singing of dark times

Gorakhpur to Kolkata: Cinema Caravan Picks up Pace in Eight Years

Kasturi and Sanjay Joshi

Main akela hi chala tha jaanib-e-manzil magar
Log saath aate gaye aur kaarvaan banta gaya

-Majrooh Sultanpuri

(Alone I was going towards my destination, but/
People came along and the caravan grew)

Had the modest initiative that took off from a mid-sized town in Uttar Pradesh eight years back not taken wing beyond Gorakhpur, perhaps this piece would not have been necessary. In 2006, some cultural activists got together and pooled contributions from the people of that town to arrange a film festival, albeit of a kind that the Hindutva-dominated Gorakhpur was not used to. Soon enough the festival became an annual affair in Gorakhpur and would be entering its ninth year in a row. It did create perceptible ripples in the local cultural scenario and punched a few holes in the right places. But what was definitely not foreseen at the start of the journey was the proliferation of Cinema of Resistance festivals, which over years grew roots in more than ten cities spread across seven states. Inspired by the UP experience, chapters sprouted in Bihar, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. In the coming year, the movement is preparing to take its first steps in four more states, namely Punjab, Delhi/NCR, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, as local teams begin to crystallize. Perhaps it is a good time for a retrospective pause to take stock of the journey that has brought us here.

Starting from the late ninetees, with filmmaking technology becoming portable, affordable and widely available, India had been witnessing a phase where a number of serious and committed filmmakers were embracing the documentary. Methods of procuring and screening films also had gone through an astonishingly fast change, as far as technology was concerned. However, there was a mismatch between demand and supply when it came to the scenario of public screening of documentaries. The public hardly got the chance to watch documentaries with the market-driven television, cinema halls and fast-emerging multiplexes all-engrossed with ‘features’ and Bollywood. The movement wanted to fill that lacuna. It decided to focus on the genre of cinema that was truly concerned with issues facing us as people. Ashutosh Kumar, a comrade from UP, came up with the name Cinema of Resistance for our movement. At the crux of the matter is the people’s resistance –against the neoliberal economic onslaught, feudal fetters, imperialist domination and those of patriarchy, caste-oppression and religious majoritarianism. This constitutes the pulsating heart of resistance. We as cultural activists working with cinema became a part of this fight. Co-fighters, if you will. With all these on our minds, the First Gorakhpur Film Festival came into being in the March of 2006. It was Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s Martyrdom Day.

In little more than two years, the Cinema of Resistance initiative started getting popular in the towns of UP. News spread from one town to another. We started organizing cinema workshops to help consolidate the ideals and to educate organizers on film-curation. In this way Cinema of Resistance spread to Lucknow in 2008, Patna and Nainital in 2009 and Allahabad in 2011. The organizers of these festivals were inspired from their experiences in attending the Gorakhpur Film Festival in successive years. When a bunch of university students from Banaras participated in the Allahabad Film Festival, they were enthused in turn to start a Chapter in their city. Another instance was when a young man from Udaipur put to use his experience of the Gorakhpur and Lucknow festivals to build a Udaipur chapter from scratch. In the eight years from Gorakhpur (2006) to Kolkata (2014) the movement has successfully organized a total of thirty-five independent film festivals in the towns of Gorakhpur, Bareilly, Lucknow, Nainital, Bhilai, Patna, Indore, Balia, Allahabad, Banaras, Azamgarh, Salempur, Udaipur and Kolkata. Salempur has been a particularly interesting beginning, for the small town neighbouring Dewaria in UP, has a meagre population of seventeen thousand people. It had never experienced a film festival before. This also brings us to the issue of cultural space in big cities versus smaller towns and villages. Several Indian metros have had regular film festivals organized either by the Ministry of Culture or by Media/Film institutes. Besides, the percolation of the internet has enabled the middle-class in the metros to freely access and download world cinema. The picture is grim in suburbs and smaller towns however, save for very few which have active cine clubs or film-societies. And for most people in our villages, internet remains a distant dream. The other shrinking space is that of single-screen cinema halls that are fast shutting shop particularly in towns and even in metros, with the advent of the multiplexes. As a result of all this, commercial screening spaces for non-mainstream cinema have become scarce. Faced with such a scenario, our future trajectory would have to be two-layered. Besides taking our caravan to different states, we would have to deepen efforts in our existing areas of work and travel from big cities towards small towns, from small towns towards villages.

