Screening documentaries in Rajasthan

BY Sanjay Maharishi| IN Media Practice | 16/06/2004
A film maker takes to the road with films disqualified from the Mumbai International Film Festival.

Sanjay Maharishi

In early April 2004, I took about twelve Hindi documentary films to Rajasthan to screen them in cities, towns and villages. The tour spread over a fortnight in which films were shown in Alwar, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Puggal and Udaipur. The films I was carrying included Naata (Anjali Monteiro and KP Jaisankar), Pani Pe Likha (Sanjay Kak), Azadi (Amar Kanwar), City Beautiful (Rahul Roy), Development Flows from the Barrel of a Gun (Meghnath), The Buzz of Betrayal (Aditya Seth), Final Solution (Rakesh Sharma), Manjuben Truck Driver (Sherna Dastoor) and A Day in the Life of Ponga Pandit (Sanjay Maharish and Sudhanva Deshpande), amongst others.  

These films had been part of the Protest Show organised in Mumbai against the government-arranged Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). MIFF has been a festival we have always looked forward to, as filmmakers and as audience. Since its inception in 1990 we have seen some very good documentaries, shorts and animation films here, both national and international. But MIFF 2004 was definitely not such a festival. 

In early 2003, the MIFF organisers introduced a new clause so far unknown in any festival circuit. All films for screening need to be censored, they said. It took us all by surprise. Earlier there had been trouble with one odd film, but it had never been as bad as this. Almost any film that spoke about communalism, environmental degradation, women¿s issues and exploitation of tribal groups were all disqualified. Why this sudden and drastic action, you ask. Perhaps the government had left in its wake too many ¿sensitive¿ issues and the films just didn¿t fit the Shining India Feel Good theme.  The then culture king, Murli Manohar Joshi and his men wanted it to look like the 1936 Olympics. The presence of  Leni Riefenstahl, the film maker with Nazi links, added to the lacklustre celebrations. ¿Triumph of the Will¿ inaugurated the international section! Thank god it¿s over. 

Over three hundred filmmakers across the length and breadth of the country spontaneously boycotted the skewed festival and organised their own instead. It was named Vikalp - Films for Freedom. Vikalp turned out to be like a breath of fresh air, releasing hundreds of kilo tonnes of pent up energy. We came back from the festival all charged up and during our meetings, decided to further disseminate the films through individual action. My destination was Rajasthan.

Organising the Screenings

Earlier I was given to understand that I would be travelling with the
organisers of Jan Morcha a body made up of several activist groups, that were protesting against Advani¿s rath yatra, but that was not to be because of logistical problems. Daytime travel was out of the question because of the heat. I therefore stuck to my original plan of travelling by night. Screening over, I would board a bus for the next place to have a show in the evening and move on. Before the journey I contacted individuals/ organisations that could possibly lend support. I had strongly felt that we must establish a presence of Campaign Against Censorship (CAC) /Vikalp, talk about our archives and most importantly be able to show some films before elections due on the 5th of May in Rajasthan.

Initially it is a bit difficult to organise documentary film screenings; people are not aware of their potential and are a bit wary. Several organisations - be they formal, informal or non-governmental - had their own issues and agendas to promote. Therefore films in my package had to be put in context and/or demonstrated as to how they would be useful for their audiences.

Often this dialogue was on STD or on the mobile - while screenings were on at one place negotiations for the next were underway, and so on. I did not have more than two to three hours for the shows and in that, one had to talk, explain ones intentions, introduce the films and show them. I made sure I showed all the films at least 2-3 times in the entire journey.

They say one plus one is eleven. They couldn`t have put it better. I often found myself doing at least two things at the same time - for example, while talking about Vikalp and the Protest Show in Mumbai, I simultaneously checked audio/ video connections, projector/ amplifier alignments - correcting tape tracking and disk jumping - to save time. It may have given an effect of effervescent energy and immediacy to the cause but let me assure you that it is not the most elegant thing to do. There is a twofold fear of either missing out an important point or tripping over the wires, or both.

Luckily I had no untoward incident. The response to the screenings has been very enthusiastic and encouraging. Not only are audiences waiting for more films to come but there are also people who would happily and energetically get to the business of organising shows. I met many people who said they could organise a monthly or a bimonthly screening programme in their locality, place of work, a community space or even their houses. Also, I felt that the issue of censorship is close to the hearts of people of varied calling. Sikar, Barmer and Ajmer were three places I could not go to due to lack of time but there are groups there who were eager to have screenings. We may be somewhat constrained by the fact that we can only screen films either made in Hindi or those that are para-dubbed in Hindi. This I fear is something that the Delhi Group may have to deal with on a long term, sitting plumb in the middle of Cow Belt. If Hindi para-dubs can be made available they can go a long way, else Hindi subtitles too can be very useful, though it would mean we stick to the literate audience.

I met with a lot of people during my journey but the most interesting of them was a meeting with a couple of Bajrang Dal activists who wanted to start their new chapter in Puggal (northern Bikaner District). I asked them - It¿s such a little village, why would you care to start your activities here. They were a lively bunch, no fanaticism in their eyes, unlike their worthy brothers in Gujarat and MP. They had a lot of enthusiasm. They said it¿s like a mission for them. People here did not know about the Bajrang Dal, the RSS, or about threats to Hinduism. They were here to spread the message, start new activities and to build a committed cadre. Ideologies notwithstanding, we were there with similar objectives. You could start gathering crowds by showing good documentaries, I suggested to them. I was almost successful in my endeavour, when one of them said he wasn¿t sure they were allowed to show films on the first day itself. They also had a definite pattern to implement their agenda. I met them again when I was leaving Puggal. I asked them if they had a good day. They said they could not meet many people but they were not leaving in a hurry? (like me?)

