“Shikara”… An intimate love story that (rightly) puts people before politics

Posted on May 16, 2020

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The protagonist represents all that is nice and good and innocent and naive and pure about the director’s homeland. Even after he is displaced, he continues to “save the world”.

Spoilers ahead…

Rage mellows with age, and that’s what seems to have happened with Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Exactly twenty years ago, he channelled his angst about his homeland into Mission Kashmir. It was an angry film, with an angry protagonist in Altaaf Khan (Hrithik Roshan). Shikara is more rueful, a nostalgic sigh. It’s a companion piece to the earlier film, and also a mirror: Altaaf Khan is a Kashmiri Muslim who loses his father/family and takes up arms in retaliation. That character arc, here, is reflected in Lateef Lone (Zain Khan Durrani), but the redemption that awaited Altaaf Khan is not in this man’s destiny. He stays in the sidelines, representing the Kashmir that is.

The protagonists, on the other hand, represent the Kashmir that was. They are peace-loving Kashmiri Pandits, named Shiv and Shanti (Aadil Khan and Sadia Khateeb). Mission Kashmir asked: How does a man who’s lost everything get rid of the hate and make his peace? Shikara asks: How does a man who’s lost everything… make his peace? There’s no hate: only love.

The film is a love story, and it opens like one. (The director calls it “a love letter from Kashmir”.) Shiv and Shanti happen to be at a shooting spot, and are asked to play extras in the background. It’s a lovely scene, with a lovely end that makes you smile – but it’s also a glimpse of a grim future. One, the dewy Kashmir being depicted in the film being shot – the heaven-on-earth that birthed a thousand romantic fantasies in the cinema – will no longer exist. (It’s the 1990s.) But more importantly, Shiv and Shanti will be reduced to “extras” in the story unfolding in their backyard. It’s pack-up time.

Going into the film – or rather, watching it at home – I was worried it might tangle itself up in knots, trying to balance the political with the personal, which is simply not possible in 120 minutes. If Buniyaad or Tamas manage to combine both aspects, it’s because they run for hours. Shikara is very clear about its intentions. It sticks close to Shiv and Shanti, and everything we see is from their perspective. There are very few cutaways to scenes unfolding elsewhere, and even when, say, Lateef Lone’s father dies, the focus is on Shiv’s reaction. The very title is personal. It’s the name of Shiv and Shanti’s home (it’s an intensely personal name, for a shikara is where they first made love), and the film is a chronicle of their gradual displacement from this home.

At several points, I was reminded of Mahesh Bhatt’s Zakhm, which framed a love story with the horrors of the Mumbai riots. That was the story of Mahesh Bhatt’s mother, and Shikara appears to be the story of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s parents. (The heroine bears his mother’s name.) The gaze is that of a loving son. Shiv and Shanti are the nicest people. They are utterly in love. They barely raise their voices. There is zero conflict within the household, which sometimes made me restless. (Exceedingly good people are the toughest to spend time with on screen.)

But that is the design, as is made clear by Shiv’s profession: he’s a teacher, a poet. He seeks to improve the world, write about it, leave it a better place – and if that is a pipe dream, then I’ll have some of what he’s smoking. Shikara is a more mainstream version of Arun Karthick’s Nasir, which showed that you can make a movie about Hindu-Muslim clashes without focusing on those clashes and by just staying with the simple life of a very simple man. And men don’t get much simpler than Shiv.

He represents all that is nice and good and innocent and naive and pure about the director’s homeland. One of the film’s sweetest passages has Shiv encountering a doctor, who was once a boy in a refugee camp: Shiv was his teacher. I was surprised with this touch, because it’s such an unironic “Hindi film” touch: films made today are usually too “cool” for this kind of writing. Even after he is displaced, Shiv continues to “save the world”, in a manner of speaking. He continues to be nice and good and innocent and naive and pure – because all the poison inside him leaks into the letters he types over decades to American Presidents, who first brought guns to the subcontinent, via Afghanistan. He wants them to know what they have triggered.

This is the one plot point that seemed off to me. (The film is written by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Rahul Pandita and Abhijat Joshi.) It’s too baroque a touch for this simple film with its fable-like structure, and it probably would have fit better in a more overtly political film. I wished Shiv had written these letters to, say, his slain brother – it would have still served the purpose (keeping him detoxified) while making the contents far more emotional. (For a love story, I also wished for better songs.)

But then, this conceit does lead to a touching framing device that has Shiv and Shanti making a long-overdue trip. It’s a melodramatic screenwriting choice, but there isn’t a trace of melodrama. In their advanced years, Shiv and Shanti are as nice and good and innocent and naive and pure as they were all those decades back in Kashmir – and as much in love.

Whether in the performances or the top-notch technique (the epic/intimate cinematography is by Rangarajan Ramabadran, the editing by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Shikhar Misra), Shikara is extraordinarily unflashy, low-key. The geographical transitions are hinted at subtly, as the language surrounding Shiv and Shanti loses the Urdu inflections and settles into a Hindi more recognisable in the rest of India. The set pieces, like the one involving a calf stuck on a path of no return, are wonderfully low-key. The coda, involving Kashmiri children, is shattering when you think about it, but it unfolds without fuss, with low-key humour. Even the director’s signature magical realism makes itself felt in a lower key. It involves a coat that reappears, like a miracle. When you want something really bad, the Universe conspires to make it happen. But of course, the bigger want – the Kashmir that once was – remains a want. Even the Universe apparently can’t make it happen.

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