Why should criticism of a cinematic approach to portraying a topic be conflated with criticism of the topic?
How do we remember a horrific chapter of our history, or a personal tragedy? How do we process the grief in its wake? Is there a universal template? As adults living in countries that espouse democracy, with its foundational assumptions, how do we reconcile the different and often fiercely-conflicting ways of remembering a traumatic chapter in history?
These are not abstract, philosophical questions. They are the key to unpacking the cascade of controversies swirling all around us.
Take the headline-grabber of the day: The Kashmir Files. The film made by Vivek Agnihotri that opened in more than 600 cinemas across India on March 11 this year, to a stormy reception, is back in the news. Comments by renowned Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, jury head of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa, at the closing ceremony, and the strong backlash thereafter put the film back on the front pages.
This is what Nadav Lapid said about The Kashmir Files: “All of us were disturbed and shocked by the 15th film -- the movie The Kashmir Files. That felt to us like propaganda, a vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival. I feel totally comfortable to share openly these feelings here with you on this stage. In the spirit of the festival, we can surely accept critical discussion, which is essential for art and life.”
The film festival was sponsored by the Government of India, and all too predictably, hell broke loose thereafter.
Lapid is in the dock for being deeply insensitive to the trauma and violence many Kashmiri Hindus experienced while fleeing the Valley in the wake of the armed uprising against the Indian State in the 1990s. And for being an impolite guest. Israel’s ambassador to India Naor Gilon publicly attacked his countryman, calling Lapid’s comments “insensitive and presumptuous”, and a lot more. Many others are wading into what promises to be a perfect storm.
This is one of those recurring moments in an increasingly polarised country when everything one says is likely to be misunderstood. Silence also becomes contested terrain.
So, it is important to look the ballooning controversy in the eye. The core issues go beyond what happened in Goa.
I have not seen The Kashmir Files and am ill-equipped to comment on the specifics about the film’s contents. But on the broad principle, I believe that Mr Agnihotri had every right to make the film. Everyone is aware that the film was vigorously promoted by the ruling BJP, but here is the thing -- whether a film is by Agnihotri, Lapid or anyone else, once a film is released, viewers have every right to love, detest or ignore the film. Also point out inaccuracies. The same principle applies to critics, including habitues at international film festivals. The right to embrace, reject or be indifferent to a film or a book or any piece of art does not mean the right to instigate violence, whip up sectarian passions. If that happens, the State must step in. That is Governance 101.
Challenge a narrative with a counter-narrative.
Over the past few days, I have heard many people say that no one in the West would dare criticise a film about the Holocaust, the word used to describe the systematic persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and their allies during the Second World War. What is not being stressed: there’s a difference between slamming the Holocaust and slamming a cinematographic approach to the Holocaust.
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic film Schindler’s List, a grim portrayal of events in the Holocaust, is one way of telling the story. The Holocaust has also spawned films savaged by critics, and which have led to mass walkouts in the Western world. Life goes on.
Take German filmmaker Uwe Boll’s Auschwitz, which seeks to depict the harsh reality inside the Auschwitz concentration camp by using brutal imagery. Mr Boll maintains he wanted to present to the world “a movie about the Holocaust that tells it like it really was”. Not everyone agrees.
Writing in the Guardian in November 2010, Kate Connolly noted: “A German film director best known for his adaptations of bloody video games has sparked widespread revulsion with his upcoming film about the horrors of the Holocaust.”
Boll said the killing scenes in his film were “restricted” to 20 minutes, and that the rest of the film showed everyday life at the camp and it had documentary footage. Many critics boycotted the release for being “too gruesome”.
The Painted Bird, another film about the Holocaust, also prompted walkouts. “Vaclav Marhoul’s grim and violent adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird lived up to its controversial billing at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival after a notorious Venice bow by prompting a mass walkout at Bell Lightbox on Wednesday night,” said the Hollywood Reporter. “By the one-hour mark, around 30 viewers had departed, and another dozen had left by the end of the movie,” it added.
Interestingly, Naved Lapid has not only had a run-in with the Indian officialdom. The filmmaker, now based in Paris, is not a favourite of his own government either. The friction predates the film festival in Goa. Critic Andrew Lapin wrote on Lapid’s latest film, the critically acclaimed Ahed’s Knee: “The movie explores a central tension between the artist and the State, a tension that has heightened significance in Israel, which aspires to be a democracy despite a constant state of heightened security and ideological tension.”
Why should criticism of a cinematic approach to portraying a topic be conflated with criticism of the topic? Just as critiquing a film about the Holocaust is not tantamount to denigrating the Holocaust, critiquing a film or a book about the trauma of Kashmiri Hindus isn’t dismissing their plight and sorrow. This is true of every topic.
Can there be one way of telling a story? The answer, in my view, is a resolute “no”, be these stories in words or celluloid or those we tell each other. Tragedy plays out in searing ways. In the adult world, we suffer, we grieve, we rage, but not always in the same way or about the same things. No suffering should ever be delegitimised. But the way we tell it, the story, will always be different. We learn to co-exist.
In a democracy, we need all the stories, all the voices. None should be snuffed out. When the stories and storytellers clash, we need that critical discussion, essential for art and life. That is what being a mature adult is all about.