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Israeli Filmmaker’s Critique of Popular Bollywood Film Draws Fierce Backlash

NEW DELHI — A prominent Israeli filmmaker who sharply criticized a popular but contentious Indian film at a government-sponsored film festival faced a police complaint on Tuesday as Israeli diplomats scrambled to apologize.

The filmmaker, Nadav Lapid, used his closing remarks at the festival, which was in the Indian state of Goa, to criticize “The Kashmir Files,” a Hindi-language feature film depicting a violent chapter in the restive region of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir during which members of the Kashmiri Pandit community were persecuted, attacked and killed. The Kashmiri Pandits are a Hindu minority in the Muslim-majority region.

The film, a blockbuster hit that includes graphic scenes of violence, has been heavily promoted by India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, as a moving reflection of a sordid chapter in Kashmir’s history.

State governments controlled by the B.J.P. gave their full endorsement of the film. Government workers were given time off to see the movie, and got tax breaks on tickets. The party paid for movie tickets for party workers, and later organized screenings.

Some film critics and opposition politicians, however, found the film dangerously and unnecessarily provocative. The filmmaker, Mr. Lapid, echoed that critique on Monday in his remarks at the International Film Festival in India, where he was the festival’s jury head.

“That felt to us like a propaganda, vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival,” Mr. Lapid said.

“I feel totally comfortable to share openly these feelings here with you onstage,” he added, “since the spirit that we felt in the festival can surely accept also a critical discussion, which is essential for art and for life.”

Nadav Lapid during the 74th Cannes Film Festival in France in 2021.Credit…Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The backlash to his remarks — from Indian politicians, Bollywood actors, Israeli diplomats and members of the public — was swift and severe.

A Hindu lawyer in Goa filed a police complaint against Mr. Lapid early Tuesday, citing a criminal law that prohibits speech that deliberately offends religious sentiments.

Israel’s ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, condemned Mr. Lapid’s comments on Twitter as “presumptuous and insensitive.”

“You should be ashamed,” he added of Mr. Lapid, complaining that the filmmaker’s speech had made the work of Israeli diplomats in the country more difficult.

Israel’s consul general, Kobbi Shoshani, told a local TV news network that he didn’t agree with Mr. Lapid’s assessment of the film, and that his speech was a “big mistake.”

The veteran Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, who starred in “The Kashmir Files,” also called Mr. Lapid’s comments “shameful,” drawing a comparison between the Jewish Holocaust and the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits.

“It’s shameful for him to make a statement like this,” Mr. Kher said on Twitter. “Jews have suffered Holocaust and he comes from that community.”

Mr. Lapid’s comments underlined India’s growing polarization under B.J.P. rule. While members of the main opposition Congress party said “hate was eventually called out,” members of the B.J.P. asserted that the “truth” about Kashmiri Pandits “will triumph.”

In India, the response to “The Kashmir Files,” which was released in March, has been deeply divided along political and sectarian lines. Its commercial success, though, is beyond dispute. Despite having no song-and-dance numbers — a staple feature of Bollywood movies — the film was an instant hit, grossing more than $43 million in worldwide sales. It cost about $2 million to make.

The festival featured more than 280 films from 80 countries. Anurag Thakur, India’s information and broadcasting minister, singled out the Netflix series “Fauda,” from Israel, for praise. The series is a hit in India, and its fourth season premiered at the festival.

Mr. Thakur also spoke, in Hebrew and English, of the two countries’ growing ties.

“We have conflict in the neighborhood,” he said. “At the same time, we have thousands of years of history.”

“India will be the content hub of the world in the near future,” Mr. Thakur added. “This is the right time to collaborate and reach out and make films around those stories which are not told to the world. India is the place and Israel is the right partner.”

Mr. Lapid’s comments also no doubt embarrassed the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which organized the festival, and has paid special heed to India’s increasingly close relationship with Israel. The government found itself in the awkward position Tuesday of trying to distance itself from a head juror whom its festival committee had selected and given a platform.

“His attempt to politicize the I.F.F.I. platform, which celebrates diversity in filmmaking by way of stories, narratives and interpretations by filmmakers, is unacceptable and condemnable,” Kanchan Gupta, a government spokesman, said of Mr. Lapid, and referring to the International Film Festival of India, the event’s official name.

“Mr. Lapid is welcome to his personal views but the I.F.F.I. platform is not meant for airing those views,” he added.

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