Contemporary Indian documentaries on social and political issues focus primarily on the issue of caste-based and gender-based violence and the increase in xenophobia in general, quietly supported by the right-wing government of Narendra Modi. Which filmmakers speak out loud against injustice?
Indian cinema is widely synonymous with the cinemas of Ray (Satyajit Ray) and Ghatak (Ritwik Kumar Ghatak) in the western world. Mainly, the pain of Partition1, growing socio-political corruption, and the demotion of politi. All the types of idealism among the leaders were the major concerns of their films. Those were the nation-building times when they started their filmmaking, right after the formation of a new nation-state, and the concerns of their criticism mostly stemmed from the high ideological foundations and differences. Now, after 70 years of independence, the social and political voices of dissent have grown more complex. India has seen the rapid rise of the right-wing Hindu supremacists (Hindutva group), along with the serious side effects of religious intolerance and xenophobia. The trends in contemporary documentary practices in India are a vast landscape. Among them, violence against women and the LGBTQ community; war against its own people; indigenous, caste-based violence and religious bigotry; political unrest; and the people’s suffering in Kashmir are all arguably on the top. Contemporary female directors have been active in making films like Gulaab Gang, The World Before Her, and India’s Daughter to address the growing violence against women in India. Many are addressing eco farming and other environmental issues. But the major political dialogues revolve around the religious bigotry and caste- and gender-based violence in contemporary India. I'll present a brief overview of the changing patterns of the dissenting voices in the domain of documentary filmmaking in India, with a major focus on the indigenous and Dalit2 people’s struggles.
I was rewatching Red Ant Dream, a 2013 documentary made by Sanjay Kak, and suddenly here in the Western Hemisphere, I feel on the soles of my feet the sting of red ants crawling across the forests and bodies of water of the Indian landmass in the Eastern Hemisphere. I can see rows of red ants marching across the states of Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha. I think of the people who occupy the antithesis of capitalism, half-starving on leaves gathered from the ground beneath which lie mineral assets worth millions, intent on protecting the jungleland.
Mr. Kak has been making films since 1986. His films have staunchly criticized governmental policies over a long period of time. Red Ant Dream is based on the Maoist insurgency in India.3 It digs up the issues of corporate mining in the land of the indigenous. Indigenous people are not only the natural inheritors of the land, but they are also responsible for the maintenance and protection of the forest ecosystem. And they have been doing this over thousands of years.
There in the jungle their battle goes on unceasingly. Forty percent of India's mineral wealth lies beneath the soil of Jharkhand - uranium, bauxite, granite, gold, silver, magnetite, coal, iron, copper. More than 29 percent of the land in the state is covered by forests. One hundred and twenty Memorandums of Understanding have been signed, covering 200,000 acres of forestland, which implies displacement. They know that the corporate agents control the cooking pot and the water. The rice is with the forest people. The middlemen have come to know of the existence of the rice, but the people will no longer allow it to be taken away from the hills and the forests and the land.
The Constitution includes the laws that validate the ownership of the water and forests and land in the hands of those who live in the jungles - laws that more or less say that the land of the original dwellers, the Adivasis, cannot be bought or acquired. Then there is the protection for the people belonging to the scheduled castes and the traditional forest dwellers, along with the Panchayats (local elected village council) (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA, which stipulates that the Panchayat or village council must be consulted before acquiring land, and all possibilities of rehabilitation must be considered. There is also the Environmental Protection Act, which states that all projects must gather opinions through public consultations and obtain all necessary environmental clearances. At this point one may well wonder, if this was the path that is supposed to be walked, how have the big corporates managed to chew it all up? They've managed because even these laws have loopholes, as is always the case. For instance, this law is not applicable to coal mines, which means there are exceptions. There are other exceptions too, where the law does not make it necessary to hold discussions with the owners of the land before mining it. I myself had made a film called 1700 Kelvin (2011) on this same issue. 1700 Kelvin documented the people’s resistance in the Lalgarh movement in West Bengal.4
Apart from Sanjay Kak, many important filmmakers are also addressing these indigenous and environmental issues. Biju Toppo and Meghnad Bhattacharya, aka Akhra, have been making films over the past two decades. Biju is an indigenous-born filmmaker based in the province of Jharkhand, and he is a direct representative of the land protection movement led by the indigenous people who are relentlessly fighting against the land grab and corporate mining in the area.
Biju Toppo's documentary film The Hunt explores the lives and consequences of being children of the soil. The Hunt explores the condition of human rights in the Naxal-affected areas of Jharkhand5, Chhattisgarh, and Orissa. Their films have earned many national awards, as well as accolades from international festivals. It was 2014, and I was shooting my last feature-length documentary, The Third Breast. I reached Jharkhand on a steamy summer day to shoot an interview scheduled with Meghnath Akhra and Biju Toppo. We chatted and sang over tea and puffed rice. Biju sang Meghnad’s famous song, which has attained cult status, and which he had filmed himself.
