About a political resistance through culture….. By Shivani Nag.
For long one has felt uncomfortable about the near-complete absence of crucial questions of our times in mainstream cinema – be it the continued practice of caste-based discrimination, condition of the working class, minority witch-hunt, patriarchy, racism, chauvinism and many others. This experience of discomfort does not stem from any illusion about the nature and funding of mainstream Indian cinema, but rather from a hope against hope that one continues to nurture that at some given time, it would become impossible for filmmakers to look the other way. The experience of discomfort also emanates from the fact that it is this form of cinema that has the widest reach. Every once in a long while one also comes across some brave attempts such as Shahid, but this once in a long while is indeed too long a while. In between, one also finds some compromised attempts where even as the filmmakers do try to raise some uncomfortable questions regarding patriarchy or the oppressive character of the state, the accompanying pressures force them to offer superficial and individualistic ‘solutions’ to problems that are structural. And then there is an alternative model of cinema where uncomfortable questions challenging various status-quos are raised, but this cinema seldom reaches those whom we term the ‘masses’. Screened in select circles or institutes, the limited reach remains an important limitation.
In such a context, the very idea of a people’s film festival that required no passes or invites or fees and promised to take select movies and documentaries focusing on the burning issues of the day to the people most affected by them, signified an important milestone. Titled Cinema of Resistance this movement that organizes ‘people’s film festivals’ across several states in India is not only a platform to screen movies portraying resistance, but the festival is in itself an act of resistance that tries to challenge the established binary of ‘masses and classes’ and of what remains confined to the classes and what gets distributed for consumption of the masses.
Having missed the opportunities to attend this film festival earlier, I was finally able to make it to the Cinema of Resistance’s 2nd Kolkata People’s Film Festival co-organized by Jan Sanskriti Manch and People’s Film Collective (Kolkata). While I was able to attend only three out of four days of film screenings, some of the movies I watched left deep impressions on me. Of the several movies screened, MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava, Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade and Father, Son and Holy War and Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her were the only movies that I had watched prior to the festival. The festival provided me an opportunity to watch Nakul Singh Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai (Muzaffarnagar Remains), Mitali Biswas’s Naam Poribortito (Identity Undisclosed), Shubhradeep Chakravorty’s Encountered on Saffron Agenda, Goutam Ghose’s documentary about the 1974 Bengal famine – Hungry Autumn, Gopal Menon’s The Unholy War and Reena Mohan’s Kamlabai. Resistance against fascism and gender violence remained the dominant themes of most of the features and documentaries screened during the festival.
The interaction sessions with the makers following the screenings and the various panel discussions furthered the space of engagement and deliberation that otherwise largely remains restricted as the one between the film and the audience. And even as considerable learning and unlearning happened during course of the festival, I wish to share just two of the several moments of poignancy and significance that have remained with me.
One of the most poignant moments of the film festival was during the screening of Mitali Biswas’s Naam Poribortito (Identity Undisclosed), a film focusing on the recent spate of rapes in India and in particular, Bengal. As the movie attempted to uncover the power structure underlying rape and debunk the myth of rape being merely a crime of lust through the narratives of rape survivors and their families, one found that the usual cautions regarding concealing the identity of the victim had been carefully observed. However as powerful narratives of resistance by the survivors and some courageous activists emerged, one began to wonder about the significance of the title of the movie. Definitely, ethics demanded that the identity of the rape survivors remained undisclosed, but was this the most dominant theme of their narratives, of their struggles and of their lives that they continued to live? I felt a point of disjunction when in the midst of courageous stories of women refusing to bow down and bravely taking forward their struggles for justice, the infamous ‘zindaa laash’ (living corpse) comment of Sushma Swaraj – that she had made in reference to rape victims – was played. I had a gut feeling that it would be immediately followed by a rejoinder by other women activists who would lucidly explain why it wasn’t so. Much to my surprise and slight disappointment, nothing of the sort followed. The film went back to the experiences of the women who had been raped. Most of the women featured came from lower socio-economic backgrounds and had been raped by men who enjoyed either direct political patronage from the ruling class or other forms of power over the women that could be exercised to obstruct the fight for justice. And yet, it was not only their class background or their identities as rape victims that bound them. Another joining thread of all the narratives was the refusal of the women and their immediate families to stop fighting and meekly accept rape as an unfortunate event in their lives. The more the courage of these stories touched a chord, the more the title of the film disturbed, till a moment towards the end of the film where a victim belonging to a lower socio-economic strata was heard saying to the cameraman something to the effect of – “I want to speak through your camera to all who are listening, I have no need to remain hidden, what wrong did I do, what have I to feel ashamed of? Why should it be that my assaulters move around freely and boldly… it is them who should be ashamed.” And at this moment, she directs the cameraman to show her face…her identity stands disclosed and as the camera finally reveals her face, what one witnesses is not an expression of being a ‘zindaa laash’, but of a survivor and a fighter. I suddenly realized that there could not have been a more befitting response to the likes of Sushma Swaraj and those who continue to use rape as a political tool to subjugate. The poignancy of the moment did not end there but came back more strongly as she and some more survivors made an actual appearance at the film festival venue and reiterated their commitment to not only their struggle for justice but for the larger struggle against gender violence. As the audience stood up to give a standing ovation, most of us moist-eyed and with lumps in our throats, the survivor who had instructed the cameraman to not hide her face, shook some of us out of our so far only ‘emotional’ response to the movie, when she remarked- “some days ago we all came together and raised the slogan of hokkolorob (let there be noise), we must again come together to fight and raise the slogan of hokpratibaad (let there be resistance)”. A crime of power needed to be resisted by nothing less than a political struggle. The point could not have been better conveyed.
