Set in Kashmir, Sikandar is the story of the title character, a seemingly typical 14-year-old boy who lives mainly to play soccer. The opening of the film, however, shows us that Sikandar's life so far has been anything but typical. A carefree game of soccer instantly turns to horror as a bomb explodes in a busy marketplace — and thus we come to learn about the real substance of Sikandar's childhood.
Bullied at school by bigger, tougher boys, Sikandar finds some solace in a loving home life, provided by his doting aunt and uncle. Befriended at school by the lovely Nasreen, we learn that Sikandar's parents were killed by militants some years earlier. One day, as the two are walking home from school, they find a gun. Sikandar is fascinated by it; Nasreen cautions him to leave it alone. The gun's allure is too much for him, however, and he succumbs to the temptation to keep it.
Sikandar's action sets into motion all of the events which follow. He knows nothing of guns, but the lethal nature of the weapon is initially driven home to him when he accidentally shoots a sheep with it. He soon grows to like the sense of security and power it gives him — easily understood feelings in a boy whose life has been very much out of his own control up to this point. He uses it to threaten the bullies at school and feels as though he's finally found a way to assert himself. Through a series of incidents that are catalyzed by the gun, we come to learn more of the world that Sikandar lives in — and it's not a pleasant reality. That he has maintained his youthful innocence at all up to this point is nothing short of amazing.
Sikandar is described in its press materials as a political thriller, and while it has some aspects of that, and a bit of a plot twist at the end, the action is too sporadic and perhaps too predictable in places for the word "thriller" to really apply. The film seems more of a morality tale than a political thriller and it works quite well as such. Sikandar's decision to keep the gun represents a conscious choice between peace and violence, one that truly robs him of his innocence, muddies the distinctions between right and wrong, and ultimately just leads to more violence. Throughout the remainder of the film, he struggles with the repercussions of that decision as others attempt to manipulate the outcomes in their own favor.
If Sikandar has a fault, it's perhaps that it tries to tackle too many aspects of a very complex political and cultural situation all at once. Is it possible — ever — to attain peace through violence? What role should religious leaders take in helping to achieve resolution of conflicts through peaceful means? How do we discern between truth and ideology? How do "regular" people go about their daily lives under the threat of oppression and terrorism? How do people break a chain of violence that is handed down through generations? These are very big questions, and while the film plays around the edges of all of them, none of them are given much depth of treatment. Perhaps it's impossible to treat any of them deeply within the scope of one film; perhaps it's enough that it makes us think.
Director and screenwriter Piyush Jha states on the film's website that he was motivated by the plight of Kashmir's children, over 100,000 of whom have been orphaned by political violence. The film certainly paints only the children — and perhaps a very few adults — as the innocents in this situation. The other major factions at work here — the Jihadis, the politicians, the army, and the religious leaders — all have their own agenda. None of them are above sacrificing innocent lives to further their own ends. The films asks us to consider whether those ends justify the means used to attain them.
The young actors in the film do a superb job. Parzaan Dastur is very believable in the title role, which requires both a sense of innocence and of innocence lost, and Ayesha Kapoor as Nasreen does most of her acting with her eyes, which are very expressive. The adult characters tend more toward stereotypes, although Sanjay Suri as Mukhtaar, the former militant turned political leader, is quite good.
Directed and written by Piyush Jha, Sikandar opened on August 21 in selected markets in the U.S. You can learn more about the film at its official website.