Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, who was invited to be the jury head of the International Film Festival of India in Goa, said that he felt that The Kashmir Files was a vulgar and propaganda film which has no place in an art competition. His comments came under severe criticism, with some accusing him of denying the exodus of Kashmir Pandits from the Valley in the 1990s due to targeted attacks at the hands of terrorists. Lapid spoke to Karan Thapar in an interview that was published on December 1, 2022. In the interview, Lapid spoke about the threatening messages he received, why he stands behind his statement and denies reports in the Indian media that he later praised the movie. The following is a transcript of the interview. It has been edited lightly for clarity and syntax.
Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire. My guest today is the well-known Israeli film director and the head of the jury at the recently concluded International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, Nadav Lapid. His comments on the film The Kashmir Files have created a storm of controversy. Today he joins me to talk about what he said, and more importantly to respond to the huge row that’s been created.
Mr Lapid you’ve called The Kashmir Files vulgar and propaganda. You’ve said you were disturbed and shocked that a film like this was part of the competitive section of the festival, and then separately to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz you said, “It’s a very crude manipulative and violent propaganda film.” Can I begin by asking you what brings you to that conclusion?
Hi, good morning, I mean good morning in Paris, I guess in India it’s already noon. First of all, of course, you know, we talk about subjective impressions. We don’t talk about scientific things. Films don’t come with labels they are not labelled you know – propaganda, non-propaganda, commercial, artistic, it’s a kind of feeling that you have. That’s why it’s not easy to explain to people who haven’t watched the movie why did I feel [it was a propaganda film]. I’ll try to do it in a second.
Why did I have this feeling? The only thing that I can tell is that we all jury members shared exactly the same impression about the movie. And as far as I read about the movie, when it was released in India, it was very controversial. I’m not the first person, not the thousandth person who uses words like “propaganda movie”.
If I can give an example, for instance, the way that the “bad guys” were playing the role in the movie. I felt that they were playing, I mean they were playing the bad guys. It’s like, as we know in life, you know people might be right or wrong… but I haven’t met yet a person who thinks who sees himself as the bad one. Everyone feels that he has his point of view, that justice is on his side… that’s exactly what turned conflicts to be so terrible. because if people would have assumed that they are the ones who are wrong, okay… but the fact that everyone is convinced that the truth is on his side, it is the good one… This is exactly what turns conflict and wars to be so bloody and terrible.
In the movie, when I watched those who played the roles of the terrorists, you know, for me it was ridiculous because they were playing like you know the bad ones in a cartoon movie for kids. While the good ones played and behaved like the good ones in a cartoon for kids [or] an animated movie. So it’s totally flat. It’s totally flat. It’s as if people are totally labelled in the movie. That’s why I had the feeling that I saw something that is totally… there was no truth of real life. I’m not talking about the truth of facts. My problems with the movie, they have nothing to do with the question of what exactly, factually happened there. You know I don’t have any… I know that there’s a big controversy about it, about numbers, but I, of course, I’m the last person who can give his opinion. But when I watch the movie, when I watch the way it was shot, the way the sound, the way maybe it’s acted. I feel that I see a totally flat product that is not supposed to deal with life as it is. What is totally in the service of an agenda and, for me, with a very bad taste.
Am I right in hearing you and concluding that you have problems with the aesthetic and artistic quality of the film? You’re not questioning the veracity of the facts or the truth of the events the film portrays, it’s the way they are portrayed that you’re concerned about, not the facts themselves.
You know, that’s exactly what I said. I mean, he who will listen… all these people who write also pretty terrible things about me, if they would only for one second listen to what I said… I think that they, immediately, would understand that they, I think, are the victim of a big manipulation. It’s a huge manipulation, you know, trying to state as if I’m minimising the tragedy, or the suffering or disrespected. I mean, it’s ridiculous, it’s nonsense. Whoever will listen to the two-minute statement that I gave at this ceremony will understand in a second that he was a victim of manipulation. The last thing that I would ever have imagined is to disrespect this tragic event. People can have huge problems, harsh problems, harsh criticism about the film, even about the Holocaust. It doesn’t mean that they are Holocaust deniers.
