On The Film That Must Not Be Named
To tell a story of violence, you have to have an unusual sensitivity to not replicate that same violence, that same poison.
Quo Vadis, Aida?, a 2020 Bosnian film about the Srebrenica massacre — when, in July 1995, Serbian troops, under the now-convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić, gunned and flung over 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men and boys into mass graves — has, what I consider, an image of the worst incarnations of human pride, of genocidal excess. A casual, brutal qatl-e-aam.
In the middle of a teeming neighbourhood with people pouring over their balcony railings, there is an empty school, where these Muslim boys and men were collected, crowded together, hunched, tired shoulders making space for chafed, gaunt bodies. The only source of light was from shafts coming from the windows along the top of the room, adjacent to the high ceiling. Once all the men collected, wondering what will happen next, the camera stares at the building, nestled in the midst of teeming civilization.
Then, from the windows above, Serbian troops perched their guns, resting the nozzle on the lower frame of the windows, and without aim or counting, emptied their budget of bullets. All the boys, all the men died, flesh over flesh, mountains of death. The camera pans away from the building in a haunting gesture of retreat.
The act was grotesque and sad, both girded by shock. And by choosing to foreground the sadness over the grotesqueness of the moment, director Jasmila Žbanić was making a point, one I did not understand as pertinent till I saw The Kashmir Files, where director Vivek Agnihotri decided to show each man, each boy, each Hindu Pandit being individually gunned by the Islamist terrorists in 1989-90 Kashmir, the red splattering, the fantastical hollow cylinder produced immediately by a sharp bullet catapulting through a skull, all from the restless gaze of a camera. Agnihotri was actively producing revulsion, injecting it like drip-feed into the veins of his viewers. In the crowded hall I was seated in, second row, extreme right, weekday early evening show, I could hear people clicking their tongues. The woman next to me had her hands cupped over her mouth.
When you foreground the grotesque, what do you incite? When you foreground the sadness, what do you invite? The neuroscientist Roland Benoit had said, “Our memory is not made for the past, but for the future.” In invoking the past with such a skewed, bloodletting gaze, what future, then, does the grotesque make way for?
For the premiere of Quo Vadis, Aida? at a memorial center in Srebrenica, where the massacre took place, the director invited around 100 young people, both Muslims and ethnic Serbs and Croats. A recognition of solidarity that girds the respective trauma and guilt, which washes over the young who might not have experienced genocide as much as mythologized it.
The Kashmir Files on the other hand, emboldened Hindutva footsoldiers to purge Muslims from a village in Roorkee, Uttarakhand. Most of the Muslims fled.
To tell a story of violence, you have to have an unusual sensitivity to not replicate that same violence, that same poison. To be clear, sensitivity is not patronizing, forgetting, forgiving. It is more complicated. Being sensitive does not make your life easier. Sensitivity is labour.
Take Shabir Ahmad Mir's The Plague Upon Us, set in Kashmir. A Roshomon-like novel where one event, one death, is teased apart from the perspective of all the characters involved leading to it. You can distil that moment into a fact, in this case, a murder. But you can never reconcile the multiple truths that produced that death. Yes, there is a murderer and a murdered who, through the warped chaos of life in a valley that bloodlets life cheaply and forgetfully, cross paths. But the book, to its immense credit, tells us that to insist on moral simplicity and call it moral clarity is cheapening the texture of life.
There is a naive belief that truth is enough, without considering that truth is produced within a context, and that truth is disseminated into a context. To decontextualize truth as an incontestable, vacuum-sealed idea is dangerous, not to mention intellectually slothful.
The Nyaya Sutra, the ancient Indian Sanskrit text, lays out the terms of a fruitful debate. The first thing two opposing parties have to do, is competently explain the opposers’ view to their satisfaction. Only once this was done could the debate begin — a recognition that two people coming from two distinct sides of an idea need to have a few basic assumptions, a shared foundation, in place before embarking on a debate, if the debate is to move, as opposed to stumble lethargically, cyclically.
I remember in a debate between Shashi Tharoor and the controversial right-wing adjacent historian Vikram Sampath, the latter was forthright that post-independence, Indian historians downplayed the role of Islamic violence since they were afraid of how it would be weaponized by the right in the aftermath of partition, and because of this, today, there is a surge within academia to demonstrate the historical villainy of various Muslim rulers. A over-correction, an academic patronizing.
While Tharoor conceded to that point, he was also clear about the real fear of communalization and violence. That the fragile Indian experiment in democracy, which was mocked, derided, considered impossible, unsustainable in the 1950s, needed ideological hope. History, as historian Romila Thapar notes, “was very important, because you were building an identity.” And if identity is complicated, messy, contradictory, layered, the history that produces it must be afforded the same variety.
However, there is an argument to be made about the value of truth in society. There is an argument to be made about the violence of the idea of truth in society. If truth will cause bleeding, would you still be truthful? What is the limitation of truth as a virtue?
Kashmiri Pandits left their homes by the thousands, dispersed across the nation, some slowly swirling into poverty. The number of those murdered varies — the Kashmir Pandit Sangharsh Samiti says 655, other estimates range from 700 - 1,300, while Agnihotri claims 4,000.
