Three cinema halls, all packed. Saffron instigators, hot-headed know-it-alls, emotional elderlies, and wary observers.
These were the moviegoers spotted by Newslaundry reporters during screenings of Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files in three corners of the national capital region – Noida in Uttar Pradesh and Pitampura and Laxmi Nagar in Delhi.
In excruciating detail, Kashmir Files tells the story of the suffering and persecution of Kashmiri Pandits during their exodus from the valley in the winter of 1990. It also stops short of putting satanic horns on Kashmiri Muslims and leftists – the movie’s ultimate villains, painted in demonic proportions.
At Noida’s Wave mall on Tuesday – where young men had cries of “Bharat mata ki jai” and “Jai Shri Ram” after a screening only days before – the reaction of cinema-goers was more varied than it might seem on social media. There were no chant rallies after the show, but there were some surprises, good and bad.
Kashmir Files plays at the Wave mall in Noida.
The theatre was housefull at 7.30 pm. The previous 5 pm slot only had a handful of vacant seats. It seemed like everyone poured into the mall only for Kashmir Files. Only a few souls hovered outside the auditorium running Alia Bhatt-starrer Gangubai Kathiawadi. Agnihotri’s movie had eight daily slots in this mall, Batman six and Gangubai only four.
At the V3S mall in Laxmi Nagar, a dozen men in their fifties waylaid younger strangers and made them take their photos. These were retired senior citizens from IP Extension. Asked why they showed up, one of them, Pawan Chetal, said that he wanted to know about something that was hidden from him. "We’re here to see what happened to Kashmiri Pandits,” he said. “After all, it has been hidden from us till now. We only know hearsay.”
Chetal’s friend was more specific. “We have come to see what happened to our Hindus,” he said. “This is when the Congress government was in power. They did not try to save the Pandits.”
We reminded them that it was the VP Singh government, formed with the BJP’s support, in power at the time. The men lashed out at the former prime minister. “He was not a good person,” said one of them. “That’s why he died in oblivion.”
Chetal and friends from IP Extension at the V3S mall in Laxmi Nagar.
Angry and emotional
In Noida, viewers in the audience responded both emotionally and angrily to the movie. An elderly woman seated beside us began sobbing when, in a moving scene, a bereaved Pushkar Nath Pandit (Anupam Kher) wept at a refugee camp while the distant, homesick wail of a Pandit woman was silenced by her demise. The elderly woman’s husband also wiped his eyes.
A more toxic response came from a young man seated in front of the couple. His brash proclamations were directed to his friends but meant for everyone else to hear.
“Mullah hi marta toh maza aata,” he remarked when Muslim militants gunned down Pandits on screen. “It would’ve been fun if Muslims were killed.” When a maulvi made a pass at a Pandit woman at a refugee camp in the movie, the young man called him a damned pig – “sala suar”. At another point, when a militant leader said the current prime minister wanted to be feared, the young man shouted, “Haan, tum toh daroge hi”. Of course, you’ll be scared.
But there were more sensible takes. During the intermission, we overheard this snippet in the washroom meant for platinum-level customers.
“People don’t read history, that’s the problem,” a young man dressed in a crisp shirt told his friend.
“Not everything can be accommodated into mainstream history,” the friend replied, grooming himself before the mirror. “That is why we need movies to talk about such events.”
The audience at large seemed to be absorbed in the movie, without joining into putrid displays of hate or nationalism. But this silence often broke into derisive laughter. During the 7.50 pm show at Pitampura’s M2K mall, for example, the audience laughed when a television journalist, played by Atul Srivastava, was mocked as a “rakhail”, or mistress, of Islamic militants. Some even clapped. The mockery of journalists clearly resonated with them.
Modi, JNU and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai
In Noida, “Bharat mata ki jai” slogans rang out in the hall only once and they did not get unanimous endorsement. This was when Kher’s daughter-in-law in the movie was forced by militants to eat rice slathered in her husband’s blood. Two men in the front of the auditorium let out the cry, twice. Only two others joined them.