Can I pick up on something you said? You said that the bad guys lack credibility. I’m using your language. You said that the terrorists are portrayed like cartoon creatures, that there is no real-life value. They are completely black. There is no human portrayal of them as people who believe they’re doing the right thing. For lay audiences to understand this, can you give me an example of something in the film that you believe was crude and vulgar, where an absence of sensitivity, an absence of credibility made it feel like propaganda?
It’s not if this scene or that scene has “truly happened”. This is not a question. I don’t remember the name of the main terrorist in the movie. I don’t remember the name of the character. If you look at the actor, the way he’s playing… if you look about his eyes, this strange tick in his eyes. I had the feeling that I see an extremely bad joke. And frankly, I mean an event like this.. doesn’t an event like this, a tragic event deserves a serious movie? I mean wouldn’t you Indians, like to have a piece of art that truly respects what happened, with real artistic values instead of this vulgar product? And again I just cannot accept the idea that criticising a movie is criticising India, or criticising a movie is criticising what happened in Kashmir. This similarity that was created between talking – even harshly – about a movie and talking about India, or talking about what happened in Kashmir is madness.
Can I then clarify something? There is a report put out by the Indian channel CNN News 18, and they say that you have apologised for insulting people, you’ve apologised for hurting relatives of those who died when the killings happened. Am I right in believing you’re apologising for hurting the sentiments of people who are relatives of those who died, but you are not, and this is the important point, you are not apologising for criticising the film?
Yeah, exactly. What I was saying is that if people were insulted by what I said, if they were manipulated to think that I disrespected the memory of their dear ones, of themselves, or the terrible things that happened, I’m truly sorry. Afterwards, I’m not taking back one word that I said about the movie. I read somewhere that I claimed that the movie is brilliant. I mean I should be totally crazy and schizophrenic in order to say that. I believe completely and I stand completely behind my statement.
The report that you said the film was brilliant was carried on the website of the Indian paper the Hindustan Times, and it claimed that you had said this to India Today. You are now clarifying that you did not say the film is brilliant, you never said that.
Of course not. Of course not. I stand totally behind every word that I said on stage. At the same time, I think that, you know, the fact that someone – myself – gives his frank, as I say critical, harsh opinion about a movie, and immediately, you know, I started to get thousands, thousands of extremely violent menaces, being threatened. And I saw one of the actors using words like “traitor”. I really want to ask people, “Have you totally gone mead?” Is this the society and the world in which you want to live? A place where people are afraid to open their mouths because when they say their opinion… I’ve been asked to come there as the jury president and to give my opinion of the movies that I saw. So do you want to live in a place where people are afraid to open their mouths because the moment that they say truly and frankly what they think – when it’s about a movie – they’re going to be threatened? It looks to me, totally crazy. As if people live in a Western [movie], or they live in a kind of strange fantasy. Or again maybe there are many people who are totally manipulated.
Let me sum up what we’ve achieved so far. You’ve made it absolutely clear that at no point did you call the film “brilliant”. The report that you did is wrong. Secondly, you apologised for hurting the feelings of relatives of those who died in the killings, but you completely stand by your criticism of the film. as you said you are not taking back even a single word of what you said at the award ceremony, and therefore, you stand by your opinion, that this is a very crude manipulative and violent propaganda film. It’s vulgar and you are shocked that a film like this was part of the competitive section of the festival.
Am I right in what I’ve said?
Yeah. I don’t know if I’m shocked. My opinion is the film didn’t have its place in a competitive artistic section of the festival, but moreover, I cannot accept this similarity that was created between criticising a movie and criticising India, or criticising a movie and disrespecting what happened in Kashmir. I think The Kashmir Files is not equal to the Kashmir tragedy. It’s a film that was done about this topic, it’s not the same thing. It’s just unthinkable that you are not allowed to say anything about a piece of art that was made, because then you disrespect the event.
So you said earlier on that, after your brief comments at the award ceremony, you received hundreds of threatening messages. Did I hear that correctly, hundreds of threatening messages?
Yeah. Yes, of course.
And you also separately have told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that you also received hundreds of emails and messages from Indian film personalities, who were happy you spoke up. Can you tell me what were these supportive messages saying and do you have any sense of who they came from?
