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     Volume 4 Issue 24 | December 10, 2004 |

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A Roman Column


Saluting Filmmaker Rakesh Sharma

Neeman Sobhan

The Asiatic Film Festival came to Rome and opened some closed windows in the minds of cinemagoers here. Among the films that moved me were some issue-oriented Indian ones that filled me with admiration for the capacity for truth seeking and soul-searching among the enlightened filmmakers of India. The world has a lot to learn from them; especially, certain claustrophobic sections of the world where many have lost the courage to be self-critical or to speak out the truth; where, to question religious and political bigotry, specially to defend the rights of the minority, could cost the protestor or truth-seeker a fatwa against his life.

I salute Govind Nihalani and especially Rakesh Sharma for holding up the torch for truth, justice, reason and compassion, and revealing in their films the savage world of political manipulations which uses people like cannon fodder. I commend these two Hindu filmmakers for speaking out for the minority Muslims of India, an act of courage that in many repressive societies could have cost them their lives. I cannot imagine a reversed scenario where Muslim filmmakers could have survived such a graphic examination of the naked truth.

The two films that stand out in my mind share the same subject: the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.While 'DEV' by director Govind Nihalani is a feature film using the major issues in a storyline acted out by stars like Amitabh Bachchan; Rakesh Sharma's 'FINAL SOLUTION' concerns itself with the actual events in Gujarat, and is a hard-hitting documentary which was suppressed by the BJP government when it came out. It was banned by the Censor Board of India and rejected by the Mumbai International Film Festival but won awards at the Berlin Film Festival.

I spoke to director Nihalani and will write about him later. First, I will discuss Sharma's documentary. (He was not present at the festival so I could not talk to him. The post-screening discussion was led by actress Nandita Das, whom I got to know during the festival, and I will talk about this beautiful, articulate actress with a social conscience in another article).

'Final Solution' is set in Gujarat between February 2002 and July 2003, and the film examines the spiral of vindictive violence that followed the burning by Muslims of 58 Hindu activists returning from controversial Ayodhya on the Sabarmati express train at Godhara. Some 2,500 Muslims were slaughtered, 200,000 made homeless, their women raped and killed by Hindutva cadres in a virulent reaction, which many claim was state-supported if not sponsored.

The film was awarded among other things for its analysis of the propaganda mechanism through which politicians manipulated the Godhara incident for political purposes spawning hate and violence; and for "its measured voice to seek a final solution to the conflict".

This long film, made with the maker's own money and using an unobtrusive handheld palmcorder manages, through hair-raising eyewitness accounts (of both victims and victimisers) and visual and verbal details, to document the helplessness of the minority, and the calculated politics of state complicity in violence.

Most valuable were the interviews not just with the Muslim survivors of the pogrom but with the Hindu victims of the Godhara incident. It revealed how ordinary citizens do not feel the communal divide or need for revenge as sharply as the power hungry, rabble-rousing political elements incite the mob to feel. A Hindu girl who lost her mother on the train, when asked if she was still friends with her Muslim school mate said, "Of course. She didn't do it." Dr Girishchandra Rawal, who lost his wife, said, "When my wife's body arrived, Muslims, Khojas, Christians, everyone came here weeping. Why should I avenge myself on my Muslim neighbour?" And yet, the politicians who were not personally affected exploited this incident in mob-inciting speeches for electoral gains, encouraging vengeful mass lynching.

We are taken from blood curdling political campaign speeches and religious meetings to private interviews. But, while the film takes a clear standpoint against violence and right-wing Hindu nationalist politics it avoids simple accusations and gives both victims and perpetrators equal space. Under the objective handling of Sharma's camera and use of a polite interrogative voice, situations and people are left to reveal or betray themselves.

In one of the first sequence in Patiya, some Hindu teenagers are seen playing cricket near a well where bodies were dumped. Asked: were there many? One boy, a policeman's son, shrugs in nonchalant reply: yes and he saw truckloads of bodies, 'mostly women and children'. A pregnant pause; the boy's eyes falter and the camera registers his internal conflict about whether he endorses the killings.

In another sequence, the film alternates between Gujarat Chief Minister Modi denying the carnage in his 'Gaurav Yatra' (Hindu Pride march) even as we hear victims narrating the horrors of seeing their family butchered before their eyes. At another point, Ghanashyam Joshi, a member of the VHP who helped create the Bajrang Dal cadres accidentally mentions that a few years ago, the majority and minority communities 'lived in peace'. But the Hindu tribals needed 'enlightenment' to organize them to defend Hindu society. How were they enlightened, Sharma's neutral voice asks. By "training them, giving them trishuls and making them take an oath that they would help build the Ram temple, divide Pakistan into 40 parts and make India a Hindu Rashtra".

Towards the end, Sharma speaks to a small Muslim schoolboy, who says he wants to become a soldier. Why? So he can burn all the Hindus. Why? Because he saw them doing it to his people. "I am a Hindu," says Sharma's voice. "Will you kill me too?" The child is confused, then in all innocence he replies that he will not harm Sharma because he doesn't look like a Hindu.

Sharma asks the people he interviews what the final solution to this terrible problem is and receives the same hopeless response: the politicians have divided the two communities too deeply for them to co-exist now. Still, the only answer is awareness, education and the removal of religion from politics. The film ends with a song sung in a pained voice against the use of religion to spill blood. God lives neither in the mosque nor the temple but among men; don't kill your God. It is the cry of wounded people on both sides. But would those who reap power from blood watch this film and learn?

Probably not, but that India is growing towards being a mature democracy is revealed through the fact that when this film was banned in India, there were scores of courageous people committed to truth who after a sustained campaign of protest screenings countrywide, petitions, both on-line and multi-city signature letters to the Government managed to get the Censor Board ban lifted. Also, when the government-backed Mumbai International Film Festival rejected Sharma's documentary, other filmmakers boycotted the festival; and film actor and director Girish Karnad withdrew as chairman of the national jury. Then the Campaign against Censorship organized a parallel festival, 'Vikalp: Films for Freedom', to screen the documentary and to provide a platform to show solidarity to the cause of Freedom of Expression.

(We, in our fledgling democracy, instead of imitating only the song and dance rituals of Indian commercial cinema, might learn the socio-political consciousness and intellectual dedication of our neighbour's filmmakers in the parallel film industry. Instead of abdicating the powerful medium of film to crass commercialists, we the educated and privileged should use socially motivated filmmaking to reach and teach our people.)

The only weapon against the politics of manipulation, deceit, hypocrisy, hatred and violence is the voice of enlightened people. The proof of a healthy democracy is in allowing every voice, even the voice of dissent to be heard. I salute Sharma for stepping further and giving voice to the voiceless.

NEXT WEEK: PART 2--Meeting Filmmaker Govind Nihalani

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