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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Shikara-- The Untold Story of Kashmiri Pandits, Review: Paradise lost

Shikara-- The Untold Story of Kashmiri Pandits, Review: Paradise lost

A hot potato by any yard-stick, the plight of Kashmir Pandits, who were forced to leave the strife-torn land of Kashmir to live in Jammu or other parts of India, was always going to pose a challenge to film. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, a Kashmiri himself, is among the Hindi film industry’s most renowned film-makers. He bases the narrative of Shikara on true stories, but fictionalises it enough to meet the demands of the medium. While the film is watchable for its heart-tugging emotions, it touches radicalism only minimally, eschewing, by and large, the temptation to take a vindictive stand.

A teacher named Shiv Kumar Dhar, who is a Kashmiri Pandit living in a refugee camp, gets a letter, which is cause for celebration. He has been writing to the President of the USA regularly, for about thirty years, asking for an audience of five minutes. Shiv wants to impress upon the President that the guns the US gave to Afghanistan and Iraq have found their way into Kashmir, and this has led to militancy. As a result, many of his brethren have been killed and more than 4,00,000 Kashmiri Pandits have had to seek refuge in camps, leaving behind their homes and belongings. However, as expected, all his 1,664 letters were ignored by successive Presidents. Until now, that is. Shiv starts making plans to travel to Agra, where the meeting is supposed to take place, with his wife, Shanti, who always wanted to see the Taj Mahal.

In flashbacks, we are told that before becoming a teacher, the twenty something Shiv was a poet, who wrote nazms (a form of Urdu poetry), and Shanti was one of the few fans who had read his book of poems. He used the good offices of his cricketer friend, a Muslim, to get close to Shanti, who suggests that Shiv meet her father and ask for her hand. He does, and they get married. The cricketer himself nurses a soft corner for Shanti’s friend, a Hindu, but has to wait till he finds gainful employment before he can propose. Shiv and Shanti’s new home, called Shikara (gondola) is built with stones from his friend’s father’s old house, a gift to the newly-wedded couple, and life seems a heavenly for them, in Kashmir, widely acknowledged as heaven on earth. Two tragedies then jolt the loving-doting couple: militants start attacking Kashmiri Pandit (Hindus)’s homes, even killing some of them for no fault of theirs, prompting Shiv and Shanti to leave for Jammu, and Shanti is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Two Kashmiris are among the three writers credited on Shikara: Rahul Pandita (Delhi-based; journalist, author; Our Moon Has Blood Clots –2013, and Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story of India's Maoist Movement) and Vidhu Vinod Chopra (also the director) himself. The third is Abhijat Joshi (Lage Raho Munnabhai, 3 Idiots, PK, Sanju). Chopra had said on the release of Our Moon Has Blood Clots that he would be happy to make a film on it. Indeed, he has, but unless we read the book, we will not know how much of Shikara comes from there.

Rahul Pandita was fourteen years old in 1990, when he was forced to leave his home in Srinagar along with his family, who were Kashmiri Pandits: the Hindu minority within a Muslim-majority Kashmir, that was becoming increasingly agitated with the cries of ‘Azadi’ from India. Our Moon Has Blood Clots is the unspoken chapter in the story of Kashmir, in which it was purged of the Kashmiri Pandit community, in a violent ethnic cleansing, backed by Islamist militants. Hundreds of people were tortured and killed, and about 3,50,000 Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their homes and spend the rest of their lives in exile, in their own country.

Chopra says Shikara, a FoxStar​ co-production, is a tribute to his mother. On screen, he dedicates it to his mother and his wife, Anupama. In 1989, his mother came to Bombay for the première of his film, Parinda,​ but couldn’t go back to Kashmir. ​Shikara​ is about her home, his home and how they lost that home. The source material for this film is, primarily, Chopra’s own life. He delayed the release of the film by three months, in view of the political events that transpired (Lifting of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave Kashmir a special status, by the Indian parliament; arrests of many Kashmiri leaders; suspension of telephone and Internet services).

