Filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj on the loss and recovery of “Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko?” and the participatory approach of her practice.
Deepa Dhanraj is pleasantly surprised to learn that this reporter watched all of “Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko?”, her 1986 documentary, screened recently at Persistence Resistance Film Festival. Her reaction is understandable; it has been three decades since it was shot, and the work has passed onto another generation — one that was almost meant never to watch it.
As one of the first films to address the subject of communal riots, “Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko?” occupies an important position in the history of the Indian documentary. The lament that is inscribed in the title comes from the sense of passing Deepa experienced towards the syncretic and cosmopolitan culture of Hyderabad, the city she was born and grew up in.
“In the 1980s we started noticing that there were so many manifestations of communal tension which were very worrying. There was also this Ganesh procession which had begun in 1980, and after every procession there used to be riots and a few people used to die,” she recalls.
In 1983, after discussions with Hyderabad Ekta, an organisation working towards communal harmony, it was felt that a documentary on the procession could make apparent what was generating the tension. “We came to Hyderabad, and as we started shooting, riots broke out. So the original intention collapsed, and we realised we had to rethink what this film would be,” Deepa adds.
For the duration of 22 days of curfew that followed the riots, Deepa and her partner and collaborator Navroze Contractor went to the curfew areas, bringing back footage that is chilling without being voyeuristic. Apart from narrating the human toll of the riots and the curfew on both sides of the religious divide, the film presents interviews with Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi and Tiger Narendra, leaders of the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen and Bharatiya Janata Party (who were on opposing sides of the then power struggle for the Chief Minister’s chair) respectively, as also close-up footage from their rallies. A review described these moments as “making you feel you are almost inside their skull”.
Indeed, the film is a work of political analysis that seeks to understand the psyche of communalism; its focus on mobilisation strategies, and the process of creating an “other”, gives it relevance outside its immediate context as well. Its importance is magnified in these days of media literacy and hyper security, where political actors are less likely to be candid about their positions, or allow a camera within earshot.
Underlining its importance, another review noted, “This is precisely the kind of film that should be shown in regions with religious tension…as protection against the virus of religious fanaticism that threatens the unity and the mental health of the nation.” For three years after it was finished, the film was screened extensively through Hyderabad Ekta and other organisations. As a result, the director’s own copy of the film degraded. “The print became a machhardaani, there was nothing left of it…” Deepa recalls. For many years it was not available for screenings in India, until the discovery of a copy that lay in exile in Arsenal film archive in Berlin since 1987, when it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival. It was subsequently restored, and screened at the same festival last year.
The film has since found its second wind, and been screened over a dozen times. Deepa is amazed, and “totally elated”, at the renewed interest in her film. “It’s like writing a new preface for an old book,” she says.
In the collected works of Deepa Dhanraj, what shines through is an acute understanding of the mechanics of power, informed by her feminist politics. In “Something Like a War”, made in 1991, she looks at the brutality of India’s family planning programme, which wages a war on women’s bodies. It also questions the ethics of internationally funded contraceptive research, which uses Indian women as guinea pigs.
Deepa Dhanraj’s initiation into documentaries happened as a consequence of her involvement in the women’s movement. “We had started a film collective called Yugantar, and at that point there was this excitement about how to communicate the kind of struggles that working class women were involved in – whether its trade unionisation, Chipko movement, or domestic violence…it was not that we said ‘let’s go out and make documentaries’, it grew out of a need to communicate these struggles.”
“We had to work out a very participatory process with the people we were working with…It was painstaking work – sitting with people, hearing what their issues were, what they wanted represented, what they wanted the film to be.” Although Yugantar made only four films, this participatory approach has imprinted itself on her practice permanently.
It is apparent, for instance, in “Invoking Justice”, a 2011 documentary which won the award for Best documentary (above 40 mins) at the recent Mumbai International Film Festival. The film tracks the story of Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat, which was set up in 2004 by Daud Sharifa Khanum, as a response to the corrupt and chauvinistic all-male jamaats. What fascinated the director was that the jamaat functions within the codes of Sharia law. After being dismissed initially, the jamaat has now come to be regarded as a respected civic initiative. It now has over 12,000 members and has arbitrated 8000 cases.
Questions of law and justice have found a way into the director’s work earlier too. “I have always been interested in the social aspects of justice. It’s something I have been exploring, not in a very formal sense. I think law is a great site to look at power relationships, to look at class, caste, gender. You can unpack so many things, if you use that location.” If “Nari Adalat” looked at a for-women dispute resolution mechanism in Gujarat, “The Advocate” presented a biography of the late K.G. Kannabiran, eminent civil rights activist, and through him the history of human rights discourse in India.
Despite the different impulses that guide and shape each of her works, documentary remains for Deepa a way of articulating resistance, “an intervention that goes against the grain”.