From the very beginning we relied on people’s funding, which sometimes appeared as a hurdle, particularly when we started work in a new pocket. But later on, this aspect itself would become one of our greatest strengths. By the design of it, in every chapter our organizers would have to reach out to the maximum number of people in town. By design, several interested people would thus get involved and drawn into the organizing team itself. By design, the initiative could not be run by a handful individuals but had to involve a big team comprising of folks from varied age-groups and various walks of life. This increased the reach of our organization, helped build mass contacts and made sure that local issues were reflected in the curation of films to be screened. This was in contrast with sponsored festivals where funding flowed in from pre-defined sources and the organizers never lost sleep over audience turnout. This also helped fashion a curation policy aligned with local politico-cultural needs. A curator funded by big foundations and CSR wings of companies or NGOs can well overlook local issues but a curator who runs by the direct support of five hundred people can’t afford to be detached from the people’s expectations from a cultural initiative like the Cinema of Resistance. This gets reflected in the documentaries, shorts and feature films we curate for our festivals. The integration of other art forms like theater and music also came organically, as had been our tradition. To put it in short, we did not envisage Cinema of Resistance as a film-screening exercise for the sake of film-appreciation. Rather, we wanted to build a platform, with cinema as the primary medium, to amplify the voices of people’s movements on the ground and to use cinema as a medium to initiate debates and dialogue to challenge the market-driven discourse on ‘development’, ‘progress’ and the ‘ideal society’ we strive for. Naturally we tried to integrate all the other art forms at our disposal, to this end of making our festivals a platform for the oppressed and marginal voices. The documentary helped in raising the issues directly and to break the dominant narrative-form of mainstream cinema. The audience that would readily buy tickets to go for a Gangs of Wasseypur or a Love. Sex aur Dhokha would not go for a Anand Patwardhan or Sanjay Kak documentary with the same readiness. Our job is to try and change this deep-rooted cultural attitude.

What have we been able to achieve in all these years? Have there been any impact of the documentaries on our new audience? Instead of making a sweeping claim on that, it is perhaps more educative to recount a few real anecdotes. A group of people from Uttarakhand had come that year to the Gorakhpur festival where we had screened a Hindi version of K. P. Sasi’s Resisting Coastal Invasion. The Hindi title was Sagar Tat Ke Saudagar. They immediately linked the roots of the problem to those of big dams in their state. They went back and began screening documentaries critiquing big dams, and always included documentaries addressing issues of the environment and ecology in their own festivals. Sasi’s film had left its mark on their minds. When Cinema of Resistance ventured into film production, there was a local demand to make a film on Japanese Encephalitis, an epidemic that took its toll on children in the area. We made a film from the people’s contributions and used it to spread awareness in the area. The other instance was when in the Salmpur Film Festival we screened Biju Toppo and Meghnath’s Gadi Lohardaga Mail, a poignant and lyrical film about the songs of migrant workers of Jharkhand and a nostalgic train ride. The audience was visibly moved by the film. In the discussion session that ensued, we came to know of a similar train that runs between Barhaj and Salempur. In this way people’s stories get linked. People connect with each other. The screening of Anand Patwardhan’s Occupation: Millworker among workers of a closed Jute Mill in Naihati of West Bengal forged similar bondings amongst millworkers separated by boundaries of space and time. Examples abound. In Bhilai the sanitation workers’ union requested us to curate a film on the plight of sanitation workers. We screened Pee (Shit) by Amudhan R. P., using live dubbing to transcend the language barrier. The audience related immediately. In a similar instance, when we screened Kachra Kondi (produced by the Safaai Kaamgaar Union of Pune) in Gorakhpur, we invited the union representatives themselves to talk about their film, which prompted the Gorakhpur audience to open up on issues faced by sanitation workers in their town. Then again if you look at Kashmir or Manipur, no one can ignore the role of Sanjay Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadi or Haobam Paban Kumar’s AFSPA 1958 to help educate audiences to challenge and question the nationalistic discourse on the question of autonomy, self-determination and militaristic dominance.

