Against the might of the State

Dakxin Chhara, the first Indian feature filmmaker, from the stigmatised Chhara denotified tribe, takes us through his admirable journey to making his debut with Sameer, on terrorism and anti-Muslim violence.

September 04, 2017 07:48 pm | Updated 07:48 pm IST

“You may call my father a thief but he is my hero,” says filmmaker Dakxin Chhara. There’s a poignant pride in his voice unlike the anger in his idol, Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone as he thundered in Deewar : “ Jao jaake pehle us aadmi ka sign lekar aao, jisne mere haath par yeh likh diya … [ Mera baap chor hai .] (Go get the signature of the one who tattooed on my hand that my father is a thief).” Reality may not have the high drama of a Hindi film but, quite like Big B’s Vijay, Dakxin too has had to deal with the stigma of his father, and his tribe, being labelled as criminals. He is the first generation of his family to have come out of the humiliation of this fabricated perception, created and stoked over the years by the State and society alike.

The 44-year-old Ahmedabad-based Dakxin belongs to the Chhara denotified tribe, one of the hundreds of tribes originally listed as “criminal tribes” under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1952 repealed the notification and de-notified these tribal communities. However, that hasn’t entirely changed public opinion. Many of them continue to be perceived as born or habitual criminals and live as outcasts, in social isolation and economic penury and at the receiving end of State and police brutality.

Wider reach:  Sidestepping conventional promotions, Chhara (below) wants to take the film to the marginalised communities

Wider reach: Sidestepping conventional promotions, Chhara (below) wants to take the film to the marginalised communities

Striking out

Dakxin’s roots lie in Maharashtra, his grandparents lived in Dhule in one of the open jail-like settlements created across the country to keep the supposedly “offender” tribes in control. It was his father who moved to Ahmedabad in search of a livelihood. “He never went to school himself but it was his generation that collectively decided that their children should not have to bear with the shame any more. So he made us study in English medium. He told us to regard education as our friend, our god, our guardian,” recalls Dakxin. Thanks to the efforts of that generation, primary education has reached 100% of the tribe now. Dakxin is a graduate in psychology and has done his post-graduation in Theatre and Global Development from University of Leeds under a Ford Foundation fellowship. However, despite having travelled far and wide, he continues to anchor himself in the Chharanagar settlement in Ahmedabad to keep working with its residents.

Dakxin's life is as intriguing, if not more, as his artistic enterprise itself. The easy insights into society, politics, power dynamics and the chain of repression are just as fascinating. There is also a sense of humour: “The spelling might be all twisted but my name is pronounced Dakshin. My father named his four sons after the four directions—Uttar, Dakshin, Poorv, Paschim (North, South, East and West),” he laughs. The telephonic conversation, broken intermittently by signal issues, spans his ride from Mumbai to Pune where he is going to conduct a community outreach programme with the stars — Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub, Subrat Dutta, Seema Biswas and Anjali Patil of his debut feature, Sameer which releases this Friday.

Rooted to community

Sidestepping the conventional promotions, Dakxin wants to take the film to the marginalised communities. A move that’s not surprising, considering he has been deeply involved in community-based theatre, has worked in over 46 plays and been part of 1000 odd shows. He has developed seven theatre groups and trained 300 people from the marginalised communities in theatre. The killing of Budhan Sabar, who belonged to a denotified tribe in West Bengal, led Dakxin to write a play on him and eventually set up and manage Budhan Theatre, the community theatre group of the Chharas based in Chharanagar.

In 1998, Professor Ganesh Devy, founder and director of the Tribal Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, along with noted Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi, visited the area and helped set up a library there. Dakxin counts the two as his mentors. Badal Sircar has been another abiding inspiration and Dakxin's form of theatre has itself evolved from Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theatre”. “What do you need for a performance? Only the body and the voice. We don’t use any extra tricks to layer it. No costumes and makeup even,” explains Dakxin. Instead of a stage, it’s street nooks and corners that are used as performance spaces.

The political as art

Dakxin calls theatre the cultural front of the tribals. On the one hand the performances are all about identity politics; they have helped the tribals find themselves creatively and gain respect as artistes. On the other hand the performances have helped bring visibility to the issues and problems tribal communities have been contending with, bringing their fight for constitutional guarantee into sharper focus.

No wonder Dakxin can’t quite see art devoid of political and social concerns. “It is impossible. You can’t separate the two. There won’t be any art without politics. The biggest revolutions in the world have come about when artistes, writers, cartoonists, literary figures have defied the political establishment. Art has brought about a change,” he says. For him art is all about questioning the status quo; a tool with which to take on the might of the State.

The debutant feature filmmaker’s switch to camera from theatre may have a lot to do with an abiding love for movies, but there’s much more to it. Dakxin grew up watching Bachchan films, not on the big screen but on TV and video. A 1982 Gujarati film, Maa Vina Suno Sansar , was his first exposure to the world outside Chharanagar. And a VHS camera was all it took for him to learn filmmaking—on his own, by making mistakes and learning from them. In a nutshell, yet another means to self-fulfilment and empowerment.

Keeping up the fight

In 2005 Dakxin made a documentary on the atrocities against a community of snake charmers and their fight for survival. It won an award and gave him just the right dose of confidence to go all the way into filmmaking. Since then Dakxin has made 84 documentaries, all on various significant, contentious issues. He worked as associate director with noted filmmaker Rakesh Sharma best known for Final Solution on the Gujarat riots of 2002. Sharma gave him his first DV camera with which he went on to make most of his films. “I still have that camera,” he says.

Dakxin may have dealt with tribal issues in theatre but in his debut feature film he casts his net wider, looking at the anti-Muslim sentiment, violence and terrorism. The bigger picture, however, stays the same—be it the tribals or the Muslims, the face off with State power and the concomitant cycle of oppression have been constant, shared realities.

Sameer took birth in 2008 when Dakxin set out to capture on camera the devastating scenes of the 21 bomb blasts in Ahmedabad. The film was earlier called Dhusar which means grey. “It is about grey areas of life. There is nothing purely black and white about our lives,” he says. Neither is there anything black or white about terrorism either. The film is about an innocent Muslim engineering student who is taken into custody by the Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) to help trace his roommate, believed to have been involved in recent bomb blasts. “There is a certain perception created about terrorism. But the information is always incomplete. We need to go beyond it,” he says of what is fed to the public by the State and the media. Terrorism is largely connected to religion whereas Dakxin aims to see the economic side of it. He sees a relation between economy and violence: “Why is it that incidents of terrorism always rise when economy goes down?”

Expectedly a film that questions both the society and the State stirred the hornet’s nest at the Censor Board. Among the cuts suggested was a dialogue: “ Dilli ka rasta UP se hoke jaata hai ” (the road to Delhi is paved through UP). Hardly inflammatory or derogatory, rather an accepted political fact; that if you win UP, you grab power at the Centre as well. Still unacceptable! Another line -- “ Ek mann ki baat kahoon? Tum character accha bana lete ho !” (Should I tell you something straight from the heart? You present your character quite well) -- also had to be written off. All because it includes the phrase ‘ mann ki baat ’. Need we say more?

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