Vidhu Vinod Chopra‘s poignant vision pans toward a man typing a letter, words from the letter flashing on the screen as the camera moves closer to the man under the light, at the end of the narrow lane. An elderly Shiv is typing a letter about the destitute of Kashmiri Pandits who have been seeking refuge in their own country since the misfortune of politics struck the purity of the Heaven on Earth. The effervescence of the old-school storytelling where there are letters written, typewriters gifted, houses held onto, forms the essence of the film Shikara. Vinod Chopra chooses the most universal feeling, Love, to put at the center of the unspeakable horrors that an entire community and more so, humanity went through, in the Kashmir of 1990s.
Shiv Kumar Dhar and Shanti Dhar meet on a film set and develop a feeling so beautiful that they leave the artifice of the film set behind and walk into the laps of the heavenly Kashmir valleys. The first half of the film moves as smoothly as Shikara moves on the water of Dal. Characters are introduced, relationships are established and you are pushed into a false sense of amusement, where the Muslim cricketer friend falls for a Hindu girl, a muslim politician helps a Hindu man build a house and when a hitlist is passed, the Muslim neighborhood vows to protect their Hindu friends. While sitting in the hall, waiting for this hunky Dory to be burst by a sense of deep grief, the inevitability of hell breaking loose seems false but hell does break loose. The sense of inevitable macabre creeps into you and when the first bullet is fired, your heart skips a beat and throbs as Shanti lies on the ground in the middle of the distress. This throbbing heart does not rest until the Intermission card comes on screen. It is, with such, proficiency Vidhu Chopra directs Shikara.
The first half of Shikara is the most beautifuly directed piece of cinema I have seen in recent times. The superficial writing is embellished by some stunning directional choices. Long uncut takes of the debeautification of Kashmir, amidst the smoke of burning houses make an indelible impression of the agony, in your mind. The editing pattern of the film seamlessly integrates one scene to other with a beautiful sense of harmony that goes missing in the later half of the film, from the script and also among the people of Kashmir. The film advertised itself to be the ‘ Untold story of Kashmiri Pandits ‘ but little does it get itself involved with the politics of the times. Vinod Chopra chooses to explore the human side of it, by taking us on an a journey of a married couple’s story of love, survival and yearning to go back home. The fuildity in the filmmaking and profoundness in the performances allow you to invest in these characters and their lives but this sublime stream of storytelling is disrupted by wavered writing that employs irrelevant emotional triggers to remind us of the plight of this couple.
The film continues to lose sight of what it proclaimed to be and is carried away by this folklore of love and companionship. It is hard to imagine this being a metaphoric representation of anything because the writing lacks layers. Shiv and Shanti are dignified, educated individuals who are either happy or remorseful. They are shown not to have any political opinions whatsoever, despite being gravely affected by the politics of Kashmir. This does not benefit the film in making its point as it gets difficult to take these characters seriously beyond a point, because you know their life is either for each other or the house they built together. There is a point the film tries to make about the significance of education among children but it comes across as utterly simplistic when you see one of the refugee students growing up to become a doctor and treating his childhood teacher. It is at this point, you stop taking the film seriously. One cannot hold Vidhu Vinod Chopra accountable for undermining the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits because this is the story he chose to tell, of Shiv and Shanti and that freedom should be granted to him but it would be a valid critique to point out the silliness or the shallowness of the story he has chosen to tell.
Aadil Khan and Sadia, the newcomers imbue their characters with such lovable charm that the beauty of their characters does not pale in comparison to that of Kashmir. Sadia as Shanti is especially incredible. The purity in her smile lights up the screen and she carries the same purity into scenes that demand a more affecting performance. The effortlesness of her performance shines through the screen in the most demanding of scenes where there is a fear of being melodramatic, she holds on to the strength of subtlety and finds the right pitch to match the emotion of the scene. It is astounding to find such mature acting ability in a newcomer. A.R. Rahman’s score blends into the mood of the film and settles under your skin, making you sensitive to the bruises of Kashmir and the Kashmiri Pandits. It is Rahman’s score that lends novelty to the climax and binds you to your seats even after the credits start to appear. I could not shake off the transforming affect the score had on me as I walked out of the cinema hall. For an otherwise scattered, underwhelming second half, this moving soundtrack by the master, redeems the film to an extent that you walk out with a sense of satisfaction of having watched a film full of heart.
The general expectation of a profoundly intelligent film being the product of a mind like Vidhu Vinod Chopra cannot be denied but Shikara is far from being that. The lack of political dissection of the place during the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits sucks out the authenticity of the film and it remains as a well intended love story, also which, it fails to be. The craft of this film deserved better writing and a braver heart to scrutinize the larger themes of the incident it talks about. Shikara floats gracefully until a point and then instead of treading the depths of the waters, it rows back and revels in the irrelevant stillness of the waters.