Several tropes are used to tell a story that is very personal, but simultaneously representative of a larger ethos. Hindu protagonists have a Muslim family as closest friends. The patriarch of that family is killed by Indian security forces, prompting his son to join the extremist movement. He warns Shiv to leave Kashmir, but he does not pay heed. Then, henchmen of a greedy Muslim attack Shikara and Shiv and Shanti are forced to flee. The greedy Muslim occupies the vacant house. Soon, the friend becomes a dreaded extremist, while Shiv works as a teacher in the refugee colony. Shiv’s benefactor is shot dead by extremists, who steal his tell-tale coat. An old inmate of the camp is so devastated by the migration that he keeps asking all and sundry to take him to Kashmir…and many more such standard tools of the trade are in operation.

As director, Chopra succeeds in contrasting the heaven with hell’s fire, in one major, aerial pull-back shot. Casting is a fait accompli, with almost all the actors suiting their parts. Shiv and Shanti’s romance is mushy and more like the Hindi films of the 1950s. His incorporation of a film unit shooting Love in Kashmir, wherein young Shiv and Shanti are roped in as junior artistes is delicately done, especially the parts when Shanti keeps protesting Shiv’s attempts to hold her hand, in order to look lovey-dovey, on instructions from the director, and them walking away, hand in hand, beginning a real life, idyllic romance.

A distinctive style is employed by using typewriter type-faces in all the cards/scrolls used in the film, a style that emanates from the manual typewriter Shiv uses to type his letters, addressed to the American head of state (the film was initially titled Love and Letters). As a pointer to the times that led to the demolition of Babri Masjid, Chopra has a children’s mini army marching through the refugee camp, chanting slogans in favour of building a Ram temple exactly where the Masjid stood. Besides this solitary scene, there is little in the film that can be considered provocative or inflammatory. Incidentally, the film marks a minor come-back of sorts for Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who has been active as a producer right through but had not directed any film since 2015’s Broken Horses, an American remake of the director’s own Parinda (1989). You might recall his 2000 film, Mission Kashmir, shot in paradise valley.

While actors are used to play the main roles, some 4,000 exiled Kashmiri Pandits play themselves. Aadil Khan and Sadia, both obviously Muslim names, play the parts of Shiv and Shanti, and the choices should not be lost to co-incidence. Aadil is from Bhopal and Sadia from Jammu, and this is their debut film. Aging thirty years from the late 1980s to late 2010s, and madly in love all through, their chemistry is palpable. Sadia ages better than Aadil, who seems to have used prosthetic teeth, unless he has a natural set that portrudes. Faisal Simon plays Dr. Lalit Ladru, the man who diagnoses Shanti’s fatal illness. It’s a small role, but touchingly enacted. I guess the old man, who keeps wanting to go back to Kashmir, is Kashmiri actor K.K. Raina, though I cannot be 100% sure, because he is never clearly identified. Due credit to the entire supporting cast, which remains unidentified and consist of, mostly, newcomers.

Shikara is full of musical ripples, created by A. R. Rahman, Qutub-e-Kripa, Sandesh Shandilya, Abhay Sopori and Rohit Kulkarni, with inspired, mainly nazm-based Urdu poetry as lyrics, penned by Irshad Kamil, Bashir Arif and Raqueeb Alam. Exquisite textures are imparted by cinematographer Rangarajan Ramabadran. Vidhu Vinod Chopra has edited the film himself, along with Shikhar Misra, ensuring smooth sailing for the two hour-long journey in the symbolic shikara on a Dal lake of our imagination.

Wrote the genius Ameer Khusrau, in Persian/Farsi, some 700 years ago, about Kashmir, “(A)gar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast. (English Translation: If there is a paradise on earth, It is this, it is this, it is this”). In the context of those who were driven out of their heaven on earth, the title of a work of another great poet, Englishman John Milton, written in 1667, seems equally relevant and is therefore used as this review's headline: Paradise Lost.

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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