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Issue 21

Valleys to Battlefields: A History of Indian Film Industry’s Encounter With Political Violence Before The Kashmir Files

Sudha Tiwari

Writing this piece in the context of Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files – a film that has created frenzy in cinema halls across the country and sent political shockwaves, Film Historian Sudha Tiwari artfully delves into the history of political violence on the Indian screen.


Before going into the question of political violence depicted in Indian cinema, let’s briefly see how Kashmir has figured on the Indian screen. Kashmir was a favorite destination for many filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s. Many superhits were shot in Kashmir, e.g. Junglee (1961), Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), Aarzoo (1965), Roti (1974), Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Noorie (1979), and Silsila (1981). 

With the rise of militancy in the valley and exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits in late 1980s, the backdrop changed from romance to militancy and terrorism. Love duets were replaced by patriotic songs and lovers were replaced by the soldiers. Films like Roja (1992), Dil Se (1998), Mission Kashmir (2000), Yahaan (2005), Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), Haider (2014), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), and Raazi (2018) are some noted feature films reflecting this transition in the depiction of Kashmir in Hindi film industry. 

Let me also mention some less noticed and critically acclaimed films based on the plight of Kashmiris. These films include Tahaan (2008), Sikandar (2009), Valley of Saints (2012, Kashmiri), Inshallah, Kashmir (2012), Harud (2012), 19th January (2015, based on the Kashmiri Pandits’ exodus), Hamid (2018), Half Widow (2020), and Shikara (2020, based on Kashmiri Pandits’ exodus). Among these, one needs to go back to 19th January, and Shikara, as they bring out the story of the exodus much before Kashmir Files. Question one should ask is how and why these two films went unnoticed?

The Hindi film industry has consistently found itself lacking in bringing nuanced, complicated stories of political violence on the screen. Sometimes due to censorship constraints, and often times due to lack of will, India’s biggest film industry i.e. Bollywood has kept itself away from portraying controversial subjects. Its legendary fascination with love stories and family melodramas have been widely acknowledged.

Partition of India was the first instance of political violence that independent India faced. Apart from Garm Hava (1974), Tamas (1988), Hey Ram (2000), Pinjar (2003), and two foreign productions namely Earth (1998), and Train to Pakistan (1998), one cannot think of any other film sensitively portraying the gruesome violence that Partition was. Similarly, there is no full length film on free India’s first political assassination, the fratricide of the Mahatma himself. Though one must mention Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (2005, Jahnu Barua), and Road to Sangam (2009, Amit Rai) as two films exploring Gandhi’s murder and death as a psychological and individual journey for its protagonists decades after the actual event.

The Internal Emergency imposed in 1975 has also been overlooked by the Indian film industry. Anand Patwardhan’s two documentaries Waves of Revolution (1975), and Prisoners of Conscience (1978), Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursi Ka (1978), along with Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003) are perhaps the only noteworthy mentions. Indu Sarkar (2017), and Baadshaho (2017), with a backdrop of the Emergency, came and went unnoticed, both by the masses and the niche audience.

The non-Hindi and alternative film industries of India have done better in depicting the political violence on the screen. The portrayal has been more realist, less titillating, and the narration more nuanced, contextual, and complex. Ritwik Ghatak’s films on Partition of India and division of Bengal, namely Chinnamul (1950), Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961), and Subarnarekha (1965) are perfect examples of profound rendering of an event that was already so pornographic in its impact, that one need not use it to excite the audience. Ghatak rather took the individual stories, weaved in the experiences of personal losses and gave us a fair but forceful warning against violent tendencies. Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71 (1971), Interview (1971), Padatik (1973), Mrigayaa (1976), and Akaler Sandhane (1980) deal with the Naxalbari movement that rocked Bengal in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Akaler Sandhane is one of those handful films that portrays the Bengal famine of 1943. Earlier, Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket (1973) had set a discussion on the great Bengal famine on screen, focusing on nature and vulnerability of the human spirit in the face of such man-made disasters as two of its central lines of thought. Ray’s Calcutta trilogy, consisting of Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1976) depict the Bengali youth and its middle class caught in the social unrest caused by the Naxalite movement. John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan (1986, Malayalam) is another important addition to the list of films portraying the Naxalite unrest. 

Today, many of these films won’t be allowed to be released, which may cause arrest and ban of the filmmakers, too. In the Hindi film industry, Govind Nihalani is perhaps the one filmmaker who has constantly dealt with the theme of violence in his films. Ably aided by empathetic stories and scripts written by Vijay Tendulkar, Nihalani brought in diverse narrations of political and social violence in his films, namely Aakrosh (1980), Ardh Satya (1983), Aghaat (1985), Droh Kaal (1994), Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998), and Dev (2004).

The 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Babri mosque demolition and subsequent riots in 1992-93, and the Gujarat riots of 2002 remain unmapped by the popular cinema. Gulzar’s Maachis (1996) talks more about the issue of militancy than about the riots. Similarly, Gurvinder Singh’s critically acclaimed, and internationally awarded Punjabi film Chauthi Koot (2015) keeps its focus on the Sikh separatist movement in the 1980s, post-Operation Blue Star. 31st October (2015) does explore the anti-Sikh riots as its main plot line. The film had come in conflict with the Censor Board which certified it only after nine major cuts in scenes and dialogues. Shonali Bose’s Amu (2005), based on the anti-Sikh riots, also faced problems with the CBFC, which certified the film under ‘A’ category, after six cuts, amounting to 10 minutes of the feature film. Unhappy, the producers released the film directly on DVDs. It went on to win the national film award for best feature film in English. Grahan (2021, Disney Hotstar) is a noteworthy recent addition to the list, which received much critical acclaim for its sensitive portrayal of the riots, and the trauma associated with it. Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Naseem (1995), and Anand Patwardhan’s Ram Ke Naam (1992) remain the only distinguished films on the Babri mosque demolition. Though Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) tried to compensate for the mainstream film industry’s silence on the subject, the film has been criticized for its sanitized and diluted handling of the demolition and subsequent riots. The credit to depict the 2002 Gujarat riots also goes to alternative filmmakers like Rakesh Sharma (Final Solution, 2003, a more than 3-hour long documentary), Rahul Dholakia (Parzania, 2007), and Nandita Das (Firaaq, 2008). Parzania has come back to the public memory in the backdrop of the release and reception of the Kashmir Files.India lives and breathes politics. It has been making films since the pre-independence era. An industry that has been consistently releasing 700+ feature films annually, it is only unfortunate that one does not see a political film of the nature of The Battle of Algiers (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo, French), a magnum opus like The Hour of the Furnaces (1968, Octavio Getino, Fernando Solanas, Spanish), or a political thriller like Z (1969, Costa-Gavras, Algerian-French). A nation that has seen centuries of colonial violence, and still is coming to terms with its socio-cultural diversity, it is unusual to note the absence of a constructive debate on violence in its cinema.

Sudha Tiwari is an assistant professor at UPES, Dehradun. With a PhD in film history from JNU, she worked at Ashoka University as a Teaching Fellow during 2020-21.

Picture Credits:  GQ India

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