A tale of two documentaries: What the disruption of two documentary films means for free speech and dissent in India

A poster of “Muzaffarnagar Baki Hai…”

By Taran N Khan*

In early June this year, I reviewed Nakul Singh Sawhney’s documentary film “Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai” (Muzaffarnagar Eventually…) for “Himal Southasian”. Shot between September 2013 and April 2014, the film captures the communal violence that tore through areas in north India in the run up to the 2014 general elections. The documentary meticulously maps out the cynical polarisation along communal lines in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in Uttar Pradesh. Besides demonstrating how the riots played into the electoral calculations of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), it also indicts the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) for failing to provide protection, and subsequent support, to the riot victims and the displaced – an overwhelming majority of whom were Muslims.

With these broad swipes at dominant political formations, the film has ruffled many feathers. Nevertheless, it was screened at a number of venues across the country, before a screening in Delhi faced a crude disruption. On 1 August, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), stopped a private screening of the documentary organised by the film society of Kirori Mal College in Delhi University. A video of the incident shows about 30 members of the ABVP marching into the venue about an hour into the film and demanding that it be stopped.

The organisers asked them to watch the film before raising objections to it. Predictably, they refused, before threatening to assault a student who was recording the stand-off. It is clear that the protest screenings tapped into a vein of anger and frustration at the invasion of open spaces and the curtailing of freedom of expression in India over the last year. The immediate responses I encountered on social media after the incident ranged from the resigned (“Did you really expect them to listen?”) to the belligerent (“You should have hit them back”).

In a short while, however, a remarkably effective response was articulated by a number of groups and individuals, which culminated in coordinated protest screenings across the country on 25 August, less than a month after the disturbance at Kirori Mal College. To counter the unofficial censoring of the documentary, it was screened in over 50 towns and cities across 22 states. The film was watched in places as far flung as Nainital, Raipur, Lucknow, Vishakahapatnam and Gangtok, in small venues, auditoriums and even living rooms. Outside the country, there were screenings in Oxford and Kathmandu. It is difficult to say precisely how many people watched the film, but the organisers estimate the number to be around 7000. No wonder that Sawhney notes that it seems only right for him to send a bouquet to thank the ABVP, for ensuring a far larger audience for his work.

The success of the protest can be linked in part to the impressive networks nurtured by Cinema of Resistance (COR), the group that issued the call for the nationwide screenings. A movement that aims to bring progressive films and a culture of debate to diverse audiences, COR began in 2006, out of Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Since then it has held festivals and screenings throughout the country, funding its activities through donations alone. Many of the screenings of “Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai” were organised by local chapters or associates of COR. They also sent out DVDs to other groups who volunteered to host sessions.

So along with the film, the day of protest was also a testimonial to the power of the kind of sustained, difficult work that COR does so well – widening the network of independent-cinema enthusiasts across the country. The date, 25 August, was picked to mark the first death anniversary of Shubhradeep Chakravorty, the documentary director whose film “In Dinon Muzaffarnagar” was denied the certification for public viewing by the censor board last year.

With news of successful screenings also came reports of disruptions by different parties: university authorities, the police and political groups. Yet even to this day, groups continue to organise events around the film. It is clear that the protest screenings tapped into a vein of anger and frustration at the invasion of open spaces and the curtailing of freedom of expression in India over the last year. As a poster created by COR declared: “You stop us at one place, we spring up everywhere!”

Just days after the protest screenings, the media reported that National Award winner Kamal Swaroop’s documentary “Battle for Banaras”, on the 2014 electoral battle between Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal in the constituency of Varanasi, had been denied a censor certificate. The film was shot over 44 days from April 2014, capturing the high-octave campaign and the media frenzy in a city that is an important site for Hindu pilgrims. “The Telegraph” quoted the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification of India, Pahlaj Nihalani as saying, “It looks like this film portrays Modiji in poor light and I think it is anti-government to do so.”

