man yelled at me "Ja Pakistan!" (Go to Pakistan)."

While some Kashmiri Pandits believe the film helps spotlight a neglected part of their history, Nitasha Kaul, a Kashmiri novelist and associate professor in politics and international relations at the University of Westminster, said the film is a "troubling" account of her community's painful experiences of murder, violence and forced displacement.

She believes displaced Pandits of whom about 60,000 fled Kashmir after January 1990, according to the Indian government have never been given adequate support and were left to battle their trauma in isolation while attempting to build new lives elsewhere.

Kaul believes the BJP is brazenly adopting the film for political gain and to further a Hindutva ideology that seeks to transform secular India into a Hindu nation.

"The movie is divisive and clearly has propagandist intent," said Kaul in a phone interview. "It is Islamophobic and deeply so. It has missed numerous opportunities to portray any solidarity between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims. And it has been backed by those who control the state."

Agnihotri has repeatedly rejected criticism of his movie.

"The truth inspired me to make this film," the director told CNN via WhatsApp, explaining that he wrote the script after speaking with hundreds of Kashmiri Pandit families who were impacted by the violence.

"I believe the biggest enemy of humanity is terrorism, so I decided to make a film based on the living victims of Kashmir genocide."

"How can a film on terrorism be propaganda?" he added. "The film is only against terrorism. I have not criticized Muslims."

The BJP did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.

Kashmir as a political weapon

Tensions in Kashmir, a Muslim majority region, have run high for decades due to a complex and bitter territorial dispute between India and Pakistan that has, on several occasions, led to military conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

In the 1980s, an insurgency by separatist Islamic militants began targeting Kashmiri Hindus who were considered pro-India by the separatists ckdrop, "The Kashmir Files" follows the story of a young Hindu university student who fled Kashmir for New Delhi as a young child after his family was killed by insurgents. Raised by his grandfather and shielded from the nature of his parents' deaths, the student goes on a journey to uncover the truth of his past, aided by old newspaper clippings. The timeline flits between the past and present.

But according to Kaul, "The Kashmir Files" rewrites history and ignores political and geographical complexities by blaming regional instability on Muslims alone. Furthermore, she added, the movie fails to depict any of the recorded examples of solidarity between the two religious groups during the conflict or acknowledge the violence carried out by militants against moderate Muslims.

"The film completely collapses the multi-dimensional Kashmiri trauma into a very simplistic morality tale," she said. "It relentlessly hammers away that Kashmiri Muslims are the perpetrators of all suffering instead of showing any solidarity or attempts by Kashmiri Muslims to help the Pandits. It universally reduces them to terrorist figures."

Umesh Talashi, a Kashmiri Pandit who is now a member of the Jammu Kashmir National Conference political party, was 6 years old when the insurgency began. Speaking about the movie, he told CNN that sympathetic Kashmiri Muslims helped his father hide from Islamic militants during the insurgency.

"I will never forget the help they gave my family," he said over the phone from his home in Jammu. "I'm not against the depiction of cruelty against the Kashmiri Pandits in the film. But I'm against how all Muslims were depicted as evil terrorists. It is fueling hate and creating a social divide instead of healing old wounds."

The director acknowledged he had heard "a few stray stories" but that the film "is not about the Hindu-Muslim brotherhood," instead choosing to focus on "victims and what happened with them because of terrorism."

Audience reception

Numerous reviews have noted that Muslims are portrayed as villains throughout the film's historical scenes, with the men often depicted holding weapons and wearing heavy kohl-eyeliner and Islamic dress as they commit heinous acts of violence.

Farooq Malik Bitta, a character seemingly based on real-life separatist figures Farooq Ahmed Dar and Yasin Malik, commands the most horrifying scenes, including one where he forces a Pandit woman to eat rice soaked in her murdered husband's blood. Elsewhere, a Muslim neighbor, who at first shows concern for a Hindu family's safety, later betrays them by giving the militants their hiding location.

In the movie's modern-day timeline, Kashmiri characters praise the BJP for revoking the region's constitutional autonomy and bringing it under closer government control in 2019 a move that was, in fact, criticized by many high-profile Kashmiris and international human rights organizations. A liberal university professor is meanwhile portrayed negatively because she advocates for an independent Kashmir and sympathizes with the region's Muslims.

When asked about if the events depicted in "The Kashmir Files" could drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims, Agnihotri said such accusations were "agenda-driven" and that his film is a "response" to "religious fundamentalist terrorism."

The movie has been well received in many quarters with reviews describing it as "must watch" and "gut-wrenching," while others commend the actors' performances. Aarti Tikoo, a Kashmiri Pandit and journalist, wrote that the film has "done what nobody else in the Indian cinema could accomplish."

"It brings out, in multiple shades, the denial of our story by the Indian bureaucracy, media, academia and intelligentsia," she wrote. "The most gruesome acts of terror unleashed on Hindus in Kashmir and later their life in displacement and destitution in refugee camps in Jammu, have been shown with remarkable intensity, and yet poignantly."

And the success of the film has not surprised Agnihotri, who said he's "very glad" that it has resonated with people. "We tried to tell honest stories as sincerely as possible."

He said he was also prepared for criticism.

"I knew it would come from Western media especially because they are obsessed with Islamophobia. So many people had to leave their motherland. Nobody is talking about Hinduphobia."


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