As IFFI-jury head, acclaimed Israeli filmmaker, Nadav Lapid, termed Bollywood’s 2022’s highest grosser, The Kashmir Files “crude, manipulative, violent and propaganda”, a Himalayan controversy was triggered that saw politicians, diplomats, media and the Bollywood bigwigs taking positions. In the resultant Tanaav (tension), Kashmir got too busy and is yet to watch the Fauda-remake, reports Masood Hussain
Contemporary Bollywood’s one of most controversial films, The Kashmir Files is back in news. Though it cloaked an impressive Rs 341 crore, one of the highest for a film with a modest investment of not more than Rs 25 crore, it never got impressive reviews. Its ‘skewed storyline’ and formal endorsement by the top government functionaries were said to be the key factors that prevented its entry into any respectable film festival. That, however, was not the case at home. It was one of 15 films that were screened at the 53rd International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa.
The festival did not fetch the Agnihotri-Anupam Kher film any awards. Instead, it helped the flick to get back to the newspaper front pages creating a situation in which media, politics and diplomacy felt tempted to get in. The controversy was triggered after Nadav Lapid, the festival’s jury head, an acclaimed Jewish film director from Israel, who lives in Paris, termed it “vulgar” and “propaganda”. He chose the festival’s star-studded and politician-abundant closing ceremony to harshly react to the film, claiming the jury was “disturbed and shocked” to see the film being screened at the festival.
“We saw seven films in the debutant competition, and 15 films in the international competition, the front window of the festival. 14 out of them had cinematic qualities, defaults and evoked vivid discussions,” Lapid, an acclaimed director and winner of the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival for his film Synonyms, said. “All of us were disturbed and shocked by the 15th film, The Kashmir Files. That felt like a propaganda, vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival. I feel totally comfortable openly sharing these feelings here with you at this stage. In the spirit of this festival, we can surely also accept a critical discussion, which is essential for art and life.”
As the speech was broadcast live, the adverse commentary triggered a storm within minutes. “It hurts. If I had a pistol in my hand I would have shot him,” Kashmiri Pandit filmmaker, Ashok Pandit said, terming Lapid a ‘white collar terrorist’. “When he said all these things on the stage, what were the other jury members doing? Why did they let him go?”
By then, he was on his way to the airport. However, he briefed the Israeli media outlet Ynet about the happenings on November 28, night. The website ran a brief interview recorded on phone.
“It is a film that the Indian government if it didn’t actually initiate, at least pushed it in an unusual way, because it basically justifies the Indian policy in Kashmir, and it has fascist features,” Lapid said. “The claim is there – it is that the dimensions of the event were hidden by the intellectuals and the media. And it is always the same method – that there is the foreign enemy, and there are the traitors from within. Our colleagues in the emerging government can tell about these methods.” He added: “When I saw this film, beyond the fact that it shocked me with the transparent combination that exists in it between propaganda and fascism and vulgarity, I could not help but imagine an Israeli film like this in another year and a half or two.”
As head of the IFFI jury, Lapid claimed he was witness to the interactions between India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister, Anura Thakur, and Israeli ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, who discussed the similarity between the two countries since both are “fighting a similar enemy and are in a bad neighbourhood.”
The Ynet reporter asked Lapid many questions. He admitted to apprehension and discomfort as he was a guest and was treated nicely as head of the jury and still he felt compelled to talk against the film. He justified his commentary: “It was a hall with thousands of people, and everyone was ecstatic to see the local stars and cheer for the government. In countries that are increasingly losing the ability to speak your mind or speak the truth, someone needs to speak up.”
A guest abusing the hospitality! As the statement lit the fire, Tel Aviv’s ambassador for India (also in charge of Sri Lanka and Bhutan) Naor Gilon, issued a detailed statement on Twitter. It was actually an open letter to Lipad asking him why “you should be ashamed.”
In India, Gilon said, “guest is like God” and “you have abused in the worst way” the invitation, trust, respect and warm hospitality. “I can’t understand why you told @ynetnews afterwards that the minister and I said on stage that there is similarity between our countries because “we fight a similar enemy and reside in a bad neighborhood”,” Gilon asked Lapid. “I also said that we should be humble when India, with such a great film culture, is consuming Israeli content (Fauda and more).”
Gilon, the son of a holocaust survivor, felt extremely hurt by people in India “doubting Schindler’s List, the Holocaust”. The reaction, he said, shows the sensitivity of the Kashmir issue here. “I’m no film expert but I do know that it’s insensitive and presumptuous to speak about historic events before deeply studying them and which are an open wound in India because many of the involved are still around and still paying a price.”
