Abhishek Kapoor’s ‘Fitoor’ is little more than a series of pretty picture postcards obscuring reality.
Director: Abhishek Kapoor
Starring: Aditya Roy Kapur, Katrina Kaif, Tabu, Rahul Bhat, Akshay Oberoi
This will probably alienate about half the people who read it, but I must begin this review by reflecting on the events of last week. Not only will it piss off those who support the ruling establishment’s crackdown—and I’m not just talking about the police action—following the “anti-national” sloganeering at JNU on 9 February, it will annoy those who wish to see their popular culture, and writing about said popular culture, free of inconvenient political discussions.
It really should go without saying that a 21st-century postcolonial democracy should not respond to students raising slogans by invoking a 19th-century colonial law carrying a life sentence. (Especially when the student you’re throwing the book at just gave a speech expressing complete faith in the Constitution.) But such is the nature of this postmodern society, with its disregard for the lessons of history and its echo chambers and its profound lack of a sense of irony, that such truths no longer seem axiomatic, and must be restated for emphasis: don’t arrest students because they raise slogans against you, especially if your rise to power is predicated on looking the other way while your ideologues spew vitriol and incite violence.
The government’s actions, which have now reached the absurdity of picking up people for “looking like JNU students”, have inevitably worked only to unite the opposition and lose the high ground, for public opinion—or at least the sliver of it that is reflected in the (social) media—throughout the week seemed squarely against the protestors. #ShutDownJNU trended on Twitter; Arnab raged on The Newshour. The nation-state’s paranoia, its insecurities, its quasi-fascistic nature and kneejerk anti-intellectualism, all were given full rein.
It really should go without saying that a 21st-century postcolonial democracy should not respond to students raising slogans by invoking a 19th-century colonial law carrying a life sentence.
The charges against the protestors include chanting in favour of the country’s barbaadi, for supporting those dreaded terrorists Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat, the anniversaries of whose executions the rally was commemorating. What sort of vile, uncaring, unpatriotic scum, the chattering classes asked, would chant praises for these monsters? Leaving aside the fact that the slogans in question were raised by only one section of protestors, who were likely outsiders, and that some of the egregious “Pakistan zindabaad” chants seem to have been raised by ABVP workers, the blanket condemnation of the slogans is a little troubling.
There is, of course, the problematic tendency to equate criticism of the government with criticism of the nation. Also, while Guru and Bhat might have been terrorists—though the former’s guilt is very much in doubt—the nature of their trials, executions and last rites were insulting to Kashmiris and, inevitably, the two have become symbols of the indignities of life in the world’s largest militarised zone. Therefore, though it might not be seemly for the beneficiaries of the hierarchical nature of Indian society (such as myself) to be advocating the destruction of the nation-state, I can understand such sentiments being expressed by those for whom the nation-state is an occupying power, for whom democracy is what little can be salvaged as the jackboot crushes their neck.
This is what I don’t get about our fascination with Kashmir. We claim that it is ours, the jewel in our crown, an inalienable part of our history, civics and geography. We sing paeans to its stunning beauty, call it Paradise-on-Earth, and flock to it in droves whenever it seems safe. But then we treat Kashmiris like second-class citizens, systematically rig their elections, kill and imprison them with impunity, and then can’t fathom why they aren’t thrilled to be part of India.
We sing paeans to its stunning beauty, call it Paradise-on-Earth, and flock to it in droves whenever it seems safe. But then we treat Kashmiris like second-class citizens, systematically rig their elections, kill and imprison them with impunity, and then can’t fathom why they aren’t thrilled to be part of India.
Of course, this situation is allowed to be perpetuated by conducting most of the oppression behind a visage of the pastoral idyll. This process of exoticisation and invisibilisation has been aided and abetted by the film industry since the 1960s, with its fetishisation of the Dal, shikaras, chinars, Gulmarg and the Pir Panjal, looking at Kashmir through what Ananya Jahanara Kabir called “rose-tainted lens”. As Pascal Zinck wrote in his essay, ‘Kashmir: Maps for Lost Lovers’,
Kashmir’s ubiquitous visual referents highlighted with similar chromatic hues, ethereal songs and hip-swinging choreography are the sign of a disjuncture. Not only do they project an exotic background for “the lead male and female characters to yodel and cavort” in narcissistic unison with India’s upwardly mobile and sexually liberated youth, but their fantasy disfigures Kashmir through sanitization, de-politicization and de-historicization…[The] fetish of the Valley as an Eros-scape requires the absence of Kashmiris, or rather, the coding of Kashmiris as modernity’s Other within the context of India’s emergent sense of self, in a way that is no different than the representation of native Americans by Hollywood.
