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You Get the Stars, You Get No Love

Lamhaa breaks away from the Bollywood mould by diving into Kashmiri politics, but ends up reinforcing some dangerous prejudices, says Pragya Tiwari

AS KASHMIR burns, Rahul Dholakia’s Lamhaa serves up Bollywood’s latest representation of the Valley. But what it really reflects is the chasm between the audience and ground realities.

Bollywood has always idealised Kashmir romantically. Pre-1980s, it was a bed of flowers for young lovers, and 2000 onwards, it has been a war zone where the ‘valiant’ military overcomes ‘evil’ militants. Obscured by the silver screen, ordinary Kashmiris have spent the past 20 years struggling against gross human rights violations and crying out for ‘azadi’.

In this context, Lamhaa might just herald a new wave of films that are not afraid of diving into the Valley’s impossible politics. Dholakia takes definite political stands but also shows the complexity of Kashmir’s narrative. He blurs the lines between the violator and the violated. Politicians from the state and Centre, army, police, intelligence agencies and businessmen are equally implicated in keeping the unrest alive — alongside terror outfits from Pakistan.

An auteur has the right to take liberties with facts to distill the essence of a conflict, but when fiction is rooted firmly in reality it cannot escape responsibility for the message that comes out of it. Especially since the war in Kashmir is being sustained by State propaganda and voices from the ground are being consistently muffled.

In interviews, the crew and cast have admitted to basing characters on real persons; and in some cases, real names have been retained by their characters. Bipasha Basu plays a character resembling Asiya Andrabi, a separatist leader who advocates hardline Islam and violence. In a society that has always practised its own brand of moderate Islam, her voice is marginal. Why Dholakia makes her central to his narrative, then, is unclear. What is more inexplicable is her portrayal as a righteous and victimised heroine. Andrabi is a power-brokering fanatic. And if she deserves any sympathy, it is only because she can be seen as a psychological casualty of conflict. Equally baffling is how a character that draws from a woman — who propagates complete purdah in real life — should be the central object of lust in the film.

Many other such real life Kashmiris populate the film. But in quaint Bollywood style they are etched in black and white. The film sides with Kunal Kapoor’s Aatif (a reformed militant who invests in democracy) who is reminiscent of Yasin Malik and younger leaders from the moderate breakaways of the Hurriyat Conference. Anupam Kher’s Haji, modelled on Syed Geelani, is the unequivocal villain. Lamhaa’s strongest case against him is that he sides with Pakistan and has orchestrated the murder of the heroine’s father. Clearly, Dholakia hasn’t been able to avoid the traps of over-simplification and jingoism that this film had potential to forgo.

Despite exposing the rot in the army, Lamhaa lets Sanjay Dutt’s Indian military intelligence officer emerge as the hero. Ironically, he acts as saviour to locals who are struggling for self-determination and do not want to be ‘saved’ by outsiders. In the end, as he shoots a child incited to kill by Pakistani militants, the film joins forces with mainstream media that has of late been dismissing fresh dissent in the Valley as mischief manufactured by vested interests. In another unfortunate reinforcement of prejudice, the only Kashmiri Pandit character turns out to be an Indian intelligence spy charading as a neutral journalist.

As more young Kashmiris take to the streets with stones to protest, the last thing we need is for pop culture to reinforce prejudices that fuel this bloodbath. It is commendable that Lamhaa isn’t afraid of looking ugly by baring Kashmir’s deep sores, but it also ends up needlessly pricking them. For all its political veneer, Lamhaa is foremost an entertaining thriller. Except one is not entirely comfortable getting one’s thrills from something so close o endless tragedy.

Originally published in Tehelka

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