First of all it wasn’t only filmmakers. I admit that I couldn’t read all of them because there were so many. A few of them I know in person… filmmakers or film people that I happen to meet around the globe, maybe at a film festival. But this is a very, very tiny minority. The majority were people, again some of them identify as filmmakers, but others came from all sorts of milieus and professions.
And they were supporting what you said. They endorsed what you said.
They endorsed what I said and in a way, they said that finally someone is saying the truth or finally somebody was saying what we were all thinking. I mean we all know that in all sorts of places… you know I come from Israel… freedom of speech is threatened but I think that this is a very very worrying symptom that so many people are sharing this feeling that they want to tell something but they’re afraid to tell it. That they should wait for a foreign filmmaker to come and make this declaration.
You made a very similar point to the one you’re making now in an interview with the Israeli paper Haaretz. You said that The Kashmir Files, and I’m quoting you, was pushed into the official competition due to political pressure by the Indian government, and then speaking separately to the Israeli website Ynet, you said, and again I’m quoting you, it basically justifies the Indian policy in Kashmir and it has fascist features. Could you explain what exactly you meant by those two comments?
They quoted me not in an accurate way. What I said is that since all of this happened, I heard from many people that the film was supported by and backed by the government in order to justify the government’s politics. When I was reading about the film later on, on the internet, many people were talking about the fact that the film was supported by the government. You know, as I insist, I was talking about a movie. I was talking about the film. I was talking about a piece of art. I wasn’t talking about India, Indian politics, I wasn’t talking about the tragedy of Kashmir etc, etc.
Whether this movie has a bigger role, whether this movie reflects something that is bigger than itself, whether this movie is not just a piece of art but tells something about India? Maybe. But this is something that I think.. if you want, you can totally ignore what I’m saying. But if Indian people want to try to find out, you know this is a kind of discussion that you should have among yourselves. I’m not a side and I’m not a partner in a discussion about Indian people.
Absolutely! Can I quote something else you said to Haaretz? Again I’m quoting you. You said, “I feel as a foreigner who arrives there, you have an obligation to say things that people who live there may have a hard time saying”. Is this why you chose to speak publicly rather than discreetly keep quiet? You felt a need to voice these opinions because you believe many who want to in India cannot do so.
I come from Israel and several times I could see how… When you’re really inside a society, sometimes it’s complicated to simply and sincerely express things as you see them. Sometimes there are pressures, sometimes because you feel limited by all sorts of calculations. It’s normal. It’s normal. I found myself exactly in the same situation in Israel. When something was evident for me and I wanted to express my voice. And why shouldn’t people express their voices. It’s the most normal thing. We were fighting for this freedom for hundreds of years and thousands of years in order for people to say, express their opinion without fearing the consequences. But then again. it happens. Exactly the same way that I would love, let’s say an Indian filmmaker, will arrive in Israel tomorrow, and under similar consequences, it might happen, He wouldn’t be afraid to express his opinion. And people wouldn’t see it as an assault on the national honour, honour of the state or all sorts of things like this. In a way, it’s my duty, it’s my obligation. It’s even the obligation of the people who invited me. The people who invited me, they invited me so that I’ll be frank. I’ll express my truth. They didn’t invite me in order to say all sorts of vanities with a nice polite smile.
I understand that completely. Let me now put to you some of the responses that you have a chance to answer. To begin with, the Indian actor Anupam Kher, who plays a role in that The Kashmir Files, says your criticism is like denying that the Holocaust ever happened. The director of the film Vivek Agnihotri has gone on record to say that every scene in the film is accurate. How do you respond to these two comments by people who are part of the film?
First of all, I understand totally why people who are part of the film were hurt. If someone would have said a similar thing about my movie, I would be hurt as well. You know it’s a part of the game. You make a movie, you get… I’m sure that they got many good reactions, I’m sure that they got a lot of support and admiration for the movie. Back then they were extremely happy. Now, I thought they understand… I myself am making movies that are considered as polemic and controversial and I get very praising compliments on one hand and very harsh and critical reactions on the other end. And when I get a critical reaction, I’m furious. It’s normal, okay. It doesn’t mean that I want to hang the people who express their opinion. But, of course, I’m furious and I’m offended.
