Being intimately associated with the film society movement and human rights activities simultaneously since mid-seventies I have got some primary experience on these issues which I would like to share with my readers through this discussion. Though the modus operandi of these two movements are characteristically different and there is neither any direct relationship visible between these two important events, still I have found that in most of the cases the same intelligentsia had participated in both the movements to raise and spread their voice utilizing cinema as their common forum. This interesting factor of complicated interactive relationship between cinema and such movements motivated me to study the issues in the this discourse keeping some related contemporary radical political movements as the main point of reference to examine how Indian cinema was influenced by these activities.
While I walk through my memories of about four decades back when we got involved with these works I can vividly recollect those days in mid-seventies when as a young film society activist I used to carry the 16mm or 35mm prints of the films to different venues with my comrades. At the same time we used to organise so many campaign programs to get the political prisoners free. Visit to police custodies to investigate the tortures upon the victims was our regular agenda.
I can still remember the day when we carried six or seven half-broken tin cans of heavy celluloid of a film of Satyajit Ray to a primitive cinema hall of a remote village far away from the city and found a huge crowd much more than the capacity of the hall was waiting outside to catch the film. People practically crashed the gate and pushed us back physically to entire even after it was fully occupied and the hall owner refused us to book the hall for any further shows. Who were those people in such a remote village came all these way to see a Ray-film despite the Bollywood blockbusters were running on regular shows? The question still remained unresolved to me. Or that day around the same period when we were showing Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” during the infamous ‘Internal Emergency’ in a small suburban town away from the city of Kolkata (that time it was Calcutta) again we were mobbed by a huge crowd demanding entry even the house was totally filled up. Who were those people? Practically they were our strength who used to come forward when we organised some street meetings to raise our voice against the police atrocities. People were concerned on the cultural and social issues and they dared to register that visibly.
It’s true that the Indians are crazy about cinema in general. Immense influence of mythologies, especially the epics ‘The Ramayana’ and ‘The Mahabharata’ has made them always fascinated about the narratives presented in the form of performing arts which they are enjoying for hundreds of years in different languages in different forms from folks to classics. Indian cinema also started its journey banking upon this special attribute of its target audience. It’s a proven fact that it got splendid success. Now India is not only producing highest number of films in the world but also Indian cinema is getting more and more popular in different countries of the world. Indian art-house cinema is already acclaimed highly world-wide. I found one of the important reasons of this success is that broadly Indian cinema is never reluctant to the contemporary social issues. Though the dream items of Bollywood-genre or of the mainstream cinemas of other languages mostly depict everything very loudly with overtones of fantasies but the socially and politically committed cinema always try to narrate the realities in a candid voice.
As Cinema is always there in the common agenda of most of the Indians with a little variation in respect of class and caste, it is obvious that Indian cinema can never ignore the concerns and interests of its target audience. Thus an interesting interaction always goes on where on one hand the audience tries to influence cinema indirectly by compelling it to include people’s agenda into the purview of the cinema and on the other hand cinema also tries to influence the people to endorse its contents. And hence a section of the elite people got organised to study cinema as a serious text by forming film societies which during its persistent activities finally proved that it can produce not only the serious filmmakers socially and politically committed to the people’s cause but also an audience conscious of reading the text of the moving images in a right way.
Let us first have an overview of the film society movement in India. The first film society was formed in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1937. The “Amateur Cine Society” was formed by the enterprise of film critic Rudi Laden, documentary maker Dr. Pati, Dereck Jephrys and others. Later in 1942, The “Bombay Film Society” was formed by the documentary maker Clement Baptiste, K L Khadpur and commentator Samuel Barkley. Although these two societies worked for long, the leadership required to elevate the subject to a movement could not be provided by these film societies. These two early film societies did not have much influence on the larger content of the film society movement in India.
The first organization actively pioneered the movement was the “Calcutta Film Society” formed on 5th October 1947. The main organizers included stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Chidananda Dasgupta, Nimai Ghosh and some other elite intellectuals mostly radicals and leftists on their thinking process. To name a few important of them were Harishadhan Dasgupta, Subrata Mitra, Shudhi Pradhan, Ajay Kar, Jyotirmoy Roy… some of whom were also associated with the most important leftist cultural activities known as ‘IPTA Movement’. By the 2nd Annual General Conference of this film society on 9th April 1949, the number of members rose to a total of 75. The conference elected Prof. Prasnata Mahalanabish and Hiron Kumar Sanyal as the President and Chairman and Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta as the Joint Secretaries. The significant members of the advisory committee included Dilip Kumar Ghosh of ‘Signet Press’ and Charuprakash Ghosh of ‘Bharatiya Gana Natya Sangha’. Noted film personalities like Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Mriganka Sekhar Ray and others were associated with this movement at some point of time. We have to remember that these people, better to say that this left-minded elite intelligentsia had an immense effect of India’s cultural development particularly in the field of cinema.
