Shikara review: The Vidhu Vinod Chopra film epitomizes every Kashmiri Pandit’s homecoming dream

While the film is not offensive, but a choppy screenplay results in slight deviation from the larger Kashmiri Pandit cause

Rating: 2.5 /5

By Mayur Lookhar

Kashmir, a paradise, a heaven on earth that sadly has seen hellacious times since the rise of militancy in the valley in the 1990s. Terrorism is the bone of contention between India and Pakistan with the latter often blamed for exporting terror. No discussion on Kashmir can be complete without mentioning the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990.

30 years on, Kashmir remains on the edge. While enhanced security has kept a tight vigil on external threat, the internal political situation has created a stir globally with the abrogation of Article 370. There can be no solution without rehabilitation of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits. How close or far is that dream? Well, only time will tell.

Given the political scenario and the perceived sense of nationalism under a Hindu nationalist regime, a film on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits straight after the abrogation of Article 370 would have been cheered with gusto. Director, producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra though was matured enough to hold the release of his film as he didn’t want his film to be seen as taking advantage of the then situation.

Chopra’s Shikara [2020] takes inspiration from author Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots [2013], but it’s also very close to the director. Shikara tells the tale of a professor, author Shiv Kumar Dhar [Aadil Khan] and his wife Shanti [Sadia] who like many Kashmiri Pandits were forced to flee the valley in 1990.

Though the makers have called it the untold story of Kashmiri Pandits, Shikara primarily focuses on the loss of the couple. May be, it would be apt to term it as the untold story of two Kashmiri Pandits. Shikara empathises with all refugees, but it doesn’t quite addresses the larger Kashmiri Pandit cause. In the current political scenario, it would be natural to scream about the Kashmiri Pandit rehabilitation, expose the injustice that was done to them, but that’s not the mood or the tone of Chopra’s film. Shikara simply embodies the ‘there’s no place like home’ spirit. It takes us back to the harmonious times before vested interests, fascist ideologies caused the human divide. Shikara’s apolitical, unoffensive narrative earns the respect of liberals, but the gross injustice, gory ethnic cleansing cannot be brushed under the carpet. Would Shikara ease the pain of aggrieved Kashmiri Pandits who lost their dear ones to hate crimes? May be not, but Chopra’s aim is to not reopen old wounds.

More than the physical, material losses, Shikara reflects the hurt of being displaced from one’s native land. This hurt is seen through the eyes of Shanti and Shiv, but the film needed to show grievances of other Kashmiri Pandits too. Shikara is invariably reduced to a Shanti and Shiv story.

While it’s largely apolitical, but the film takes subtle digs at our neighbour. An archival footage of an inflammatory speech from the then Pakistani Prime Minister, who years later would be assassinated upon her return from exile, is a chilling reminder of the role that Pakistan played in the mayhem that followed in Kashmir. Now while our neighbour is rightly exposed, but Chopra stays clear of upsetting the Kashmiri polity . The big names thanked in the end credits underline the film’s unoffensive nature. There is, however, subtle references to the political instability, sense of ignorance by both the state and the then central government. That is reflected when the killing of two policeman only gets a half a minute coverage in a national news bulletin. Besides, the Kashmiri Pandits soon realize that their faith in the central government is misplaced.

Well, Chopra isn’t judgmental about militancy but neither is there any empathy towards radicals. It is convenient to look at things in black and white, but as we saw in Mission Kashmir [2000], Chopra likes to question why a man turned into a militant? Here we have Lateef Lone [no connection to Kashmir’s Lone (political) family] a budding cricketer and the best friend of Shiv. Lateef’s [Zain Khan Durrani] swayed towards militancy but he wants no harm to come to Shiv or his parents and Shanti.

Kashmiris aren’t judged but Shikara [2020] surprisingly questions the world’s super power United States of America. Be it in Afghanistan or Pakistan, often the latter tends to blame America for the militancy in the subcontinent. Logically speaking, this poor defense by Pakistan has become outdated. Blaming America and other super powers for the rise in arms, that often land up in the hands of terrorists, has become a cliche. On the flip side, one should be questioning the men as to why they took up arms? Shikara has a My Name is Khan [2010] tone to it as for years Shiv writes to various American presidents.

The first half is more impactful as it gives a sense of the hell that Kashmiri Pandits went through during the ethnic cleansing in the valley. The second half though ends up as a romantic, poetic emotional saga. Chopra’s described his film as ‘a love letter from Kashmir’. And so it’s natural for the love story coming through more strongly in the second half. But can a love story take precedence over the plight of a half million Kashmiri Pandits? Setting a love story in the backdrop of the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits is fine, but the problem with Shikara is that the larger cause, that came out so nicely through the first half, is submerged in the more personal narrative in the second half. That’s disappointing for screenwriter Abhijat Joshi] and Chopra are known for their engaging, tight screenplay.

Aadil Khan and Sadia

Sadia hails from Kashmir while Aadil Khan, too, has his roots in the valley. It is very admirable for two Kashmiri Muslims to play Kashmiri Pandits. The young stars show promise initially but there is a drop in intensity in the business end. Sadia looks a bit like young Vidya Balan. She has a fine screen presence and she should only get better experience. Khan has his strong moments but looks out of depth while playing the elderly Shiv. There is potential though in the duo and you hope to see them grow with time.

The one thing that stands out is the scintillating cinematography by newcomer Rangarajan Ramabadran. Kashmir has its natural beauty, but it takes an artist to bring that out. Ramabadran captures the joyous as well as the dark moment nicely. Shiv and Shanti honeymooning in their shikara [houseboat] is a treat for the eyes.

Shikara is technically very sound, but the creative deficiencies sees this houseboat land in choppy waters. It’s Chopra second directorial in five years, and a first Hindi feature since Eklavya [2007]. A little bit of rustiness is bound to creep in. The film though has its heart in the right place. That’s exemplified no better in a scene where Shanti feels uncomfortable at a marriage in Delhi. The loud Bollywood music is annoying for Shanti who then reminisces the sound of Kashmiri folk music that played in her marriage. One can experience luxury, but there is no place like home. And there are millions of refugees like Shiv and Shanti across the globe harboring homecoming dream. A Shikara [2020] gives them hope.

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