Screenings and Responses

My first stop was at Bikaner where the show was organised by the well-known poet Harish Bhadhani and the columnist and writer Nandkishore Acharya at the Ajit  Foundation premises. The story about Harish Bhadhani is that if you get down at Bikaner and ask any five randomly picked rickshawallas about Harish Bhai`s (or Kaviraj`s) house, at least one of them will take you there directly without any further directions and may even charge you less money than what is due. While looking for his house I asked an STD/PCO owner for the poet`s residence. He took me in his shop, put on the AC and asked for a cold drink to be brought for me. Perfect stranger. Meanwhile I wondered at the power of rhyme. Poetry touches you in a way that prose does not and journalism cannot even dream of.  It`s not true for all prose and certainly not for all poetry but definitely true for all of journalism.

About a hundred people attended the screening at Ajit Foundation. Let me also add that I was showing films exactly on the day and time Dharmendra and Sunny Deol were in Bikaner. This was unplanned, of course; else I would have avoided these dates. For a sleepy town like Bikaner the presence of a couple of celluloid He-Men would be a distraction. Nevertheless we had a great show and spirited discussions. It an elite literary crowd of writers, poets, columnists, and so on. Censorship was an important issue here but so was aesthetics and film language.

Apart from the subjects thrown up by the films, discussions ranged from the issue of censorship to communalisation and trivialisation of politics. Another interesting point of discussion was aesthetics in agitational films. Are they judged by the same rules of narrative or do they have a special category?

The next screening was in Puggal, about two hours north of Bikaner. Another two hours drive north from here and you would be safely inside Pakistan. Puggal is a large village and I was invited to show films here by the Shanti Maitri Mission an organisation that fights for land rights of people displaced by the Rajasthan Canal. Here I showed Pani Pe Likha (a film on the history of Narmada agitation). In the beginning people gasped at the mere sight of so much water. Could there be a problem when there is so much of standing, nay, flowing water? Later as the story revealed itself it became clear as to what the problem was. SMM activists said they would find it easier to talk of collective action, its repercussions and ways to handle the State after seeing/showing the film.

On my way to Jodhpur I met a person in the bus who had been at the screening the previous evening in Bikaner. He said after the film shows he had to get back to office, in the land records department. I was surprised; he must have reached his office past nine in the night. He said some army people had come to his office and they wanted records of the past 40 years of a tehsil neighbouring the border. So late in the night, I asked. He said they wanted to evacuate legitimate landowners and shoo the rest away. And why would they want to do that, I asked. So that they could start laying land mines, was the nonchalant answer. Perhaps it is a standard peacetime activity or perhaps this current amicable relation with our neighbour is only till elections. Which one, I wondered?

Shows in Udaipur were organised by a spirited duo, Pradnya and Himanshu Pandya of the People¿s Union for Civil Liberty (PUCL). They had already conducted press briefings and informed everybody well in advance. Shows were held at Fateh Memorial Hall, a prime place in the centre of the city. Screenings were held over two days. There have been right wing attacks here recently at the Kala Mandal (a tribal art centre) by VHP/Bajrang Dal and the issue of censorship therefore is high on the minds of people. There was a call for more screenings and a proactive action against vandalism and bigotry.

Shows in Jaipur were organised by Kavita Srivastava and Shiv Kumar Gandhi (both of PUCL). Shiv is a painter/illustrator and has recently completed an experimental film ¿The Miles Between¿ a well-made first film that juxtaposes sound and picture in a unique way, almost throwing them at each other violently and creating a new meaning. He showed his film after the screenings were over to a limited intimate audience.

I must say that it is a good vibrant film screening culture that one has been able to initiate in most of the cities/towns one went to. (Jaipur of course already has a screening culture thanks to Shammi Nanda and Bindu Nair`s efforts when they used to live there. They had started an informal club that screened everything including features on 35mm.) At one place somebody wanted to show a fresh copy of Kiarostami¿s ¿Ten¿ as part of the screenings, to which I agreed. Watching movies was in the air and everybody wanted to participate. In one place near Alwar somebody wanted to have a poetry session in the middle of two films. I thought it was a great idea. I showed films wherever they could be organised, in large auditoria (and smaller ones), in a library, in community halls, NGO office premises, hotel rooms, bedrooms and once in a madarsa.

Showing films can be fun. Organising the screenings can be tedious especially if you have to start from a scratch. But once it is underway you can actually sit back and enjoy yourself. Usually I travel only while shooting or on recce. For screenings on the other hand, I had no pressing urgencies on my mind, no production hassles, no camera rentals, no light boys to be directed, etc., therefore, not so tiring. You also grow a certain affinity towards the films you are showing although you may not have made them. That is a must, I think, without that it is not possible to show films. Also practice makes perfect. I have a better idea of the package I would carry if / when I go the next time. Most importantly, while watching films with different audiences and in different locations you could, if you are alert, get new ideas for films that you would want to make someday or a script that you¿ve been working on. You also learn a lot from the plus and minus of the films you are showing, again, if you are alert.

Therefore I urge everybody - begin screenings. Begin randomly, with whatever films you get, even if you don¿t like some of them. Study their effects on various audiences and later you could work out a package that you could carry. Begin at home if you can¿t go out, or at a friend¿s place. Begin anyway. And begin by showing a film that you have not made yourself. Just for starters. It helps to get you in the right frame of mind. Later you could show your film as well. In any case, don¿t worry about your film, somebody else will show it.

Finally, it¿s an exciting time we live in. MIFF has got us all together and current economic, social and political trends look like they are going to help us stay that way. The audiences are ready, the organisers for the screenings are ready and waiting. Let us do our bit and strike while it is hot.

Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More