The filmmaker was suggested to use the liberty to criticise “what you dislike in Israel” but avoid reflecting “your frustration on other countries”. Asserting that the strong Israel-India friendship “will survive the damage you have inflicted”, Gilon said: “You will go back to Israel thinking that you are bold and “made a statement”. We, the representatives of Israel, would stay here. You should see our DM boxes following your “bravery” and what implications it may have on the team under my responsibility.”
Tel Aviv sent Kobbi Shoshani, its Counsel General in Mumbai to Anupam Kher for making a formal apology. Kher shared a video of the meeting in which the guest said he had come earlier to congratulate him for The Kashmir Files, which he watched and loved. Shoshani termed Lapid’s comment “stupid”. Kher said: “Our friendship is too strong to get affected by an individual’s vulgar remark at IFFI. But I really appreciate your gesture, generosity and kindness.”
Lapid had no second thoughts. The film director spoke to most of the major TV channels and reiterated what he had already said. Asserting that within three minutes of watching one could “recognise propaganda disguised as a movie” with a clear objective of dividing people, apparently for political reasons. He said he has no problems with people believing that film was a brilliant movie. “Making bad films is not a crime, but this is a very crude, manipulative and violent propaganda film,” Lapid told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.
Not stopping at that, Lapid was furious over the film’s entry into a respectable festival. “We learned that the film was pushed into the official competition of the festival due to political pressure,” Lapid told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “I feel as a foreigner who arrives there, you have an obligation to say the things that the people who live there may have a harder time saying.”
Even though the TV anchors grilled him for forcing his “personal opinion” upon the entire jury, Lapid refused to buy the theory. “Since you consider yourself a serious journalist, you can call French and Spanish jury members and ask them,” Lapid told a TV anchor, “I guess you have their email and phone number.”
He added: “We all thought that the movie used a series of manipulation, vulgar, violence because it was supposed to transmit a message that can cause hostility, violence and hate in the environment.”
However, the Israeli filmmaker made one thing very clear he was reacting to the film, not the stories it was trying to handle or the tragedy of Kashmir in its historic context or even India’s Kashmir policy. He insisted he lacks knowledge of the situation. He in fact apologised if his commentary has hurt the people in any way.
“I am sure that the film director is furious. I also would have been furious if someone would call my films in the same way,” he told in an interview. “The filmmaker knows very well that the question is not what exactly were the facts… I never doubted the facts; I don’t have the capacity, the tools, to say what happened in Kashmir… I was talking about the movie, and such a serious topic, in my opinion, deserves a serious movie.” In another interview, he added: “Wouldn’t Indians like to have a piece of art that truly respects what happened with real artistic values instead of this vulgar product?”
“Since this is a film that the Indian government encourages, I assume that the government there is not happy about it. But is a country only about its government?” he asked. “I assume not. What I said is not comfortable for the Government of India, nor for the government in the making in Israel, which the ambassador there represents.”
Lapid’s commentary snowballed into such a huge controversy that many newspapers could not prevent them from commenting on the issue.
“The envoy’s rebuff says it is insensitive to speak about events before deeply studying them and which are an open wound. Fair advice, but wasn’t the jury head commenting on a cinematic production he was asked to judge?” The Tribune wrote in its editorial. “It would make sense to view the scathing review of The Kashmir Files only in the cinematic context. The notion that it undermines the plight of Kashmiri Pandits would be a false reading.”
The Kolkata-based anti-establishment newspaper The Telegraph actually commented on the controversy twice. In one, it said that a section of the “supposed protagonists” of the film, the Kashmiri Pandits have alleged that the film “enthusiastically peddled” by BJP “was nothing but a blatant attempt to commercialise the sufferings of the community”. Besides, it said the “representation of Muslims was lopsided” and the “prejudiced portrayals would seriously undermine the efforts of reconciliation between the two communities” in Kashmir.
“As countries that take pride in their democracies, India and Israel should welcome independent and free expression,” The Telegraph wrote in another editorial. “Ironically, the suggestion that Mr Lapid was somehow ungrateful towards his host because he criticised a film only reinforces the notion that the movie is somehow an extension of the Indian government’s public messaging. The best films stand the scrutiny of critics – as do the most robust democracies. India must remember that.”
In its editorial, The Indian Express made very interesting points. Admitting that it was odd that “a losing film was singled out for criticism” as the tradition is that the “jury speeches are usually about the winners”. It asked: “But then what is a film festival where an artist, especially one invited to chair a jury, can’t speak his mind?” It did not spare Gilon. “This was uncalled-for diplomatic intervention in a matter that had nothing to do with him or the Israeli state. For one, Lapid did not identify his views as those of Israel. More importantly, India-Israel ties, do not hang by the slender thread of a film review even if it was promoted by government leaders as a must-watch.”
