Shikara, which advertised itself as the ‘untold story of the Kashmiri Pandits,’ is actually a love story first, set against the backdrop of militant insurgency in Kashmir. The film spends more time drawing out characters that suffered as a result of the militant-led violence than it does in probing the political context that caused it in the first place. As a love story, it works, but as a drama about the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, it’s hollow and has nothing revelatory to say.
Written by Vidhu Vinod Chopra (who’s also the director), Abhijat Joshi and Rahul Pandita, the film begins with a charming meet-cute. Shiv Kumar Dhar, a poet and PhD aspirant, meets Shanti, a nurse, when the two are randomly chosen to play extras in a movie that’s being shot in the valley. It’s an endearing set-up and the film’s two leads, Aadil Khan and Sadia, exuberantly youthful, share an easy chemistry. Chopra takes his time to carve out the tenderness of their new romance and the writing here isn’t just rich with poetic flair but also carries doomful undercurrents.
As the couple (both compelling performers) build their new house, amidst a celebration of Kashmiri folk songs and rogan josh, Chopra and his director of photography, Rangarajan Ramabadran, compose their frames with haunting melancholy. Shiv and Shanti’s love-making sequence, shot in a shikara cutting through a narrow stretch of a lake enclosed by weeds, symbolises their freedom that’s about to be snatched away. More crucially, these scenes are shot in the darkness of the night, illuminated by a lamp, ominously foreshadowing the perilous times ahead.
However, once we reach the end of the first half, where the insurgency has triggered a mass exodus, Chopra struggles to manoeuver Shikara, moving aimlessly and repetitively around the same track. The exodus itself is shot with terrifying urgency and captures the dreadful state of affairs with an intimacy often lacking in stories of forced separation. However, barring a couple of news highlights, Chopra doesn’t arm the viewer with enough insight to holistically evaluate the horrific displacement, reducing the conflict to a Hindu-Muslim binary.
The second half of the film is simply the melancholic longing felt by Shiv, who lives with Shanti in a refugee camp in Jammu and teaches young children who’re growing up there. Shikara takes a complex turn when it decides to explore the PTSD felt by Shanti ― the rogan josh is a trigger for her ― but it feels half-hearted as the film settles for a quiet, longing-for-home narrative with a background score that threatens to overpower.
Towards the end, the film spirals into schmaltz and its exercise of restraint in not painting Muslims in broad strokes starts giving up. The ‘good Muslim’ turns out to be a shrewd and calculative man, while the Pandit-with-the-large-heart is able to look past the horrific crime of his best friend-turned-militant.
Despite the tightrope it walks on and occasionally slips off, Shikara is conscious about present-day politics. A chant of ‘mandir wahin banayenge’ is quickly dispelled by the lead, who says, “Leader ka kaam todna nahi, jodna hota hai.” The film’s broader idea, of love being the only option in a time corrupted with hate and toxicity, resonates. Now, if only that was enough.