Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s film is a moving love story, but the flight of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley deserves a more complex telling
Vidhu Vinod Chopra use the device of a love story to zoom in on the status of Kashmiri Pandits forced out of their homes and living as refugees in other parts of India. With the rise of militancy, around 400,000 Pandits were forced to flee from the state in late 1989-1990. 19 January 1990 is known as the day of mass exodus, chillingly conveyed in Chopra’s drama via a convoy of trucks snaking along winding mountain roads.
The love story unfolds between Shiv Kumar Dhar (Aadil Khan), a poet, PhD student and teacher, and the nursing student Shanti Sapru (Sadia). Their meet-cute happens charmingly in Srinagar, when they are picked out of a crowd to play background artistes on the set of an under production film called “Love in Kashmir".
From 1987, the narrative (screenplay by Chopra, Abhijat Joshi and Rahul Pandita, author of a 2013 memoir about the exodus, Our Moon Has Blood Clots) moves forward to 1990. Shanti and Shiv’s story is in the foreground while political tensions are simmering below.
The communal tensions and violence peak by January 1990. Shanti, Shiv and their families joins lakhs of other Kashmiri Pandits who leave behind a life and carve out space in overcrowded refugee camps in Jammu.
Over 18 years, Shiv writes letters to US presidents seeking intervention and an audience to apprise then about the plight of the Pandit community. He also teaches the children in the camps.
Shanti plays the perfect and dutiful wife who either smiles beatifically or cries. During the highs and the lows Sadia’s response is the same – to clutch onto Aadil Khan’s hands, cup his face lovingly or hug him. She captures vulnerability and optimism but the reactions are repetitive and unimaginative. Khan is impressive, especially when conveying anguish and heartbreak.
The timing of this film’s release is hard to ignore, with Kashmir limping along with an imposed lockdown in place. Given his personal connection with the story, Chopra captures emotion and upheaval, loss and fear, hope and hopelessness. However, as a chapter in Indian history, the film required a great deal more context and deference to the complexity of politics in the Valley.