Monday, 6 October 2014

Kashmir As Bollywood's Tormented Muse

I want to talk about some special Indian movies made in the last decade - Dil Se, Shaurya, Fanaa and now Haider. The common thread running through all these movies is, of course, Kashmir.

I have not seen Dil Se except for its two captivating song sequences (Chaiyya Chaiyya and the title song Dil Se Re). However, the one significant point that the film dared to raise was the issue of atrocities by the Indian armed forces in Kashmir, with the female protagonist depicted as a victim of rape trauma. That must have riled the right wing, but uncomfortable facts need to be faced, and if a movie can bring an issue into the public consciousness, then more power to the moviemakers.

Fanaa was a very well-made, emotionally charged film (as are most of Aamir Khan's films), but what damaged it for me was its dishonest premise. The film shows an independent Kashmiri terrorist group holding the governments of both India and Pakistan to ransom. The premise that Pakistan is an innocent victim of Kashmiri terror is so laughable that even the most gullible peacenik would be embarrassed to repeat it. Still, Fanaa holds its place in the annals of Bollywood as a significant statement about Kashmir and its relationship to India, even if it is a projection of what Indians want Kashmiris to feel.

The two remaining movies are remakes. Shaurya was a remake of "A Few Good Men" and Haider is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Surprisingly, the Indian adaptations don't look like imitations but as genuine, standalone classics. I believe that their choice of Kashmir as background is the reason. In Kashmir, India has a genuine trove of torment and suffering that can facilitate powerful storytelling because of its authenticity. An Indian movie like Madras Café (reviewed by me here) that dealt with the Sri Lankan crisis can only be partly authentic, because it was, after all, about another country's war, another society's pain. Indeed, almost half of that movie is devoted to the one aspect of the Sri Lankan civil war that actually impacted India - the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The best movie about the Sri Lankan civil war will probably come from a Sri Lankan filmmaker (probably a Tamil) who has first-hand knowledge of the pain of those years.

But back to Bollywood and Kashmir.

Kashmir is what made Shaurya (in my opinion) a much better movie than A Few Good Men (and the latter was pretty darn good!). The Hollywood original came out in the year 1992, at a time of relative peace between the fall of the Soviet Union (1989) and the sudden advent of Islamic terror (Sept 11, 2001). Colonel Jessup's imagery of a "wall" defending the US that he mans is therefore not very convincing in the absence of a credible danger to the US. However, when a similar situation is retold in the context of the Indian army's presence in the restive state of Kashmir, it is credible and real. Colonel Jessup's Indian counterpart, Brigadier Pratap (chillingly played by Kay Kay Menon) exudes both moral certainty and menace in equal measure. The blurred line between defending one's country against Islamist insurgents and outright Islamophobia is the very substantive issue Shaurya explores, not a fictitious "code red" as in the Hollywood blockbuster.

Kay Kay Menon brings out the menace of Brigadier Pratap in this short clip from Shaurya. It would take a brave officer indeed to call him to the witness stand.

I can watch Shaurya again and again, and it gives me goose pimples because it is so close to real-life. Heck, I'd say the only unrealistic part of Shaurya was that justice was served in the end. Human rights violations like what the movie depicted have occurred many times in Kashmir without the perpetrators having to face justice as in the movie.

The "You can't handle the truth" speech

The issue of Kashmir divides Indian left-liberals and nationalists, and the divide appears unbridgeable. To the former, it is clear as day that the will of a people should be respected even if it is unpalatable to others, hence if the majority of Kashmiris want independence from India, they should be allowed to go their way. To the latter, it is unacceptable that the blood of Indian soldiers should have been spilt in vain, unacceptable that after multiple successful conflicts with Pakistan over Kashmir, India should meekly roll over and let the state go. The borders of India are inviolate to a nationalist, and if keeping those borders intact involves denying basic freedoms to a people (sometimes quite brutally), then such measures are justified.

The left/right divide is actually quite understandable when the concept of morality is dissected, as psychologist Steven Pinker has done. According to Pinker, morality consists of 5 strands - fairness, harm, community, authority and purity.

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

I believe either Pinker or the Haidt survey is being a bit too charitable to the Conservatives. I think that Conservatives place a lopsided moral weight on community, authority and purity at the expense of fairness and harm, rather than being even-handed about all five strands. Only this explains why right-leaning people in many countries tend to downplay human rights violations by "our boys in uniform" and view any criticism of the armed forces as unpatriotic, even treasonous. The right wing in India tends to deflect criticism of human rights violations in Kashmir by talking about the wrongs suffered by the Hindu Kashmiri Pundits at the hands of Muslim militants (as if two wrongs could ever make a right).

It may be surmised from the above paragraphs that I am a left-leaning liberal, and that is largely true, but there is a twist. Yes, I am completely against giving untrammelled powers to men in uniform, and completely against torture as an instrument of intelligence gathering. Yet I also believe that the Kashmiri separatists are deluded in their demands for Azaadi (freedom). Not only is their desire not shared by Pakistan (which will swallow up an independent Kashmir within minutes of its birth), but it is also quite possibly unviable.

I am speaking not just of economic viability but also of political viability. It may be possible for Kashmir to remake itself as an Asian Switzerland, - a scenic tourist paradise, politically neutral and with unique exports. However, it is people, not natural resources, that make a nation. I'm afraid the track record of Muslim states has not been very encouraging. Kashmir has had a multicultural past, with Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs sharing the region with Muslims, who have also been divided into Sunni and Shia sects, and subsects like the Salafis, Deobandis and Barelvis. Today, the Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs have disappeared from the Kashmir valley, the Shias are isolated in the Gilgit region (under Pakistani occupation), and Wahhabi-influenced Sunnis have extinguished most traces of syncretism. It may be politically incorrect to say it, but Muslim states have a disturbing tendency to fracture along sectarian lines and disintegrate with violence and bloodshed. Would an independent Kashmir become Switzerland or Syria? Call me cynical, but my money is on Syria.

For this one reason alone, I believe Kashmir would be better off staying with India. India is a flawed democracy (with many of those flaws stemming from its treatment of Kashmir), but I think the greatest hope for Kashmir's autonomy, peace and progress will come from its integration into India rather than from independence.

Haider is the latest Bollywood movie to rake up Kashmir in the Indian consciousness (See my review here). That story has offended many (notably nationalistic Indians, who believe it glorifies terrorists and demonises the Indian army). There is even a trending Twitter campaign to #BoycottHaider, but this piece by an ex-armyman, no less, explains why the world needs more stories like Haider.

What we need is more dialogue about Kashmir and other contentious issues, not less. A democracy must not shy away from discussing difficult topics, and Bollywood movies are a great way to start the conversation. In Kashmir, Bollywood has found both its muse and a gold mine.
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