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An Israeli director sparks outrage in India over a film about Hindu persecution

A man walks past a banner of Bollywood movie <em>The Kashmir Files</em> outside a cinema in the old quarters of Delhi on March 21, 2022.
Sajjad Hussain
AFP via Getty Images
A man walks past a banner of Bollywood movie The Kashmir Files outside a cinema in the old quarters of Delhi on March 21, 2022.

MUMBAI, India — Scandal has engulfed one of India's most prestigious film festivals over a Bollywood box office hit, an Israeli director's take on it — and accusations of pro- and anti-Hindu bias that are shaking Indian-Israeli relations.

It's all unfolded at the International Film Festival of India, held over the past week in the western Indian state of Goa. At the closing ceremony Monday, the head of the festival's jury, Israeli director Nadav Lapid, praised 14 of the 15 films screened in the festival's international competition. He said they all have "cinematic richness, diversity and complexity."

But he singled out the 15th film for a starkly different assessment.

"We were, all of us [jurors], disturbed and shocked ... by the movie Kashmir Files," Lapid, an award-winning filmmaker, said onstage. "It felt to us like a propaganda vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival."

The Kashmir Files is a Hindi-language historical drama about the persecution of Hindus in Muslim-majority Kashmir, a restive Himalayan region that's split between India and Pakistan. The plot follows a Hindu college student who belatedly learns about his Kashmiri parents' grisly murder by Muslims.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government supported the film with subsidies and promotions, and it was a big box-office hit. But many critics, especially abroad, panned it as gratuitously violent pro-Hindu propaganda that stretches facts and enflames sectarian nerves. Singapore's government banned it for being "provocative and one-sided."

The film's domestic popularity has coincided with calls for Hindus to boycott Muslim businesses, and an uptick in discrimination and attacks against Indian Muslims, who are the country's largest religious minority.

Lapid gave his assessment onstage, in front of dignitaries and ministers from Modi's government. (The festival was organized by a government agency.) He added that he felt "totally comfortable" doing so because "critical discussion ... is essential for art and for life."

Many Indians didn't see it that way.

Almost immediately, there was a deluge of criticism. Families of Kashmiri murder victims asked, "Does he know my pain?" A lawyer in Goa filed a police case against Lapid, accusing him of violating religious sentiments.

A top official from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party compared Lapid's comments to Holocaust denial. Fans of the film tweeted abuse, comparing Lapid — who is Jewish — to Hitler.

Late Tuesday, Wikipedia blocked users from India from editing Lapid's biography.

Then, representatives from Lapid's own government joined in criticizing him.

The Israeli ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, tweeted an open letter to his countryman, with a summary at the top in all caps: "YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED," he wrote. He accused Lapid of abusing his Indian hosts' hospitality, being "insensitive and presumptuous" in speaking about Indian history — and of sparking a dangerous backlash against Israeli diplomats in India.

"You should see our DM boxes following your 'bravery' and what implications it may have on the team under my responsibility," the ambassador wrote.

The spat seemed to worry Israeli officials that it could imperil India's support for their government. Israel has prized its close ties with India, which have been nurtured under Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu — both nationalist leaders.

Later Tuesday, Israel's top diplomat in Mumbai — home to the Bollywood film industry — visited one of the actors in the The Kashmir Files to deliver an apology for what he called "stupid things" being said about the film.

Meanwhile, the film's writer-director, Vivek Agnihotri, tweeted a video clip of himself vowing to stop making movies if anyone can prove "that a single shot" from this particular movie is untrue.

At issue is how to depict a bloody period in India's history: The persecution, murder and expulsion of Kashmiri Hindus, or pandits, in Indian-administered Kashmir. Thousands of Hindus were targeted during a 1990s insurgency there (though the exact number of those killed is disputed). But Modi's Hindu nationalists have highlighted their plight as an overlooked chapter of history.

These days, Kashmir is in the news more for alleged persecution of its Muslim-majority population under Modi's government. In 2019, Indian authorities flooded Kashmir with troops, cut off the internet, and canceled the region's special constitutional status — bringing it under direct control of New Delhi.

Roughly 4 out of 5 Indians are Hindu. But India is also home to some 200 million Muslims, and human rights groups say they have suffered disproportionate discrimination and violence under Modi's rule. So Kashmir — India's only Muslim-majority region — poses a conundrum for the Hindu nationalists currently in power.

Modi has sought to reform India into a Hindu state, with special rights for its Hindu majority. His vision for India has been compared to Lapid's home country, Israel — a fellow democracy that endows some citizenship rights according to its majority Jewish religion.

Lapid is no stranger to confrontation. He opposes his own government's occupation of the West Bank, which Palestinians seek for their own independent state. He signed an open letter earlier this year, along with more than 250 other Israeli filmmakers, refusing to work with a group organizing a film festival there.

His 2021 film Ha'berech (Ahed's Knee), which shared a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is a semi-autobiographical critique of the Israeli government's own policies toward culture and propaganda. The website of Austria's top film festival describes the director as "possessed with a self-righteous fury."

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.