The phenomenal box-office success of a new film set in 1990s Kashmir has sharpened political divisions in India and prompted a re-examination of a violent campaign against Hindus in the Muslim-majority region three decades ago.
“The Kashmir Files,” directed by Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri, depicts the flight of Kashmiri Hindus, known as “Pandits,” from the region in early 1990s. It is a fictional narrative about a college student who learns that his Kashmiri Hindu parents were killed by Islamist militants, not in an accident as he was told by his grandfather.
The film is being enthusiastically promoted by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which pursues a Hindu nationalist agenda and has been accused of fomenting animus toward the nation’s 200 million Muslims as an electoral strategy.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally met with the director and producer of the film immediately after its release and expressed his appreciation.
Celebrities and political leaders also have urged people to see the film. The Union minister for Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani, tweeted, “Watch … so that this history soaked in the blood of innocents may never repeat itself #TheKashmirFiles.”
A goods and services tax that boosts the price of movie tickets has been waived in most BJP-ruled states including some of India’s most populous. In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, police have been offered a day off work to watch the film. In the national capital territory of Delhi, however, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal rejected a demand from BJP legislators to declare the film tax-free, saying, “Well, put it on YouTube, it will be free.”
Sushil Chaudhary, the founder and chairman of the digital movie theater chain Picture Time DigiPlex, told VOA he was pleased that the controversial subject had been addressed in a film.
“And the storytelling was very different compared to other Indian films. The way the director handled the film — it was quite amazing, at the same time very sensitive. This film has huge impact and reminded me of the much-celebrated ‘Schindler's List,’” a 1993 film about a German businessman who rescued more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazi Holocaust.
On social media, commenters have described the movie as “the most hard-hitting film” about Kashmir made to date.
BJP’s support of ‘The Kashmir Files’
The film also has detractors, many of them in the conflict-torn region of Jammu and Kashmir itself. While expressing appreciation for the movie’s dramatic qualities, these critics say it oversimplifies the complex history of the conflict, and that it offers a clichéd representation of Kashmiri Muslims.
“Hindu supremacists in India have weaponized the Kashmiri Pandit exodus” wrote Nitasha Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit and novelist based in London.
“The movie dwells on Kashmiri Pandit suffering alone and makes ample use of Islamophobic tropes – all Muslims in the movie are violent, barbaric or lecherous,” she wrote.
She argued that the movie “feeds into cycles of hate and revenge. It collapses Kashmir’s history and politics into an Islamophobic morality tale that is palatable and profitable to Hindutva India.”
Ashok Swain, the head of the department of peace and conflict research at Sweden’s Uppsala University, told VOA he believes the film was made purely for political purposes by a Hindu right-wing filmmaker with support from the ruling authorities.
The purpose of the movie is not to tell the history or support the cause of displaced Kashmir pundits, Swain maintained, “but to make economic gains for the filmmaker and political gains for the ruling regime by selling Muslim hate in the country.”
The movie also has been met with criticism by Muslim leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party, a Kashmir-based regional political bloc. PDP leader and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti has accused the BJP of doing nothing for the Kashmiri Pandits who remained in Jammu and Kashmir.
Earlier, she said the move is “ill-intentioned” and will not contribute to healing old wounds.
Mufti also argued that while the filmmakers were mainly interested in profits, Modi and the BJP were supporting the film in order to instigate people along religious lines.
Kashmir resident Sameer Kaul told VOA that some of the gory incidents portrayed in the documentary-style film actually occurred, but that the movie falsely suggests the entire Kashmiri Muslim community played a part in the violence. In fact, he said, some Muslims opposed the violence and others were simply frightened.
Kaul said the impact of the movie will be to increase religious polarization and potential intercommunal discord. “Never before has the justification for institution of an unbiased judicial probe by central government seemed as convincing. Truth should hopefully pave the way for closure, reconciliation and desperate peace.”
A similar view has been expressed by one Kashmiri Pandit girl, Sagrika Kissu. “Not every Muslim is a terrorist/militant or a terrorist sympathizer,” she posted on social media. “We should be very sensitive when we paint all of them in one color. This movie sets in a very bitter emotion for Kashmiri Muslims as whole.”
Meanwhile, the impact from the movie is being felt in real life. A hotel in Delhi recently refused to accommodate a Kashmiri man even after he provided appropriate identification and other credentials.
The hotel’s receptionist said the Delhi Police had told the hotel not to accept reservations from guests from Jammu and Kashmir. A video of the incident went viral, prompting Delhi Police to deny having issued any such order.
In an immediate reaction, the hotel chain Oyo Rooms removed the hotel from its platform.
Nevertheless, the film is doing blockbuster business despite a lack of promotion and marketing, appearing on 700 screens across India and grossing $3 million since its release on March 11. It is also being shown in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, taking in $1.38 million in its first week on international screens.