The first time I understood the legacy of Kashmiri Pandits as that of disgruntled pain was when during the q&a session of a Ramachandra Guha lecture at Berkeley, a Kashmiri Pandit woman— and I surmised this from her earrings, a long string of gold dangling from her ears — got up, shrieked her grievances in an unsparing, unstopping stream that was neither a question nor a comment, and then feeling dismissed by Guha’s reply walked out while he was mid-sentence. She looked rich and comfortable in her silk sari, and I thought, what problem could this woman have with history, since she emerged from it, so unscathed and elegant?
My cynical response surprised even me. Does everyone now have to bear the scars of their past in order to be considered eligible for sympathy or state support? This naiveness, burnished in the caustic, ironic, ungenerous class-based critique I was then leaning towards — not because I was brutal, I hope, but because it was an easier ideology to internalize, a flat binary, an easy distinction — would soon be challenged. Marxism can be a generous way to view the world. Anti-capitalism can be a strident force to rethink the assumptions we held onto as fact. (Don’t be fooled by the “anti” in “anti-capitalism”, it isn’t a negative or oppositional as much as it is desperate and fumbling for hope.)
With The Kashmir Files, for a moment, I felt that cynicism emerge. For no reason, I was being protective of this abstract Muslim identity which I thought was being slaughtered on celluloid. That the film takes place in the present day before its laborious flashbacks, allows Agnihotri to spew venom on the left wing student ecosystem in places like JNU. Double the poison for the price of one ticket. One bullet, two birds — the liberal and the Muslim.
I was ashamed of that cynicism I harboured, but understood that it was inevitable, because the movie framed allyship with the Kashmiri Pandits as consummately anti-Muslim, anti-liberal. So provocative, so insistent it is in this framing, it would be a true miracle to walk out of this film ambivalent.
Watching this film I was confronted by a faint conviction I had, which over the years solidified into fact — that our movie watching experience has been irreparably damaged. I am not speaking of our slowly depleting attention spans, though that, too, is of consequence. Here, I am thinking about what brews between a spectator and the spectated, the movie viewer and the movie. No longer is it a personal, consummate experience. For now, as conscientious viewers, we must also look behind the screen and surmise the intentions of the filmmakers — which is easier now given the access we have to people’s burnished and performed inner lives on social media — while also reaching out into the world, assessing the impact of the movie on society — what it validates, what it creates, what it contradicts. The viewing experience is a garbled mess of the assumed, the surmised, the felt, and the thought. How do you write about cinema anymore?
When I see in this film, a mousy Muslim neighbour helping Islamist terrorists by giving them the location of his Hindu neighbour, and I hear the audience hall break out in sad sighs, I am buying into the sadness of that moment — when a neighbour betrays a neighbour — the suspense of an impending gunning down, while also worried if those people sighing are reading the film as an ethnographic flattening of the Muslim figure in contemporary politics as an infidel, an untrustworthy being. Suddenly, I see the director of Uri tweet support for the film, and in my head I am replaying Uri, wondering if I underplayed its Islamophobic intensity when I watched it. Of everyone who said pretty things about this ugly movie, I made a mental list.
There is a preoccupation here with the word “genocide”, to re-frame, re-articulate the “Kashmiri Pandit exodus” as the “Kashmiri Pandit genocide”. This is an understandable semantic insistence, one even Arundhati Roy had deployed when trying to reframe the “Godhra riots” as the “Gujarat genocide”. She has combed through the Geneva Convention, and point by point made a case for calling the bloodshed of 2002 a genocide. This is semantic justice. Agnihotri falsely claimed that the US state of Rhode Island has “officially recognised Kashmir genocide” because of his film. This is semantic hubris.
There can be something gentle about political art that is powerful, rousing, effective, like Tiger Balm producing both a sizzle and a sigh, distilled into this John Berger quote, “Far from my dragging politics into art, art has dragged me into politics.”
To feel unsettled. To feel almost but not entirely hopeless. To grieve a generation but not to grieve for a generation. To produce a future. To want to produce a future.
“Kashmir is covered with Muslim graveyards. That war has consumed tens of thousands of lives. And all that is just airbrushed out. You take one very tragic thread of an epic tragedy and use it to draw a curtain across everything else, and then turn it into a javelin to drive into the hearts of this very complex country. The only word I can think of to describe that film is radioactive. And, of course, there's a professor in the film, who the actors go around saying is me. It’s literally trying to get you physically attacked if you go somewhere. How do you live with yourself when you make a work of art and the result of it is that people come out and call for women to be raped and killed, for people to be lynched, for Hindus to be armed? It's radioactive… How do you live with yourself when you make a work of art and the result of it is that people come out and call for women to be raped and killed, for people to be lynched, for Hindus to be armed? It's radioactive.” — Arundhati Roy
The thing is, The Kashmir Files is certainly not good art, even if you take it as that. The narrative progression is tacky, and the logical leaps odd. A character — a thoroughbred liberal in the most gullible, acidic sense — finally learns the truth about the Kashmiri Pandit Genocide when an old man hands him a file with newspaper clippings of dead Kashmiri Pandits and tells him to read it. He reads it. He is enlightened. He sheds his Marxist gild. He becomes a spokesperson for the Kashmiri Pandits. It is that simple, where what should have been a shove feels like a nudge. Besides, a lot of the scenes are essentially monologues chopped up into dialogues. There is an insufferable all-knowingness to the characters that enlighten, a whimpering ignorance to those that will be, over the course of the film, enlightened. But that is precisely what we get from a pamphleteer parading as a filmmaker.