Bengaluru

The boys, the men and the camera

Filming an indoctrination A still from Lalit Vachani’s documentary Photo: Wide Eye Film  

Kali was nine years old when filmmaker Lalit Vachani met him in Nagpur around 1992. The little boy had only a month ago joined the shakha or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) unit. Wearing a checked shirt and plain shorts, seated on a bench in a park with folded hands, Kali looked curiously up at the camera and answered questions that Vachani asked him about why he joined the RSS. “Sir… one day I was just looking…and I said why shouldn’t I go and play too. So I joined,” he said, just as a matter of fact.

This rather naïve and honest utterance by Kali is one among the many evocative segments from The Boy in the Branch, Vachani’s short documentary on the RSS made with Wide Eye Films for Channel 4 Television, U.K., which introduces us to the youngest cadres of the RSS, some of whom are as little as six! All of them seemed to have joined the shakha so that they can learn new games and play. That the playground works as the bait for little boys like Kali to join a Hindu right-wing organisation such as the RSS is laid bare from the testimonials of the children in the film who say things like “ shakha mein hamara manoranjan hota hai” (we are entertained in the RSS branch).

Vachani’s documentary, screened at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore, as part of an event organised recently by Vikalp Bengaluru, Pedestrian Pictures and St. Joseph’s Department of Communications, films the induction, training and journey of young boys and men in the RSS. So, apart from Kali and other little boys, we meet youngsters like Lalit, an instructor at the branch who is in-charge of teaching these boys the games. Insightfully, he tells us that he cannot teach such young children about the ideology of the RSS. Instead, what he can do is bring about a sense of discipline and routine in them and that is the objective of the games he teaches them. Of course, the games are not devoid of ideology either. In a disquieting segment, Lalit asks the boys, “Kashmir kiska hai” (Kashmir belongs to whom?) to which the children scream and run around him saying “Hamara hai” (Ours!).

We also meet older lads like Sripad and Sandeep, who find themselves drawn to the ideology of the organisation and are even able to voice their commitment to the cause. They tell us that being a part of the RSS would give them a chance to make their mark in history. Vachani films their unwavering faith in the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and patiently listens as they speak of their dreams for the RSS.

The beauty of The Boy in the Branch is in the fact that the film does not judge these boys but takes us closer to their choices and acquaints us with the reasons behind them. As a curious outsider, Vachani goes around probing innocently, without bringing his own ideology into the film. So to a large extent, in both form and content, there is a prevailing tone of blamelessness. However, simultaneously Vachani is clever enough to balance this with inter-titles that connect the choices of these boys with the larger political change that an organisation like the RSS was effecting in the 1990s. He ensures that we are constantly made aware of the national picture as we listen to the honest local voices in the film.

Vachani finished filming just 45 days before hordes of RSS volunteers marched to Ayodhya in December 1993 and brought the Babri Masjid down with the intention of building a temple for Ram there. Naturally therefore, The Boy in the Branch too discusses the Ram temple. We see toddlers casually tell us that even they think the Ram temple should be built in Ayodhya because Ram’s idols were found there.

As these images left one aghast, the organisers next screened The Men in the Tree, a sequel Vachani made to The Boy in the Branch. Eight years after the first film, Vachani went back to Nagpur armed with his camera again. He contacted Kali, who was 17 now and Sripad and Sandeep who were both still as connected with the RSS as they hoped to be.

The Men in the Tree is a fascinating documentary for many reasons. First, for its inter-textuality. Not only do we meet most of the protagonists again to see what they are up to, but we also see them reflecting on their opinions, especially those captured in the first film. For instance, we learn that Sandeep and Sripad were at Ayodhya during the Babri demolition and also hear that they are quite pleased that they could contribute to the cause of the Ram temple. Second, considering that it is a longer film, Vachani has wider scope to delve into details. Vachani introduces new characters such as D.R. Goyal and Purushottam Agarwal, both former RSS volunteers who offer the counter to the narrative built by the likes of Sandeep and Sripad. Third, we are invited to witness the role of time and how it can change individuals. We see Kali, who now has nothing to do with the RSS, casually inform us that his entry into the shakha was perhaps just a childhood phase.

It is in its multi-pronged approach that this sequel shines and acquires significance. Vachani divides this film into four segments: Memories, Buildings, Stories and Branches. Both films have interviews with RSS leaders such as K.S.Sudarshan and Mohan Bhagwat who tackle accusations of fascism directed at the RSS. Unlike, the first film, Vachani editorialises quite a bit in the sequel. In the opening and closing segments of the film, we hear and see Vachani reflect on the role of RSS, his reasons for making the two films etc. Like the first, the shoot of the sequel too skirts another infamous event: the Godhra riots of February 2002.

In a sense, Vachani’s two films do not necessarily and perhaps cannot have an end frame. They live within and outside themselves and should Vachani revisit the protagonists today, he would still make a relevant, poignant and necessary film on the RSS and the right-wing.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 3:26:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/the-boys-the-men-and-the-camera/article7637389.ece

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