Gopal Menon believes that a well made film can trigger social change. K.JESHI reports

“It was difficult and disturbing,” says cinematographer Gopal Menon about recording the statements of rape victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots for his documentary The Killing Fields Of Muzzafarnagar. He camped in Western U.P. for over three months to make a 54-minute documentary which will release in Delhi on February 13 with over five lakh DVDs. “The situation is very sad. Even during Partition, and the Babri Masjid demolition, Hindus and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar stayed in harmony. Now, it’s the politics of hatred, fear and violence that has unleashed havoc on lives. The riots are clearly engineered and the Gujarat model has been replicated in Western U.P,” he says.

Gopal Menon likes to be known as an activist-filmmaker. “We have activist-film makers such as Anand Patwardhan and Sanjay Kak who inspire us. As independent filmmakers we don’t have the constraints of the mainstream media in reporting an incident. A documentary should have timely journalism and intellectual depth,” he says.

He has been making documentaries right from the age of 19, and active in student politics. Later, during his MBA at PSG, political activist Bijoy C R of People’s Union for Civil Liberties moulded Gopal to become what he is today. His 21-minute brutally stark film Hey Ram: Genocide in the Land of Gandhi on the post-Godhra violence was screened worldwide. He made the film within three weeks after the riots and released through the Delhi Constitutional Club. It was screened across the world including 16 cities in the U.S., and across Europe, Japan and South Asia.

Violence against women

The scale of violence against women in Muzaffarnagar riots has been unprecedented, worse than the Gujarat carnage. “Two hundred women have been raped and only seven FIRs have been filed. The seven are constantly under threat. However, a positive dialogue is happening between the communities and there’s a semblance of hope,” he says. Gopal has made award-winning documentaries. Naga Story: The Other Side of Silence, a 64-minute film on the history of the Naga people won the ‘Spirit of the Himalayas’ prize at The Netherlands Himalayas Film Festival. His other film Let the Butterflies Fly, on the life of a transgender won the Best Documentary Award at the Mumbai Queer Film Festival.

He now wants to make a trilogy on religious fundamentalism. After Muzaffaranagar, he revisits Gujarat, 12 years after Godhra for the film The Unholy War: Gujarat – Part II. The third one, he says, is a Pan-India film that starts off from the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and travels to places where violence has struck from Mumbai, and Bhagalpur, Biwandi, Meerut, Surat, Kanpur, Ahmedabad, Coimbatore, Hyderabad…

After wrapping up documentaries, he plans to switch over to feature films. “Mainstream films are experimenting a lot now. Meghe Dhaka Tara, a 2013 Bengali film on director Ritwik Ghatak is directed by Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, a doctor. We have Anand Gandhi, a school dropout coming out with a Ship of Theseus and there are films like Lunchbox that have opened up new spaces.”

Gopal says with pride that Indian documentary film makers have had a major leap since 2004. “Vikalp, a documentary film movement came into being. Now, you have hundreds of documentary makers who explore the medium with day to day stories. All you need to tell a story is passion. If you are disciplined and creatively engaged everything will follow.”

Looking back, he recalls how his first film on the Nagas gave him sleepless nights. “When I visited the Naga areas, I was shaken by the conditions they lived in. On some days, there was no electricity for 36 hours and some place didn’t have any roads. There are days when I was stranded because there was no way to get fuel. The Nagas face inter-tribe conflict too. They are soft spoken people. But, it is very difficult to make a Naga weep in front of the camera,” he says. Gopal Menon was in Coimbatore to conduct a film workshop organised by English Literary Club Westibule of Sri Krishna College of Engineering and Technology

Upcoming films

The Rainbow Warriors (on decriminalising homosexuality)

Battle of Kashmir (the political story of Kashmir from pre-historic times)

A film on Displaced People (Over 60 million people have been displaced in the past 20 years, he says)

A film on Climate Change in South Asia