Documentary: Rohan Sabharwal’s film on the Cochini Jews looks at the community from the perspective of individuals

The story of the Cochini Jews has been told and retold, often enough to sometimes be reduced to anecdotal, tourist-friendly clichés. But this wasn’t the narrative that interested Mumbai-based Punjabi filmmaker Rohan Sabharwal. “How far can society be broken down?” he asks. “All the way down to each individual,” he answers. And it is through individual characters and their stories that Rohan sought to tell Cochini Jewish history, arching from Kochi to Israel, in his documentary Where The Heart Is.

Rohan first heard of Kochi’s Jews in 2002, during his Masters in Mumbai, from a friend pursuing his Phd. Years later, Mathew Antony, grandson of Indian Jewish icon A.B. Salem, contacted him based on Rohan’s professed interest in the community on his Wikipedia page. In March 2012, Rohan arrived in Kochi, to interview families in an almost door-to-door fashion, guided by Mathew. The documentary features Cochini Jews currently in Kochi, several in Israel and one settled in Bangalore. “I began this film with zero knowledge, and I prefer to start that way because then I discover as I go along. The film too follows this trajectory; as it progresses, I ask the questions that the audience is wondering about too at that moment.”

Where The Heart Is opens with shots of rising waters, the beach and ferry rides - an introduction to the land the Jews made their home over 10 centuries ago. “I’ve always been interested in small minority communities. And here was one that was microscopic almost, but significant because Indian Jews are among the few in the world that haven’t been persecuted by the nations they migrated to.” Rohan’s method of documenting these lives was to approach them with just a camera and no crew. “When the set-up itself is informal, people become comfortable talking. Many of the interviews I did don’t make it to the film though, because people didn’t want themselves seen. But the information they provided appears as voice-overs through the film.”

Although the film was shot minimally, Rohan says he didn’t want it to have a hand-held rough feel. As a trained cinematographer himself, Rohan has graduated from the London Film School, and was mentored by prominent film makers world over.

While web-designing has been his bread and butter, Rohan says films have been his passion all along. “I wanted to make this film technically proficient. It has been mastered and colour corrected at one of Mumbai’s top studios.” Over a year from its making, Rohan recently premiered the documentary in Kochi.

Now in the city, to film a documentary on Kerala’s Sikhs, Rohan says he is glad he shot Where the Heart Is when he did, for the community in Jew Town has since dwindled from nine members to seven. “Many of the people I spoke to are today too ill to talk, or no more.” Besides the Mattancherry Jews, the documentary also represents the Ernakulam Jews, through Elias Josephai, caretaker of the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue.

But Rohan says the film isn’t about the black-vs.-white Jews discussion, because “their story is more than about just the divide, and I wanted to offer the audience just different points of view, not directed by what my say on Jewish history is”.

That decision is probably reinforced by the unity among Indian Jews which Rohan witnessed when he continued to film in Israel. “Many ‘black Jews’ were married to ‘white Jews’ there, and as a whole, the community remembers its Kerala roots so strongly.” Rohan found Cochini Jews who had moved back almost 30 years ago, but still spoke Malayalam, cooked Kerala food, and even taught their children to do so as well. “Almost every person is a migrant in Israel, so their personal histories are very important to them. Children are taught the family lines of their parents, many of whom are multi-racial.”

It is to this young generation, that Rohan believes his documentary will someday be useful. “The children of people who have gone back are curious about their parents’ stories. So even if we currently feel that the Cochini Jews’ story has been over-told, future generations are going to want as many different voices and biographies as possible, to recreate their past.”

In this vein, Rohan hopes to some day document the lives of Kolkata’s and Mumbai’s Jews as well. Rohan's perspective toward this entire documentary has been to pastiche conversation and locales without deliberately pushing his directorial vision. “The film is called Where The Heart Is, which is drawn from the cliché, but I want people to watch and decide where ‘home’ is.”