Four years after the inception of “Calcutta Film Society”, the “Patna Film Society” was formed. The first film screened was Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”. The “Delhi Film Society” was established by the end of 1956. The inaugural film for this society was again “Battleship Potemkin”. In the year 1959 it was decided that a national organization of the film societies should be formed and accordingly on 13th December 1959, in Delhi, the “Federation of Film Societies of India” was established combining the film societies of Calcutta (now Kolkata), Delhi, Bombay (now Mumbai), Madras (now Chennai) and Roorkee. Satyajit Ray was the Founder President and he was there in this post till his death. Interestingly, Indira Gandhi (later on the Prime Minister of India) once hold the post of the Vice President of this Federation and was in that post even after she became the Minister of Information & Broadcasting of the Government of India in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Ministry. Prime declared objectives of the Federation were: to promote the study of the film as an art and a social force, to encourage the production of films of artistic value, to promote public appreciation of films, to promote research on the cinema et al.
When Jean Renoir came to Calcutta to shoot his film “The River” in 1948-49, there was not any proper awareness in the Indian filmdom about him. Only the “Calcutta Film Society” showed due recognition and appreciation to Renoir. During the period of 1947–52, not only Renoir but other famous international film personalities like Soviet film-maker Pudovkin, actor Chekalov, Swedish documentary maker Arnie Sukrovorf, American director Frank Capra, Jhon Heuston and others have participated in various programmes of the Indian film societies thereby strengthening the foundation of the Film Society Movement in the country. “Calcutta Film Society” organized a felicitation ceremony for Pudovkin, in order to express grateful recognition to him as a filmmaker. The greatest achievement of this film society however was the acquisition of a print of the film ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Apart from that, a critical film journal named ‘Chalachitra’ (cinema) was also published by the society under such editors as Satyajit Ray, Chidananda Dasgupta, Kamal Kumar Mazumder, Naresh Guha, Radhaprasad Gupta etc. The members of “Calcutta Film Society” in the primary stage later went out to contribute positively in different areas of film industry and thus enriched the history of Indian cinema.
The 1st International Film Festival was held in India in 1952. In this event the active involvement of “Calcutta Film Society” certainly gave more impetus to Film Society Movement. But when Satyajit Ray started to work for his first film “Pather Panchali” a period of lull set in the enthusiasm of the organizers of the “Calcutta Film Society”. In fact, from 1953–56 the society almost closed temporarily to operate regular activities. “Pather Panchali” was released in 1955. In 1956 the famous film critic and biographer of Eisenstein, Marie Seaton, came to Calcutta and gave six lectures. These two events inspired organizers of this society all over again. There was renewed interest to import structured order in the society. There was an increase in number of members. Two film journals ‘Indian Film Review’ and ‘Chitrapat’ (perspective of cinema) started to get published. In this phase a good number of film societies came up in Calcutta and its suburbs. In some societies there were over two thousand members. Several societies started publishing film journals.
It is to be noted that by this time film societies across the globe had not only taken turns towards a movement but also the two consecutive world wars proved to be a profound learning experience for this movement. A large number of film societies had already developed worldwide. The “International Federation of Film Societies” was established on 16th September, 1947. India got independence just a month before on 15th August 1947. The film industry of India also got flourished by then. In 1934 a Bengali film “Sita” directed by Debaki Bose won the ‘Certificate of Merit’ at the ‘Venice Film Festival’. Three years later in 1937, “Sant Tukaram” produced by ‘Prabhat Film Company’ got another award at the ‘Venice Film Festival’. Even commercial films became quite successful. “Kismat” was released in 1943 and set a record of running for the highest number of days. In the ‘Roxy’ cinema hall of Calcutta, the film ran uninterruptedly for 3 years and 8 months.
The influx of black money into the film industry began as early as 1944. And thus the film industry came under direct control of the half-educated filmmakers casting a shadow in the golden era of Indian cinema. The partition practically crippled Bengal. An all-encompassing deterioration was palpable in every sphere of politics, economy and society. The intellectuals were leaning towards leftist ideals. In these extraordinary circumstances, Film Society Movement grew and spread here. It is beyond doubt that people spontaneously took part in the movement, driven by idealism and by a sense of commitment to the historical legacy. The foundation was laid out, leadership efficient and the time was ripe. As a result, the movement got the necessary force to flourish.
