The cinema of resistance

There is a new wave of film festivals being held in different parts of the country, which give voice to alternate cinematic expressions, especially realistic films and documentatries. Shoma A. Chatterji explores this and explains why such cinema is vital.

Away from the razzmatazz of a Happy New Year or the surrealistic explorations of PK, a revolution of a different kind is brewing in different parts of India, where committed social, political, human rights and gender activists are organising a film festival called the Cinema of Resistance which is now an ‘umbrella’ title for similar festivals being organised and held across the country.

Cinema of Resistance is not about entertainment. It is about education, information and awareness with the hope that it will inspire like-minded people watching these films to awaken to the reality of a different kind of cinema. The festival held annually in different parts of the country, is committed to presenting stimulating films by tough minded independent producers, who challenge us to think about the social and political realities around us in ways not designed to make us feel more comfortable, but to make us reflect and introspect. So, in addition to screening of an entire gamut of documentary films and some feature films, there are group discussions, debates and one-to-ones with the directors, who are specially invited to speak about their film making and their films.

The beginning with Anand Patwardhan

How and when did this all begin? Thirty years before Cinema of Resistance was born, the black era of the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975 inspired a young filmmaker to make a documentary called Waves of Revolution (1976). His name was Anand Patwardhan. This was the darkest era of censorship of the media in Indian history. Patwardhan’s film captured some of the massive student protests and popular resistance preceding the Emergency. Due to the absolute and total censorship, the raw footage had to be smuggled out and edited abroad. Following this, Patwardhan made Prisoners of Conscience (1978). This documented the Bihar movement, the subsequent Emergency and the political repression that continued after the Emergency was lifted. He first drew the attention of the mass audience with Bombay, Our City (1985) screened at the Filmotsav Hyderabad the following year. This documented the struggle of slum dwellers against their forced eviction from the slums where they have lived all their lives.

An Indian Story (1981) jointly directed by Tapan K. Bose and Suhasini Mulay narrates the horrific story of the blinding of around 37 peasants who were jailed on trumped up charges by the Bihar state police, working on the implicit orders of the landlords who had implemented an oppressive and brutally torturous oppression in rural Bihar. The film had to go through a protracted struggle with the Censor Board. But in some shocking footage, it succeeded in stirring the complacent conscience of the ignorant urban masses of India.

Then came the Cinema of Resistance

In 2006, some cultural activists got together and pooled contributions from the people of Gorakhpur and organised a film festival called the Cinema of Resistance. The films screened told real stories the Hindutva-dominated masses of Gorakhpur were not used to. This became an annual affair with this year being its 10th anniversary. However, what was not unexpected was the proliferation of Cinema of Resistance festivals. Sanjay Joshi, one of the founders of the festival stated how, over the years, this festival grew roots in more than ten cities spread across seven states. Inspired by the U.P.(Uttar Pradesh) experience, chapters were born in Bihar, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. In 2014, the movement took its first steps in four more states, namely Haryana, Delhi, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

“We had a few guidelines in front of us to shape our model on. This was in the form of the rich legacy of the film society movements of Bengal and Kerala. The efforts that reached a climax with John Abraham’s legendary work with the Odessa Collective. Through the making and screening of his full-length feature film Amma Ariyan, John and his friends had demonstrated powerfully the feasibility of people-funded cinema that could be made outside of the realm of market forces, that could be released, distributed and screened with people’s support. We decided focussing on the genre of cinema that was truly concerned with issues facing us as people,” writes Sanjay Joshi in From Gorakhpur to Kolkata – Eight Years on the Road of Resistance published last year. The 2nd Kolkata People’s Film Festival was the 43rd in the series of Cinema of Resistance film festivals held across India, on a people-funded nosponsorship model.

The Kolkata organisers put together their own Cinema of Resistance they have called ‘The Kolkata People’s Film Festival’ recently at Jadavpur University (JU) Complex for four days, for the second year in succession. Anand Patwardhan was the keynote speaker on the first day while Dr. Binayak Sen was specially invited to inaugurate the festival. The entire festival was a tribute held in memory of writer Nabarun Bhattacharya who succumbed to cancer last year. He was not a filmmaker but he was a writer of great distinction having veered away from the trodden path of mainstream romance, comedy and thrillers, to weave in stories of social and political satire by mingling human characters with surreal ones. This poet-writer is known for his invincible will power, his fight with his pen, his brazenly open anti-Establishment stance and his complete shunning of awards as his expression of resistance. In personal life, he was the son of author-activist Mahasweta Bhattacharya.

“We managed to collect a total sum of around Rs. 1.20 lakh this year to fund the festival which included the fare of the main guests, their short stay at modest hotels and guest houses,the electrical charges and the screening paraphernalia. This is one of the unique features of this festival,” says Kasturi, one of the main organisers, currently a research scholar at the JU. She adds that like last year, they have brought out a wonderful souvenir with insightful articles, some of them translated from the original English, and it is called Protirodher Cinema – Bengali for Cinema of Resistance. This year’s theme for the festival is ‘resisting fascism and gender violence’. Besides not cowing down or compromising on sponsorship, any outside funding and any other pressures that might bring about compromise in choice of films, in selecting speakers, etc, anyone can walk into the screenings because screening is free and ticketing is absent. This year saw serpentine queues for some of the more heardabout films. But a hat was passed around for voluntary contributions. This has been the practice at every Cinema of Resistance Festival across the country.

There are positive stories of development that have grown from the grassroots by the local people themselves. Among them is The First Cry (Pehli Awaaz) directed by T.G. Ajay. This 52-minute film documents the story of Shaheed Hospital in Dalli-Rajhara, a small town near Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh, where a number of iron ore mines are located. The hospital, built in 1983, is a unique institution built by the contract workers in the mines. It caters to these workers and is also run by them. Ajay tells the story without frills, with a steady camera following doctors on their rounds and recording the testimony of patients, nurses, mine workers and others. There’s no music, just the ambient sound of cars passing, horns blaring and children crying.

Among some of the classics were Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade (2011) which is a brilliant portrayal of how music performed as a crusading, powerful weapon of resistance, raised consciousness and protest against the Establishment, the ruling party and the police by the Dalits. Patwardhan worked on it for 14 long years and the trigger was the random firing by the police on 11 July 1997 on a crowd of Dalits in Mumbai, felling 10 young activists forever. The violence was spurred on when a statue of Dr. Ambedkar in a Dalit colony in Mumbai was desecrated with footwear. As angry residents gathered, police opened fire, killing 10. Vilas Ghogre, a leftist poet, hung himself in protest. Ghoghre featured in Patwardhan’s earlier film Bombay, Our City (1985) in which he sang his own songs of rebellion. Patwardhan was shattered by his death and Jai Bhim Comrade was born.

Among the few feature films, one must mention M.S. Sathyu’s debut film Garm Hawa held as the best Indian film about the impact of Partition that forced Muslims to cross over to Pakistan though they felt their roots were in India. The festival saw premiere screenings of three films – Muzaffarnagar Baaki Hai (Muzaffarnagar Remains) by Nakul Singh Sawhney, Naam Poribortito (Identity Undisclosed) by Mitali Biswas and Ei Mrityu Upatyaka Jar Desh Na (Poet from Death Valley) by Pavel. A total of 17 recent documentaries, five short films and two feature films were screened. An anthology of essays was released during the festival. Two panel discussions – on ‘Class Caste Gender and Cinema’ and ‘Faces of Fascism’ were held.


Shoma A. Chatterji

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi, researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.

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