Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who Decides What's Right?

Published on Sunday, 14 February 2010 in the newspaper Business Standard.

Born as a rebellion against indirect censorship of documentary cinema, today Vikalp is a platform for free speech and creative expression

“Censorship is neither possible nor desirable,” asserts Dr Jayasankar, Professor, Centre for Media and Cultural Studies at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences and a founder-member of Vikalp. He cites the famous example of the blank editorial in the Indian Express during the Emergency as the perfect act of silent defiance. “Who decides what’s right? It’s the idea of a less powerful ‘other’, one that cannot handle the truth, that is problematic,” he explains.

It was precisely to give this “less powerful ‘other’” the freedom to choose what it watched, that Vikalp was born. The Campaign Against Censorship – a group of Indian film-makers committed to freedom of expression, reacted strongly when the Censor Board inserted a certification clause just for Indian entries in 2004’s Mumbai International Film Festival. Angry protests forced the authorities to withdraw the clause, but the censorship remained – film-makers soon realized that the selection committee rejected the politically sensitive, controversial films anyway, despite the fact that many of these had travelled to foreign festivals and won awards and appreciation. Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (dealing with Gujarat’s communal massacres after Godhra in 2002), Sanjay Kak’s Words on Water (which explores the struggle over the Narmada dam), and Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar’s Naata (about two men working for conflict resolution in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum) were among the rejected films.

A constructive protest

Vikalp: Films for Freedom, began as a six-day festival that screened the rejected films and some more, as film-makers withdrew even their selected entries from MIFF, preferring to screen them at Vikalp instead. “We received a lot of threats to stop us from screening the films,” recalls Dr Anjali Monteiro, another founder-member. She continues, “What was interesting was that even some of the MIFF jury members came to watch the movies we were screening!”

“Vikalp means ‘an alternative’,” says Anand Patwardhan, renowned documentary film-maker (Bombay our City, Father, Son and Holy War, Prisoners of Conscience, Ram ke Naam) who suggested the name. Screening all the rejected films just across the road from MIFF, Vikalp truly became an alternative space for those six days. Today, six years later, what is the organization doing?

“It is not an organization; it is a movement,” clarifies Patwardhan. This loose-knit collective, functioning over e-mails and Yahoogroups has given audiences access to documentary films in India. The movies screened may or may not be controversial. The last year saw screenings of, among others, Lightning Testimonies, Amar Kanwar’s film capturing women’s narratives of sexual violence; The Other Song, Saba Dewan’s exploration of the world of the tawaif; Kora Rajee directed by Biju Toppo of Jharkhand looked at issues of adivasi labourers and displacement; Kurush Canteenwalla’s Goa Goa Gone portrays the impact of mining – Goa’s second-largest industry – on the lives of people. Suma Josson touches on the issue of farmer suicides in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region in I Want My Father Back. Vikalp has also brought to the screen foreign documentary films, such as Iranian film-maker Nahid Sarvestani’s The Queen and I, an autobiographical account of Nahid’s interactions with the wife of the Shah of Iran.

Encouraging debate

Today one can easily disseminate films over the web – so is Vikalp’s role really crucial anymore? Attend a screening and you would know it is. Vikalp’s USP lies in the opportunity and space it creates for discussion. The film-maker is almost always present, encouraging and answering questions after the screening. The latest session (in January) screened Anand Patwardhan’s Prisoners of Conscience, in which political prisoners of the Emergency narrate their experiences. “Unfortunately, these things still happen,” says the film-maker, which means that an entirely new generation could relate to a film made over three decades ago, resulting in a heated post-screening discussion.

Victoire Guena, Cultural Coordinator at Alliance Francaise, Mumbai, where most screenings take place, says that the 72-seater hall is usually packed for Vikalp screenings, with people spilling over on to the carpets as well. “We welcome people to Alliance to view these movies and are happy to provide a space for this freedom of expression,” says Guena. What does this mean? That there are more people walking the streets of India whose minds have been opened to things they may not have seen and views they may not have heard.

Jayasankar puts it succinctly: “We are all taught to read and write. But we need to be taught to read images.” How true. As we interrogate, as we learn to apply ourselves and infer truths from the images we see on the screen, we are the more powerful “others”, not the “volatile” communities reacting to speeches and books and films on their face value, but digging deeper and making informed decisions. That is the only way to take a stand. After all, that’s how it all began.

Vikalp organises screenings of documentary films across Mumbai. Entry is always free. The next screenings are:

To know more about Vikalp, join the Facebook group Vikalp@Prithvi, or follow the local newspaper and Time Out magazine.

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