The increasing number of film societies in the country, the success of well known film makers hailing from film societies, the recognition of film studies as an academic discipline in the University level…. are all direct and indirect outcome of this movement. Now there are about 300 regular Film Societies in the country affiliated with the Federation of Film Societies of India. Besides this there are so many non-affiliated film societies working in the country. A huge number of Campus Film Societies are also coming up in different educational institutions, universities and colleges. Spread of film societies in two states – West Bengal and Kerala, where more than two third of the total film societies of the country exist, proves that leftist politics has a strong influence to enrich the movement.
“Communist Party of India (Marxist)” popularly known as “CPI(M)” has a strong organizational base in West Bengal and Kerala. The party was formed in 1964 splitting from the “Communist Party of India” (CPI) which was established on 26th December 1925. IPTA i.e. “Indian People’s Theatre Association” – the cultural wing of the undivided Communist Party of India was formed in 1942, five years before independence of India, in the backdrop of the ‘Second World War’ and ‘Bengal Famine’ in the wake of the ‘Quit India Movement’. Some of IPTA’s initial members were the great stalwarts of Indian cinema like Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Ritwik Ghatak, Utpal Dutta, Salil Chowdhury etc. who have got immense influence on the different sections of Indian cinema. “Dharti Ke Lal” (Children of the Earth / Hindi / 1946) the first and probably the only direct production of IPTA under the banner of ‘IPTA Pictures’ – directed by the debutant Khwaja Ahmed Abbas is one of the milestones of Indian cinema. The film was highly acclaimed critically for its depiction of infamous ‘Bengal Famine of 1943’ which took lives of more than 3 million people out of starvation. It is one of the most important political films which realistically portrayed the social and economic changes during the 2nd World War.
IPTA activists travelled all over the country to raise fund by performing their plays for the famine affected people of Bengal and thus they made this film “Dharti Ke Lal” to depict the story of devastating humanity during the struggle to survive. This film started a new era of Indian new wave cinema focusing the social and political reality and influenced to make further productions of this genre like “Neecha Nagar” (1946) by Chetan Anand scripted by Abbas and “Do Bigha Zamin” (1953) by Bimal Roy.
Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, pioneer of the Indian neo-realist cinema, was one of the most politically conscious filmmakers of India. Grandson of Khwaja Gulam Abbas, one of the chief rebels of the ‘1857 Rebellion Movement’ and first martyr blown from the mouth of the cannon, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas directed and wrote many socially concerned films during his long film career for five decades starting from screen play writing for “Naya Sansar” (1941) of the famous ‘Bombay Talkies’ to “Hena” (1991). He also reacted on the Naxalite movement with his film “The Naxalites” (1980) directed by himself. In 1964, 18 Craft Unions of the Bombay Film Industry came together to form a very active film society “Film Forum” under the Chairmanship of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. “Film Forum” lead to spread the Film Society Movement in Maharashtra. “Do Bigha Zamin” (Two Acres of Land / 1935 / Hindi) by Bimal Roy is also considered as an important milestone of the Indian neo-realist cinema. It was a trend setter for the early Indian films with socialistic approach motivated by the ideology of IPTA.
From 1967 to 1975 the Naxalite movement was intensified in West Bengal. The ‘Presidency College Calcutta’ became it’s headquarter. A large number of brilliant students and intellectuals actively supported this movement and it spread rapidly throughout West Bengal and some others adjacent states till an all-out attack was made during 1975-76 by the state which practically wiped away not only the movement but also a substantial part of the intelligentsia of West Bengal. To register protest against the white atrocities the Human Rights Movement mostly lead by the radical elites were organized with the demand to stop state violence and to free the political prisoners immediately.
In 1977 the 1st Left-Front Government came into the power of West Bengal and the Human Rights Activists were successful to convince them to free the Naxalite prisoners remanded in different jails. For next three decades the Naxalite movement though spread over other parts of the country but it was not so highlighted in West Bengal wherefrom it was originated. Left-Front own the elections in consecutive seven terms and it somehow managed to neutralized the movement in a very low-tone. But in May 2009 it again came into the news head-lines when a Maoist group in Lalgarh declared war against the state power aiming to create a liberated zone against the ‘oppression of the establishment Left and its police’.
