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Documentaries are medium of democracy

The Gujarat carnage has evoked tremendous response from all sections of society. From National media to NGO's, Social activist to elite class all have contributed in one way or other in bringing the horror of the holocaust to the notice of the entire world. NGO's and journalists have produced slew of documentaries. No doubt the intentions of all are noble and must be appreciated. But ironically most of the documentaries fail to take the rational route as they solely depend on the raw emotions of the victims.

It's no wonder that when this correspondent attended a press conference and a screening of the film, 'In the Name of Faith' on Gujarat carnage, by Pankaj Shankar at the Press Club of India recently in Delhi the response was very poor. It is useful to look at the fairly low-key response evoked in Delhi by Pankaj Shankar film on the Gujarat carnage. 

Before the documentary was released the press and reports by independent organizations were already unveiling the horrors of what had happened. Thus it would have been more fruitful if a rational and investigative approach were undertaken instead of emotional route. In a way the film itself is low key. Most of its twenty-five minutes or so are taken up with testimonies of survivors, mainly in the relief camps, interspersed with glimpses of the camps themselves. These are memorable images: huge blackened vessels atop clay ovens rising out of the arid ground, milling women and children squeezing under bamboo barriers, a child amid a restless crowd waiting as chapattis are thrown on to an enormous griddle. There are brief shots of ruined houses, destroyed localities, plundered rooms. Ironically other documentaries on Gujarat carnage also failed to capture the severity of the communal frenzy. Gopal Menon's film on the Gujarat carnage, Hey Ram: Genocide in the Land of Gandhi also totally depends on the raw emotions of the victims. In most of the documentaries the testimonies come one after the other, often lapsing into a monotone, telling the viewers what the speakers had seen, how they had escaped or been rescued and, sometimes, what it meant to them. 

There are very few tears, no breast-beating, and little sign of obvious grief. They are not touching faces and they do not offer easy routes to sentimental compassion. Possibly documentaries maker had concentrated on the most articulate speakers they could find because, more than the sights of the wounded and the dead, it is the oral testimony that are the subject. It is not surprising that the oral testimonies in these documentaries appear to many as somewhat "arranged". In these documentaries, as in the other reports, what comes through is the cruelty of the killings. The murders were perfectly focused. That so many of the targets were women, children and even foetuses was not because they are especially vulnerable but because they represent the perpetuation of a society. Killing them served a dual purpose, both pragmatic and symbolic. This documentary convinces the viewers that what is happening have nothing to do with communal riots; it is ethnic cleansing, or perhaps only the beginning of one. 

Nevertheless these documentaries have succeeded in shaking the conscience of the nation. To read about genocide in other parts of the world is one thing, to witness it, in one's own land is quite another. Now the country cannot plead lack of evidence, like the German citizens who could not believe in the "rumours" about the fate of their Jewish neighbours. Here, instead, there is an information overload. Thus its no wonder Narendra Modi, meanwhile, has declared that the non-governmental organizations are stepping out of line and Uma Bharti has demanded that organizations like Sahmat which is distributing these documentaries be investigated and punished if found guilty of falsifying facts.

One documentary maker, which has avoided the emotional route and has rational and investigative approach, is Anand Patwardhan. Patwardhan, a well-known filmmaker, has won national and international awards for all his documentaries. Ironically, Doordarshan the national channel has always refused to telecast his films and every time he was forced to go to court. Recently Mumbai High Court ordered Doordarshan to telecast Mr Patwardhan's latest documentary "Father, son and holy war". 

Patwardhan believes mainstream cinema can play vital role in fighting evils like communalism in the country, but so far this serious problem has been ignored by this powerful medium. The maker of widely acclaimed documentary films like 'In the name of god', 'In memories of friends', and 'Father, son & holy war', all of which are on the backdrop of communalism, Mr Patwardhan said communalism is on the rise in the country and something needs to be done to contain its menace. Earlier, Doordarshan had to telecast Mr Patwardhan's three films "Bombay our city", "In the name of god" and "In memories of friends" after the court's direction. Mr Patwardhan opined that Indian mainstream cinema was always anti-communal. After the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, for two decades fundamentalists were considered 'villians', and communalism as 'evil'. "Many film makers had gone through trauma of partition like Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and many more but they were 'progressive' in their filmmaking and not 'reactionary' and they made films on social issues", he pointed out. 

He said in the recent past not only were very few films made on the theme of communalism but also in some films filmmakers unconsciously were on the wrong side. He gave examples of Mani Ratnam's film 'Bombay' and John Mathew Mathan's film 'Sarfarosh'. "On one level 'Bombay' looks anti-communal, but on the other level it depicts wrong picture of Mumbai riots, as the riots were not on an 'equal' level but were targetted against the minorities," he said. He said in 'Sarfarosh', a Muslim has to prove his loyalty to his country otherwise he will be treated as 'traitor'. He believes that film industry is secular but is not aware about its role. 

According to Mr Patwardhan documentaries are medium of democracy. "They can strengthen democracy by increasing understanding between different sections of society", he felt. He complains that Doordarshan and Government does not encourage serious film makers, though good films are made but they don't see the light of the day. He said that even the audience does not care as they need entertainment. "Forces which control things have corrupted the tastes of the audience", he concluded. 

MH Lakdawala

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