India's latest box office smash 'The Kashmir Files' exposes deepening religious divides
Published 28th April 2022
Credit: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images
India's latest box office smash 'The Kashmir Files' exposes deepening religious divides
"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 BJP-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 -- forcing thousands of people to flee their homes and killing as many as 400, though estimates vary.
The militants also attacked fellow Muslims during the unrest, according to Kaul.
Against this backdrop, "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."
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. Muslim children are even shown tormenting a young Hindu boy.
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."
Nationalist films gain support
Delhi-based film critic Tanul Thakur says the Indian film industry -- which includes Bollywood and, prior to the pandemic, generated around $2.5 billion a year -- has always been "invested in the idea of nationalism." Compared to the "secular, inclusive values" of films made in the post-independence era, many of today's storylines reflect the government's religious agenda, he said.
Since Modi came to power in 2014, the "tone has changed," Thakur said in a phone interview, adding: "We've also seen a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and caste-pride (in movies)."
"The Kashmir Files," is just one of many Hindu nationalist narratives that have proven popular among movie-goers. The 2017 comedy "Toilet: Ek Prem Katha" ("Toilet: A Love Story"), featuring Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar, is about a man who builds his wife a toilet in their small village home, a nod to the BJP's rural hygiene campaign.
The 2018 historical drama "Padmaavat," which tells the story of a beautiful Hindu queen whose husband is killed by a Muslim sultan, was meanwhile criticized for glorifying the misogynistic Hindu practice of "sati" (whereby a widow self-immolates) and for depicting Muslims as barbaric.
"PM Narendra Modi," a 2019 biographical drama based on the life of the prime minister and played by Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi, chronicled Modi's successful rise from poor tea seller to the most powerful man in India.
Though nationalist movies like these rarely attract the political backing enjoyed by "The Kashmir Files," support from the government may take the form of what is and is not shown in theaters. Indian filmmakers have faced censorship for decades, with reasons ranging from religious objections to accusations that plots are "obscene" or "immoral."
As a result, movies have been pulled from cinemas and even banned from being released altogether.
Take the 2007 drama "Parzania," which tells the real-life story of a Parsi family whose son goes missing during the Gujarat religious riots of 2002 -- a time when Modi was chief minister of the western Indian state.
Although the movie was approved by India's Central Board of Film Certification, movie theaters in Gujarat refused to screen it.
Writer and director Rahul Dholakia said state officials feared backlash from right-wing Hindus unhappy with the film's portrayal of them instigating the riots, which Indian government estimates say led to more than 1,000 people -- 790 of whom were Muslims -- killed in communal violence, with thousands more displaced.
Dholakia told CNN via email that he faced numerous hurdles while promoting his film.
"The biggest challenge was to release 'Parzania' in the theaters, because in Gujarat they refused to give me a single screen. They canceled all my allotted shows three days before release," he said, adding officials told him "no one will watch the film."
"I offered to pay for all (the) seats, so that they didn't lose money. It was then that they said it was a matter of law and order."
TV shows and movies have been boycotted, and commercials even forced off air, following outcry from the Hindu right.
In 2020, Netflix received significant backlash in India for a scene in the series "A Suitable Boy" that depicts a Hindu woman and Muslim man kissing at a Hindu temple.
That same year, Indian jewelry brand Tanishq withdrew an advert featuring an interfaith couple following online criticism.
In June 2021, India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting proposed an amendment to its certification process that would allow the government to re-evaluate films that have already been passed by the censorship board -- a move that the BJP's opponents said would give politicians sweeping censorship powers. More than 100 actors, filmmakers and producers penned an open letter imploring the government to rethink its decision, calling it "another blow to the film fraternity."
By contrast, the BJP's overt support for "The Kashmir Files," which opened in all major theaters across the country, is seen by some critics as a double standard -- particularly given the movie's violent content and sensationalized interpretation of historical events.
"Hindus and Muslims have been working together to heal from the pain," Talashi said. "Kashmiri Muslims are apologetic about the past. But when you see such propaganda, when you feel such hatred, it becomes very difficult for us to bridge that gap."
Top image caption: Women walk past a banner of "The Kashmir Files'" outside a cinema hall in the old quarters of Delhi on March 21, 2022.