Naxalites claim that they have a support of the ‘Adivasis’ (the tribal people). They mostly operate in the tribal belts in the vast hilly forest areas mainly the places where the tribal people were leaving for thousands of years and which have been devastated for mining and hydro power projects. In 2006 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Naxalites “The single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”. State power not only combats with Naxalites with its armed force but also it backs the terrorist activities like ‘Salwa Judum’ or the the ‘Ranvir Sena’ – the notorious private army of the landlords of Bihar to counter the Naxalite activities. Similar paramilitary groups have emerged in Andhra Pradesh which also attacks the human rights activists.
The words ‘Naxal’, ‘Naxalite’, ‘Naxalpanthi’, ‘Naxalbadee’ etc. are used as a generic term to refer to the militant Communist groups active in different parts of India, mainly in West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala operating in different names, also known as ‘Maoists’ in general.
The term ‘Naxal’ has been derived from the name of a village called ‘Naxalbari’ in the northern part of West Bengal from where this ultra-left radical communist movement was originated in the year 1967. Initially the movement was lead by Charu Majumdar but within a couple of years it was fragmented into several disputed factions. In 1967 the Naxalites organized the ‘All India Coordination Committee of the Communist Revolutionaries’ which in 1969 gave birth to the ‘Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)’ popularly known as CPI (ML). A separate Naxalite group was working under the name of ‘Maoist Communist Centre’ which later was amalgamated with another Naxalite faction ‘People’s War Group’ to form the ‘Communist Party of India (Maoist)’.
Formation and fusion of these several groups continued and by 1980 it was estimated that around 30 Naxalite groups were active with at least 30,000 activists which by next two decades got increased to an alarming number of 70,000 regular cadres out of which 20,000 armed cadres operating in 180 districts controlling about 92,000 square kilometers of land known as the ‘Red corridor’ of India. Though a few of the Naxalite groups have become legal organizations participating in parliamentary elections but most of the groups are operating as underground political parties engaged in armed guerrilla struggles against the state power.
Naxalites are a taxonomic group which is both genus and species. It is genus as it refers to whole orbit of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist movements spread over the entire ‘Red Corridor’. As species it mainly refers to the Maoists. In practice, they are the leftist extremists. This is highly interesting to observe how a series of films from East to West to South has gradually created a new genre of ‘Radical Cinema’ consciously dealing with various issues of Naxalism or Maoism, Terrorist Activities, State Atrocities, Violation of Human Rights et al in Indian cinemas.
Human Rights Movement practically got its strength from the historical background of the “Internal Emergency” declared by the President of India on 26th June 1975 upon the advice of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who was instigated by Shiddhartha Shankar Ray, the Chief Minister of West Bengal to take this move after her defeat in the Allahabad High Court on 12th June 1975 on a charge of misusing government machinery for her election campaign in 1971. Elections for the Parliament and State Assemblies were postponed, massive crackdown was made on the civil liberties and political oppositions, thousands of leaders were thrown behind the bars, numerous organizations were banned, activists of different Communist parties including the Naxalites were tortured and brutally killed, human rights activists were harassed, massive censorship was imposed on media including cinema, all constitutional provisions allowing fundamental rights to citizens were suspended and the entire nation faced a dangerous shock under this sudden jump from democracy to dictatorship.
The “Emergency” was withdrawn on 23rd March 1977 and the nation again got back the space to breathe but within these 21 darkest months of the Indian democracy the human rights activists earned a great experience which helped them to intensify their strength for any such further attack from the state authorities. Cinemas later on made on this political turbulence helped as an effective facilitator.
The great maestros of Indian cinema – Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, all belong to the city of Kolkata. Obviously they reacted on all the political issues of Bengal through their works. Ray established the film-society movement to propagate film culture so that people could understand the language of cinema. He never deviated from his mission and always advocated in favour of this movement. Ritwik Ghatak was associated with the IPTA movement. Mrinal Sen was with the both. Their films inspired the new trend of film-making in India and thus a new genre of Indian cinema was produced in Karnataka, Kerala, Assam, Maharashtra and Orissa.
In Kerala Adoor Gopalakrishnan, one of the great masters of Indian cinema, started film society movement on the line of Ray. Padum Barua, the renowned neo-realist film maker of Assam, started the movement in the state and established the first film society there in Shilong in 1962. Another great master Girish Ksaravalli started the movement in Kerala. Even in Bollywood a new breed of filmmakers were emerged to make movies of new genre completely different from the mundane celluloid exposures.