But in Pitampura, the slogan went off right at the start and was repeated every 15 minutes. It did not matter whether the sloganeer sat in the front or the back; the cry was answered by nearly everyone in the auditorium.
Kashmir Files’s storytelling of Kashmiri Pandits' exodus is wrapped in the political messaging of the Modi regime. At the M2K mall, when Anupam Kher’s character raised the banner for the abrogation of Article 370, an audience member exulted, "Modi amar rahe", or long live Modi, followed by a “Jai Shri Ram”.
Shortly after the intermission, a voice from the front cried, “Friends, Modi alone cannot do anything. We all have to fight the battle against jihad.” But not everyone had the patience for such provocations. “Shut up and watch the film,” came the admonishment from several watchers. The revolutionary shut up and watched the film.
There is a university in Kashmir Files that is caricatured as an infestation of traitors – misguided leftist students led by a devious professor who wants to bring down the government with the support of Kashmiri militants. It was easy for cinema-goers to put two and two together.
“They’re talking about JNU, right?” whispered one audience member in the cinema hall in Noida. In Pitampura, a man seated behind us told his friend, “In JNU, they teach anti-national subjects.“ The friend replied, “Kanhaiya Kumar studied in JNU only.”
Given how Agnihotri presented them in the film, it was no wonder that the JNU characters earned the choicest abuses during the screenings. During the movie’s climax in V3S cinema, when the protagonist came out as a nationalist, he delivered a speech on the glory of Kashmir and the Hindu faith. A female student interrupted him.
That’s when an audience member lost it. “Maar bhenchod ko, joota maar ise,” he shouted. Beat up this sisterfucker, beat her with shoes.
The toxic end
Kashmir Files evokes the tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits, not for reconciliation but revenge. This was evident in Pitampura. After the movie ended, members of the Sudarshan Vahini, a saffron group, stood on their seats, collecting a dozen men around them. One Azad Vinod unleashed the hate-mongering.
“You people give away your daughters in marriage,” he yelled. “You must gift tickets of this film to your sisters, daughters, relatives and neighbours so that our daughters of Hindu society do not indulge in love jihad. Don't let such murders happen to them.”
Vinod declared that as long as kafirs – Hindus – remain on earth, Muslims will keep killing them. “This film shows the last 30 years and if we continue casteism, the future will be the same 30 years later,” he proclaimed.
Another young man joined him. He asked audience members to go home and reflect on each and every scene of this film. “If we do not think now, then after the next three years, our children, our women will be in their place,” he said.
The Quran was not spared either. One Lala Mathur said the Islamic scripture teaches only to kill and is the root of all conflict. And then came a history lesson. “All Muslims were once Sanatanis,” he said. “To save their lives, they accepted Islam and started killing Hindus.”
The rest of the audience listened intently, until the mall security showed up and asked the group to leave.
Such scenes did not occur in Laxmi Nagar, but the movie did its job. One Amit Singh from Ghaziabad mocked Hindus for preferring free electricity – a salvo at Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose Aam Aadmi Party has consistently defeated the BJP in the capital since 2015. When we circled back to the retired gentlemen of IP Extension, one of them, Kuldeep Singh, seemed furious. "If Hindus do not wake up today, they will perish,” he said.
Shashank, a software developer, at Noida’s Wave mall after the Kashmir Files screening.
But not everyone was swept by the tide of hate. Shashank, a software developer who watched the movie in Noida, told us that he loved the movie but found the sloganeering unpleasant. “This is not the way to conduct yourself in a public place, it’s wrong,” he said.
When we asked Shashank whether the Muslim community was portrayed wrongly in the film, he said the lack of humane Muslim characters could be explained by the focused direction of the movie. “One can’t show everything that happened over 30 years in three hours,” he said.
Shashank’s friend, Vishal, seemed sceptical of the movie’s pro-BJP bent, but believed it did not show Muslims in a bad light. “I think it shows how the community was used wrongly by certain people,” he explained. “But if a viewer concludes that Muslims are bad people after watching this movie, that is a wrong takeaway.”
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