India is experiencing monopolistic aggression of Capital on an unprecedented scale. And this aggression is not confined to mining and land-grab alone. The cultural sphere is not being spared. Over ninety percent of our cultural space is dominated by big players like UTV, Reliance, or Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms. All our news and electronic media are owned by a handful few companies. They are carrying corporate propaganda like never before. Bollywood is churning out films by certain formulae, like the ‘gangster formula’, the ‘terrorist formula’ or the ‘NRI formula’. And the entire distribution network is again controlled by the big sharks themselves. How must we confront this scenario other than by building a strong and self-sustained alternative model? We must use technology in a radical manner to this end. Which brings us to the closing anecdote of this piece. In 1969, the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Solanas gave a radio interview to Jean-Luc Godard, after the release of the iconic The Hour of the Furnaces. After a while when Solanas asked Godard about his views, Godard reportedly said he wanted to use the camera in the same way as the Vietnamese fighters had used the bicycle against the US aggressors. We must have a radical mindset to similarly use all the technology currently at our command and disposal.

People’s Struggles and the Role of the New Camera

Cultural activists from the various chapters of Cinema of Resistance met at the Third National Convention during 15-16 February at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi. Delegates presented reports from their respective zones of work. Several issues like deliberating on policy guildelines on funding and curation, drawing up tasks for the next two years, preparing a screening calendar for the upcoming year, and organizational issues featured on the agenda. Specialized teams were formed to work on the aspects of curation, website-development, subtitling and dubbing. A nine-member executive body was elected, which in turn re-elected Sanjay Joshi as National Convener. On the evening of February 15, an open session titled ‘People’s Struggles and the Role of the New Camera’ was organized. Akaal Ki Kala aur Zainul Abedin, a book authored by painter Ashok Bhowmick to mark the centenary year of Zainul Abedin, was released by writer Arundhati Roy. Filmmaker Sanjay Kak released the poster of a new people-funded film, Quaid, by Mathura-based filmmaker M. Gani. Noted feminist historian and filmmaker Uma Chakravarti released the Convention brochure and chaired the open session. Speakers included Bhowmick, Roy, Kak, Chakravarti, along with Manoj Kumar Singh (convener, Gorakhpur Film Society), Shailendra Pratap Singh Bhati (convener, Udaipur Film Society), Sanjay Joshi (national convener of Cinema of Resistance) and Surya Shankar Dash, documentary filmmaker from Odisha. Kasturi, convener of Kolkata Chapter of Cinema of Resistance, conducted the session.

Films and Causes:

Anand Patwardhan’s Journey

(Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, on receiving the V. Shantaram Lifetime Achievement Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival, 2014, reflects on the achievements and failures of his films and the causes and people they speak about.)

Acceptance speech

I must confess to mixed feelings this evening as I accept this Lifetime Achievement Award. Of course I am overjoyed that our work is recognized and deeply grateful to all those who must have struggled to make this happen.

I have been very lucky. I was lucky to have the parents, the family and the friends that I did, who gave me such unstinting and ungrudging support through all the times when our work was frowned upon by the authorities and ignored by the market. I am also lucky that despite opposition, many of my films got recognition both in India and abroad.

Here is where my mixed feelings come in. My films are nothing without the causes they speak about and the people they champion. Today if I ask myself whether these films really made a difference to the people and the causes they are about, I would have to admit that the difference is marginal.

