Shiv (Aadil Khan) is a poet. For a dreamer like him, life for a brief period turned out like poetry. A teller of rhythmic tales, open to the possibilities of words and worlds, Shiv lives in a metaphorical dreamland: he teaches literature at a local university. He also lives in a literal dreamland, Srinagar, where he’s grown up, fallen in love and got married. Shiv has a loving wife, a caring brother and a house that glows with the warmth of home. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara unfolds as a promise, framed around the romance of romantics.
It’s a promise both personal and communal: of a husband to his wife, of a community to an individual. It’s shared by family and friends and neighbours – of different faiths, different grievances. They’re still people though, bound together by common joys: of cricket, cinema, life. Then there’s the place and time, Kashmir in the late 1980s, a land wondrously beautiful, a period politically tragic.
Written by Chopra, Abhijat Joshi and Rahul Pandita, Shikara, centred on the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, is aware of the different narrative strands binding this movie. So Shiv’s close friend Latif (Zain Durrani), now a militant, was once a carefree boy, wanting to become a professional cricketer. Latif’s father, a respected politician, gifted Shiv stones on which he built his house. A local clergyman and shopkeeper is polite but cunning.
When Latif’s father is shot by the state police, Shiv meets him at the hospital. As he’s in the waiting room, he hears the voice of a Kashmiri insurgent outside, addressing a mass of angry men. That scene, bound by three stories, is the soul of Shikara: a politician fighting for his life, the Muslim locals fighting for their rights and a Hindu man – sympathetic to both inequities – silently soaking his grief, a bystander about to become a victim.
In a land like Kashmir, where every story has a counter story and every present a past, how do you measure what’s right and what’s not? Shikara doesn’t suffer from narrative conceit: the dominant presence of one story doesn’t exclude the others. Further, Chopra isn’t concerned with judging as much as he is with observing, staying with the characters and… feeling. The film thrums with the heartbeat of a lover. At first there’s headiness, later yearning.
Some of the most affecting moments in Shikara come when Chopra and his cinematographer, Rangarajan Ramabadran, stay in the moment, documenting the preciseness of human life. In a film centred on an atrocity that hasn’t found much cinematic or literary representation, set in a place where both state and civilians hide secrets, it’s fitting that the camera in Shikara is an inquisitive presence.
Several scenes materialise via aerial or elevated shots that reveal crucial information in fragments: rows of razed homes emitting fumes, scores of buses and trucks on cascaded roads making citizens refugees, shadowy figures in the dark climbing the stairs of Shiv’s house with the intent to burn it down. The film has a consistent tenderness to it, so much so that many sequences segue into each other not with a hard cut but a soft, flickering dissolve.
Shikara has poignant sincerity. In a later scene, when Shiv hears the slogans of “Mandir wahin banayenge” by a handful of kids in a refugee camp, he gives them good-humoured advice – a humane moment that liberates this drama from political whataboutery.
It is also suffused with endearing sentimentality, mainly made possible by two promising debutants, Khan and Sadia. Shiv is at once both a person and a symbol, and Khan balances the two acts with ease. In some exceptional scenes – such as the one where he’s in a cab, visiting home after a long time, talking to the Valley through a poem running in his head – Khan melds the personal and political. But Sadia, as Shiv’s wife Shanti, is even more impressive. Unlike Khan, she doesn’t falter in scenes where she’s old. Horror or humour, enthusiasm or hope, Sadia is always credible, a mélange of conflicting emotions that gives this movie profound weight.
That isn’t true for the writing which, in the latter part, starts getting jittery and clueless. Chopra hits the customary notes with impressive finesse – the life before the exodus, the life during the militant threat and the life right after – but doesn’t do justice to the film’s sweeping span of time, stretching from 1987 to 2018. The bulk of the movie is set in 1987 to 1992, where the characters evolve credibly. That link, however, is snapped when the next two segments abruptly cut to 2008 and 2018. A different land, a different decade, and yet nearly nothing has changed about Shiv or Shanti. As if they’re people frozen in time – and if that indeed was the intention, then its complexity never comes out.
The years 1992 to 2018, where Shiv and Shanti tried to rebuild a life overcoming state apathy and a tormented past, could have given this story a much-needed finality. But Chopra is only interested in obvious, superficial details – such as their extreme poverty – which lack lasting gravitas. Worse, this turns Shiv and Shanti into perpetual victims, depriving us of a crucial layer hidden beneath the blazing surface.
The binding narrative device – of Shiv writing open letters to different US presidents – seems sappy and lacks imagination, reminiscent of My Name is Khan (2010), whose hero had a similar motive. Besides, repeatedly blaming Washington, while almost ignoring the indifference of Delhi, renders the movie occasionally simplistic. But most disappointingly, Shikara has a few abrupt plot turns in its final act which, devoid of credible transitions, seem planted to attain a poignant climax. In an oft-touching film about finding home, Shikara loses its direction at a critical juncture.