Swaroop denies this allegation, but it is chilling to think that criticising the prime minister can be held as grounds to refuse a censor certificate. Other media reports held the problem to be with the film’s ‘inflammatory’ language. Talking to the “Wire”, Swaroop said: “All the candidates were making wild statements and allegations. Phrases like Mukhota, 56-inchchest, corrupt and many more in that vein, were thrown around liberally. Today when we see all that, it looks stupid and childish but the fact is that these comments were made and shown then on television. I just recorded all of it, without adding any comment from my side…”

Kamal Swaroop

In 2014 it was like entertainment which boosted TRPs; but today it holds up a mirror which we do not want to see. The irony of a film that revolves around the electoral exercise of the ‘world’s largest democracy’ being censored is too glaring to escape. A beloved and iconic figure in independent cinema in India, Swaroop is one of the mavericks in the field. In 1988, he made the acclaimed “Om Dar-B-Dar”, which has since been rediscovered by a new generation of audience. He also directed Rangbhoomi on the life of Dadasaheb Phalke, one of the pioneers of Indian cinema, that won the National Award for best nonfeature film in 2014. Battle for Banaras was inspired by Nobel laureate Elias Canetti’s non-fiction study `Crowds and Power’.

Published in 1960, the text dwells on how and why crowds conform to the authority of rulers. The online teaser of the film shows images of Varanasi as the city prepares for the elections. Another clip shows the ghats, beautifully lit up at night, with a crowd in perfect formation by the riverside cheering Mr Modi. Even as it was denied a censor certificate, the documentary was set to screen at the Montreal Film Festival 2015. The director reportedly plans to appeal the decision with the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). The irony of a film that revolves around the electoral exercise of the ‘world’s largest democracy’ being censored is too glaring to escape.

The trajectories of these two documentaries tell a larger tale about the freedom of expression in today’s India. The censorship of “Battle for Banaras” represents the heavy-handedness of the state apparatus and its attempt to silence critical discourse. Such silences become the pretext for labeling any dissent or alternative idea as ‘antinational’. From such context also emerges an atmosphere where murders of elderly professors in Karnataka are celebrated on Twitter, and where an activist and an actress criticising the prime minister’s ‘Selfie with Daughter’ campaign are met with vile misogyny and abuse.

The case of “Muzaffarnagar Baaqi” Hai, on the other hand, represents the enduring vitality of protest and resistance, and a rousing determination to break the silence. The coordinated screenings of the film were powerful for being led by people as well as organisations, for being both large and small, for being overwhelmingly unpoliceable. They were both heartening for their innovation, and saddening in the fact that the protest viewings were needed at all.

The excesses of the Censor Board or government authorities while confronting dissent is hardly new. One of India’s foremost documentary directors, Anand Patwardhan, has engaged in long legal battles before his films have been broadcast. In 2004, filmmakers protested covert censorship at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) by setting up Vikalp, a parallel festival and platform to protect freedom of expression. But the story of these two documentaries is a telling reminder that for documentary cinema, these are both the worst of times and the best of times: the acts of documentation and remembering itself are under attack, but for all that, there is much that they can stand for and achieve.

*Mumbai-based journalist who writes on cinema, Islam and gender. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006 where she worked closely with Afghan media producers and filmmakers. Her work can be seen at http://www.porterfolio.net/taran. The above article can be accesses at http://himalmag.com/ muzaffarnagar-banaras-documentarytaran-khan-film-column/ #sthash.fE483yw2.dpuf. Source: “PUCL Bulletin” (September 2015)


One thought on “A tale of two documentaries: What the disruption of two documentary films means for free speech and dissent in India

  1. Who are actually responsible for today’s condition of intolerance and growing terrorism in India? Mr.L.K.Advaniji who started a Rath Yatra from Gujarat for constructions of Ram Temple with demolition of Babri Masjid on 6.12.1992 resulting riots in India from 1993? Or Mr. Narendra Modiji who was the part of Mr.L.K.Advani?

