A Movie That Reveals More Than Its Plot

The most controversial film in Australia this year isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster. It doesn’t wade into the contemporary culture wars. It isn’t even being screened in English.

It’s The Kashmir Files, a Hindi-language historical drama that peaked at #5 on the Australian box office charts. It portrays the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus who were forced out of northwest India’s Kashmir Valley by a terrorist campaign of ethnic cleansing. The film claims it was genocide.

India is a Hindu-majority country, but Kashmir is more than 95 per cent Muslim. The region was the focus of extreme violence during the 1947 Partition of India, and it has been militarised on and off ever since. Pakistan unsuccessfully attempted to take Kashmir by force in 1965, and India has faced a separatist insurgency in the territory ever since. The most recent period of martial law, which included suspensions of internet and phone services, ended just last year.

The Kashmir Files focuses on a particularly intense bout of Kashmiri separatist violence in 1989-1990. It bounces back and forth between that bloody episode and student elections at India’s top university. The protagonist of the film is a Hindu university student who discovers that his Kashmiri Pandit parents were killed by Muslim terrorists.

In a region that is always a religious pressure-cooker, that would be controversial enough. But the graphic Muslim-on-Hindu violence portrayed in the film borders on provocation. The film’s release was even delayed in New Zealand amid accusations of Islamophobia. It is rated 18+ for “high impact themes and violence”.

The violence portrayed may be high impact, but it was real. One particularly gruesome murder, when Muslim terrorists gang-raped a young Hindu woman before literally sawing her in half, is actually underplayed in the film: the murder is graphically staged, but the rape is treated symbolically by the tearing of her sari.

Critics might counter that Hindu-on-Muslim violence is also a very real phenomenon in India, and they would be right. But a work of historical fiction is not obliged to seek historical balance. The film tells the story of the Kashmiri Pandits, not the whole troubled history of modern India.

The Kashmir Files is very clear on this. It explicitly seeks justice for the refugee Pandit community, not a resolution to India’s larger political debates. But the writer, director and co-producer, Vivek Agnihotri, clearly intended to politicise the Pandits’ plight, and he certainly succeeded.

The film has been heavily promoted by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, whose Kashmir policies are strongly endorsed in the film. The opposition Congress Party also seems to recognise the film’s emotional appeal, and has proposed legislation to support the resettlement of Kashmiri Pandits.

But the real political emotion of the film centres on an issue that non-Indians are likely to miss: the controversy over Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. In 2019, Modi’s government revoked Article 370, which had granted Kashmir limited rights of self-governance. As a result, Kashmir’s status as an integral part of India has now been regularised.

That is a travesty to those—intellectuals and terrorists alike—who have long fought for an independent (or more realistically: a Pakistani) Kashmir.

The film portrayed Article 370 as an affront to Indian sovereignty and a compromise with terrorists. Critics of the film (and the Modi government) characterise the revocation of Article 370 as a travesty of majoritarian democracy. Some have called it the death of democracy.

But despite the political furore over the film, the main rhetorical target of The Kashmir Files isn’t the anti-government opposition, or even the Kashmiri Muslims it vilifies. It’s India’s anti-nationalist intellectuals.

Kashmir’s Muslims are depicted in the film as being violently anti-Indian, but in a region that has suffered through decades of armed rebellion, that’s no surprise. As the old Punjabi proverb has it, thieves shouldn’t be blamed for robbing a caravan; stealing is the thieves’ dharma. The blame lies with the guards, whose duty was to keep the caravan safe.

Thus although the chief villain of the film is a fictionalised Muslim freedom fighter, the chief antagonist is a Hindu university professor—who should be guarding the caravan, but instead has joined the thieves. Transparently modeled on the outspoken novelist Arundhati Roy, the professor character stands in for India’s (supposedly) de-nationalised, de-racialised intellectual class.

The professor reprises word-for-word Roy’s 2010 claim that “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is an historical fact. Even the Indian government has accepted this.” Roy was accused of sedition for this statement, though she was never prosecuted.

The fictional professor of the film uses all the arts of intellectual trickery to manipulate the student hero into betraying his heritage—and his family. In the end, the student rejects her and gives a rousing speech telling the story of Kashmir as seen through Pandit eyes. The professor skulks away, humiliated.

Intellectuals, understandably, despise The Kashmir Files. And the intellectuals are right: the film presents a jingoistic, nationalist, anti-Muslim, anti-intellectual version of Indian history. Intellectuals are only fulfilling their dharma in criticising the film.

But the dharma of a film is to make money, and The Kashmir Files has made a fortune. Produced for less than $3 million, the film grossed more than twenty times that in its first three weeks. And it’s still showing all over Australia.

The Kashmir Files isn’t the only Indian film to make it big in Australia. The weekend of March 25, the Indian independence movement epic RRR debuted at #2 at the Australian box office—and it’s showing in Telugu, a language that most Australians have never even heard of. Multiculturalism is here to stay.

And film is an opportunity for monolingual English-speaking Australians to experience it, if only via subtitles. It’s also gives Australians an opportunity to learn more about their and Australia’s neighbours.

