Maulvis, jehadis, jawans and children—in Kashmir. We have little, if any, literature, cinema or media reportage on what ensues when their lives intersect. The only film, till Piyush Jha’s Sikandar released today, is a recent one: Tahaan, directed by Santosh Sivan, in which a boy loses his pet donkey and his attempt to find the animal sets him on a transformative path.
It is a difficult subject to tackle. Kashmir is many things to us: a natural utopia that we lost, our own Switzerland where Shammi Kapoor wooed Sharmila Tagore on screen, a constant reminder of our history, a nerve centre of violence, a troubled land. To place children in this melting pot is doubly difficult. How do you depict childhood in a land so embittered by violence? How does a Kashmiri pass on his conflicted identity to his child? Can children of Kashmir really retain their innocence?
Parzaan Dastur and Ayesha Kapoor in Sikandar
Jha’s Sikandar has a theme similar to Tahaan. Written by Jha himself who directed Chalo America (1999) and King of Bollywood (2004) before this, Sikandar is a small film with smaller vision, lost in big ideas. It’s a pity because the intent behind the film is undoubtedly serious and sincere.
Sikandar opens with the eponymous hero (Parzaan Dastur), a boy of about 10, being bullied on a football field by other boys. While he is lying injured, Nasreen (Ayesha Kapoor), a burkha-clad girl of his age, approaches him, to befriend him. The next time they appear on screen, they are friends walking to school together. On one such day, they see a pistol on the road. Nasreen discourages him to go near it, but Sikandar is intrigued. He picks up the pistol, and keeps it in his school bag and thereafter carries it wherever he goes. The weapon is kept safely hidden from his uncle and aunt, simple village folk who have adopted Sikandar after he lost his parents to violence. Sikandar wields the pistol every time he is bullied, and guess what, he lands up in trouble. Can a boy of that age, surrounded by so much violence, be that stupid?
In the same village, there is a terrorist outfit of young men, there’s a former terrorist (played by Sanjay Suri) who says he is transformed and has become an ambassador of peace, and there are religious priests and of course, men from the Indian Army, ubiquitous in the Valley. One such officer (played by Madhavan) is suspicious of the former terrorist.
In the second half, Sikandar tries to be a thriller. Somebody in the village deliberately lured Sikandar to pick up the gun and used him as a pawn to kill his enemy. Who is it and why was it done? You’ll have to endure almost two hours of really clumsy film-making to find out.
Through the story, an original one to begin with, Jha sets out to convey that Kashmiris are ordinary Indians. They want washing machines and MP3 players—and other things for a life of material comfort. Sikandar dreams of being a famous football player (but there’s little football in the film; Sikandar goes to sleep wearing a football jersey, but he never plays the game). But despite wanting small things, the politics around them is overwhelming, and nobody is safe from it.
Jha gets to that message with so much noise and such little finesse that his story left me bored.
The background score is one of the many annoying things about the film. It blasts in from the very first scene and continues throughout. There is just no respite from it. Every scene is punctuated by music, sometimes very gritty followed by very mellow in the same scene. Instead of complementing a scene or communicating what’s left unsaid, the music hammers in. You’re likely to get a headache early on.
But the music only saves you from you the film’s lifeless acting and trite dialogues. There is no wit, humour or spunk in any of the dialogues. So even though the backdrop is so powerful and the protagonists are children, I didn’t feel for the characters. When, in the end, Sikandar is rescued from his death and we see him running into the football ground, I didn’t gather up that cathartic sigh. Madhavan and Sanjay Suri are notches below what they are capable of, and the lead pair of Dastur and Kapoor comes across as terrible actors.
But what disappointed me even more is the cinematography. Jha chose to shoot in the Valley during spring, when there are gurgling streams and lush vegetation besides snow-capped mountains and clouds. Every frame in such a locale ought to have been a shot. But Somak Mukherjee’s camera evokes little mystery and visual enticement. Besides a few, most shots are ordinary—they look like scenery from any hill station.
I can’t fathom what BIG Pictures really saw in this film to have produced it. Neither can I fathom how Sudhir Mishra, a film-maker so competent and knowledgeable, co-produced it and not suggested changes when he saw it. Could they have just trusted the intent behind the story to pull it through?
Sikandar is a low budget film, but that is never an excuse for lack of passion. There’s something beyond the technical finesse, the original story, the actors and the location that make a film memorable. It’s what and how much the director feels and thinks about what he is showing on screen. There is no mind or heart in Sikandar.