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Dissecting the Communal: An informal talk with the filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney

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Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, Nakul Singh Sawhney; Caste
The students in discussion with the filmmaker, Nakul Singh Sawhney

Pradeep Pillai

On the 4th of February, Cinema of Resistance (Mumbai Chapter) organized an informal talk with Nakul Singh Sawhney, director of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai on the challenges of making a documentary film on communal violence.

The event saw a sizeable number of students attend and engage the director with a host of questions relating to identity, tradition and modernity, choice, to construct or to reveal through the process of making a film, to questions of accountability, of the role of the state v/s the centre in perpetuating communal violence, were few of the questions posed to the filmmaker.

Nakul began by addressing the gathering with the “inane expectations” that confront filmmakers. Especially when making films on people who have been displaced, who are often victims of tragedy or of sectarian and religious violence.

When people are laying their lives out in front of a camera, it becomes pertinent to ensure, that is the filmmaker has a responsibility to the people, to go beyond the mere labels of victimhood that are ascribed to them. The situation demands more, much more, than a couple of tears that are shed by the audience, said Nakul.

“The idea of a film” Nakul told students, should be to contribute to larger cause or a movement. The role that the film plays is to begin a “debate in the mind of the audience.” This should be the intention of a filmmaker, to begin a “public debate.”

The situation demands a sensitive and deeper portrayal of the victims, as “three dimensional lives,” a genuine portrayal of their daily struggles. The aim of the filmmaker must be to enter the nuances and complexities of a situation.

Speaking about his film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, Nakul mentioned the aim of the film was an attempt to further “deconstruct communalism.” Communalism exists at the “intersectionalties of caste, of class and of gender.”

The role of gender was discussed in flaring communal violence. Protecting a woman’s honour is equivalent to protecting a communities honour in a society steeped in patriarchal norms. A woman’s honour is equated to family honour, to religious honour. This is the burden which is bestowed upon a woman. Her body and sexuality are then equated to the honour of the community, thereby circumnavigating her agency over her own body and sexuality. But why is this happening? Questioned Nakul.

Speaking about other aspects in the Hindutva agenda, it is important to understand that the larger Hindutva project is not separate from Brahmin ideology. There is a misconception that the R.S.S is interested in breaking caste hierarchies, but slowly and gradually it is becoming clear that since they have come into power, the Hindutva ideology is to ensure that caste hierarchies remain.

Furthering on this point, Nakul mentioned the measures taken, for example, in the University of Hyderabad or I.I.T Chennai against the students of Ambedkar Students Association and Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle respectively, suggests that “the idea of the assertive Dalit and the assertive woman does not sit well with the larger Hindutva agenda.” The same can be seen within class and caste intersectionalities, with the larger peasant Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) breakdown, furthered by the orchestrated break within the unity of the Muslim and the Hindu peasant. Thus Nakul felt it was important to measure the challenges and then do justice to the major complexities that arise within a situation. This was a point that reverberated amongst the students as well.

Nakul also spoke about his earlier work, Izzaatnagari Ki Asabhya Betiyan, in which the film explores honour killings and the role of Khap panchayats. The film revolves around five young Jat girls, and the ways in which they resist this feudal patriarchy. During the course of the discussion with students, Nakul reiterated that one of the most important things to keep in mind is the politics of representation in the film. One of the questions that kept coming up, Nakul mentioned was why is there a sudden spate of killings in the name of honour? Why is there a sudden resurgence of the Khap, and what did this have to do with the very conservative identity of the Jat? And to situate this within the larger mainstream media narrative of medieval justice and victimhood, seemed like things were fitting piecemeal by piecemeal, felt Nakul.

To answer the larger questions that are being brought to the fore, necessitates meeting people on the ground. A note which rung a positive chord with everyone during the discussion was when Nakul mentioned, one of the things that come up at the ground level, is that many historically marginalized groups such as Dalits and young women have begun to question accepted social norms.

So when young girls, across caste and class, begin to break out of prescribed caste orders, and this is something which happens many a times unconsciously, that is men and women falling in love out of caste and class barriers, challenges the feudal patriarchal caste order. So the victimhood narrative as is propagated by mainstream media is a farce, when scratched below the surface, what is revealed is the dominant narrative of resistance, and not one of victimhood. Here are women making bold decisions, exercising their agency, at the risk and threat of being killed.

Nakul gave the example of Seema, one of the protagonists in Izzaatnagari Ki Asabhya Betiyan. Seema’s challenge is the first of its kind, when she files a case and challenges the Khap panchayat, the government, and the administration after her brother is killed in an honour killing. The Manoj and Babli honour killing case was followed by a media frenzy, at the least in Haryana. But the story was then constructed into one of victimhood.

This is why a politics of representation becomes ever so important. Nakul counters the dominant narrative of victimhood, with one of a struggle of resistance. Nakul added, this is the challenge. How does a filmmaker counter the dominant hegemonic narrative? A narrative which specializes in reducing people and subjects into victims, into objects who can be patronized.

So as a filmmaker, Nakul mentioned, at every stage, one of the most important things that is always on the mind is, when a situation is deconstructed into its many layers, and many complexities, is one also able to simultaneously hold on to the dignity of the person to whom one is speaking to? Because this is one of the larger challenges. Especially when one conceives of a film.

In a reply to a question on Modernity, Nakul cautioned against a thinning out of the definition of modernity in modern India. In urban India. Within which, the attempt is to invisiblize caste. In our perceived notions of modernity, the invisiblizing of caste is an extremely dangerous project at play, because caste simply cannot be wished away. The only way to confront caste is to confront it head on.

To understand Hindutva one has to understand that the Brahmin project doesn’t exist in isolation from caste, gender or the neo-liberal model. This “social conservatism” as opposed to “social regressivism” exists in other larger political parties too, who might “unconsciously or consciously be brahminical.” This has been the failure of so called secular parties, the torchbearers of secularism in the country, because within its ranks social conservatism has far from genuinely been addressed.

To a question of pin-pointing the various stakeholders in manufacturing communal riots and then benefitting from them, Nakul raised the point that the argument is not about who threw the first stone. In the case of the Muzaffarnagar riots, outside of the investigative-judicial domain, it becomes important “not to slip into an action-reaction debate.” The larger question that one ought to ask is why is there in the first place a mobilization of thousands of people for a mahapanchayat with strong anti-muslim undercurrents? Said Nakul, “to slip into an action-reaction argument is to take away from the magnitude of the problem.”

How does the filmmaker insure the safety of people interviewed? Was a question that was posed to the filmmaker, by one of the students. In reply, Nakul mentioned the importance of explaining the purpose of the footage. What and how was the footage to be used needed to explained beforehand, because by “putting people on film, one increases their vulnerability,” and this is especially true for those belonging to marginalized groups.

Pradeep Pillai, is a student of Media and Culture Studies at TISS Mumbai

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