Rakesh Sharma needs no introduction to Indians who have been following the human rights movement in the media. He has established his credentials as one of the most outspoken and independent filmmakers on human rights. For this, he fights the powers that be including India's censor board. After his revolutionary films Final Solution and Aftershocks - A Rough Guide to Democracy, now come two new explosive documentaries Khedu Mora Re and Chet'ta Rejo. Sharma released both films for preview on 4 December in Gujarat. The films are in Gujarati, with no English subtitles.
The two new films have been researched over a couple of years and shot during the last eight months. Speaking about these films, Sharma says, "Ever since I started showing Final Solution around, many people urged me to do follow-up films as well. I wanted to go beyond highlighting the events of 2002 and the state and Sangh Parivar's complicity, which by now has been well documented, especially after the Tehelka expose. These films are also in the nature of my response to Mr. Modi and his propaganda as a member of civil society."
A Gujarati farmer speaking; still from Khedu Mora Re (62 min, Gujarati).
Since 1985, Sharma has worked extensively in film and television. His documentaries have always been based on painstaking intensive field research, wherein the filming often takes lesser time than the research. His numerous international awards have strengthened his determination to go ahead and make this statement through the medium he knows best - cinema. He currently earns his living as a consultant to broadcast channels for programming, on-air presentation and live television. Aftershocks marked his return to documentary after a gap of 10 years. He is better known for Final Solution, which had to fight through a censor ban.
Khedu Mora Re (Oh My Farmer), over 62 minutes, explores the myth of a 'vibrant' Gujarat by graphically documenting the tragic series of farmer suicides in the state. Moving away from the disastrous consequences of Godhra and the communal carnage that takes precedence in the media, Sharma goes behind these suicides to reveal the farmers' opposition to SEZs and the widespread anger fermenting within them against the Modi government's lopsided policies, which, claim the farmers in the film, are tailored precisely into the scheme of corporates and industries.
Ironically, the farmers point their accusing fingers directly at the much-hyped Sujalam Sufalam scheme for their misfortune especially during the recent floods in Saurashtra. "Till a couple of years ago, Gokharwada in Surendranagar district did not experience a single flood. But ever since this sujalam sufalam project was activated, our village and our lands get submerged every year due to the faulty planning and construction of the new check dams. Modi keeps announcing packages running into hundreds of crores. But the people at ground level are yet to receive even five rupees out of the post-flood package announced for 2005. And the flood in 2007 has destroyed us totally," says one angry farmer.
Says Rakesh Sharma, "Modi has been trying to reinvent himself as Vikaspurush, hoping that glitzy films and investor summits will whitewash his image as the butcher of Gujarat. I felt it was critical to examine the true story behind the hype. But I also realised that the film could invite attack and that its credibility would be challenged. So, I chose the RTI (Right to Information) route to use the government's own touted figures in order to bring out the true story. For example, in an interview to NDTV on 14 March, 2007, Modi claimed that there were no farmer suicides in Gujarat. A month later, he admitted on the floor of the assembly that 148 farmers had committed suicide. Five months after we had filed our queries, on 10 October, 2007, we could finally confirm 498 suicides from the official data. This was a formal estimate. But this list is incomplete as we discovered during the shooting. It does not feature several suicide stories that we have painstakingly documented in this film."
Khedu Mora Re features shocking stories of suicides at a very personal and intimate level. Opposition to land acquisition for SEZs in Bhavnagar district and the havoc unleashed by private companies in Kathivadar are intercut with these stories. The film reports 10-12 suicides in Amreli, Surendranagar, Bhavnagar, Rajkot, Bharuch and Surat. The RTI data reveals shocking district-wise figures - Rajkot (63 suicides), Junagad (85), Amreali (34), Mehsana (48), Nadiad (44), Jamnagar (55), Narmada (30) and even in Gandhinagar (13), right under the Chief Minister's nose!
Chet'ta Rejo (Beware) shows another face of inhumanity in Gujarat. Over its 72 minutes of running time, the film explores and exposes the saffronisation of the Dalit-OBC population and its consequent plight. Its focus is on the patterns of arrests and litigations since the 2002 riots. It shows how most of those charged with rioting, arson, murder and similar crimes are either tribal or Dalits and OBCs. The analysis of those arrested from 32 police stations in Ahmedabad suggests that of the 1577 detainees, only 30-odd belonged to upper castes. "Are these foot soldiers victims too? Cynically recruited, then discarded, left to rot in jails, what do the perpetrators of the violence feel today about the VHP and the BJP?"
Still from Chet'ta Rejo (72 min, Gujarati). A tribal youngster clad in saffron symbols hoisted by friends.