This phenomenon was not something sudden. Several socio-political factors played a vital role for this shift-over. All the three films of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ – “Pratidwandi” (The Adversary /1970), “Seemabaddha” (Company Limited / 1971) and “Jana Aranya” (The Middle Man / 1975) study the political turbulence of Calcutta during 70s. Reference of Naxalite movement, film society activities, erosion of human values in the context of social and political movements are all present there very candidly. The historical background of the film “Pratidwandi” (The Adversary /1970) is set on the political turbulence of the Naxalite movement in Calcutta. About his social responsibility as a filmmaker Ray commented in an interview “You can see my attitude in The Adversary where you have two brothers. The younger brother is a Naxalite. There is no doubt that the elder brother admires the younger brother for his bravery and convictions.”
Mrinal Sen’s association with the “Indian People’s Theatre Association” (IPTA) – the most powerful socialist cultural organisation of India effectively motivated his philosophy of filmmaking. “Interview” (1971) the first film of Sen’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ was a path-breaking film which was politically vocal and commercially success during the turbulent political ambience in Calcutta. Other two films of this trilogy “Calcutta 71” (1972) and “Padatik” (The Guerilla Fighter / 1973) also documented the unrest of the city during the period.
Ritwik Ghatak was the most powerful political filmmaker. Though the partition of India, to be specific, the partition of Bengal and its obvious impact was his prime concern and the most of his highly acclaimed films “Meghey Dhaka Tara” (The Cloud-Capped Star / 1960), “Komal Gandhar” (E-Flat / 1961), “Subarna Rekha” (The Golden Line / 1962) were made before the uprise of the Naxalite movement but still in “Jukti Takko Ar Gappo” (Reason, Debate and a Story / 1974) he looked back to Calcutta in the backdrop of 1971 when the Bangladesh liberation struggle was going on and the Naxalite movement was in full form.
Buddhadeb Dasgupta, a regular member of ‘Calcutta Film Society’ was recognized as an acclaimed film maker from his debut feature film “Dooratwa” (Distance / 1978) where he depicted Calcutta in the backdrop of 70s with clear reference of the leftist political movements including the Naxalism. It’s one of the excellent films of Indian cinema.
Sudhir Mishra’s “Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi” (2003/ Hindi) not only established Mishra into the mainstream Indian cinema but also it founded Naxalism as a discourse in ‘Bollywood’. This film is an unresolved narrative depicting three lives interacting with each other ideologically, politically and emotionally, spanning a time period through 1969 to 1977 covering the entire turbulent period of several simultaneous political movements including the uprising of Naxalbari movement, Internal Emergency, Sarvodaya Movement of Jay Prakash Narayan and the historical defeat of Indira Gnadhi and Congress Party in India’s Parliament Election. This film is considered as one of the milestones of Indian cinema, especially on this issue.
Recently released “Red Alert: The War Within” (Hindi / 2010) by Ananth Mahadevan is based on a true story of a laborer who got involved with a group of Naxalites in a forest in Andhra Pradesh. Written by the serious filmmaker Aruna Raje, though this film has already earned a lot of applause still it’s a typical mainstream production with Bolywood biggies like Sunil Shetty, Sameera Reddy, Naseeruddin Shah, Vinod Khanna and so many others which were simultaneously released in four languages like Hindi, Telugu, Chattisgarhi and English making a very good collection in the box-office. Though the film is not an authentic representation of the Naxalism to get critical applause still its success in the popular circuit reflects the acceptance of the issue. “Chamku” (Hindi / 2008) directed by Kabir Kaushik tells the story of a boy named Chamku whose family was brutally murdered and who is now a Naxal leader in the Southern interior of Bihar.
Shaji N Karun’s debut feature film “Piravi” (The Birth / Malayalam / 1988) is the most acclaimed film of this genre. Based on the story of a young man who was murdered in the police custody in Kerala for his political activities the film got more than thirty international awards including the prestigious “Camera d’Or” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. Government of India also conferred it the Best National Film Award “Golden Lotus” in the same year.
Telugu film industry of Andhra Pradesh is the second largest film industry in India, which comes very close to Mumbai film Industry. After the Naxal upsurge in Srikakulam in late 60s, the movement spread towards Telengana. Youth, especially the artists, writers and poets were very much influenced with its ideology. Founder of the “Jananatya Mandali” (the People’s Theatre) B Narsing Rao produced a Telugu film “Maabhoomi” (1978) directed by Gautam Ghosh. It depicted the people’s movement against the ruler “Nizam” but when the Communist Party of India had withdrawn the struggle, some young people went to the forest to move forward with their revolutionary commitments indicating that the same struggle is being continued as the People’s War or Maoist Movement.
