Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara combines superior craft, earnest performances, A.R. Rahman’s soulful score and a script brimming with pathos to achieve the unexpected: a film where the sum-of-parts is far greater than the crucial whole. While Chopra’s vision seems fueled by genuine passion and feeling for the themes he tackles, it also betrays his inability focus on the crisis surrounding the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, and its sociopolitical repercussions, without eventually devolving into the classic-Bollywoodish variations-on-the-same-theme love story that only treads lightly.
It feels painful not to give Shikara a resounding round of applause given just how well-made it is, especially the first half. The camerawork at times is downright exquisite, working hand-in-hand with the crisply-lit sets to extract both beauty and ugliness within the picturesque Kashmiri locales and its inhabitants, largely eschewing the sentimental close-ups of actors’ faces that Chopra’s peers so frequently overexploit. For a change, the editing actually feels (mostly) masterful and effective as it effortlessly flows between moments of tenderness and strife, balancing emotions through the rhythm of cuts without calling attention to the same. At times it does border on too-much-editing when the scenes could’ve been better served by showing more restraint and allowing time to inspire the flow. But such work is also offset by sublime long takes that let you sink and luxuriate within the characters’ environments.
The melodious score that forms the soul of Shikara also sometimes intrudes upon moments demanding silence and stillness, often dictating the mood and leading the way to the interior too heavy-handedly. But these are trivial forgivable issues in the face of the crimes Chopra later commits with regards to the central plotline. Shikara inevitably undermines the very thematic concerns it builds its base upon during the first two acts. It’s understandable that Chopra chooses a tale of love as the vessel for his depiction of the Kashmiri Pandits’ exodus, seeing as it is crucial that it reaches as many sections of the Indian population as feasible. Love stories, after all, appeal to and are accepted by the widest-possible audiences in this Bollywood-infested country.
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But the fact that the injustices committed during a very-real and very-bloody chapter of history are made subservient to a fictional love story, instead of being the other way round, largely nullifies any significant impact that Shikara could’ve had apart from spreading minimal awareness of already-known facts. It is ultimately appalling to see Shikara climaxing with a fabricated tragedy and plot-twist (no matter how smartly-concocted) that bears NO relevance whatsoever to the refugee crisis issue while using the far-more-tragic suffering of the Kashmiris as stepping stones to reach that narrative end. This is all the more unfortunate given that this unseemly development overshadows the film’s many merits, that dare to shine despite the flaws.
It pleased me to note during the interval that the writing, despite taking a stand against Islamic insurgency and radicalism, adopts a staunchly-secular stance by refusing to demonize the common Musalman who still rushes to the aid of his targeted Hindu brethren. Echoing the same sentiment, the Pandit protagonist―who has just lost his home and is still reeling from having his world upended―instructs a bunch of young boys sloganeering “Mandir wahin banayenge!” that the role of leaders is to unify and not to divide. Such moments, though buoyed by heavy exposition that isn’t always subtle, complement the film’s general aversion to generic tropes and stereotypes despite being a fairly-harrowing psychological journey. They augment the hope for a genuinely-felt journey through the heart of the nation’s sociopolitical wilderness, as seen through the lens of a personal journey between two hearts.
But Chopra blatantly bypasses multiple opportunities to deeply examine the political knots that are at the core of his film’s thematic aspirations. In retrospect, Shikara feels like an oversimplification of a complicated past, in the service of largely nothing. Such surface-level skimming of the politics involved can be excused when a psychological experience of the same is being conveyed, but even the latter changes track in Shikara towards a conclusion that barely resembles the political conundrum at hand. The director uses his love story to deliver us safely away from the problems of the oppressed, unknowingly also distancing us from our affinity for the characters on whose shoulders the remainder of the film rests. All that masterful flourish of filmmaking magic dragged down by a distasteful conflict of narrative ambition.