“Not a single scene is staged. Everything is genuine. And there is no tendentious commentary for the simple reason that there is no commentary at all. It is history—pure history.”
~Leni Reifenstahl on Triumph of the Will.
“The pandits of Kashmir were left to rot in their slum camps, to rot while the army and the insurgency fought over the bloodied and broken valley, to dream of return, to die while dreaming of return, to die after the dream of return died so that they could not even die dreaming of it, why was that why was that why was that why was that why was that.”
~ Salman Rushdie in Shalimar the Clown
While Vivek Agnihotri and Leni Reifenstahl are separated by both decades and critical acclaim, they find common ground in the propagandist’s most insidious tool – a lie carefully layered upon a kernel of truth. Reifenstahl’s truth was that the movie she is most notorious for was filmed live, and thus could not be propaganda for the Nazi regime, but was simply a journalistic documentation of reality.
The lie was that that reality had been constructed specifically for the camera – as Susan Sontag notes, when some footage of the party leaders were spoiled, Hitler himself gave orders for the shots to be refilmed.
The truth that Agnihotri bases his film on is that the Kashmiri Pandit exodus featured a great deal of unconscionable violence by militants and caused terror among the minority Kashmiri Pandit population. The lie is that all Muslims must be collectively punished for this, and any violence visited upon them is justly deserved.
Much has been written about the factual inaccuracies present in The Kashmir Files and the politically inconvenient truths it ignores, e.g. that the government in power at the Centre at the time was dependent on the BJP’s support and the state itself was under Central rule, that official as well as unofficial records say the death toll of Kashmiri Pandits is among the (low) hundreds, not the thousands as the film implies. There is also much that is based on facts – the main characters are a mashup of militant leaders Bitta Karate and Yasin Malik. The brutal bisection of a Kashmiri Pandit woman after her disrobing can be seen as a reference to Sarla Bhat’s gang rape and bodily mutilation.
Slogans calling for the creation of an Azad Kashmir “without Hindu men, with Hindu women”, have also been reported by some of those who were there in their narratives, albeit a few years after the exodus. As Sanjay Kak notes in his review of Ankur Dutta’s On Uncertain Ground: Displaced Kashmiri Pandits and the Jammu Camps (2017):
“One particularly sexualized threat reappears with unerring consistency in almost all contemporary Pandit narratives, Datta notes, and we know this to be accorded an almost sacred centrality in memories of the early months of 1990. “Batav bagair, batnev saan” – for a beleaguered minority this most hurtful of slogans suggested that the crowd wanted Azadi for Kashmir, ‘without Pandit men, [but] with their women’. Looking into the newspaper archive Datta sees that the earliest reports of this hateful slogan emerge only years later: “The slogans the Pandits remember have never been reported officially at the time and suggest a gap between what was recorded and what Pandits describe”. The newspapers of the period do of course focus on ‘mob violence’, casualties due to police action, as well as large-scale arrests.”
The proximity to truth that this film has is best left to those Kashmiri Pandits who are in possession of this haunting legacy of memories. To elide the truth of the brutalities that informed the Kashmiri Pandit exodus is unambiguously wrong; for the criticism of this film, it is also unnecessary.
In his film, Agnihotri shoots the government’s gun off the shoulder of the Kashmiri exodus. But beyond the usual Pakistanis and violent terrorists, his targets are the media, leftist professors at universities like JNU and anyone opposing the reading down of Article 370. Of course, his real target are Muslims: past, present and future.
In broad strokes, the Muslims of The Kashmir Files are unequivocally shown as barbaric, or servile to a barbaric cause.
The main antagonist, Bitta, is drawn with the barest outlines of conscience, throwing his atrocities in higher contrast. He decides not to ‘marry’ the daughter-in-law of his old teacher, Pushkar – a hint of decency. Instead, he makes her eat rice squelching viscerally with her dead husband’s blood – barbaric. Later on, he offers sanctuary to a poet who had been beloved by the community: decent! Soon after, the poet’s body is shown hanging, brutalised and dead, from a tree: barbaric. The subtext goes – even in kindness, anticipate the knife in the back.