For example, most Australians have been mystified by India’s refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Few know that in 1957, Australia co-sponsored a United Nations resolution calling for India to withdraw from Kashmir.

That proposal was vetoed by the Soviet Union. Sixty-five years may seem a long time to wait for payback, but it’s an historical blink of an eye for Kashmir. Open the files on Kashmir, and you can begin to understand India, its internal conflicts, and even its international relations. And those of us who have to read the subtitles have the most to learn.

Salvatore Babones is The Philistine

9 thoughts on “A Movie That Reveals More Than Its Plot

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Rather a pertinent film at present, with fighting over ethnically based territory and reported war crimes in progress. It amazes me that we still haven’t come up with a viable solution to Czechoslovakia in 1938, apart from violence or appeasement of the forces of darkness. The Sudetenland Germans then, the Donbass Russians now. The Treaty of Versailles created the borders for the first, Nikita Khrushchev for the second. Now it seems the Russians have changed their minds, just as the Germans did post Versailles. If Putin believes he can claim territories with Russian majorities, why does he not believe the Chechens can do likewise and secede from the Federation?
    Dictators still invade neighbours on the basis of a common ethnic identity and often flood the conquered lands with their own people. Moreover, the presence of ethnic minorities within sovereign states so often leads to conflict and eventually genocide – the Armenians, the Jews, the Biafrans, the Tibetans, the Tutsis, the Kurds, the Hazaras, the Yazidis, the Uyghurs. The list goes on and on with no solution apart from violence. The Bangladeshis, Eritreans, Bosnians, Croatians and South Somalis have won their own countries. The Kurds, Chechens and Biafrans have not. Should the 5% of Kashmiris who are Hindu be able to frustrate the desires of the 95% who are not? It appears that a simple majority vote could see an independent Scotland, but Catalans aren’t even allowed a vote. With no universally accepted solution to the aspirations of ethnic minorities we really are back to Munich in 1938.

  • ianl says:

    I saw the animosity between Indian and Pakistani (Hindu and Muslim) on a project in Pakistan. Our Pakistani minder was (is) an urbane, well-educated, experienced engineer.

    On the issue of the US in Pakistan, he really only played lip service – “bloody Americans” – and clearly said it to deflect domestic arguments. He obviously regarded it as a non-issue.

    But on the Indians, without any immediate provocation … his eyes blazed with fire, his breathing became short, his sentences clipped, his movements tense. Partition is not anywhere near completed yet.

  • Tony Tea says:

    So, no random outbreaks of song & dance then?

  • Salvatore Babones says:

    No songs Tony, sorry! And a gruesome ending. Leave after the rousing speech; don’t stay to see the mother sawed in half.

    Ian M. — funny you should mention Czechoslovakia: the Munich agreement was closely analyzed on both sides of the 1940s Partition debate for application to the future of India. It’s a fascinating history. I may write about it sometime for Quadrant, if I can find the time.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Both Ians, thank you for the informative comments. I don’t think there will ever be anything but piecemeal solutions to people finding their ethnicity and wanting to secede or take over, for it is the story of history.
    We are off the the UK in seven days time for a month, and before going I thought I’d better read the Quadrant article on “The Looming Dissolution of the United Kingdom” for an up-to-date perspective (Quadrant, March 2022). It provides an excellent overview of the mendicant Welsh and Scots re-finding their ethnicities and flexing their ‘independence’ muscles over their independent regional Covid policies. Some good insights there too on the rise and rise again of the EU ‘remainers’ in the corridors of power.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    On the Indian movie, we have a large Indian diaspora in Australian cities now, as I witnessed taking a ferry ride on the ‘freebie’ day recently, for the no-fare day brought out hundreds of Australia’s multicultural people to enjoy an Easter trip. I did wonder what some of these populations were reading, seeing and thinking, so it is good to have some reporting on what’s currently popular here in their home languages.

  • Brian Boru says:

    The Ian’s and Elizabeth. Exactly. I think it was Michael Kirby (?) who once called for a way of settling separatist claims
    We certainly need that but how to obtain it without also allowing it for the likes of Hutt River Province.
    The only way I see is when there is good faith or acceptance on both sides. The Czech Republic and Slovakia. Singapore and Malaysia?

  • Salvatore Babones says:

    Elizabeth — Have a great vacation!

  • pmprociv says:

    Ian MacKenzie (up top) wraps it up succinctly, albeit glumly. Modern nation states are artificial creations, requiring a powerful glue to keep them united. Demagogues have always known that the best recipe for this is based on a common external enemy, either real or imagined (spiced up with a bit of religion, and truckloads of fake history). Given the universal diversity in local cultures and their pasts, borders can rarely be drawn to everyone’s satisfaction. Contrary to the wishes of idealists, who dream of a future United Global State, reality keeps imposing schism, as exemplified by current growing pressures within the (misnamed?) United Kingdom.
    We in Australia occupy a unique and fortunate position (no contiguous neighbours!), although with our poorly-thought-through policy of “multiculturalism”, I worry about the future: not so much mine, but that of my grandkids, who I fear will witness the inevitable balkanisation of our nation.

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