Filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra Responds to Arbeena & Asif

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Dear Arbeena and Asif,

Eid Mubarak to you and everyone else in Kashmir!

I read your open letter addressed to me about my film Shikara in the Kashmir Observer. I have read it multiple times. I liked the approach and the tone you have taken to present your views. You have already won the first battle of engaging someone in a conversation. This to me is the most important aspect of having a conducive dialogue. 

Let me tell you why I made Shikara. I started work on this movie post my mother’s demise in 2007. She came on my request from Srinagar to Mumbai to attend the premier of Parinda in 1989 with a single suitcase. She could never return. I have seen the sorrow in her eyes as she longed for her home. Shikara is a tribute to my mother. It is my mother’s story, it is my story. It is deeply personal and it is perhaps my most important work in my 40 years in the film industry. I urge you to see a 3 minute YouTube Video titled “Shikara: Tribute to a Mother”. You will see how despite all that she lost, she only had love and affection for all. That is the underlying spirit of this movie. 

Shikara is a tribute to my mother. It is my mother’s story, it is my story. It is deeply personal and it is perhaps my most important work in my 40 years in the film industry.

The Kashmiri Pandit exodus is a dark blot on our history. It is a very sensitive topic. What happened was wrong. People were thrown out of their homes and their city. Yes, there were circumstances and external forces which created this unfortunate divide but it was a horrific event and it is still unresolved. As young students of Media and Communication, you will appreciate the fact that if you don’t know your history then you are condemned to repeat it. 

You mentioned the Gaw Kadal massacre. I am aware of that incident and it was as horrific and very unfortunate. Since Shikara was primarily about Kashmiri Pandits and their exodus, it was not possible to integrate the Gaw Kadal incident within Shikara but it can be an independent film in itself. Perhaps someone like you can make it. It will help many others understand what happened.   

When I started work on Shikara 11 years ago, I was cognisant of that fact that it will be the first attempt by any mainstream production house to make a movie on this subject. We took a long time to perfect the script as I had to sift through tons of documentation and video footage to bring reality to celluloid. The most challenging aspect was to remain dispassionate as a moviemaker to depict the truth and yet make a compelling argument that the only solution to such hatred is love and that is at the centre of my movie. You will see this reflect in several of the scenes in the movie, one particular example was when Shiv Dhar’s house is attacked on the night of 19th January sequence, the faces of the attackers are just shadows, this was a technically difficult scene to shoot and was also very time consuming but it was important because I believe that violence is faceless. In another scene Professor Masood and his son Zakir help Shiv and Shanti Dhar find a safe route and get out alive. That several Pandits were massacred across the valley is a truth and at the same time several Muslims helped Pandits escape death and live is an equal truth. I chose to tell this story in a way that it could unite people. This was a conscious decision because I wanted this movie to initiate a dialogue which could lead to creating a conducive environment which is bereft of any hatred and allows people to have a conversation. 

Benazir Bhutto like other politicians on both sides did only one thing, divide people. The very terrorist factions that she calls out to during this crisis and instigates to kill are the ones who later on executed her. The lesson to learn for us and our politicians is that violence will only beget violence.

Shikara was ready in mid – 2019. We had initially thought of releasing it in October 2019 but due to the decision to abrogate Article 370 by Government of India we delayed its release. This was not easy because I was under immense pressure by various other stakeholders to not postpone. We waited for a few months and then set a date of February 7th 2020 for the release. We had thought this was safe enough as the situation would have been stabilised but CAA/NRC followed soon and this time we could not further delay since the trailer was already out with the announcement of the movie release date.

Shikara was released on 7th February 2020 across the country. I was excited to get viewer feedback. I walked into a packed theatre for one of the first screenings. Three hundred people stood up and applauded. It felt magical, but just for a moment, suddenly one lady at the back screamed that the film wasn’t representative of her pain. She wanted more. I was accused of commercialising the tragedy of a community, which was exiled 30 years ago. 

I spent many days thinking about what she said. And I realise that what she wanted was more hate. She wanted a film that demonised Muslims, and that sowed even more animosity and bloodshed. I also came in the firing line of certain groups who also felt the same and trolled me and the movie for days. This caused me immense pain and also affected the film. I introspected over several weeks about what I could have done differently. I have come to the conclusion that I am not that storyteller. I will never peddle hate for profit.

Shikara was released on 7th February 2020 across the country. I walked into a packed theatre for one of the first screenings. Three hundred people stood up and applauded. It felt magical, but just for a moment, suddenly one lady at the back screamed that the film wasn’t representative of her pain. She wanted more. I was accused of commercialising the tragedy of a community. I spent many days thinking about what she said. And I realise that what she wanted was more hate.

As the rural folklore goes, it is tough to break a bunch of sticks bound together but once they are separated and are individual they are more vulnerable. Shiv Dhar gives out a similar message while taking his class in the refugee camp of Pandit kids, notice that sequence closely. Two lines drawn very close to each other, almost seems like one and then unknowingly lines start to drift apart.  He reiterates the same messages when he goes back to Kashmir to teach the Muslim kids there, watch the last scene carefully and you will see it written on the Black board behind him in Urdu.  

I also urge you to see my film PK of which I am particularly proud for its messaging. Notice the dialogue which became a huge hit “Sarfaraz, Dhokha Nahi Dega”- I had a friend while studying in DAV school, Amira Kadal, Srinagar named Sarfaraz; “Aur usne mujhe kabhi dhokha nahi diya”.

Arbeena and Asif, you are the future and the way you shape your thinking will go a long way in having a strong, progressive and peaceful Kashmir. I have seen my home destroyed by hate. Do not let it consume you.  

I want the future of Kashmir to be different from its past.  

Insha Allah! I am sure that will happen someday, I am a stubborn optimist.   

Yours,

Vidhu Vinod Chopra

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