While the argument could be made that this is a narrative structure well used to emphasise the evil of a terrorist, this structure makes its way across nearly every Muslim character.
The faceless children that Shiva plays with in a ditch in one scene force him to say he wants a masjid along with the rest of them, hitting him about the head.
A Muslim neighbour who is shown to be concerned for the safety of the main KP family tells them that they should leave for a few days. Shortly after, he is shown telling the militants the exact location of a hiding KP householder.
An old, wizened ‘teacher’ is shown expressing concern for Sharda, a KP woman, but immediately twists that concern into a request for sexual favours made repulsive and leering by his age, the stains upon his teeth. Just before her brutalisation, he spits on her. Barbaric.
In Covering Islam, Edward Said says, “The deliberately created associations between Islam and fundamentalism ensure that the average reader comes to see Islam and fundamentalism as essentially the same thing.” This is made evident in the three generations of ‘ordinary’ Muslims drawn here, but Agnihotri goes a step further. Fundamentalism here is conflated with violence, a two-faced untrustworthiness and a proclivity for brutality that starts young.
Said goes on to say that this is done without any serious effort at giving phenomena like ‘radicalism’ or ‘extremism’ any context, “For example, saying that 5 percent, or 10 percent, or 50 percent of all Muslims are fundamentalists.” Here, Agnihotri erases completely the many documented instances of Kashmiri Muslims putting themselves in harm’s way to protect their Kashmiri Pandit friends and neighbours. He also erases the thousands of Kashmiri Muslims who were themselves targeted by the militancy. In doing so, he makes a complex, difficult conflict reductive, fashioning the parts of it he needs for purpose.
Agnihotri also conflates militant terrorism with dissent. In one clear example of this, the chants of ‘Azaadi’ being raised in a university setting segue smoothly and unanimously into ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’, the fictional slogan which pro-BJP media tried to make the centrepiece of the 2016 JNU sedition case. Here again, the lie is based on a manufactured truth. In the film, the entire crowd of students, on the urging of a professor watching, takes up the slogan. In real life, a poetry reading to mark the third anniversary of Afzal Guru’s execution was disrupted by the RSS’s student arm, ABVP, who then accused student leaders of seditious slogans. The ABVP is prominent in its absence here – in fact, there seems to be no organised right-wing in this film at all, eliding its role in the plot that plays out.
The ‘proof’ used against the JNU students would turn out to be doctored videos, but right-wing media channels like Zee News and Republic TV would make famous the ‘tukde tukde gang’. (This film is incidentally produced by Zee Studios.) This ‘gang’ would be used as a shorthand slur for anyone seen in opposition to the government’s diktat, and it is this collection of dissenters which Agnihotri targets.
He does this with a heavy-handed lack of subtlety that makes us wonder what he thinks of his audience’s ability to join dots. The ‘ANU professor’, ‘Radhika Menon’, is foreshadowed as someone with deep connections to the terrorist underground. When the protagonist visits the terrorists’ lair, he sees a picture of the terrorist and the professor in what is clearly meant to be an intimate setting – they are lovers.
It is, of course, up to the audience to see through this device – but in terms of the intent of the movie itself, this is how criticism of the state’s actions in Kashmir is dismissed. When the professor speaks about elections being a microcosm of the existential crisis plaguing politics, she says, “If you make the government a villain then you have more negotiating power.” In response, the protagonist says, pleadingly, “That’s extortion not negotiation.” To which the professor responds, “That’s politics.”
This dialogue falls prey to the idea that if something you say sounds deep, it must be. It actually doesn’t mean anything at all. Holding a government accountable for its atrocities is not as reductive as ‘making a government a villain’ – it negates in entirety the idea that if the government did not want to be seen as a villain, it should perhaps not have committed documented atrocities.
When the protagonist says “That’s extortion, not negotiation,” he delegitimises the critical function of dissent necessary to any democracy. When Agnihotri’s fictional professor cynically responds that “That’s politics,” the message the filmmaker wants to convey is that dissent is about personal benefit, and not the rights of citizens or holding the government accountable for its actions.
