At what point in a film should a voiceover kick in? And when should it not? In Shikara, cinematographer Rangarajan Ramabadran draws up moments of stirring visual poetry. But they are often interrupted by the protagonist’s stilted, ingratiating voice. In one scene, the camera glides out of a moving car to regard the surrounding vista. We’ve just been told of an important off-screen death, and as the skyline comes into view, real graves begin to fill the frame. It’s a stunning aerial shot, one of many in the film. But then, Shiv (Aadil Khan), hunched over a typewriter, begins to speak, summarising how, over the years, he’s seen the world ‘turn into a graveyard’. The needless exposition kills the implied beauty, deeply ruining its effect.
This awkward tussle — between images and words — marks most of Shikara. Directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the film is dedicated to the 4,00,000 Kashmiri Pandits uprooted during the 1989 exodus. The romantic drama skims through these faces to train itself on a single fictitious couple. It’s a device the filmmaker has used before, tracing the ebb and flood of a relationship through a horrid political churn. Returning to Hindi cinema after over a decade, Vinod’s visual prowess remains robust, though his vitality as a storyteller has softened with age.
At a film shoot (‘Love in Kashmir’), Shiv befriends Shanti (debutante Sadia). They fall in love and, belonging to the same community, quickly get married. Their modest Kashmiri wedding is scored to the sound of Chakri music. It’s also here that the director’s Shakespearean fixation pops up, with Lateef, Shiv’s childhood friend, taking a shine to Shanti’s lady-in-waiting. The innocence of these scenes rings heavy with trepidation. When Lateef’s father, a local politician, sends foundational stones for the newlyweds’ house, you get a sense the film is setting itself up. Tragedy, inescapably, strikes: an insurgency breaks out, and thousands of Kashmiri Pandits are exiled from the valley. Shiv and Shanti are reluctant to leave — but are eventually forced out of their abode, which they lovingly named ‘Shikara’.
Vinod, a Kashmiri Pandit himself, approaches his subject cautiously. The opening half-hour is spent drawing out the cultural unity of Kashmir. There’s little visible animosity among the locals. The militancy, as it takes shape, is traced back to the Soviet-Afghan War, with American guns making their way across the border. On the day of departure, Shiv’s elder brother is gunned down by insurgents. As our protagonist rides back on a motorcycle, soaked in blood, Benazir Bhutto’s incendiary speeches boom across the sky. By ascribing a complex historical event to vague happenstance, Shikara takes the easy way out. In a way, it has to: the film comes at a time of grave political uncertainty in Kashmir, and is clearly disinclined to flame further discord. Still, its overt political correctness comes across as insincere, the creases of time smoothed over by sugary platitudes about harmony and peace.
This becomes especially apparent when Shiv, cooped up in a refugee camp outside Jammu, starts writing letters to the US President. In them, he says he holds America responsible for the brokenness of Kashmir, as well as his lifelong exile. It’s a cloying device — a possible invention of co-writer Abhijat Joshi, who fashioned similar tricks in Sanju and Lage Raho Munna Bhai. But even as Shikara loses its factual heft, it’s held in place by its central pair. Sadia, playing the wide-eyed Shanti Dhar, is excellent. Her urgent excitability is matched well by Aadil’s burnished, palpable warmth. It’s been a while since we met a Hindi film couple that truly reacts to each other — their dialogues are synergetic, their silences shared. The film loses its footing whenever it moves away from the leads, which happens quite often and costs the screenplay dearly.
Shikara is tentative in its politics, earnest in its design, and ultimately moving in its human scope. Amidst its near-constant movement, it finds time for evocative detail: the slow stewing of rogan josh, for example, or the intricate embroidery on a drape. There’s a frame that’s used twice: a tree, first in winter, then in the full bloom of spring. The characters go through a similar trajectory — from frosty darkness to everlasting light. It’s a metaphor that isn’t spelt out in the film. How I wish the others weren’t too.