Won't give up the village
Won't give up the forest
Won't give up the land, it's mine
Won't give up the battle
This red soil, this forest told me the tale of red ants every time. The red ants of the forest had a dream. A dream of biting, all in a row, the owners of the boots they were being ground under. And immediately I thought of him. Inevitably. Of what Jean Vigo had said upon watching Bunuel’s An Andalusian Dog. Those two words: ‘It bites’. Watching their rage flowing endlessly, I murmur: Red ant(s). It bites.
Looking back on Films Division
Films Division (FD) in India was established in 1948, a year after the country’s independence. The governing body then was committed to the building of a new nation. It was a mandate in the initial years to show FD newsreels and documentaries in the cinema houses before the beginning of the scheduled feature films.
In those initial years, they came up with documentaries like Freedom Marches On (1949), Our National Anthem (1964), and other nationalistic projects.
But the patterns of these politically correct films started facing challenges as dissent and chaos in the social and political arena gradually began to form. A group of rebel filmmakers like S. Sukhdev, Pramod Pati, S.N.S. Sastry, K.S. Chari, and T.A. Abraham emerged. Among them, Sukhdev is considered to be the most radical.
India was preparing to meet all the post-independence frustrations. ‘This independence is not real’ and ‘China’s Chairman is our Chairman’ were the slogans that invaded the walls of the cities in the early ‘70s. Left and ultra-left ideology-inspired movements were on the rise. The Naxalite movement was a direct descendant of youth’s frustrations. Naxals became frustrated with the existing left- and right-wing parties’ stale ideological dialogues and wanted to start an armed revolution. Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, imposed emergency rule to diminish the political turmoil. It was a hard time for the dissenting voices.
This time saw the emergence of quite a good number of documentaries. Landless and landowners’ binaries, state atrocities, and unemployment were some common traits of these films. During the period of emergency rule, a number of filmmakers rose to fame. Goutam Ghose, Suhasini Mulay, Anand Patwardhan, Sanjay Kak, Utpalendu Chakraborty, Tapan Bose, and Deepa Dhanraj were major among them. Anand Patwardhan made Prisoners of Conscience (Zameer ke Bandi) in 1978, a film about political prisoners in the time of emergency rule in India. As the dissenting elements grew in the topics of the documentaries, the chances of getting funding from the state decreased. Post-emergency was the period that saw the emergence of independent documentarians who desperately sought funding beyond the state entities.
Among them all, I will narrow my focus to Anand Patwardhan’s films to track the changes in the patterns of political documentaries and their dissenting voices. Documentary filmmaking in India has undergone a remarkable transformation since the advent of independent filmmaking. Patwardhan has been making films for nearly 30 years. He is undoubtedly the most important dissenting voice in India, and most of his films have achieved the glory of being considered as cult films. Initially he managed funds from state institutions. Since all of his films have ignited the government’s rage and reactions quite successfully, it became almost inevitable for him to emerge as an independent filmmaker. What had these documentaries done to inflame so much opposition? His films, I think, are the best way to track the rise of Hindu right-wing politics and their effect on people - the manufacturing of consent. In his films such as Ram ke Naam (In the Name of God, 1992) and Father, Son and Holy War (1995), Anand has fearlessly documented the formation and budding years of religious bigotry and xenophobia.
The recent phenomena in India indicate that the country is rapidly being pulled in the direction decreed by the proponents of “Hindutva”. Many think that the day the Hindu supremacists demolished Babri Mosque6 rang the bell. We accuse the British of partitioning India on the basis of religion. If the partition and communal riots during the independence were the beginning of a hated-togetherness that would stay over the next 70 years, then certainly the demolition of Babri Mosque by the Hindu supremacists rang the clarion call for a new-normal age of religious bigotry that would also stay for decades. Anand Patwardhan’s films are not only political; they are made politically in terms of the mode of production and distribution. Anand risked his life, chose the documentary format, and adopted a fly-on-the-wall approach while making his cult documentary In the Name of Ram (1994), which was based on the Babri Masjid demolition controversy and documented the Hindu Muslim riot followed by the mosque’s demolition in 1992. The film has earned multiple awards from festivals around the world. Anand’s recent film Reason (2018) is a four-hour critique of the caste and religious turmoil of India’s recent political discontent that happened between 2013 and 2016. Heinous murderous attacks on our intellectuals and assassinations of the critics of the Hindutva ideology were terrifyingly examined in Reason. Like Anand, Rakesh Sharma, another fearless documentarian, has also made films on religious bigotry and riots. In the film Final Solution, Sharma documented the 2002 Gujarat riots as an anti-Muslim pogrom orchestrated by right-wing Hindu nationalists in Gujrat. The film was banned and denied censorship certification. Filmmaker R.V. Ramani has made an interesting documentary on Anand Patwardhan’s fearless journey. The film is called Hindustan Hamara (My India).
