MUMBAI : A new low-budget Indian film focusing on the exodus of thousands of Hindus from disputed Muslim-majority Kashmir region has won accolades from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is proving a box office hit.
"The Kashmir Files", a 170-minute Hindi-language movie released last week, tells the fictional story of a student who discovers his Kashmiri Hindu parents were killed by Islamist militants - and not in an accident as his grandfather told him.
Supporters of the movie, set during both the violent upheaval of 1989-90 and the present day, say it shines light on an often overlooked chapter of Kashmir's history. Critics say it is loose with the facts and fans anti-Muslim sentiment.
Hundreds of thousands were forced out of Kashmir, losing homes and many lives, when a revolt erupted against Indian rule in 1989. Many were Hindus, known as "Kashmiri Pandits", and later ended up living in camps across northern India.
Since coming to power in 2014 Modi's Hindu nationalist party has given support to displaced Hindus from Kashmir who want to eventually return.
Modi on Tuesday praised the movie, saying it showed the truth and that vested interests were running a campaign to discredit it.
"They are shocked, that the truth that was hidden for so many years is out and is backed by facts," Modi said, without clarifying to whom he was referring to.
A state leader from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gave government employees a half day off to go and see the movie.
Supporters of Modi and the BJP have endorsed the movie on social media, while videos published online show people in movie audiences cheering, shouting slogans and waving Indian flags. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the footage.
"This is clearly the kind of story that the people of India want to hear right now," said theatre owner Akshaye Rathi, who owns several screens in central and western India.
Since opening on Friday the movie has gone from being shown on 400 screens nationwide to 3,000 screens on Tuesday.
It has taken 600 million rupees ($7.86 million) at the box office nationally in five days, according to figures published by trade analyst Taran Adarsh, at a time when many are wary of visiting cinema halls due to the fear of COVID-19.
In comparison, one of the biggest recent Bollywood A-list releases, "Gangubai Kathiawadi", took 570 million rupees in its first five days of sales last month.
"What we are seeing is an unprecedented success story, the likes of which we haven't seen before. It's unbelievable," Rathi said.
Not everyone agrees however, with some seeing the film as evidence of the growing religious polarisation Modi's critics say he has fostered since coming to power in 2014.
"The state machinery propping up the film and the reaction to it is disappointing," Hussain Haidry, a screenwriter who works in Bollywood, told Reuters. "As a Muslim you feel a sense of despair that movies like 'The Kashmir Files' are encouraging and adding to Muslim-hate in the population."
Columnist Asim Ali was also critical of the film in a piece on news website Newslaundry.
"The message an ordinary Hindu is expected to take from the movie (as attested by many viral videos coming out of theatres) is another kind of 'never again' – never again to trust the Muslim, the secularist or the leftist," he wrote. ($1 = 76.3400 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar; Editing by Alex Richardson)