The other experience that was significant for me was the screening of Nakul Singh Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai. I had spent a good part of the first half of last year, wondering or rather hoping that Amit Shah and his likes were indeed foolish to think that the formula of winning elections that they had applied in Gujarat could be modified and indiscriminately used anywhere and especially in a state like UP that had seen strong resistance to communal forces. Soon after the Muzaffarnagar riots broke out, there was a realization regarding what the BJP was up to and yet somewhere within me (and I know within many others like me) there was a hope that the Modi juggernaut would be halted in UP. And yet, on May 16, these hopes stood crumbled. What had really happened in UP, how did it begin, who stood failed and by whom? Several such questions had remained, receiving only partial and speculative answers. The relevance of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai was not only in its attempt to explore answers to many such questions but also in its poignant portrayal of the effects that go beyond the Lok Sabha Election results – the effect of the riots on the poor and the small farmers and the break in their earlier ‘united’ struggles for livelihood; the shameful revelation of the opportunist and bankrupt politics of SP and BSP, which even as they claim to stand for the oppressed, have done little to allay fears of the minorities and the Dalits and instead only indulged in politics of keeping alive the fears for reaping electoral benefits; the realization among the Muslim youth of being used as pawns by formations that claimed to be their greatest allies; and very significantly – the dawning of the realization among some that the powerful will always look for weak who could be oppressed. The only real unity could be one that went beyond religious and caste identities, rejecting attempts to divert the attention of the poor from the questions of livelihood and dignified living. Amidst these, another very significant theme that emerged in the film were the voices of women, whose ‘honour’ had been cited initially to incite the riots. As women from both Hindu and Muslim communities debunked the myth of ‘the other’ who was supposed to pose a greater threat to their bodily integrity than someone from their own group, one of the women asked- “kyun yeh izzat ki topi zabardasti hamaare sar pe pehna dete hain” (Why is the cap of honour forcefully put on our heads?). It was not only the bodies of women on which these hateful battles were being fought, rather the very notion of their bodies, over which they continued to be denied rights, had been transformed into arsenals for provoking battles.
This recounting of the experience and the sense that I made while watching the two movies in no way constitutes their ‘review’, but as mentioned earlier, they signify certain moments that shaped my experience of the 2nd Kolkata People’s Film Festival and what I took back with me. Long chat sessions with comrades, some of whom had made these movies, added to the enrichment. I heard there was a full house during the first day – particularly during the session for children and young adults, and also during the inaugural and evening sessions. The only wish which I felt would be more effectively fulfilled in future festivals is to see much more of people, who are the subjects of most of the movies screened, in the halls – analyzing, critiquing and discussing the depictions and the way forward – more effectively linking cultural resistance with political struggles.
But perhaps that would not happen in one single urban venue as this one. Perhaps the bridges that I saw being built during the festival – as members of the audience were inviting the organizers to hold local screenings of films in distant towns and villages of Bengal like Chakdaha, Diamond Harbour, Kachrapara, Chachol, Polba, Konnagar and others – would help achieve the vital connections and linkages of the films to live struggles. Perhaps the festival itself has to travel to more places as they have been doing since May 2013 as ‘one-day screenings’ or ‘mini festivals’ – from closed jute mill quarters to workers’ union assemblies to young audiences in suburban primary schools. As an extension of this year’s festival, comrades had planned a traveling festival to Santiniketan in the Bolpur district of Bengal, where the Sangh Parivar is gaining ground through fomenting communal tension and even holding audacious ‘Gharwapsi’ (re-conversion to Hindutva-fold by threats and lure) ceremonies affecting poor Adivasi villagers. As we were boarding the train back to Bhuvaneshwar, I heard that the Principal of Kala Bhavana in the Visva Bharati University founded by Tagore in Santiniketan had abruptly and somewhat-unofficially (through an email sans any reason cited) cancelled permission to hold the one-day travelling festival on the university premises! Only a threatening phone call from the Police reportedly citing potential law and order problems did the job! For screening films like Ajay TG’s Pahli Avaz (on the ‘sangharsh and nirman’ workers’ movement led by comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi, leading to the building of the Shaheed Haspatal in Dalli Rajhara) and Anand’s Jai Bhim Comrade (which had no less than a U-certificate from the Indian Censor Board)! As our train sped back home, it was heartening to hear that the local organizers hand-in-hand with Cinema of Resistance had lived up to the challenge by pooling together resources and holding the one-day traveling festival at an alternative venue, and that a large number of people had turned up and pledged to take up the baton of Cinema of Resistance in Santiniketan too. Indeed it was no longer possible to distinguish cultural resistance from political struggle – the two had merged into one.