Amid the ragging controversy, a lot of attention was diverted towards the bilateral relations between the two countries that pushed the Israeli ambassador to publicly shame his country’s acclaimed professional. The fact is that Tel Aviv and New Delhi have a very long and strong relationship and they have been learning from each other’s experiences. Currently, the two countries are celebrating 30 years of their formal relationship. Even though India recognised Israel in 1950, the full diplomatic relationship started only in 1992 – years after Mossad would train IPKF in counter-insurgency and LTTE in the insurgency in almost the same military premises.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first Indian premier to visit Israel in 2017 and got a welcome reserved either for the American President or the Pope. Since then the innovation and research collaboration has peaked between the two countries.
Right now, India continues to be the largest importer of Israeli defence equipment. The two governments have cooperation agreements in agriculture, science and technology. India is the only country that hosts one of Israel’s six water experts. “The Indo-Israeli Agricultural Project has set up 29 centres of excellence in India across 21 states. Every year, around 800 post-doctoral students from India get research projects in Israel, while hundreds of young Israelis continue to head to India for their cooling-off period after compulsory army service,” reported The Indian Express. “India is also the first country where Watergen, a company that makes water from humidity in the air, set up its plant outside Israel.”
This is despite the fact that India continues to have better relations with Iran and retains its legacy of contributing to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
As a strategic partner, India sends members of its security establishment to get trained in counter-insurgency strategies to Tel Aviv. Israeli agriculture scientists have worked in Kashmir’s apple orchards a long time ago – to explore ways and means to find solutions to the apple scab. Off late, a delegation visited Jammu and Kashmir and is in the process of having two centres of excellence, one each in Kashmir and Jammu. The delegation comprising Yair Eshel, Agricultural Attaché, and Brihama Dev, Project Officer of MASHAV, visited the twin agriculture universities last month and the centres are expected to be up and running soon. The idea is to produce high-quality planting material, demonstrating the best farming practices and extension to share the knowledge with farmers.
The Fauda Tanaav
The relationship is gradually moving from the government to the society. Last month, a TV channel started streaming Tanaav, a copy of the Israeli show, Fauda. At the IFFI, Anurag Thakur lavishly praised Fauda. “We have conflict in the neighbourhood,” Thakur said, speaking in Hebrew and English. “This is the right time to collaborate and reach out and make films around those stories which are not told to the world. India is the place and Israel is the right partner.”
On basis of its experiences in Palestine and other occupied territories, Tel Aviv has been making a lot of shows with the objective to tell its side of the story to the global audience. There is Shtisel, Homeland, Hostages, Your Honour and Fauda. Of them, the 2015 series Fauda is said to be the most successful. Supposed to be based on the personal experiences of creators Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, Fauda pits Israeli intelligence agents against Palestinian militants in the West Bank. However, the series is said to be propagandist in nature, stereotypes Arabs and justifies violations of human rights.
Its success lured Indian filmmakers Sudhir Mishra, Ishan Trivedi and Sachin Mamta Krishn, to go for a remake named Tanaav (tension). The 12-episode series is sort of an adaptation – many think it is a dead-behind-the-eyes carbon copy – using Kashmir instead of West Bank and has many Kashmiris in its star cast. It is actually the story of Israel’s counter-insurgency in the West Bank that the Jammu and Kashmir government was not unwilling to support.
Tanaav tells the story of a commando who had left the service and was busy in routine life when his erstwhile boss dropped him the information that the militant whom he had “killed” is actually alive. The commando comes back to his unit and works till the fugitive is found. In between, the filmmakers tell their side of the Kashmir story in images of violence, deception, indoctrination, stone pelting and civil liberties.
“It starts out on such a promising note but meanders through a soggy middle as it fails to truly capture the nuances and essence of the Kashmir conflict,” Abhimanyu Mathur, wrote in a brief review. He insists that the series does well in presenting a human side of the ‘other side’ without glorifying or taking a stand either way. It shows the motivations, heroism, and faults every human has, regardless of their political affiliation and stance. However, he has regretted the lack of Tanaav in the narrative. “It also displays a lack of understanding of the Kashmir conflict. Unlike Fauda, Tanaav does not really get to the bottom of the conflict it is depicting. It never brings that aspect into the story. Tanaav could have been set in any conflict zone and it would still look and feel the same. The adaptation hasn’t really brought in a local flavour apart from the locales, costumes, and a few lines in Kashmiri.”
Well before Kashmir would watch the Tanaav, it was the tension triggered by Israel’s filmmaker over The Kashmir Files that took the centre stage. The show is on.