Let me give just a few examples:
Prisoners of Conscience (completed in 1978) was about political prisoners in Independent India. Today our jail population continues to rise as our system refuses to grant bail even to those who have been in detention without trial for years together.

Bombay Our City (completed in 1985) was about the macabre practice of demolishing the makeshift homes of the homeless. Demolitions are still in full swing as we continue to criminalize the poor instead of questioning a development paradigm that forces urban migration and urban poverty.

In Memory of Friends (1990) and Ram ke Naam/In the Name of God (1992) were about the rise of sectarianism and violence in the name of religion. Today we are perhaps on the brink of once again electing to power those who were nurtured with the ideological mindset that killed Mahatma Gandhi, that engineered and celebrated the demolition of the Babri Mosque, that connives in and condones the massacre of minorities. Amongst those attacked and then denied justice, it also creates a thirst for revenge and counter-violence.
Father, Son and Holy War (1995) was about our patriarchal system and the connection between religious violence and machismo. Today we are witnessing increasing violence against women as well as communal assaults that include gang rape. Yet we have a prime ministerial candidate who publicly boasts of his he-man 56 inch chest size even as his crimes of omission and commission during the pogroms of 2002 are forgotten and forgiven by the entire corporate world and its embedded media.
A Narmada Diary (1995) was about the destruction and displacement caused by the gigantic Sardar Sarovar dam and about a peoples’ movement that forced the World Bank to stop further funding to the project. Today the dam is almost complete yet the water instead of reaching the thirsty in drought prone areas, is being electrically pumped to serve water-parks and promenades in urban Gujarat.
War and Peace (2002) was about India’s tragic decision to join the infamous nuclear club and become a nuclear weapons wielding State. As Pakistan replied in kind, the region plunged into nuclear insecurity and uncertainty. Today our departing Prime Minister when recounting the few achievements he is proud of, lists at the forefront a nuclear deal with the USA that lifted an embargo on India’s nuclear program and allowed it to plan a huge increase in nuclear plants across the country. In the wake of Fukushima when the world is finally waking up to the fact that nukes are not only unsafe, they are unaffordable, India is busy buying second-hand Chernobyls to populate our tsunami susceptible coastline.
Jai Bhim Comrade (2012) was about the music of protest of a people who for thousands of years were denied education, forced to do menial jobs and regarded as “untouchables”. According to official government figures, every day somewhere in this country, two Dalits are killed and three raped. In our film one of the many groups protesting these atrocities was the Kabir Kala Manch (the KKM). By the end of the film KKM members had been forced to go underground after police began to brand them as Maoist “Naxalites”. After Jai Bhim Comrade won awards including one at the last MIFF, and was extensively written about, we formed a KKM Defence Committee. Finally the KKM decided that with civil society support, it was worth it to come overground. They did a non-violent Satyagraha by singing outside the Maharashtra Assembly and were arrested. Three of them eventually got bail thanks to a High Court order, but 10 months later, three others are still in jail. They all gave themselves up voluntarily, expressing faith in democracy. Their only weapons were their songs. Today it is really our political and judicial system that is in the dock.
So I say that my feelings are mixed. Added to the bitter sweetness of this moment is the fact that my parents to whom I owe everything are not here anymore. Nor are many of the protagonists in my films, people like Pujari Laldas, Jaimal Singh Padda and Shahir Vilas Ghogre who gave their lives for what they believed in. And during this long journey I have also lost many of my beloved and admired friends in the filmmaking fraternity, people like Pervez Merwanji, Saratchandran, Sato Makoto, Tareque Masood, Magnus Isaacson and now, Peter Wintonick.
I am sorry for taking so much of your time. I am deeply grateful that my work, and through it, the work of so many others, has been recognized. I only hope that such awards will make our work and our causes more visible. Once that happens on a bigger scale, I am confident that change will come. Thank you !

Anand Patwardhan
Mumbai, 3 Feb. 2014