Like film school courses for critics teach you, judge a movie by what the director is trying to say not by what you think you want him or her to say. And the reaction to Shikaara seems to fall again in the second domain, with everyone bringing their own bags of prejudice into the cinema hall as they watch the movie just because it is set in Kashmir. So there was a troll campaign attacking the film for not judging the plight of Kashmiri pandits correctly, even as there was criticism that it has not said as much as it should have, and stopped short of many a statement.

After watching Shikaara with both criticisms at the back of my mind, I think director Vidhu Vinod Chopra is not trying to make a statement at all. He is exploring a love story set in the context of the height of insurgency in Kashmir late 1980s to early 1990s where a young Pandit couple is impacted by the extremism but retains their sanity and love through out the experience. So in violation of set thoughts and patterns the movie establishes a closeness between Kashmiris, regardless of religious identities, and retains this sanity in what then emerges as a counter narrative more so in the present situation.

The main actors Aadil Khan and Sadia who play the Kashmiri pandit couple give an excellent performance, outstanding really. As does Faisal Simon who plays the Kashmiri friend turned militant.

The movie opens with the Kashmir of unity and communal harmony, establishing a closeness of culture that is indistinguishable really. The same food, the same music, the same celebrations and a synthesis that really constituted what the world knew as Kashmiriyat. Khan the Pandit and Simon the Muslim are very close friends, where religion does not intervene. Simon loses his father, turns to militancy, and appears to warn his Kashmiri Pandit friend to leave the Valley lest he and his family get hurt. He reaches out again when he is captured by the police, and the two embrace just before he dies. There is no melodrama here, no attempt by the director to establish the politics of the militancy, the arrest, the death ---just to extract the human sentiment from a relationship that has its origins in a united harmonious Kashmir before the period of militancy.

Chopra treats the exodus with compassion, but steers clear of polarising narratives by focusing on the love story of his two main protagonists who move through these tough times where persons close to them are killed, without losing their own sanity. To the point when Shiv Dhar (Aadil Khan) who starts teaching the children in the refugee camp in Jammu finds a group of children walking down shouting mindless communal slogans, he admonishes them the young boy leading the group with, ‘you are a leader, leaders unite people, they do not divide.” A recurring sentiment in the movie where the couples all consuming love impacts on their relatioships with others, including the militant friend who is bitter but is unable to embitter the friendship he has with Shiv Dhar.

The movie does not preach but sends out a message that politics of hate can be avoided through the message of love. And that while the narrative of atrocities and fear and an exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley remains true (the movie refrains from providing a context to the politics of that time) it need not generate a narrative of destructive hate. But can actually remain grounded in tolerance and acceptance. In fact it is because of the last that the movie makes even greater impact, as it cuts through popular narratives with a discourse of love and relationships that are important in any setting.

That the desire of the young bride, who grows through very tough and difficult years without the baggage of hate, is to visit Taj Mahal is significant in itself. And her husbands simple and very personal decision to return to the village of his birth despite the odds is yet another milestone that the movie captures with ease. As at no time does it judge, or preach, refreshing treatment of a complex issue.

A good effort in polarising times.