Artists, writers, filmmakers — and creative people in general — have a tendency to court controversy, even without quite intending to. In Nadav Lapid’s case, however, one might have said, “We told you so,” because he has a penchant for it. Lapid has a track record of dissent, both in his films and in his headline-grabbing comments. One therefore wonders if the mandarins that manage the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), one of the oldest in this part of the world, did due diligence before inviting him to head the jury of this year’s festival in Goa.
Founded as far back as 1952 at the behest of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, IFFI used to be not only among the most important “Third World” film festivals, but also decidedly leftist in its leanings. Was that why Lapid was selected to head its jury? Or simply because he is from Israel? But the 47-year-old international award-winning filmmaker has been a harsh critic of Israel, which he shows as being suffocatingly autocratic and intolerant, in his movies. His first film, Policeman, was awarded the 2011 Locarno Festival Special Jury Prize. His most famous feature, Synonyms, whose protagonist flees to Paris to get away from Israel, won the Golden Bear at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival.
Given that the Directorate of Film Festivals in India is under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, one might question whether those who recommended and cleared Lapid to head this year’s IFFI jury had bothered to check his record, let alone see his films. His last film, the autobiographical Ahed’s Knee, released just last year, shows a director traveling to a remote Israeli village, where an official from the Ministry of Culture confronts and tries to silence him. Ahed’s Knee was recognised at the Cannes with the Jury Prize, which it shared with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria.
So it was no surprise that Lapid misused the IFFI platform as its jury head to single out Vivek Agnihotri’s Kashmir Files for a tongue-lashing. Speaking at the closing of the festival on November 28th, Lapid claimed he and his fellow jurors were “disturbed and shocked” by The Kashmir Files. The film is shocking and disturbing, no doubt, because it graphically depicts the forced expulsion and genocide in the 1990s of the Kashmiri Pandits, a minority Hindu community in the majority Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir in India.
But what he said next was, arguably, gratuitous, inappropriate, even unethical. Certainly, it did not behove his position as the head of the jury of a just concluded international film festival. Lapid said, “That felt to us like a propaganda, vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival.” The fact is that the Directorate of Film Festivals has nothing to do with the films that are entered into the festival even though it has a say in selecting the members of the jury.
Predictably enough, other members of the jury distanced themselves from Lapid’s tactless, some would say, tasteless diatribe, calling it his “personal opinion.” Given that his own films are so political, Lapid ought to have understood how difficult it is to convey a strong political message through a work of art, let alone make a truly political film. While both ordinary movie goers and critics will admit that The Kashmir Files is not quite Schindler’s List, it does, for the first time ever, handle and expose a shamefully suppressed narrative in a manner that roused the conscience of a nation.
As the controversy raged, Israel’s ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, slipped into damage control mode immediately, calling on Lapid to say sorry to his hosts. When Lapid did not do so, Naor Gilon himself profusely apologised in an “open letter” that targeted Lapid: “YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED. Here’s why,” he tweeted, “In Indian culture, they say that a guest is like God. You have abused in the worst way the Indian invitation to chair the panel of judges at @IFFIGoa as well as the trust, respect, and warm hospitality they have bestowed on you.”
Sadly, several Kashmiri Hindus or their descendants, survivors of the 1990s purge, took Lapid’s remarks personally. They felt he had insulted the memories of those who had suffered, even lost their lives and loved ones, during that traumatic exodus. Others reminded Lapid of the Jewish Holocaust during World War II during Nazi Germany’s rule and occupation. How could he have been so insensitive, they wondered. Kashmir Files’ lead actor and renowned thespian, Anupam Kher, thought that Lapid’s attack was “pre-planned”: “immediately after that the toolkit gang became active. It’s shameful for him to make a statement like this. Jews have suffered Holocaust and he comes from that community. For him to make such a statement, he has also pained those people who have been victims of this tragedy many years ago.” In contrast, Agnihotri, who co-produced, authored, and directed the film said, posted a rather terse comment, “truth can make people lie.”
The truth, at least when it comes to this controversy, is that there is no such thing as bad publicity as far as the movie goes. Lapid’s attack has brought back The Kashmir Files centre stage once again. Whether the film is great or not, whether it is truth or propaganda, or whether one likes it or not, what is important is that it changed the narrative by bringing the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits into international limelight. If Lapid is really part of a larger Left-wing “conspiracy” he has only scored a self-goal by allowing the now politically dominant “right wing” to strike back all guns blazing.
The writer is an author, columnist and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal.