Mumbai-based gay rights activist Vivek Anand went to watch The Kashmir Files because he is interested in history. Like many others across the country, he was curious to know the story of Kashmiri Pandits.
For someone growing up in the city of dreams in good neighbourliness and caring for the marginalised, a movie is about entertainment with a social responsibility. But unease gripped Anand more than the film's impact on him because peoples' reaction inside the auditorium, he says, "was an evolution in audience response."
Having watched controversial films in the past, Anand says he was shocked at the hysteria generated by The Kashmir Files. "People got up to give hate speeches, raised slogans of Bharat Mata ki Jai and Vande Mataram," he says and adds, "the statements made were not just ordinary reactions from people; it reflected the mood of the country."
The anguish and anger of audiences to art often make the daily challenge of keeping our secular fabric intact tough. Actor Adil Hussain's tweet in a general context that "art should not be reactive" is significant because people would want the experience of watching a movie to be meaningful and not harming.
It is one thing to see the naked truth on screen but another to witness a roller-coaster of public emotions post-screening. When Anand says the aftermath of The Kashmir Files screening reminded him of the Bombay riots post-Babri masjid demolition as it "divided peoples' lives into pre and post 1992 phase", it affirms how polarisation happens in and through films. Back from the theatre that evening, he told his friends that for the first time he felt scared inside an auditorium after the film got over. "I witnessed normalisation of hate politics," he wrote.
Glorification in a movie usually ends in applause while a tragedy tears you up and we tend to leave it there. “But when people start resonating and engaging in a mob-like manner, it incites violence and makes it murky,“ says Delhi-based psychologist Shraddha Kapoor, who teaches at Lady Irwin College. “When a film’s narrative moves us, we should turn melancholic, not point accusing fingers,” she notes.
Good films do shape our minds but should movies decide our behaviour? Given today's atmosphere in the country, if films drive political narratives, they will end up splitting audiences into groups. The anti-Muslim agenda is a polarising national issue now and when the ruling party throws its weight behind a movie, it is like an automatic promotion of an agenda. It could actually turn off half of the people they are trying to convince and simultaneously also help reduce any controversy with the propaganda.
Filmmakers do try to keep their political inclinations subtle but an endorsement of their commitment to the political agenda does not always remain so. So is the case with the director of The Kashmir Files, Vivek Agnihotri, who also made The Tashkent Files (2019), as an investigative cinema attempting to crack the mystery of the death of India's second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. The film came across as a vituperative majoritarian theory; how a strong leader alone can unleash military defeat on the enemy.
Several jingoistic films playing on the nationalistic fervour have been released in the last few years. The threat from a known enemy (read Pakistan) and the use of a powerful set of dictated nationalist emotions in Uri: The Surgical Strike lent to erasing the usual rational thinking. Instead of just positive cheerleading, the movie's most famous one-liner — How is the josh — also pervaded a collective vicarious mentality.
Strident opinions and heightened appreciation for films such as Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, Tanhaji and Kesari can take audiences out of their comfort zones . "In The Kashmir Files, I saw a compilation of narratives which are true; I have grown up hearing such stories," says life-skills counsellor, Pearl Fotedar, related to former Congress leader M. L. Fotedar. "Everyone's perception of the movie is different; It has initiated a topic that did not find space for three decades. But, emotions triggered by the movie need to be channelised positively and not politically if welfare of Kashmiri Pandits is a genuine cause at heart," she says.
Movies chronicle and reflect the state of the nation.
For instance, Nandita Das’s directorial debut Firaaq set over a 24-hour period and one month after the Godhra carnage, captures the fear and disturbance that overcame Gujarat. The 2009 film does not flinch while examining the lingering trauma of people affected in the Gujarat riots that left over a 1,000 dead.
Rahul Dholakia's Parzania was based on a true story of a Parsi boy who went missing after the 2002 Gulbarg Society massacre. It traces the struggles of the family searching for their boy. The 2007 film was not released in Gujarat as the cinema owners cited it as a sensitive film to be screened.
The 2005 release, Amu by Shonali Bose explored the dynamics of religious intolerance against the Sikhs during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. It gives a glimpse into how the massacre was supported, encouraged and executed. Haider (2014) questioned the tyrannical power of the controversial AFSPA law. But the kind of outrage, a section of the audience of The Kashmir Files is spewing did not happen in the case of earlier films.
We do need hard hitting films about real issues but not distorting of expectations that make citizens behave like mobs and contribute to polarisation.
We need films that allay wounds and not nudge citizens to become part of the process of 'othering' the minority when the environment is already so communally intolerant in the country.