The Kashmir conflict as routed through a boy’s eyes should have made for more interesting viewing than what this undernourished drama can manage.
AUG 23, 2009 – THE INTERNECINE COHABITATION OF politicians, the military, the jehadis, and the civilian innocents of present-day Kashmir forms the focus of Piyush Jha’s Sikandar – and he dramatises the conflict by personifying each of these constituencies. Sanjay Suri, as a soft-spoken proponent of peace, stands in for the politicians; Madhavan plays a hapless colonel desperately attempting to gain control over an essentially uncontrollable situation; armed-and-dangerous newcomer Arunoday Singh (whose fluted vowels suggest a career in British theatre) represents the jehadis; and the innocents are embodied, literally, by innocents – a boy and a girl who’ve just stepped into their teens, named Sikandar (Parzaan Dastur) and Nasreen (Ayesha Kapur). Such a programmatic approach to screenwriting, wherein everything stands for something else, is always a sign that heartwarmingly (and sometimes terrifyingly, for the audience) noble intentions lurk in every corner of the filmmaker’s head – and sure enough, Jha wastes no time in underlining his thesis points.
The film opens with the splintering roar of an explosion – the director’s name dangles ominously over the wisps of smoke that linger – and it closes with a bridge over (what else?) troubled waters. And the stretch in-between, inevitably, gives rise to this question: Do we really need another feature-length treatise to inform us that the formerly idyllic Eden of Kashmir is being blown to bloody bits, and that there’s no ready solution as far as the eye can see? Perhaps sensing this, Jha overloads his running time with such tangential insights as the irony of fighting for peace (“aman ke liye ladaai”), or that no one is an innocent – not parents, not the protectors of peace (Madhavan, at the end, does something quite shocking), not even the protected (Sikandar appears ready to kill simply so he can buy his aunt a washing machine; maybe that’s what happens when you’re exposed to death right from birth – it becomes a commodity that can be bartered to make living a little easier).
The one time I thought Jha might be on to something is when Sikandar stumbles upon a 15-year-old Beretta. The psychosexual symbolism of a pubescent in possession of one of the most explosive of phallic symbols – and one just about as old as he is – can easily be extrapolated to the discovery of the highs of getting off, and Jha does show that ownership of the weapon transforms the boy into a man. (He strokes it with equal parts adoration and awe.) Sikandar is regularly bullied by a trio at school, and when Nasreen offers to complain, on his behalf, to the principal, he brushes her off scornfully, claiming that this is a matter for men. (“Yeh mardon ka maamla hai.”) And after he lays hands on the gun, he wields it – namely, his newfound masculinity – to subdue his tormentors, and even win a football match against them. (Earlier, he was just a child, and therefore just a loser.)
Other than these couple of scenes, unfortunately, little is made of this development (very soon, Sikandar is back to being a child, back to falling off his bed) – as indeed, of anything else. Little is made of the characters, who are all bland constructs with vague motivational graphs. (What exactly is the jehadi after? What prompts Madhavan to endanger the life of an innocent?) Little is made of the contrivances that transform, suddenly, the placidly humanistic goings-on into a far-fetched guess-the-killer thriller. (Would anyone hide a bomb in a washing machine that’s in plain view of the paying public, in an appliance store? Isn’t there a difference between shooting stationary targets and zeroing in on someone in a crowded marketplace?) Some of the happenings are so patently absurd, you’re not sure whether to take it all seriously or if you’re meant to view things at some heightened allegorical level. Unlike Tahaan, which located a measure of poetry in this paradise lost, all Sikandar can scrounge up is a series of prosaic thesis points.
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