George Orwell famously said all art is propaganda. It is important to distinguish between good and bad propaganda. The novelist and literary critic’s statement became relevant all over again as the 53rd edition of the International Film Festival of India suddenly came alive during its closing ceremony when the head of the international jury Nadav Lapid described The Kashmir Files, one of the 15 films in the international competitive section, as a “propaganda, vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival.” Directed by Vivek Agnihotri, the film starring Anupam Kher, Pallavi Joshi, and Mithun Chakraborty is set against the backdrop of the targeted killings and subsequent exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits in 1990.
Mr. Lapid made the remarks in the presence of several dignitaries, including Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur who chose not to respond to the statement of the Israeli filmmaker during his address. The Minister perhaps respected that Mr. Lapid also said, “I feel totally comfortable to openly share these feelings here with you on this stage. In the spirit of this festival, can surely also accept a critical discussion, which is essential for art and life.” At the same time, as the Ministry of I&B organises the prestigious Festival and appoints the jury, Mr. Thakur was in no position to counter the views of somebody who was speaking on a stage that was provided to him by the government.
However, the incident led to widespread outrage on social media, with people equating the criticism of the film with disrespect to the pain of Kashmiri Pandits and misuse of freedom of speech. In an open letter to Mr. Lapid on Twitter, Israeli Ambassador Naor Gilon said the filmmaker abused Indian hospitality and that it was “insensitive and presumptuous to speak about historic events before deeply studying them,” and went on to even suggest that his remarks could jeopardise India-Israel relations. There were others who said Mr. Lapid spoke out of turn as The Kashmir Files did not win any award at IFFI and that he could have registered his point of view off-stage.
Beyond the emotional outbursts, if we look at Nadav’s statement, it was not against the sufferings of Kashmiri Pandits who are still being targeted in the Valley. It was directed against a film that he felt didn’t do justice to the subject. And, as a jury head, he was entitled to his opinion. He is not the first one. Many Indian critics while accepting that the film takes on the issue head-on have noted that the film consciously steers clear of ambiguities and complexities of a problem that has no single truth and that it lacks intellectual and technical rigour which is usually expected of a festival film. Moreover, it was not a comment on the quality of Indian cinema either as there were two more films from the host country vying for the coveted Golden Peacock. He specifically questioned the entry of The Kashmir Files in the list of 15 nominees in a competitive section. He didn’t question the screening of the film as part of the Indian Panorama often showcases one film with popular appeal.
Like the film in question, perhaps, the festival organisers oversimplified things. They thought a jury head from a friendly country that emerged out of the pain of the Holocaust would understand the plight of Hindus in Kashmir. But cinematic language is as complex and nuanced if not more than the language of diplomacy and the Indian and Israeli mandarins faltered by mixing the two.
Coming from a country that has a record of using soft power for political gains on the world stage, Nadav perhaps saw the presence of The Kashmir Files in the shortlist in a government-backed festival as a soft move to buttress the current Indian government’s hard policy on Kashmir. The fact that the top leadership of the BJP openly backed the film when it was released earlier this year, provided him with a reason to be “shocked and disturbed.” That also explains why he used the stage to put his point across. A simple background check on Nadav would reveal that his remarks were consistent with his work and action. In his films, the acclaimed Paris-based director has probed his relationship with Israel and his Jewish identity. It is not much different from Mr. Kher exploring his Kashmiri Pandit identity.
Nadav Lapid is one of the top 250 Israeli filmmakers who signed an open letter in September this year, saying that they will not seek funding from, nor cooperate with the recently established Shomron (Samaria/West Bank) Film Fund. The goal of the Fund, write the filmmakers, is “to invite Israeli filmmakers to actively participate in whitewashing the Occupation in exchange for financial support and prizes.” After the Goa episode, he told an Israeli media house that he couldn’t help but imagine an Israeli film like this in another year and a half or two.
In India, we have yet to see such a fund and the selection of films in IFFI was not in the government’s control. In fact, Siya, one of the films showcased in the Indian Panorama section at the IFFI, is based on the Unnao rape case where a representative of the ruling party was convicted. However, it is also being observed that a series of films are in the works which are produced by people who show allegiance to the Sangh Parivar’s ideology and are keen on using cinema as a medium to propagate it.
There is nothing wrong in pushing the agenda of a democratically-elected government for all art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics. But as Nadav suggested in an interview it should not be too transparent that even a foreign filmmaker could see through it. That perhaps makes it vulgar.
Also, be it some Academy members urging their fellow delegates to look at the torture-endorsing agenda of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty before voting for it or Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 winning the top prize at the Cannes in the election year, film festivals and award ceremonies have always been platforms for celebrating dissent.
The Kashmir Files notes that the government has changed but the ecosystem remains the same. The makers and supporters of the film should not hold a grudge and understand that artistic space doesn’t shift overnight with the pressing of the EVM and that jury heads also love to share their man ki baat in public.
Once this journalist questioned Vishal Bhardwaj who also made a film on Kashmir called Haider about his leftist leanings and he said: “if I am not a leftist, I am not an artist.” In an ideal world, both Vishal and Vivek can coexist and critique each other’s work.