(Transcription of Video- Ambedkar Bhagat Singh National Media Fellowship 2017 Orientation)
In 1957 when the Communist government came to power, they did not know what to do with power. They were only opposing. With critical consciousness, you can oppose everything. But what about taking about responsibility- the social responsibility, in terms of the actual implementation that should take place? That’s not discussed actually. So it’s the same case, they were all opposing. But what about the social responsibility, especially in your government, when you’re ruling? They never knew how to rule, the Communists never knew how to rule. One side of the ministers was ruling and the rest of the communists were sitting at home. They had no work but because they cannot oppose their own party in power. They were home, they were not at jail or underground. For the first time in their lives, they were home so they produced children and I was born like that. If you look at 1958, many communist leaders had children. Then, a different history takes place, the Communist movement became part of the establishment. They were looking at power, party, elections. And involvement in social issues became motivated by a need to secure votes. Power was the central agenda. In 1964, the CPM movement split, the cadres went to CPM while the leaders went to CPI. In 1967, the Naxalite movement came out.
I was not political at all. My father died at the age 64 during the emergency. None of his children were political in any way. They wanted to wear flashy dresses and be in the mainstream. At the time, parenthood was different, both father and mother were different but children were different too. To me something remarkable happened because of emergency, I saw what the state can do to all of us on individual terms. The state intrudes on your personal freedom in a major way. There was a renaissance in the students and youth during emergency. I am a filmmaker but I think oral communication is the best form of communication even today, because it is more human despite all the technological advancement. All technological advancement should be adding on to oral, human communication. If it doesn’t take place, it is useless, it can be dangerous also.
During the emergency, we had an experience of a student being tortured and killed in Kerala. His name was Rajan. Activists initiated one slogan. It was a whisper campaign- Where is Rajan? He was tortured and killed in North Kerela. Several other, some of my friends were also tortured. There was this whisper campaign- where is Rajan. That’s all. That brought down an entire government in Kerela. All newspapers were silenced. Everybody crawled in front of Indira Gandhi, now we are crawling in front of Modi. How did this whisper campaign become so powerful? The human to human connection was established, Kerala to Delhi, Delhi to Punjab, to all other places. Everywhere people became united. They found the value of freedom, what freedom means today. Essentially, students and youth played that role. Kerala government collapsed because of that. Indira Gandhi also collapsed because of that. I am sure if that power is established, human political power in addition to technological things involved, Facebook, or anything then Modi will crumble like nothing, I am hundred percent sure about that.
After that phase, you find all over India a renaissance of youth and student movements. I was in JNU that time. I was also arrested in 1980. That time, I was working as a cartoonist also, freelancing with a lot of people, that’s how I earned my living. Later, I didn’t have my attendance and all that so I had to back out. I came to Bombay as a cartoonist. That was a skill I had. That was the time I saw two films which are very precious to my heart. One was Anand Pathwardhan’s Prisoners of Conscience (1969) which was based on the Emergency prisoners. I was involved with that so I could identify with that topic. The second film that time was called An Indian’s Story by Tapan Bose. That documentary explicitly showed how Dalits were tortured in Bhagalpur police station, they were all blinded by throwing acid in their eyes. They were harassed because they were Dalits. When they asked for water, the police urinated in their mouth. These were the early filmmakers who entered into the modern era. Before there were also activist filmmakers, but they used films division (a state body). These were the two milestones before me. I was already watching a lot of commercial films and I was also involved with politics.
I was disgusted with cartooning because that only gives a kick for a small time. I was finding a difference between my politics and my work as a cartoonist. By the time I decided, I will be making films. I went to Kerala, I was supposed to join a newspaper called Current which is like Blitz, sensational media. There, I picked up my old friends from JNU. One of my friends had an outdated camera- 16 frames per second, black and white, no negative, directly positive. He had a camera, projector, and slicer. We wanted to make a film on the cultural action of People’s Science Movement. We didn’t have money so we went to students for support and collected around 2000 rupees- the first budget for my first film. That film was shown. For activists, it was showing themselves as good. For us, the fact that you could make a film was very important. There was no sync sound. The commentary was given so that there was no need for sync. In my house, the film was made using a slicer and cello tape. A group in Delhi heard about me. My idea was to make film on social movements, for social movements. They asked me to make a film in 1984 for Doordarshan on the People’s Science Movement. The film Science to the People gave a lot of credibility to the People’s Science Movement at the time. The group was also happy so they signed me for another film. That time there was a struggle for the fisher people that I was also connected to. Trawling was a major issue. Norway was responsible for introducing the technology. They banned the technology in Norway but in India it kept going on. There was a huge conference going on regarding the impact of trawling on fisher people’s lives. I was asked to make a film on that. But we also decided to make a film along that on the people’s movements, not just for the scientific missionaries- We Who Make History and That Angry Arabian Sea. Fisher people’s struggle got a lot of mileage through the film. A lot of discussion took place after that. Trawling was controlled. The government also took a stand on that. The demand was to control trawling for three months in the breeding season but the government accepted for 45 days. That was an experience where I understood what is human knowledge.