There is little, if any, depiction of the political realities of Kashmir—the many “cine-patriotic” dramas of the ’90s, the odd indie film, powerful documentaries, Haider. The vast majority of films set in Kashmir have little to say about the state’s turbulent state, leave alone apportioning blame or challenging conventional wisdom.
Abhishek Kapoor’s Fitoor, similarly, is mostly set in Kashmir, with interludes in Delhi and London. Its protagonist is a painter who promotes himself as The Boy From Dal; his most famous artwork is a recreation of a shikara. His love interest is called Firdaus, as in “Gar firdaus ruhe zaminast, haminasto haminasto haminast.” In one scene, as he desperately tries to stop Firdaus from leaving with her Pakistani beau, he goes as far as to use the Sangh Parivar’s infamous chauvinist slogan, one that robs his people of any agency in determining their future, as drunken humour: “Doodh mangoge to kheer denge, Kashmir mangoge to cheer denge.” His sister dies in a random bomb blast, which is never dwelled upon, and he meets an escaped militant in the beginning of the film. One of the songs is called ‘Pashmina’; another name-checks the chinar. By far the best thing about the film is its stunning visuals, capturing the stark wintry landscape that the director seems to love so much that we move from winter to autumn to winter again, never dwelling on spring or summer. That is all the Kashmir you get to see in the film.
In one scene, as he desperately tries to stop Firdaus from leaving with her Pakistani beau, he goes as far as to use the Sangh Parivar’s infamous chauvinist slogan, one that robs his people of any agency in determining their future, as drunken humour: “Doodh mangoge to kheer denge, Kashmir mangoge to cheer denge.”
At one point, after he has arrived as the newest sensation on the Delhi art scene, Noor Nizami (Kapur) is asked in a press conference what he has to say about the political situation in Kashmir. Does he want azadi? Isn’t it enough azadi, he asks, that I’ve made it this far? No, Noor’s heart does not reside in the present, he says, but in the idyllic past before Paradise was lost. How far back is left to the viewer’s imagination—presumably before Shopian and Kunan Poshpora, before 1989, before Yasin Malik and the rigged election of ’87, or the many broken promises of a plebiscite or the many incarcerations of Shaikh Abdullah, before the wars with Pakistan, maybe even before the century of servitude under the Dogras—but it’s not hard to guess that the past in question is probably more reel than real life, a return to life-as-picture-postcard.
Now, before the inevitable hand-wringing breaks out about how it is not Bollywood’s responsibility to be political, let me make it clear that I don’t expect anything different from our commercial films—the only way for the reality of Kashmir to come out is through the voices of the Kashmiris themselves, who are putting together a robust literary and cinematic tradition that challenges the mainstream narrative. But a filmmaker who sets his or her film in Kashmir is making a choice to do so, and that choice, along with what they make of it, can (and should) be interrogated. If all one has to say about Kashmir is a recitation of popular Kashmir tropes, they might as well set the film in Switzerland.
The choice of setting, however, is by no means the only issue with the film. Fitoor is an adaptation of Great Expectations, though not so much a recreation of Charles Dickens’s novel as it is a remake of Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 adaptation, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. The film set Dickens’s Victorian tale in 1990s America, with Florida stepping in for the Kentish countryside and New York for London. Roger Ebert’s review of that film holds some truth that is applicable to Fitoor:
“Great Expectations” begins as a great movie (I was spellbound by the first 30 minutes) but ends as only a good one, and I think that’s because the screenplay, by Mitch Glazer, too closely follows the romantic line. Dickens, who of course had more time and space to move around in, made it the story of a young man’s coming of age, and the colorful characters he encountered…The moment this movie declares itself as being mostly about affairs of the heart, it limits its potential.
