Sometimes propaganda can feel like first love. Both elicit unique – and searing – emotions. Both seem like worlds unto themselves. Both function as secret portals into different dimensions: You haven’t heard, seen, or felt anything like this before. It can be empowering; it can be addictive. But unlike first love, propaganda happens again – and again and again. But if at all – in the country of Godi media, WhatsApp disinformation, and know-it-all uncles – you want some more propaganda, then head to the nearest theatre for The Kashmir Files. Because if alternate reality moves you in the same way that first love did, then this 170-minute film will make you feel like a Yash Chopra hero.
Directed by Vivek Agnihotri, the movie broadly alternates between two timelines, 1990 and 2016 onwards, depicting two versions – two villains – of the country. If the one set in the past, in Kashmir, features “terrorists”, then the one in the present, in a Delhi college named ANU, features “students, intellectuals, professors, and media”. The terrorists storm the house of a local teacher, Pushkar Nath Pandit (Anupam Kher), in 1990, murdering his son. The contemporary period revolves around his gullible grandson, Krishna (Darshan Kumar), an ANU student, who is ignorant about his family’s – his country’s – past, looking up to a professor, Radhika Menon (Pallavi Joshi), fixated on freeing Kashmir.
If at all it’s possible, let’s first consider this piece purely fictional. The writing is objectively poor, comprising not people but loglines. Every character follows a suffocating brief – drowning out ambiguities or complexities – making the film monotonous and inert.
Pushkar: a devout and peaceful Hindu, Krishna: a naïve and ‘liberal’ student, Radhika: a manipulative and agenda-driven professor. These are not characters as much as WhatsApp forwards. Whether it’s the past or the present – whether they’re smiling or frowning – their conversations only advance the film’s thesis. The ANU portion is nothing but a series of brainwashing conversations between Radhika and Krishna. The Kashmir portion is pivoted on a series of ‘educative’ conversations between Pushkar’s friends and Krishna.
These sequences are painfully repetitive, treating the audiences like unlettered idiots. Again, the entire screenplay could have been a WhatsApp forward (800 words). The cuts between the past and the present are arrhythmic and random – anything that helps amplify the shock. The movie lacks intellectual curiosity and a sense of openness – minute moments probing the expansive human condition.
None of it is surprising. Even a cursory look at Agnihotri’s filmography reveals something obvious: that he’s mostly made C-grade erotica and D-grade propaganda.
What makes The Kashmir Files so different then? It’s not as if Bollywood has been historically progressive. Even many of its better products have been classic Right-wing: pro-capital, pro-military, pro-‘tradition’. There has been no dearth of recent jingoistic and communal dramas, either, ranging from shocking (Bhuj) to shameful (Tanhaji).
When it comes to Agnihotri’s film, the answer lies in the title itself, and the operative word is not “Kashmir” but “Files”. Because it has an investigative – a journalistic – tinge to it. “Files” also imply something secretive, something suppressed. It almost feels revolutionary and transformative, a fact-finding mission: an audience member has become a collaborator.
This is the film’s game.
And Agnihotri plays the hell out of it. He uses the following trick throughout the movie: He lures you with facts – such as the horrific exodus of Kashmiri Pandits – then distorts reality, mocks it, sprinkles some facts, distorts it, and so on.
This isn’t moviemaking as much as mythmaking, and the film’s intentions and designs are evident right from the start. It begins with a disclaimer; the first line has two key bits: “true events” and “Kashmir genocide”. Its dialogues feature many lines in Kashmiri – accompanied by English subtitles – enhancing its ‘realism’. Its characters talk about the local food, such as nadru, removing another layer of doubt. The film uses real-life footage to further boost its ‘documentary’ credentials: both visual (Benazir Bhutto screaming “azaadi” on TV) and aural (a 1990 cricket radio commentary – the film’s first scene – Imran Khan bowling to Sachin Tendulkar).
Such desperation prompts an obvious question: Why does The Kashmir Files perform such an elaborate dance of fact and fiction? Simple: It’s a recruitment brochure for ‘ignorant’ male Hindus, people much like Krishna, who have been ‘brainwashed’ by intellectuals, institutions, and foreign media – people who don’t know their own country, who must be rescued and nurtured and ‘educated’ to spread the message further. If you think I’m exaggerating, let me tell you the film’s obsessions.
Straight out of Hindu Rashtra playbook
First, Hindu iconography, evident in characters’ names (Krishna, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh, Sharda) and dialogues (Pushkar says “Om Namah Shivay” when kicked by the main villain Bitta). It’s evident in an initial shot establishing the mood: a burning portrait of God Shiva on the street. This is a very small sample. By invoking such imagery, Agnihotri seems to be implying that Hinduism itself is imperiled. Or – louder for those at the back! – “Hindu khatre me hai!”
If you need more proof, the film provides it – by reorienting the same message. At every possible opportunity, the filmmaker underscores the terrorists’ religion. When Pushkar cries “Om Namah Shivay”, Bitta replies, “Agar Kashmir me rehna hai toh Allah ho Akbar kehna hai”. Bitta was in fact Pushkar’s student. Another piece of dog-whistling: all Kashmiri Muslims are terrorists (this isn’t even an implication; the film is almost explicit about it, more than once). This, too, is a very small sample. Given the blatant communal climate in the country for the last many years, these implications are unmistakable: that terrorists = Muslims – or, more accurately, Muslims = terrorists.