Success of “Maabhoomi” motivated Madala Ranga Rao, a “Praja Natyamandali” (The People’s Theatre lead by the Communist Party of India) activist and film actor, to make films to propagate the ideology of the Communist Party of India. He made films like “Erra Mallelu”, “Viplava Shankham” etc. which were instant success. B Narsing Rao made his directorial debut with “Rangula Kala” (1984) which had many symbolic expressions supporting the Naxalite ideology. In the same time some young underground activist of Karimnagar district made a film “Vimukthi Kosham” directed by Uday Kumar based on the short stories of the revolutionary writer Bhushanam.
Famous film industrialist of India, Ramoji Rao produced a Telugu film titled “People’s Encounter” to propagate his own ideology that common people are suffering between the struggles of the revolutionaries and the state oppressions. Renowned filmmaker Shankar made a Telugu film titled “Encounter” which dealt with the fake encounter killing by the police. The film became so popular that henceforth the filmmaker is titled as “Encounter Shankar” in Telugu film industry.
Gradually in Telugu cinema there came a special genre known as ‘Red Cinema’ which deals with the issues related to Naxalites. In most of the Red Films the Naxalites are the representatives of the oppressed (Dalits or Tribals) who fight for the human rights denied to them by the state. R Narayana Murthy a regular producer and actor of the Red Cinema motivated the huge capital oriented Telugu film industry to make big budget Red Cinema such as “Adavilo Annalu” (Brother in Forests / 1997) by B Gopal, “Ankuram” (1992) by Uma Maheswara Rao, “Osey Ramulama” (Hey Ramulamma / 1997) by Dasari Narayana Rao, “Mutha Mestri” (1993) by A Kodandarami all of which could be very good examples of films related to Civil Liberties and Naxalite issues.
“Osey Ramulama” (1997) by Dasari Narayana Rao is the most glaring example of the Telugu film industry’s takeover to Red Cinema. It was the most successful Naxalie film of Telugu cinema. This film features all the big budget stars like Vijayashanthi, Rami Reddy and Dasari Narayana Rao to establish the successful entry of ‘Red Cinema’ in mainstream Telugu film industry. In “Adavilo Anna” the superstar Mohan Babu played two generation of Naxalites.
For Tamil cinema the issue is a little bit different. Tamil cinema has got an immense effect on Bollywood. This is one of the most powerful film-industry of India which not only controls a substantial dominance of over-all Indian cinema but also an effective part of Indian politics as well. It is difficult to disassociate Tamil cinema and Tamil politics both of which are effectively influencing the Indian cinema and Indian politics. To get this point we have to walk a little back way of Dravidian politics which is really a very interesting phenomenon in terms of cinema and politics in India.
Under the leadership of Periyar E V Ramasamy the Dravidian movement was started in 1925 basically as a human rights movement demanding the equality of the backward castes. Gradually it turned into a political movement, mainly lead by the political party ‘Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’ (DMK) which exploited the film industry in most successful manner. Activists of the Guerilla Theater who were inspired by the ideologies of Periyar, brought his philosophies into Tamil cinema. C N Annadurai was the first successful leader to introduce Dravidian ideologies into Tamil cinema. In his initial days Annadurai used to write dramas on social reforms. His movies like “Velaikaari” (Servant Maid / 1949) directly criticized the landlords traditionally who were allied with Jawaharlal Nehru and M K Gandhi. After winning the election in 1967 Annadurai became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and he was in this post till his death in 1969.
“Parasakthi” (1952), a super-hit film was the milestone of Tamil cinema which first raised voice against social hierarchy and caste system glorifying the Dravidian movement. The film was initially banned but when it was finally released in 1952 it was a super success in the box-office. The script of the film was written by M Karunanidhi who is now serving his fifth term as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and having an alliance with the Indian National Congress in the Central Government. Two other legendary founding members of the DMK Party Shivaji Ganesan and S S Rajendran also made their film debut in this film.
Out of seven Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu, five are actively involved in Tamil cinema. M G Ramchandran was the most successful amongst them. After differences with DMK he launched his own political party ‘All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’ (AIADMK) in 1975 and came into the power in 1977 as the most popular and successful Chief Minister. He ruled the state till his death in 1987. The legacy of his political career and cinematic charisma is still being continued by his muse and film heroine J Jayalalitha who also has served two terms as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu after taking the leadership of AIADMK. Till date the two veterans of Tamil cinema, script writer Karunanidhi and actor Jayalalitha are two super powers of Tamil politics as well as of Indian politics.