These are not simply abstract ideas – holding the government accountable is central to the Kashmiri Pandit struggle for recognition and justice. In 30 years, the last nine of which have been under BJP rule, Kashmiri Pandits have received no judicial commission to establish the facts of the exodus. Rehabilitation schemes exist on paper, and not in real life. In 2020, Kashmiri Pandits protested that while 3,000 acres of land were given to the industries department in J&K, the government could not allot 300 acres for resettlement. They say that the reading down of Article 370 for the domicile law did not aid them – given that they already had permanent resident certificates, nobody denied that they were Kashmiri.
Badri Raina, a Kashmiri Pandit, cut to the heart of the matter when he said that the Hindutva right-wing never did intend to resettle Pandits in the Valley. He adds that resettlement would have resolved an issue which, so long as it remains an issue, comes in handy to the right-wing to criticise Muslims in Kashmir.
In a film that is flagrantly unperturbed by portraying gruesome violence committed by militants, it is puzzling that the violence committed by Indian state forces not only is made completely invisible, but is portrayed as tragically helpless to circumstance. The final scene of the film shows the Nadimarg Massacre, where 24 civilians were shot dead by militants. Perplexingly, then, it begs the question as to why the Sopore Massacre file is not shown in a film called The Kashmir Files – one where 43 civilians were killed by the Indian Border Security Force, by not only shooting at them but herding them into shops, shooting them, pouring paraffin on the bodies, and then setting the shops on fire.
As such, what this narrativising does is portray not only a one-sided narrative with a partial truth, but projects it as the whole narrative. This is ironic, given that at one point Anupam Kher says, “Showing fake news is not as bad as hiding the truth.”
All this said, we do also have to face an uncomfortable, and even alarming, truth. For all that this film reads as blatantly biased to those aware of information, Agnihotri has accurately judged the receptiveness of Indian audiences to violent and simplistic propaganda. Propaganda is a craft of manufacturing consensus, and in this regard, Agnihotri is an accomplished craftsman.
Agnihotri’s cinematography uses visual cues as a moral device – there are long, lingering shots of blood seeping on floors, roads, ground, with the camera not resting on a militant’s face as much as his actions. Gunshots to the face are repetitive to the point that they lose their percussive force, and become expected. In contrast, the camera lingers lovingly on the faces of those terrified.
While Kher’s acting is laid on so thick it almost feels like a caricature, the camera casts the professor, played competently by Pallavi Joshi, in red light in one dream sequence, showing her as equal parts seductress and demonic. In the final scene, Agnihotri makes us watch each individual gunshot as the 24 civilians are killed and fall into a ditch, the child Shiva topping the pile of dead. The camera stays with his face, with cinematography creating an implacable visual narrative – who, it asks, would dare to question anything when a child has been so casually killed?
During the Nazi era, one of the critical pillars of propaganda was Volksgemeinschaft, or a national, unified community – dissolving social barriers to create a harmonious whole. In this film, Agnihotri uses the Kashmiri Pandit as a stand-in for the everyman Hindu, and doubles down on myths of fear essential to the Hindutva supremacy project, with the Muslim as the unifying Other.
Where extremists such as those in the Haridwar hate assembly have spouted venomous bile on how the Hindu community must take up arms to protect against the encroaching, rapacious Muslim population, Agnihotri makes the fantasy come to life. Where the baseless fear mongering of ‘love jihad’ is being pushed into legislation, Agnihotri showcases the helpless, vulnerable Hindu female as the site for protection. Where misinformation is rife thanks to right-wing media, Agnihotri carefully dismantles the possibility of a more complicated truth.
Writing before the Second World War, Aldous Huxley said, “Propaganda gives force and direction to the successive movements of popular feeling and desire; but it does not do much to create these movements. The propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water, he digs in vain.”
As passionate responses to the film in theatres across north India call for Hindu men to marry Muslim women, and slogans saying “Mulle kaate jayenge, Ram Ram chillayenge,” we can see that Agnihotri has built a great canal of hatred. The question that is more troubling now is how deep these waters run.
This article was first published on The Wire.