The entire spectrum of human knowledge- what we know is a small fraction of what we all don’t know. What we know put together, humankind, is a small spectrum of written knowledge. Unwritten knowledge is far higher than written knowledge. Those interested in doing PhD must recognize that. What the universities normally do with PhD and Mphils is a rehashing of the same knowledge over and over again, they don’t produce knowledge. Very few produce new knowledge. But look at the unwritten knowledge. Mao asked an academician who pretended to know everything in the world whether he knows carpentanry, plumbing, farming cooking, and a series of similar question. The academician didn’t know anything. But yet, he was pretending to know everything. Mao’s point was that the people have the knowledge. I am not a supporter of Mao, I believe that Mao was responsible for capturing Tibet. But this is very unique about Mao in terms of respecting people’s knowledge. The fisher folk even today, fish according to the changing color of the sea- the color of the sea, the sound of the sea, the smell of the sea, these things even now the fisher people in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, all these places you’ll find immense knowledge on the sea which the marine scientists don’t know. They are having full knowledge. When they come back at night, it is all dark. They know astronomy, they look at the stars and come to their houses. They know everything under the sea, how the sea bottom works. How the breeding grounds are destroyed by trawling. They know what it does to the sea. I am not going on detail. What I’m trying to say is that people’s knowledge is in abundance.
In Pune, there was a Dalits Women’s group in one municipality, women do the chakki grinding and they sing songs while they’re doing it. One group documented the songs. Around 40,000 songs were recorded, they’re all illiterate. Illiterate women recollected around 40,000 songs through which you can understand the history from 6th century onwards. So much of knowledge in those songs. We communicated through songs and stories as societies in this subcontinent called India. Everything is there with the Dalit communities, it is there with Adivasis. You go to Kani tribe, you have some medical problem. They’ll pluck some leaves and give you the treatment. Some of my friends have menstrual problems that Adivasis have the treatment for in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Coorg (the ones I know). Modern medicine can give you only limited things. This is knowledge that has been transferred for thousands of years which is far superior, which is unwritten. Because it is unwritten, they have no history.
What is the biggest mass murder in the colonial period? Everybody will say Jallianwalla bagh. Around 1,000 people were killed. Some 30,000 people were killed by Britishers during the Santhal movement but that is never quoted in history textbooks (historians have recorded it). Why? Because they were Adivasis. The biggest protest against colonialism started with the Muslim community from 1498 against Vaso Da Gama. Then, Dalits and Adivasis were involved, upper caste were involved much later (mid 19th century). We say the freedom struggle is this but we don’t recognize the hundreds of people movements in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and so many others who fought against the Britishers, they were killed. We don’t look at it as freedom struggle, their families do not get freedom fighter’s pension. Because they are Adivasis. So Adivasis, Dalits, women, sexual miniorites and a wide range of communities today in India do not have history. Karl Marx says in The Communist History: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. My problem with Marx is only on that ground, what about the history of Dalits, women, Adivasis, sexual minorities. All that has to be taken in to consideration. The working class is not the only body. You have prophets that emerge in major areas. My politics is that you have to take all the positive aspects of Marx, Ambedkar, Gandhi, Birsa Munda, Periyar, including Christ and Prophet. There are a lot of positive things, we don’t have to fight about the prophets. If you look at these prophets as religious symbols, we are not going to learn anything. For activist work, we have to do that.
Coming back to films, films are nothing more than activism. Film is a part of life, activism is a part of life, beyond that it does not mean a thing. Film is like cooking, if you want to make chicken curry, you have to know what to put when, how much to put when, you have to understand combinations. The only thing is you can make chicken curry in half and hour but it may take you two hours to make a documentary. Filmmaking as a creative task, there is a whole world out there which suppresses our creativity at every moment. Within the family system, within the education system- they say you can sing, you can’t dance, or you can dance, you can’t sing. That kind of judgement is coming from family system itself in terms of competition. In Adivasi societies, everybody signs and dances. It is only in ours societies, this specialization is coming in. Somebody can paint, they cannot dance. Somebody can sing, cannot paint. Human beings are multiple creative beings, this multiple creativity doesn’t come out because of this competitive world. If Adivasi societies can do that, why can’t we do that? I respect many of the Adivasi societies where displacement has not crept in, where mainstream has not gone in, they are rich societies, they have better water than us, breathe better air, houses are more sustainable (not concrete), food is much more healthy and also tasty, and their booze is much better, The relationships are far better- between adults and children, adults and old people is far better. I had the luxury of interviewing a thousand people in this country, which was my learning process. Once an Adivasi activist told me, (she got sold out to BJP now) generally to the middle class that you don’t have teach us about socialism, feminism, democracy, and environment because we practice it. We have a vision of environment which you don’t have. Broadly, I would agree with that although some exceptions can be raised. I would broadly say that value is right. Why do we hold written knowledge as the only form of knowledge available to us in any form? We have to look into it with a critical vision. Religion is not accepted, in the school forms, if the student is not Christian or Muslim, they write Hindu. So culture is not accepted, language is not accepted, and the medium of communication is not accepted.