Glory to the subalterns
Anand has been a keen watcher of the resistance against the Hindu supremacy and neo-nationalism. Next to religious tensions, the malice of the caste system is the main cause of major social tensions in India.
In 2011 he made Jai Bhim Comrade to address the caste system and injustices against the Dalit communities7, especially in western India. It was shot over 14 years, follows the poetry and music of people like Vilas, and marks a subaltern tradition of reason that, from the days of the Buddha, has fought against superstitions and religious bigotry.
In India, the caste system and old feudal relations were maintained for the sake of British colonial rule. Castes or the caste system and old feudal relations have not been uprooted (socially, not constitutionally) even to the present day. As a result, in the neo-liberal era, capitalism in India has strengthened the old ties, including caste and feudal relations, at various levels of society. ‘Hindutva’ is the political and ideological expression of that character. Dalit people are still rendered as property, as modern-day slaves by many so-called upper castes. They spill blood, sweat, and tears into the soil from which we eat and make headlines almost every day in the newspapers. The headlines mainly follow incidents where the Dalits are beaten, hanged, and stripped, mostly by the kangaroo courts set up in rural India. These are like everyday phenomena. Anti-Dalit sentiment has taken an endemic shape in some parts of this country because the caste system is both a class doctrine and racial dogma. And hatred is powerful. Another film that comes to my mind is Sangharsh, a 2018 documentary film made by French anthropologist Nicolas Jaoul, based on fieldwork in the Kanpur region between 1997 and 2001. It provides a valuable documentation of caste discrimination.
Ironically, India’s current president (Ram Nath Kovind) is also from the Dalit community, and this is what happened to him a couple of years ago. Despite being president, he was stopped from entering a temple in the State of Odisha. A president -- not above the manufactured race-based discrimination. That is India. We live it, we swallow it. We shout, we look back in anger, but half of our population still doesn’t get it.
The Children of Marx and Manu, Rama and Babar, Gandhi and Ambedkar and Buddha and MTV are divided into two opposing camps: pro-Hindutva and anti-Hindutva, very evidently. The audiences are staunch followers of these respective camps and are superlatively intolerant to each other. And the intolerance is growing every day. They have vandalized many public screenings in the recent past. Patwardhan’s screenings have been stopped by the party goons many times.
Our cameras are more active than ever before, but our audience probably is not. We need to depend on the foreign audiences to get appreciation. State-funded institutions like PBT are still funding to support films dealing with LGBTQ and gender discrimination, and sometimes gender-based violence. But the voices against the exploitation of the indigenous people and the religious bigotry and xenophobia are not earning much favor from either the ruling party or from the majority of Indian viewers.
People who grew up in the Indus River Basin have thousands of years of history. We have to understand that history anew. If the subcontinent is to be reconstructed, there is no alternative to reading history anew. Anand and his colleagues are doing this job.
Jean Cocteau once said, “Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.” With the advent of new media and Internet-based distribution, it's not a far-fetched idea anymore, but rather a reality now. Making films with handheld video cameras and cell phones and streaming them via the Internet is becoming popular. I’m looking forward to seeing a time in the near future when every exploited community will have a script in their hands. And audiences will be conscious enough to appreciate the efforts and support the causes. Spectatorship is a valued concept. We must invest our time in forming a critical mindset among the viewers. Well, the work may still be in progress, but there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't be hopeful.
Until then, glory to the fights of the subalterns, glory to the resistance of the indigenous, glory to the cinema practitioners who are risking their lives to document the struggles of the commoners.
1 India was partitioned on the basis of religion in 1947, during its independence.
2 “Dalit” is the preferred term for the groups formerly known as “Untouchables”. A person who belongs to a lower class in social and economic hierarchy practices. The Indian Constitution doesn’t allow this discrimination, however.
3 The Naxalite–Maoist insurgency is an ongoing conflict between Maoist groups known as Naxalites, or
Naxals, and the Indian government.
4 The Lalgarh movement - Operation Lalgarh was an armed operation in India against the Maoists who have been active in organising an armed tribal movement alongside a group called the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA). The operation is organised by the police and security forces in Lalgarh, Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal to restore law and order in the area and flush out the Maoists.
5 Far left idealists. It gets its name from the ‘Naxalite movement’ that took place in the ‘70s.
6 A mosque named after one of India’s Muslim rulers, Babur. It was demolished in 1992 based on a controversy that holds faith in the mythical existence of the God Rama. The Hindus believe that-Lord Rama was born in that place in Ayodhya, where the mosque was later built, replacing Rama’s temple. So the Hindu Nationalists now want to build a temple in the name of Rama, and the demolition of the mosque was the first step in the path to achieving their goal.
7 Bhim is a character in Mahabharata. Also the middle name of the writer of the Indian Ccnstitution, Babasaheb Bhimr o Ambedkar, who himself hailed from the Dalit community and has always been worshipped as the role model of the Dalit community of India.
This text was created with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation