So, an Israeli filmmaker has said what others too did in the past, but with less impact. When The Kashmir Files was released, many viewers and critics panned it as a hate-inducing propaganda film which portrayed the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the state in the 1990s by showing all Muslims as cruel perpetrators.
This criticism by reviewers did not stop it from becoming a blockbuster success, helped no doubt by the endorsement of various BJP figures, including the prime minister, and the tax-free status granted by many state governments.
But now, the chairman of the jury at the 53rd International Film Festival of India, Nadav Lapid of Israel, has come out strongly against the film, calling it “propaganda” and “a vulgar film”. Strong words, pointing out not just the blatant one-sidedness of the film but also its sheer crudity.
Nadav Lapid elaborates on his remarks to Israeli media (machine translated from Hebrew):
“When I saw this film, I couldn’t help but imagine its Israeli equivalent, which doesn’t exist but can certainly exist.”https://t.co/TRefY0xT3d pic.twitter.com/HJOGEGAPJx
— Aroon Deep (@AroonDeep) November 29, 2022
This has shaken not just the filmmaker and his many supporters, but also the Israeli ambassador to India. Vivek Agnihotri, director of The Kashmir Files, has declared he will quit making films if Lapid points out even one thing that is not the truth. Though Lapid had criticised the film’s crude portrayal – and not the veracity – of events shown, rigorous fact-checking at the time of the film’s release had shown that some of the claims made were wrong. So this challenge may rebound.
All of a sudden, the film that induced slogans and a threatening atmosphere in cinemas is back in the news, and not in a complimentary way.
Award-winning director Lapid expressed surprise that the film was chosen for the festival, and that too in the competitive section, where each country’s best is showcased. What induced the organisers to select this film which, apart from everything else, was not of a particularly high cinematic quality?
This is easy to answer ― the Directorate of Film Festivals, which runs this annual event, is a government body, and no doubt was encouraged to consider it. Nothing else explains this enormous and embarrassing faux pas.
The embarrassment is compounded by the fact that Israel was supposed to be an honoured guest at the festival, in keeping with India’s foreign policy objectives under the current political establishment. The creators of the popular Israeli series Fauda were high-profile guests, as was Israeli ambassador to India, Naor Gilan. The latter, in a lengthy Twitter thread, raged against Lapid, accusing him of not just abusing Indian hospitality but also implying that by criticising the film, he was showing his “dislike for what is happening in Israeli politics” and that he had encouraged those who are now “doubting the Holocaust, Schlindler’s List and worse.”
This probably refers to Lapid’s known stance against the Israel government. He has in the past, through his films and in public, been vocally critical about some of Israel’s policies. He was a signatory, along with 250 Israeli filmmakers, of a letter against a West Bank fund which they said was to “actively participate in whitewashing the Occupation”. These strong sentiments have made him unpopular with the establishment and the ambassador was undoubtedly articulating his government’s point of view.
The question that is bound to be asked, especially in government circles, is: did the Indian Directorate of Film Festival not do its due diligence while inviting him to chair the jury? Some poor soul will have to answer, and maybe even pay the price.
One jury member, the only Indian, Shomit Sen, has already distanced himself from Lapid’s remarks, and actor Anupam Kher (who was in the film) and others have attacked the Israeli director. Kher called him “vulgar and opportunist”. Others have suggested that an attempt to criticise The Kashmir Files is like denying the Holocaust, which is ingenuous and silly, since the Israeli director was commenting on the artistic quality, or otherwise, of the film.
Lapid has also received widespread support for saying it like it is, on an important public platform where information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur and other dignitaries were present.
What constitutes propaganda has always been debated. Fauda, about a group of Israeli Defence Forces soldiers who pursue Arab terrorists, has been criticised for not considering the Palestinian point of view and whitewashing the excesses of Israeli forces, but it has been also called even-handed. However, any viewer would find it compelling and well made. Propaganda comes in different forms and need not always be so ham-handed, nor filled with malicious intent.
Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favourite filmmaker, made Triumph of the Will, about a Nazi rally. Its clear messaging to show the grandeur and power of the Führer and his followers was propaganda in the service of a cruel and brutal leader who killed millions of people, but it is still considered a fine work of documentary filmmaking.
Many Hollywood films about America’s role in various conflicts, especially the War on Terror, are seen as pushing the country’s point of view, yet are well made.
No one would call The Kashmir Files well made. It is jingoistic in the extreme, bigoted and hate-mongering in its message. Subtlety or nuance are non-existent, nor does it take into account the fact that Sikhs and Muslims also suffered during those violent times in the state.
There are many shoddily made Hindi feature films, especially those that are based on figures from the past, which push the ruling party’s Hindutva bandwagon by demonising Muslims and distorting established history. Instead of investing in a good script, they take the easy and crass way out of waving the saffron flag ― literally. Some work commercially, some don’t.
The Kashmir Files made a lot of money, but that does not make it a good film, and certainly not a great one or a prize-winning one.
Lapid’s words show that the rest of the world does not have to be impressed with what pleases the Indian government. To say, as the Israeli ambassador has said, that the filmmaker has abused Indian hospitality is wrong; an artist has no obligation to be a mouthpiece for any government, including his own.
Lapid has reminded us that the global film community expects that India, as the largest producer of films, will adhere to certain minimum standards and not push forward a mediocre and “vulgar” film. We should thank him for reminding us of that.
This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.