But why stop at adults? Muslim kids marching with guns; a Muslim kid saying, “Get out Pandits”; Muslim kids chanting in a mosque: “Raliv, Galiv, Ya Chaliv [convert, leave, or die].”
Agnihotri even includes a live demonstration: Shiva’s school teacher, a Muslim man with a long beard, telling the class to repeat a communal sentiment. What about the Hindu kids? In the very first scene, a few Muslim men say, “Sachin is not a good player”, then beat a Hindu kid, and force him to say, “Pakistan Zindabad”.
A newspaper headline screams, “A six-year-old killed in terrorist attack.” The film even designs its last scene – bizarrely cutting to a flashback – to leave the audiences with the following image: a terrorist shooting a Hindu boy in the head.
The Kashmir Files’ biggest obsession, however, is Hindu emasculation and religious conversion. We not just hear “Raliv, Galiv, Ya Chaliv” multiple times but also “Kashmir will become Pakistan, without Hindu men, with Hindu women”. Remember the bearded Muslim teacher? Well, he turns out to be lecherous, too, creeping Shiva’s mother out.
This is less of a film, more of a Hindu Rashtra playbook.
But the author of Urban Naxals, Agnihotri, reserves his most memorable spleen not for the terrorists, not for the administration, not for anyone or anything else, but for the students and the professors of ANU. This is where he’s particularly dangerous (and perhaps most effective).
Director Vivek Agnihotri speaks during a press conference for ‘The Kashmir Files’ in New Delhi, March 14, 2022. Photo: PTI/Kamal Kishore.
Radhika exemplifies the ‘straw woman’ argument. She posits some sensible and many ridiculous ideas. The intention is simple: debunk her bizarre claims, leave her sensible points alone, so that everything she says, and stands for, can be ridiculed. This is ‘ink drop’ filmmaking: one drop, all Muslims terrorists; another drop, all protestors ‘anti-nationals’.
By constructing two villainous parallels – the terrorists and the ANU people – Agnihotri prods the audiences to associate Radhika’s ideas with terrorism. He wants you to remember them the next time they’re uttered: maybe during a discussion, a news panel, a protest march. She stands among students holding “Free Kashmir” placards; talks about “plebiscite”; mentions Burhan Wani, Afzal Guru, and The New York Times. She talks about “fascism, deshdrohi”, and “nationalists”. She sings Hum Dekhenge. She has “deep contacts” in Kashmir. She tells Krishna, “Pin it on the government! Don’t blame the terrorists!”
There’s a reason the ANU portion starts from the year 2016. “Azaadi” on ANU campus means “India se azaadi”. Much like the film, she is obsessed with “truth”. Radhika is so evil that she ends up providing some comic relief. At the start of the film, she’s quasi-bullying Krishna on campus, standing behind a large poster of – you guessed it – Mao! Radhika was so laughable after a point that I half-expected a disclaimer to pop up whenever she appeared on the screen: “No JNU professors were harmed during the making of this film.”
None of this is enough, because the film must genuflect to its ultimate master: Modi. And true to the spirit of The Kashmir Files, it’s not just enough that Modi is Good – “the current government supports the Pandits,” says a character – but every other politician must be bad, including even Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
In a later scene, comparing himself to Gandhi (!), Bitta says that “Nehru and Vajpayee wanted to be loved” but the current Prime Minister “wants to be feared”. So much of this film feels like the BJP’s election manifesto: multiple references to Article 370, Bitta bragging about murdering an RSS worker on TV, and of course Congress bashing. The film maybe mum about the inaction of the VP Singh government – supported by the BJP – in 1990, but it engineers a flashback to 1989 to take a dig at the “youth leader” Prime Minister, who doesn’t check the violence in the Valley, because he’s friends with the chief minister.
Every incendiary bit in the film leads up to the climax: a very Howard Roark-like monologue. Running for 14 minutes, it’s a terrifying peek into the Hindutva mindset with respect to Kashmir. And it sounds very (very) familiar: that the great Hindu sages, in essence, founded Kashmir; that the Islamic tyrants invaded Kashmir in the 1300s; that these facts have been deliberately suppressed from us, culminating in Krishna pointing his finger at the ANU crowd, saying you’re responsible for this genocide.
I saw this movie in a South Delhi multiplex where, after a long stretch of absorbed silence, some audience members started to react. When the “media” was called “aastheen ka saanp”, titters rippled across the theatre. Later, a young Kashmiri man, appearing for the first time in the film signaling an ‘everyman’, asks Krishna, “Do you think I’m a terrorist?”
The person behind me replied, “Haan.”
(Not the first time. I last experienced it during Uri .)
While leaving the theatre, a middle-aged man, remembering Schindler’s List, told his friend, “I’ll watch this film five to six times. You can’t run away from history.”
Modi’s endorsement has anyway ensured that it will be a huge box-office success, truly justifying its sordid ends: that there’s cash in Kashmir and lies in Files.