In his account of the exodus of Kashmiri pundits from their homeland, Vidhu Vinod Chopra uses a tender lens to create a romance between two people that is utterly charming and believable. you look at shiv kumar dhar and his love, shanti, and sigh. and then you look around at the beauty depicted on the screen, slowly turning to dust, and ask why.
why did this happen? Why was a particular community and its people forced to leave the valley at gunpoint? Shikara takes vague jabs at setting the context. we get throwaway comments about ‘can’t meet due to section 144’, ‘elections are not free and fair’, ‘india chale jao’. we see militancy being encouraged and supported from across the border (real scenes of benazir bhutto raising ‘azaadi’ slogans on black and white tv), but nothing goes further. that Muslim residents are slyly watching panditas’ houses and property finds is repeatedly mentioned, but what has caused the crack remains strictly on the surface.
It is certainly not my case that a feature film has to bear the burden of examining every aspect of a complex situation. In this case, j&k’s special status, which is repealed, was the result of a multitude of reasons, and unraveling those threads would take a lifetime and reams of material. but a movie, dealing specifically with the subject, needs to tell us a bit more about what happened before 1990, when the trickle of pundits leaving the valley turned into a flood.
the cute meeting of shiv (khan) and shanti (sadia) during a film shoot reminds you of a bygone era, when cashmere was used as a romantic short cut in Hindi cinema. The floating shikaras on Dal Lake, with houseboats lining the backwaters, were the backdrop for movies starring popular stars for years. close your eyes and you will see shammi and sharmila dancing-romantically: shiv and shanti bring back memories of a more innocent time when things were quiet, and the best friend of the hindu shiv could be a muslim (simon) who wanted to play cricket for the indian team. this nostalgia-soaked summer of love aspect is the best part of the film, as well as the fact that the lead actors look and feel authentic. they seem to belong, they don’t play dress up with their overflowing silver pherans and ornaments.
for most of the 90’s, when j&k was one of the most dangerous places in the world, we hardly ever saw it in the movies. only in recent years have we been allowed sporadically access to “paradise on earth”, both on and off screen. but the state has never left the headlines, because something so complicated and flawed doesn’t lend itself to an easy fix.
part of the ‘problem’ of kashmir, the word used to tone down all complexity, has been the untreated wounds of the pundits, who had to take refuge in makeshift camps in jammu, and have scattered far and wide to recreate a life. but the hope of going back is never forgotten, and that runs through the film like a pain of tears, which is logical because it is personal to the director. The credits tell us that Chopra’s mother (also called Shanti) left the valley in the late 1980s and was never able to return.
We see the long line of cars, trucks and buses loaded with humans and their belongings crawling up the hillside as they leave: we see it as a panorama, and more than once, and the weight of that departure is considerable. but there is no mention of the decades of human rights violations by the army, nor of security personnel, nor the collateral damage that has occurred on the ‘other side’, nor the political machinations of parties of all colors: yes, it does. best friend becomes militant, but what made love turn into indelible hate?
shiv and shanti harken back to a time when hindi movie lovers had the power to make you smile: they take their time to achieve optimal intimacy and you get a little impatient, but the payoff is worth it: this is a couple who have lived together their entire lives, exploring their reservoirs of resilience, and we can see and feel that strong connection. shows us how today’s Bollywood has forgotten how to romance.
A sequence where the pair returns for a brief and painful reason sees them making a quick stop at the house they had to flee. they go up the steps, see the changes and the family of the man they trusted huddled in a room. and there it is, staring at us, the intruder’s shame, betrayal and loss. it’s nearly speechless, and therefore powerful.
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You see this part and you are moved, and then you go back to questioning mode: why this narrow projection of such a thin slice? a more nuanced sense of history would have made this film much more complete, even if one had to set aside the enormous irony of seeing a film about a place that has been on lockdown for the past six months: when did the people of the valley be able to see shikara, and tell us what they think?
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