When the British started invading Jharkhand, there was one priest who was supporting the Adivasi struggles for the rights of the forest. Now we have FRA, but FRA actually began in Jharkhand, the right to forest resources. The Jharkhand movement has more to do with community rights as opposed to national liberation struggle. Birsa Munda is treated as a freedom fighter but he was talking about the freedom of community, not freedom of Punjabi, Tamilians, and Keralites and all that. The community rights of land, freedom, and water, that’s what he was talking about. During such protests, after the oppression of Birsa Munda (his life is like a novel, history unfolding like a novel) one priest said that you have to document it. You have to fight using the existing institutions, so the Adviasi leaders filed a complaint against this in Calcutta court. The court asked, what is the proof that the forest belongs to you? The Adivasis said we have the rocks of our ancestors and the dead bodies are kept there. I made the first film on Narmada, A Valley Refuses to Die, there I found that most of the Adivasis when asked the question: why are you fighting for the Narmada dam? The most emotional thing they said was that our Gods are dying. What are these Gods? When the father dies, they put a stone. They all become Gods. They pass history using these stones and they are not the kind of Gods we have, they are alive. Nature, hills, and trees are Gods. You have this history within stones, the stones are the reminder that your life is between the past and the future. The present is a continuum. In our segregation, that doesn’t occur. They think the present means the entire life you live and the future generations, that’s their time span. Our time span- what are you going to do next year, you don’t know. We have a very short term memory, short term time span. Human life is located in the past, future, and between that there is a present actually. The stones are very important in that sense to remind what kind of life we should lead. Our relationship to the environment, our relationship to others, community, the stones tell us. All nooks of the memories are attached there, there is nothing written.
The Jharkandi Adivasis were asked to bring the stones, they brought all these gigantic stones across the forests and mountains to reach Calcutta. In the process, some of them died. The judge finally came out to see the stones. He said, but there is nothing written on them. They don’t have a written knowledge. This is a Catch-22 situation in terms of knowledge. We have suppressed more knowledge than we have generated with all the technological development, writing skills, libraries, we have suppressed more knowledge and creativity than we what we have created. That simple truth we have to accept when we search for knowledge, in any social activism, creativity, we have to accept it.
People like me are representatives of third cinema. Commercial films look for commercial success, it has its own formula. You have art cinema, how many festivals, how many awards you get, that has got its own formula. People like us look at social and political relevance. That can be called third cinema. I consider myself as a third person here. I see positive aspects within commercial and art, I don’t reject anything. But there is a voice that is coming up from this third cinema especially in documentary cinema in the past three decades. When I entered, I was a loner but now there are so many people. Now you can understand the voices from Gujarat on communal issues directly from the victims themselves. If you write a report on Gujarat, it is a secondary source. But here you can listen to the victims directly through documentary cinema, from the Bhopal gas chamber, what they faced, what their struggle is about. Anybody sitting in Kerala and Assam can listen to their voices directly, they can speak with their own language, own emotions. If you write about it, it is a form of representation. But here you create a platform for the victims and survivors to represent themselves- the platform of documentary cinema which is more authentic. They will not be able to write but they will speak. This is the kind of work that has been going on in the last three decades. Women’s issues, working class struggles, Adivasi struggles, Dalit struggles, farmer struggles, developmental issues- what is the meaning of development and what are the issues. You can listen to people of Singur and Nandigram and hear it directly from them. There are direct voices of what is happening. That kind of cinema is what I call third cinema. I would not call it independent cinema because I am dependent upon my team, activists, certain people who have thought about the issue much more than me, I am dependent on the people’s movement leaders. I am only part of the process.
In commercial cinema, I have a lot of respect of RK Murthy who shot Guru Dutt’s films- Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool. With the technology that time, if you want to shoot outside, you had to know where all the light comes from very carefully and need an extra sensitive perception to shoot. Cinematography was a specialized job, a lot of trouble. You had to wait for the sun, for the clouds to disappear. Cinematographers were used to struggle, when you struggle for a job, you become more qualified. If you look at the cinematography today, it is more slick, polished. But it doesn’t stay in our memory. How does a work of art sustain time and space restrictions? For that there should be struggle, you can’t do anything just like that. Whether it be activism, art, anything in life. The whole preparation of the struggle is more important. That patience, determination is important. Also, the kind of connection with likeminded people which allows us to keep generating energy all the time. We cannot afford to be individualist anymore. People have to keep reminding us about our mistakes, and generate energy for us. Without that, nothing works. At the same time, I find the new generation cinema, there are a lot of things that people like us don’t have. In the field of technology, they work a lot faster. The new generation has a lot of advantages- their capacity to consume information is much faster, their articulation skills are much better.
But when it comes to dreams, I believe we have deeper dreams, I still believe that.