Fitoor begins as a good movie but ends as a royal mess partly because of a similar restriction in scope, a process that begins with the title itself—“obsession”, rather than “expectation”, turning a bildungsroman into just another romance.
Fitoor begins as a good movie but ends as a royal mess partly because of a similar restriction in scope, a process that begins with the title itself—“obsession”, rather than “expectation”, turning a bildungsroman into just another romance. To focus on the eternal love between Pip and Estella rather than on how the change in Pip’s circumstances causes changes in his personality is to miss the point of Dickens’s novel, which is at its heart an exploration of the effect of class on interpersonal relationships; it can be argued that Pip’s relationships with Joe, Miss Havisham and even Abel Magwitch are as important as that with Estella.
There is very little of that in Fitoor. Like in Cuarón’s adaptation, Noor’s brother-in-law Junaid is mostly relegated to the sidelines by the narrative itself, rather than Noor—though one sequence, in which he waits in vain for Noor to visit him does succinctly capture this dynamic—and again, quoting Ebert, the subplot involving the escaped militant (played by Ajay Devgn) “feels more like a bone thrown to Dickens than a necessity of the plot”. Noor’s lack of empathy for his fellow Kashmiris in the aforementioned press conference could perhaps be attributed to his head being turned by his success, but that would be more believable if he didn’t actually seem to reside in the sanitised idyllic space he says he is obsessed with.
That Noor’s relationship with Begum Hazrat (Tabu) hits all the correct notes is testament not so much to Kapoor and Supratik Sen’s writing but to Tabu’s class-apart acting prowess; as usual, she grabs the role by the scruff of its neck and makes it her own. She isn’t quite the batshit Miss Havisham of the books, but a wonderfully tragic opium-addled figure, skilfully navigating the spectrum of emotions from whimsical to amused to bitter to distressed despite having some pedestrian dialogue and a hackneyed backstory. (Note to self: if eloping, always buy the water bottle before boarding the bus.)
It is only in his scenes with her that you begin to feel that Noor treats anyone who is not Firdaus as less than completely human. Her repeated protestations that Noor is more interested in Firdaus’s whereabouts than her wellbeing sound self-indulgent at first, but as the film goes on, serve to signal the changes in Noor’s personality that the rest of the film tends to gloss over.
It is only in his scenes with her that you begin to feel that Noor treats anyone who is not Firdaus as less than completely human. Her repeated protestations that Noor is more interested in Firdaus’s whereabouts than her wellbeing sound self-indulgent at first, but as the film goes on, serve to signal the changes in Noor’s personality that the rest of the film tends to gloss over. For the film is primarily interested in the will-they-won’t-they dynamic between Noor and Firdaus.
Now, focussing on this relationship isn’t necessarily a bad thing; as the Mike Newell’s 2012 adaptation demonstrated, a literal take on the novel, with all its subplots and characters, can seem scattered and underdone. (David Lean’s 1946 version is still the gold standard.) However, both Pip and Estella are tremendously difficult parts to pull off, and a film that puts so much of itself in mining this unorthodox love story—in which traditional notions of agency are upended—hits a brick wall when it decides to cast Aditya Roy Kapur and Katrina Kaif in the role, however well Mohammed Abrar and Tunisha Sharma might pull off their younger versions. Neither possesses the wherewithal to appear enigmatic; their attempts at stoic silence only make them seem wooden. There is little chemistry between the two; their love story seems an inevitability of the plot and little else, with all the obstacles that we’ve come to expect from conventional Bollywood romance. Again, it is left to Tabu to do all the narrative heavy lifting.
It’s probably too much to expect a mainstream film to get its politics right, or even avoid the problematic depictions of reality that comprise the current formula. It is also, having spent a weekend watching various attempts, probably too much to expect an adaptation of Great Expectations to separate the wheat from the chaff and create a cinematic masterpiece. But it isn’t too much, especially given Kapoor’s more-than-competent work before this, to expect a film that doesn’t cause you to cringe every time its protagonists open their mouth. Fitoor fails to clear even that low bar.