‘The Kashmir Files’ Is a Harmful Film — Reducing It to ‘Propaganda’ Misses Why
Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, the head of the jury at the recently concluded International Film Festival of India, on Monday came down heavily on The Kashmir Files, one of the biggest Hindi-language movies of 2022. Speaking at the closing ceremony of the festival, Lapid expressed that he found the film — an official entry to the festival’s “Panorama” section — to be a “propaganda, vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival,” reported The Wire. Lapid’s comments against the film’s intent may be correct. At the same time, however, calling it “propaganda” may create complications for other political pieces of art.
Written and directed by Vivek Agnihotri, The Kashmir Files is a fictionalized retelling of the 1990s exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from their homes.
As soon as the film came to the theatres, however, it was questioned by critics for its strong Islamophobic tone. Rahul Desai of Film Companion wrote in his review, “the film-making is exploitative — geared towards the current wave of Hindu Nationalism rather than empathizing with the displaced victims of history.” During the film’s run, multiple videos of Hindu nationalists participating in Islamophobic hate speech in theatres went viral. In the months that followed its release, the movie is known to have triggered at least one incident of communal violence in the country.
The Kashmir Files, then, is propaganda. But that’s not what makes it a dangerous film — it’s the fact that it’s dangerous propaganda that makes it so. But bigotry and oppression aren’t the defining characteristics of propaganda itself.
Originating from the modern Latin phrase, congregatio de propaganda fide, meaning “congregation for propagation of the faith”, the word propaganda refers to any form of communication and media used to influence and persuade an audience towards a given agenda. Thus, in essence, it is a fairly value-neutral term that describes the use of media to propagate ideas relating to one’s beliefs and ideologies and influencing others to propagate that message further.
Art and cinema can hardly be divorced from politics. Everything that goes in the process of making a movie — right from deciding what stories to tell, to which artists, frames, and languages to pick — is deeply political. Moreover, even the lack of a deliberate political consciousness is, in fact, a political choice. It is impossible for movies to not adhere to any political agenda or message, for even being apolitical is a political decision. In that sense, then, all cinema is propaganda. The singling out of a film for merely being propaganda, in that light, would mean that cinema as a medium is redundant.
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On a different level, Lapid’s comments define the limits of propaganda as crude, overt, and lacking polish. This makes it harder to recognize better-executed work as propaganda, and thereby undermines the possibility of critiquing it for its politics. Aesthete Western films lure both global and local audiences to their ideas of nationalism and cultural supremacy. Hollywood is one of the biggest soft power imports of American cultural hegemony around the world. And one of its most distinguishable artefacts in this century — superhero movies — plays an important role in upholding that hegemony.
As Anna Banerjee of Iowa University puts it, “Steve Rogers, or Captain America, is the perfect boy next door… He is also a weapon of the state.” Globally, superhero movies push the idea of America being the best nation on earth. Locally, with superheroes almost always ending up “saving the day”, or rather, upholding the status quo in the course of their films, they promote the ideals of a soft conservative America that loves its military and capitalist society. The US military, in fact, plays an active role in supervising and collaborating in how it is depicted in mainstream big studio projects — like those helmed by Marvel Studios.
Another fundamental problem with dismissing a film’s credibility by calling it propaganda is that it projects the idea that art with a political agenda must always be terrible films — which is simply not true. The cinema of the Soviet Union, for instance, was seeped in Soviet propaganda. Yet, several films made during the Soviet regime today continue to stand on their own artistic merit, inspiring and influencing filmmakers to date. Deeply conservative films such as D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, too, continue to be discussed in film schools because of their filmmaking techniques, albeit with an acknowledgment of the problematic content of those films. Thus, it is not necessary that propaganda films are entirely devoid of artistic merit.
Lapid’s comments also club the status-quoist, hateful propaganda of films like The Kashmir Files with anti-establishment, progressive propaganda like the posters and pamphlets distributed by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. Dismissing a movie for being “propaganda” is a value judgment that ignores the fact that propaganda, at the end of the day, is a necessary tool to promote a set of political ideas. To paint all “propaganda” as negative lacks the nuance that can help one distinguish conservative propaganda from progressive propaganda. Perhaps unwittingly, but it pushes the idea that movies should not contain any propaganda messaging, whatever the context. But this ultimately ends up holding the status quo.
During their reign over Germany and other parts of Europe, the Nazis were notorious for burning libraries full of books that didn’t agree with their ideology. Six years before the Nazis’ first communal book-burning event, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in British-ruled India decided to burn the regressive text Manusmriti to challenge Brahminic hegemony in society. Burning books, then, is a political act that can take place due to very disparate, even completely opposed reasons. A value judgment that indicts everyone who burns books as unequivocally bad would miss this nuance, and the difference of context. Similarly, denigrating bad, bigoted cinema as propaganda may well result in a shrinking space for nuance and political expression in cinema.