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The Forgotten People of Kashmir

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October 2004
The Forgotten People of Kashmir

Cinema with a Cause

Cinema can be a powerful medium to help spread the message of any cause. Sheen, staring Raj Babbar, tries to do just that ? shed light on the plight of a people who, according to the filmmakers, have been neglected by the world.���

By ALKA ROY

What if you were ordered to leave your home or suffer the consequences? A home you have known all your life. A home your family has known for generations together. The place of your childhood and your ancestors.

You weren't sure if you could or would ever come back. And choices were few. Leave or be brutalized or be killed.

But you weren't alone. Hundreds of thousands of people were suffering the same fate. All in the name of religion. Yet in response there was silence from the world. No protection, no assurances. Only silence.

How would you feel?

Such is the plight of Kashmiri Pandits who have been caught in the middle of an often bloody political mess, complicated further by an escalating separatist movement by the Muslims of the region. A movement which India alleges is backed by neighboring Pakistan. Kashmir has been plagued by conflicts and wars since India's independence from the British and the concurrent creation of Pakistan and Kashmir's succession to India. It is the only state in India with a Muslim majority. The greatly outnumbered Pandits have taken the worse of the brunt of the states woes.

It is reported that as many as 350,000 people have been displaced. Close to 90% of them are Hindu Pandits, the remaining 10% are Sikhs and Muslims. Majority of the displaced fled the valley in 1990 under horrific conditions created by the separatists. The government did little to help. Fourteen years later, Pandits still don't feel safe returning and it is estimated that only 5,000 to 20,000 Hindus remain in the Kashmir Valley today.

Sheen

To raise awareness of their plight, Friends of Displaced Kashmiris in Atlanta screened Sheen, a film by Ashok Pandit. A short documentary was also screened prior to the main show. The later part of the documentary showed the pathetic conditions of the camps with first-hand accounts of the horror that these refugees had fled from ? minus the makeup and star power.

Sheen, though, is definitely a commercial fare. The version screened in Atlanta was what organizers call the "Geneva Version". It is the one without the singing and dancing that was screened at the Human Rights Conference in Geneva in April, 2004.

The film revolves around Sheen (the lead female character) and her family (Raj Babbar plays Sheen's father). They are Kashmiri Pandits who are forced to leave the valley by the separatists. If the film is viewed purely on its artistic and technical merit, it leaves much to be desired; the plot is fairly predictable, the characters and dialogues often don't feel real, and the editing is choppy.

But if the film is judged for its purpose ? bringing awareness to the cause ? it works. It shows how lives were unfairly disrupted; and the violence and terror that forced the exodus of the Pandits in 1990. It does not promote violence as the only answer to violence ? as some of the Bollywood movies do. The film also tries to be sympathetic to Muslims in the region who did not support the exodus. It tries to show that terrorists have no loyalties. It tries, but these statements are often fragmented and inconsistent.���

What is consistent, is its indignation. At times, the film conflicts with, or overpowers the other messages. In one of the scenes, Sheen's younger brother bashes the Pakistani flag after a massacre of their friends and neighbors. The fact that he does so is understandable in the context of the story. What is troubling is that the father looks on with pride while holding a tattered Indian flag. It is troubling that even after the young boy is killed later, to force the family to leave, his father (Raj Babbar) fondly remembers his young son in that moment of rage with the Pakistani flag.���

The film tries too much and too hard to cover all its bases. But it can't. Not effectively. It's almost as if the filmmaker doesn't know if he will ever get the opportunity to tell these stories again. Or was worried that without the masala we wouldn't keep watching. Yet his intellectual and politically correct side also wants to show us that he is not biased against a group or religion, and that he can be trusted. The result is that it doesn't leave him enough room to really develop these ideas, or to make them convincing or consistent.

The key strengths of the film are that Raj Babbar is well-known, Sheen's character, though inconsistent, is sympathetic and that the horrors of what happened to the Pandits can't be denied. The film attempts to take real and complicated issues to a pop platform to reach a larger audience. The reality is that a commercial film may reach a larger audience. But the message would no longer remain unadulterated.

After the screening, Nita Patel, a viewer, commented, "I was overwhelmed. The film left me without hope." But she also added that it piqued her interest in finding out more about what is happening in Kashmir.

And maybe that is enough to expect from Sheen. To pique our interest and motivate us to better understand the conflict in Kashmir. Perhaps challenge us to look beyond the politics. Look at the lives that are being destroyed. To be outraged by it enough to ask for an end to this conflict.���

To find out more about Friends of Displaced Kashmiris, contact Dijjotam Raina at (770)-754-9567 or dg_raina@yahoo.com


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