    Why Surat riots were not stopped in 1993 to 1994? What was the role of a RSS worker of Gujarat Mr. Shanker Singh Vaghela from 1996 till date who is now in Congress party.
    Why Gujarat Riots of 2002 continued in Vadoara from 27.2.2002 to May. 2002? Why no action is taken against the perpetrators of Vadodara riots from 27.02.2002, Started from Vadodara Railway station at 2 PM? till date?
    Read a e-mail of Late Mr.B.Raman after Ahmadabad serial Bomb Blasts on 27.07.2008 he wrote on 25.08.2008? WHY? Resulting attacks in Mumbai on 26.11.2008 by 10 Fidayeens of Pakistan with a e-mail om 27.11.20008 published in Hindustan times.WHY?
    Why Mr. L.K.Advaniji visited Karachi in 2005. After his visit to Karanchi all Bomb Blasts in India. WHY? ARE Mr. NARENDRA MODIJI RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL THESE? From 07.10.2001 after he become Chief Minister of Gujarat on 7.10.2001 by the decesion of NDA / Vajpayeeji to shift Mr.Modiji to Gujarat a CM due to mis-managements of disaster of Gujarat on 26.01.2001.
    URL http://intellibriefs.blogspot….
    Intelli-Briefs bring you Intelligence briefs on Geopolitics , Security and Intelligence from around the world . We gather information and insights from multiple sources and present you in a digestible format to quench your thirst for right perspective, with right information at right time at right place . We encourage people to contact
    us with any relevant information that other news media organizations don’t
    cover . Contact :intellibriefs@gmail.com
    August 25 , 2008
    (To be read in continuation of my aricle of August 2,2008, titled DIFFICULT TO
    DECIPHER INDIAN MUJAHIDEEN’S MESSAGES at http://www.southasiaanalysis.o… and article of August 21,2008, titled SIMI
    Copy-Cats Dhiren Barot & London Bombers? athttp://www.southasiaanalysis… )
    One more E-mail message purporting to be from the so-called Indian Mujahideen
    (IM) was reported to have been received on the evening of August 23,2008, by a
    TV news channel. It is suspected to have been sent from a computer in
    Mumbai’s Khalsa College . Police have initiated investigation to
    identify the originator. As in the case of the earlier message before the
    Ahmedabad blasts of July 26,2008 , the suspicion in the present case
    too is focussed on one Abdul Subhan Quereshi, projected by police officers
    of Gujarat as an information-technology literate activist of the
    Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), who operates from Mumbai. He has
    also been projected as an expert in the assembly of improvised explosive
    devices (IEDs). He is still absconding and has evaded capture by the police of
    either Gujarat or Mumbai.
    2. To prove its authenticity, the message carries the photographs of some IEDs
    under the caption “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and of two cars which
    were used for the blasts in Ahmedabad. This modus operandi is similar to the
    use of a picture of bicycles with IEDs attached to them in the E-mail received
    by a news channel after the Jaipur blasts of May 13,2008.In the E-mails sent by
    the IM before the blasts in three cities of Uttar Pradesh on November 23,2007 ,
    and before the Ahmedabad blasts, the IM apparently did not feel the need of
    authenticity proof since the blasts themselves, which occurred after the
    receipt of the E-Mails, served as proof of authenticity. In the E-mails sent
    after the Jaipur and Ahmedabad blasts, pictures were attached as proof of
    3. The messages sent before the UP blasts and after the Jaipur blast were
    purported to have been sent by one Guru al-Hind, which was suspected to be a
    reference to Mohad Afsal Guru, who has been sentenced to death for his role in
    the terrorist strike against the Indian Parliament in December,2001. His mercy
    petition is still under examination by the Government of India.
    4. The message sent before the Ahmedabad blasts was purported to have been sent by the same Guru-al-Hind. By the side of his signature at the bottom of the
    message, the word Al-Arbi was written in capital letters. Al-Arbi means
    “The Arab”. It also stands for Wednesday. It was taken to mean that
    the message must have been signed by Guru al-Hind on the Wednesday preceding the blasts. In the latest message, the reference to Guru al-Hind is not there —-neither in the E-mail identity nor at the bottom of the message. Instead,