These are some of the questions the film raises, rhetorically as it also narrates first-person stories of some of the victims. The film also shows six to eight families of passengers who were burnt to death in coach S-6 of the ill-fated Sabarmati Express in February 2002. The report on how they were told that people were going for a picnic tour, not karseva, that the VHP-BJP exploited their tragedy for electoral gains in 2002, that ever since then no one has come to help, that monies raised in their name never reached them and that some of them who spoke in public about it have received threats from the VHP.
The film points out that after the riots of 2002, though VHP made tall promises to help the detained and the injured Hindutva cadre, the only 'help' that came from them were some rations and a little monetary help in the first month or two. The VHP/BJP combine just vanished into thin air after that. A telling story is Kanti and Deepak's account from Gomtipur - both caught by the police. They appealed to the BJP for help and even approached the CM but got nothing. When they went to Praveen Togadia's own Dhanvantri hospital for operations/treatment, they were turned away unless they first deposited Rs.50,000 for admission. An OBC Hindu and another Muslim boy, both friends, would often play cricket together in Behrampura. During the riots, both boys lost their right hands to bombs. The film ends with the two boys appealing to the youth not to join such parties or get involved in such violence as no one lifts a finger to help while it is they and their families who suffer forever. The overall message that emerges through a range of voices - violence and politics of hate destroys the Dalit-OBC-Muslim communities; it is best to stay away from parties that preach hate.
The documentary filmmaker in India, and in most other countries, cannot stop after completing a film. Cinema theatres are not interested in screening these films as they do not draw the same audience that goes to watch mainstream or feature films. Documentaries have a niche audience and the filmmakers are aware of this. So they have devised their own way of distributing their film.
One is trying to get them included in the many documentary and short film festivals happening across the world round the year. One screening spreads the word and many may follow. This could also lead to the buying of screening rights by foreign television channels. Another way is by allowing a very short documentary clipping to be seen through your video player on your computer through the filmmaker's website. The third is by allowing the film to be watched by those interested on websites like Youtube for free.
Screenings for small groups at bookshops, small halls, club houses, are often organised with e-mail publicity. Embassy halls like the Gorky Sadan in Kolkata or the Max Mueller Bhavan are also very documentary friendly and they even offer very good projection facilities. Some clubs pass a hat around for collections at the end of the screening to cover the rentals for the projector, the screen, the power bills for the hall if the hall does not charge any rent.
Distribution of Final Solution
Pirate-and-Circulate campaign: Rakesh Sharma has been working on distribution of Final Solution since March 2004. In protest again the ban on his earlier films, a campaign -- get a free copy only if you promise to pirate and make 5 copies -- helped distribute around 10,000 free video CDs of the Final Solution in India until December 2004, according to Rakesh Sharma. Final Solution was also offered free to Anhad for their campaigns; it was included in their anthology titled "In defence of our dreams". Subscribers of several journals/mags also got a copy of the film free of cost. These included Communalism Combat (Ed: Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand), Samayik Varta (Ed: Yogendra Yadav), Janmat and several smaller journals.
As a result of all this, formally, about 21,000 video CDs and 4,000 DVDs of the film have been distributed. Informal circulation estimates (post the pirate-and-circulate campaign) put the number somewhere between 40,000 to 100,000 copies.
Final Solution is now being dubbed in Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada and Tamil.
As noted earlier, the two films are in the nature of a follow-up to the critically-acclaimed film Final Solution that dealt with the 2002 carnage and its aftermath, the Gaurav Yatra, on BJP's subsequent electoral victory in a sharply polarised state in 2002. In October 2007, Final Solution finally got recognition in its own country when the President of India gave it the National Film Award. Earlier, the film was screened at over 80 international film festivals and picked over 20 awards (at Berlin, Hong Kong, Zanzibar, France, Argentina, USA, Bangkok, Spain, Kathmandu, etc). It also got the Best Film award at the prestigious Index on Censorship awards (UK); ironically the film was banned by the Indian Censor Board for a few months in 2004, but following widespread protests by civil society, the film was cleared without a single cut.
Ask Sharma about his motivations and he says, "In a world that is increasingly being shaped by the corporate-nation state and its hydra-heads (WTO/ IMF/World Bank/ADB), the 'marginal' citizen is in danger of becoming totally 'irrelevant'. His voice has no space in mainstream film and television dominated by millionaire-maker shows, reality TV voyeurism, synthetic newscasts and sterilised fiction. These voices and their universe fascinate me, as my own universe is inextricably intertwined with it."
Shamra's financial status though, is not even half as impressive as his grit, his string of awards and his fearlessness. "As a filmmaker, I am extremely poor. My savings have more or less run out. But I do not know what else to do except make films. I am improvising all the time with the tools I know a bit about, such as films and video, so that lack of funds does not become a serious block. I would love to make a funny documentary or a social-anthropological film on romance in changing times. I would like to make a murder mystery too, and to play with a form where documentary and fictions merge, moving in and out seamlessly. But I have no choice when I meet people with sorrow in their eyes and hollowness in their spirits. So, I continue to remain an interventionist when something agitates me."