Cast: Aadil Khan, Sadia
Director: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
It goes without saying that it has usually been beyond the ambit of mainstream Bollywood to fully comprehend and encompass the multiple skeins that constitute the old, intractable Kashmir imbroglio. It is, therefore, not surprising at all that Shikara, intended to be an elegy to a lost paradise, falls short of its avowed goal. It tells the Kashmir story from the point of view of those that were forced to leave the Valley when militancy erupted there in the late 1980s. Inevitably, the film is limited in its scope. No matter how hard director Vidhu Vinod Chopra tries to do a balancing act, it cannot be anything but lopsided.
Shikara is a love story set against the backdrop of the exodus but it floats largely in shallow waters and stays away from the muddied whirlpools that are inevitable when the unrest in the Valley has continued as long as it has. The film revolves around an idealistic couple who pines for their lost home without letting hate and distrust rob them of their humanity. They cling to the hope of returning some day to the land of their birth, reflecting the yearning of all victims of conflict, not just Kashmiri Pandits.
It would be pertinent to question the timing of Shikara. Kashmir, where much of the action is set, has been under lockdown for several months now and the rights of the people of the Valley have been summarily curtailed. It redounds to Chopra's credit that the Hindu-Muslim binary at the heart of this fictionalized account "based on true events" isn't manipulated to overtly tar a whole group of people with the same brush although the film has a couple of defining moments where the them and us divide comes to the fore and determined the flow of the narrative.
In trying to pull of the tightrope walk, the screenplay takes recourse to sweeping means. We see grainy footage of Benazir Bhutto (on a black and white television set) addressing a rally and exhorting Kashmiris to fight for freedom. In another scene, news of an agreement between George Bush Sr. and Mikhail Gorbachev is flashed on TV. One character, in reaction to the second bit of news, scoffs at the idea of world peace. He blames the Americans for pumping arms into Afghanistan to help the Mujahideen fight the Russians and then diverting weapons to militants in Kashmir. Another says that politicians aren't interested in a lasting resolution in Kashmir, all they want is to win elections.
That is about it. By pinning the blame for the rise of militancy on external geopolitical forces and on domestic politicians who thrive on fishing in troubled waters, Shikara ignores a local history of exploitation and suppression that extends back into the 19th century. But then Chopra recognizes the limits of a two-hour film and does not claim that he is presenting an exhaustive portrait of Kashmir in the run-up to, and in the aftermath of, the exodus of Pandits from the Valley.
He filters the plight of a forcibly displaced community through the sieve of a tragic story that straddles three decades. Shikara, which the director has co-written with journalist Rahul Pandita and screenwriter Abhijat Joshi, glosses over the granular details and uses simple, broad strokes to trace the genesis and manifestations of the Kashmir conflagration.
But in tracking the relationship between Shiv Kumar Dhar (Aaadil Khan), a poet and literature professor, and Shanti Sapru (Sadia), who meet by accident when they are roped in as impromptu extras during a Hindi film shoot in Kashmir in the mid-1980s. Love blossoms and, helped along by Shiv's bosom pal Lateef Lone (Faisal Simon), they marry before the end of the decade.
Within a year, the couple builds a house, which Shanti names Shikara because it was on a boat that the pair had consummated their love after their wedding night. But their stay in the new abode is short-lived. Trouble erupts for the Pandits and they are forced to flee.
The second half of Shikara is set in a refugee camp in Jammu, where the pain of displacement takes its toll on the young and old alike. A sense of loss hangs heavy. An ageing Pandit refugee cannot stop himself from constantly pleading with anybody within earshot to be taken back to Kashmir: a snapshot of the psychological toll that the turn of events took on the older refugees.
In one scene, in 1992, a young boy leads a group in shouting "Mandir wahi banayenge", reflecting the changing political climate in the country and its influence on impressionable minds. Shiv steps in and tells the boy that a true leader does not divide, but unites. There is at the core of Shikara an attempt to exercise caution in the portrayal of an emotive, polarising theme.
Yet, the predicament of Shiv and Shanti (which also was the name of the director's mother who was forced to leave her home in the Valley and could never return) is real and informed with sensitivity and lyricism. In the opening scene of the film itself, it is revealed that Shiv has been writing letters to a succession of US presidents for 28 years with a plea for help. This is an intriguing and original, if not entirely convincing, flight of fancy. Shiv's epistles are like his poems, dripping with optimism and an undying spirit of positivity.
For a film that deals with people who have become refugees in their own country, Shikara is devoid of anger and bitterness. The two principal characters, unlike many of their ilk in the real world, have not allowed their despondency to push them in seeing the situation in black and white. They are befuddled and shocked all right but they aren't consumed by rage.
Shot wonderfully well by Rangarajan Ramabadran, who crafts frames that are unfailingly evocative of both mood and place, Shikara oscillates between aching beauty and deep darkness as a tender, old world love story plays out in a fractured world.
The casting lends authenticity to the depiction of the milieu - Sadia as Shanti and Aadil Khan as Shiv are real and completely believable although the manner in which the 30-year ageing process is captured is somewhat dodgy. Faisal Simon as Shiv's best friend and a Ranji Trophy cricketer who is radicalized as Kashmir sinks into fear and gloom, is effective too.
Shikara is evasive on many crucial counts, but, judged on purely cinematic parameters, its strengths are noteworthy.