Though in theory every Indian citizen has got the same right ensured by the Constitution but in practice a very small portion of it enjoys the civil rights that too partially. Several constraints come as the barrier amongst which state itself acts as the main opposition to the human rights. The ability to enjoy the rights widely depends upon the class, caste, community and gender. Indian cinema consciously or unconsciously has referred to these terms in several times to use films as the forum to realise the issues related to civil society. While discussing the issue of human rights we have to keep in mind that in Indian context it is mainly related to the middle and upper class and mostly the males who control or intend to control the civil society. But there are some exceptions as well.
Thangjam Manorama Devi, a 32 year old lady of Manipur was arrested on 11th July 2004 from her home by the armed police force of ‘17th Assam Rifles’ and later her dead body was found near a hillock under suspicious circumstances. People believed that she was brutally raped and murdered by the armed police. Gradually a strong and spontaneous protest movement was spread agitating against the excess of the armed force demanding immediate withdrawal of the black law ‘AFSPA’. The agitation was mainly lead by the women of Manipur who in a group even stripped themselves naked in front of the army headquarters asking the soldiers to rape them. A youth died setting him on fire to protest against this controversial law.
‘Armed Forces (Special Power) Act’ known as ‘AFSPA’ was passed on 11th September 1958 by the Indian Parliament. Initially it was enacted to give special power to the Indian armed force to rule the so-called ‘disturbed areas’ of the North-Eastern States like Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. In July 1990 it was extended to Jammu and Kashmir. AFSPA was first introduced into Nagaland in April 1958. This is one of the dirtiest Acts which violates and negates the basics of the human rights empowering the armed force even to murder the civilians on mere suspicion. This Act immensely helps the state sponsored terrorism. The law was severely criticized by almost all of the national and international human rights organizations. They questioned how such a law could be justified in the lights of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In his film “AFSPA 1958” Haobam Paban Kumar, a young filmmaker from Manipur, has narrated the diary of events of the spontaneous agitation happened in Manipur after the murder of Manorama Devi demanding withdrawal of this black-law. First time I saw the film in “Mumbai International Film Festival for Shorts, Documentaries and Animations” in 2006 as a member of the Jury and I was really moved by the film. It got the best film award there and thereafter it got so many national and international awards world-wide. Most interestingly the Minister of Information & Broadcasting of the Government of India commented in the award ceremony that this type of films should be promoted to enlighten the politicians for better governance. Government of India conferred the best national film award ‘Golden Lotus’ to this film in 2008 with the citation ‘A courageous depiction of the non-violent resistance of the people of Manipur to protest against a legislation which undermines the values of self-respect and the fundamentals of democracy’. But the fallacy is, the law is still in existence. Anyway the film certainly made an impact amongst the human rights activists worldwide.
In its report on human rights in India during 2010, the ‘Human Rights Watch’ has stated that ‘India has got significant human rights problems’ and identified ‘police brutality, extrajudicial killing and torture’ as some major violations. Custodial death is a major area of violation of human rights in India. According to the survey of the ‘Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’ every year on an average 800 people die under police or jail custody due to brutal torture of the law-keepers. Kashmir is a major issue where violation of human rights has been occurred in most severe manner. Both ‘Amnesty International’ and ‘Human Rights Watch’ have severely criticized the Government for the excess such as ‘extra-judicial executions’, ‘disappearances’ and ‘torture’. Human trafficking is another major problem of human rights issues. Every year around 30,000 women and children are being trafficked from Bangladesh and Nepal for flesh trade and other exploitations. Religious violence is one of the most dangerous areas of human rights violations in the country. In continuation of the death of the Prime-Minister Indira Gandhi, the Anti-Sikh Riot in 1984, Bombay-Riots in 1992, Gujrat Violence in 2002 et al are the most cruel massacres which affected India’s traditional secular culture. Caste related violence is also a major issue of the human rights in India. In its report of 2007 the ‘Human Rights Watch’ categorically mentioned that the ‘Dalits and indigeneous peoples (known as the Schedule Tribes or adivasis) continue to face discrimination, exclusion and acts of communal violence’.