Now in a way, I feel I already answered [the question about denial]. I mean to say that criticising the movie, is ignoring the Holocaust… I mean is there one single spectator of this show who thinks that this sentence is in any way normal or logical? What’s the connection? I mean you can harshly criticise, you can say the worst thing about a movie about the Holocaust, about any tragic event, while totally and absolutely respecting the event itself. I don’t know how to tell this actor from The Kashmir Files, but your movie is not equal to the tragedy in Kashmir. Your movie is not equal to Indian politics. Your movie is not equal to Indian history. Your movie is a movie that was done based on this case. And we must have the capacity, we must have the capacity, to preserve the capacity to deal with things in a complex way.
I fully understand that. Let me put you another comment made, this time by the Israeli ambassador Naor Gilon. In a public letter that he tweeted, has said you should be ashamed of yourself. He says you’ve denigrated Indian hospitality. He accuses you of damaging India-Israeli relations. How do you respond to the ambassador?
Frankly, I feel ashamed that this is the reaction of an Israeli diplomat. And I ask myself what this person, who is already an experienced ambassador, what exactly was he doing during the democracy and freedom of speech classes? I mean I guess that maybe he was sleeping or maybe even thinking about something else, because totally till today, he doesn’t have a slight understanding of these notions.
I can keep on explaining it… I’m an individual person. I’m an independent person. I’m not the property of this ambassador and not the property of the State of Israel, exactly as each Indian person is not the property of India. I’m not supposed to… if I say something, if I feel something, I’m not supposed to say the opposite in order to serve the interests of a state. It’s a totally fascistic idea.
You’ve also been accused by some people in India of speaking against this film because they claim you are pro-Palestine, that you are a critic of the Israeli government, and they say this explains your comments about the film. In other words, they are accusing you of scoring political points.
I don’t even know how to react to this actually. Am I accused of having different political opinions than their opinion? Yeah, I guess that we don’t share the same political opinions. As I said, I was born in Israel, I grew up in Israel, my movies are critical of Israeli society because I have a lot of disagreement with the Israeli regime. What exactly does it mean? And in a way, as I said, I think that when a place is close to your heart is dear to your heart, when you’re intimate with a place, your biggest obligation, and in a way you don’t have any choice, but to tell your own truth. This for me, you know, there’s a similarity between telling a truth and having strong emotions.
Two last questions before I end Mr Lapid. The information and broadcasting minister was present when you spoke at the award function. Did he or any other Indian government official say anything to you about what you said about the film?
No, no, none. When you listen to my speech itself, you can feel that maybe it’s not the most common thing, that it’s a harsh critique of the movie, etc. It has nothing to do with this storm that happened afterwards. I think, all of this, as I said, I think it’s the consequence of huge manipulation of public opinion.
My last question. After this experience, do you either regret speaking out and expressing what you said or do you also regret accepting the invitation to be the head of the jury?
Let’s say that it’s pretty unpleasant for me, what’s happening over the last two days. You know, I mean, I think that no one enjoys to get hundreds or thousands of threatening messages. It’s the last thing that I had in mind when I accepted this invitation. But you know in a way, all this madness that happened… for me, maybe it’s another proof, that my instinct was right, that I had to tell the truth. Because if the fact of saying what you believe in… yeah, of course, anyone can have the opposite belief, but if the consequence of expressing your beliefs is this kind of unimaginable crazy reactions, I think the conclusion is that you, we all must insist on keeping and saying and expressing ourselves.
That’s very powerful. Your conclusion from this experience that you’ve been through, where you’ve received after speaking what you felt was the truth, hundreds if not thousands of threatening messages, your conclusion is that your instinct was right, I had to tell the truth.
As I said, the truth is as I see it. You know I’m not, I can talk only from my own perspective.
Mr Lapid, I thank you for this interview. I thank you for speaking honestly and fully about why you believe the film lacks aesthetic and artistic merit, for clarifying that you were not questioning the veracity of the events the film depicts, but simply criticising its lack of artistic polity, that you’ve apologised to those who are relatives of people who died, for hurting their feelings. But, this is the important thing, you stand by every word that you said at the award ceremony. You 100% believe the film is vulgar and propaganda, and you felt a need to say this, because you were worried that there would be many in India, who might feel the same but can’t say it, because of the pressure or the circumstances they’re in. I thank you for saying all of this and for making time for me. Take care, stay safe.
Thanks a lot.