    the message is signed as Al-Arbi in capital letters. The e-mail identity of the
    originator has also been changed as al-arbi-al-Hind. In this context, al-Arbi
    could mean only “The Arab ” and not Wednesday. Thus, the e-mail identity used means “The Arab of India ” Why so since the IM claims to be an organisation totally of Indian Muslims with no external links? Why the originator projects himself as “The Arab”? Is it a reference to one of the two Indian Muslims operating from Saudi Arabia for many years?
    One of them referred to by Pakistani jihadis as Abu Abdel Aziz was linked to the
    Lashkar-e-Toiba (LEt). He had played what the jihadis considered as a legendary
    role in organising jihad in Bosnia and was also closely involved in assisting the jihadis in J&K. There was no evidence in the past to believe that Abu Abdel Aziz was connected with the SIMI. The other Indian Muslim in Saudi Arabia is C.A.M.Basheer of Kerala, who was the President of the SIMI in the 1980s. He was co-ordinating the activities of the SIMI in India and the Gulf from Saudi Arabia .
    5.The latest message, like the previous one, has many religious quotations and
    allusions. It is quite abusive. The language used is typical Indian
    English—-not Pakistani or Arab. It uses abuses like “bastards” that one picks up more in a secular educational institution than in a madrasa.It shows a propensity for the use of the verb “await” as in previous messages. It tries refute the allegations of the Gujarat police that the SIMI activists arrested by them were the perpetrators of the Ahmedabad blasts. It denies that the SIMI has metamorphosed into the IM as alleged by the Gujarat Police.It seeks to convey the impression that the real perpetrators have not been captured. Interestingly, it also tries to implicate Ken Haywood,an American missionary worker who was working in Mumbai and whose computer was suspected by the Police to have been used by the Indian Mujahideen without his knowledge,as a conscious collaborator. It thanks him and an associate of his for their co-operation and guidance in making the attack in Ahmedabad a success. Haywood has since run away from Indiawhen police investigation against him was in progress. Did he allow the IM to use his computer without knowing their background as a terrorist organisation?
    6. The message warns of fidayeen attacks in the future. Some senior SIMI
    leaders arrested by the Madhya Pradesh Police in Indore in March last
    were reported to have stated that they had experimented with peroxide-based
    liquid explosives during a training camp held in Kerala last year.
    Peroxide-based explosives are increasingly the favourite choice of pro-Al Qaeda
    jihadi organisations and elements abroad, including in Pakistan and Afghanistan . A peroxide-based explosive was used by the suicide bombers in their terrorist strikes in London in July,2005. Is the IM planning to use peroxide-based
    explosives for suicide attacks in future?
    7. The SIMI leaders arrested by the MP Police had also reportedly claimed
    during their interrogation that they had considered the options of hijacking an
    aircraft or taking of hostages before deciding on serial blasts. The IM may
    still resort to this modus operandi to get those arrested by the Gujarat Police
    8. The latest message, like the previous one, repeats the strong attack on the
    Times of India. The reasons for the IM’s anger against the TOI are not clear.
    Could it be more personal than religious? Did any Muslim serving in the TOI in
    the past leave the service in bitterness— particularly from its Ahmedabad
    office? Has it been less critical or more supportive of Narendra Modi, the
    Chief Minister of Gujarat ? (25-8-08)
    (The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of
    India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies,
    Chennai. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com )
    Dr.R.K.D.Goel.President of Whistle-Blower

    NO ACTION. WHY. ARE ANY ONE RESPONSIBLE IN VADODARA FOR SAFETY OF NATION INDIA? COME TO VADODARA TO SEE LAPSES OF SAFETY OF INDIA FROM 1996 till date.WHERE PEOPLES ARE DYING DUE TO FLOODS FROM 2005 / 2006 to 2015 with losses of Properties of Vadodara residents and siphoning of JnNURUM Center Government grants from 2006 till date in 2015. WHY?


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