All these issues have been addressed in several successful films. Noted director Buddhadev Dasgupta in his film “Uttara” (The Wrestlers / Bengali / 2000) through a sub-plot well textured with the main plot of exploitation of women has narrated a true story of burning alive a Christian Missionary in a remote village Church and thus addressing the issue of religious fundamentalism and social injustice in an artistic manner.
Govind Nihalani’s debut feature film “Aakrosh” (Cry of the Wounded / Hindi / 1980) criticized the corruption of bureaucracy and judiciary and serious exploitation and victimization of the tribal people by the entire system of state machinery. This film is a landmark of the Indian film history for its all-out success to prove itself as the most important socially relevant film based on a real life story scripted for the film by the eminent playwright Vijay Tendulkar. His other film “Party” (Hindi / 1984) is also a very intelligent satire on the urban elite pretending to be progressive which in climax shows us the brutal murder of the hero by police as a leftist-extremist. Nihalani’s “Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa” (The Mother of 1084 / Hindi /1998) tales the story of a woman who has lost her son, a Naxalite in turbulent 70s. The film is a sincere presentation of the time and of the characters who believed in Naxalism.
The Bollywood big-budget “Mission Kashmir” (Hindi / 2000) directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra deals with tragedy of a young boy of Kashmir whose entire family was killed by the police. Aparna Sen’s “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer” (Bengali / 2002) fantastically depicts the communal violence by an emotional story throughout a journey of the hero and heroine.
Mani Ratnam, one of the most successful filmmakers in India, directing and producing several big-budget blockbusters of Bollywood genre both in Hindi and Tamil languages. This is a rare combination seldom found in mostly compartmentalized Indian film industries. Most of his films are socially concerned and he loves to deal with the issues like human rights, Kashmir problem, Dravidian politics, terrorism et al. In “Iruvar” (The Duo / Tamil / 1997) Mani Ratnam has narrated the inter-relationship of Dravidian politics and Tamil cinema fictionalizing the colorful lives of M G Ramchandran and M Karunanidhi. In “Yuva” (Youth / Hindi / 2004) simultaneously released with the Tamil version titled “Aayutha Ezhuthu” the issue of youth politics has been discussed through three interwoven stories of three couples crossing their roads creating a new dimension to propagate the idea of the filmmaker. In “Roja” (Rose / Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannda, Malyalam, Marathi / 1992) Mani Ratnam deals with the terrorist issue of Kashmir. His “Bombay” (1995) deals with the communal turbulence created in India after demolition of ‘Babri Masjid’ on 6th December 1992 which led the Bombay Riot in January 2003.
Shonali Bose’s “Amu” (Hindi / 2005) beautifully deals with the issues of the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. “Thalappavu” (Turban/ Malayalam) by the debutant director Madhupal is an all time classic, an excellent movie. It’s a story about Naxal Varghese who was killed in one of the most controversial police encounter in Kerala.
Most vocal human rights filmmaker Anand Patwardhan is making films like “Ram Ke Nam” (In the Name of God / 1992), “Pitr, Putr aur Dharmayuddha” (Father, Son and Holy War / 1995), “A Narmada Diary” (1996), “Jang aur Aman” (War and Peace / 2002). Most of his films faced objection from the ‘Central Board of Film Certification’ and were cleared by prolonged legal battles in the Courts. His last film “War and Peace” which traces the development of the nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan was released for public screening after three years legal battle.
Over last decades the target audience of mainstream cinema has been changed very rapidly. Educated neo-middle class can more or less identify the ongoing political crises through continuous packaging of the electronic and print media. Naxalism, Maoism, Terrorism, Corruptions, Crimes, State Atrocities, Human Rights being the prime contents of the media, the people identify the issues easily. They therefore rush to catch up the films dealing with these issues as an extension of the raw news with some additional dose of excitement whatsoever. They can comfortably identify the politics of kidnapping in Bollywood blockbusters like “Apaharan” or “Ishquiya” or the politics of making blinds in “Gangajal” or the Enron Scandal in “Sarkar Raaj” or the students’ politics in “Gulal”.
Film society movement has undoubtedly enriched the cinema literacy through its sustained activities which motivated film-studies to be brought under the mainstream education system of India as an important cultural study. Human rights movement facilitated the agenda of the film society movement by creating a socially aware and politically conscious section of the people. Not necessarily they have joined hands together through any declared policies but the pioneers of both the movements realised that the interactive awareness would ultimately help to promote the basic philosophies of their mission. And I think they were correct to some extent.
Courtesy: 4th Subversive Film Festival, Zagreb, Croatia, May 2011.