Day 1 – 17 January 2019

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The 6th Kolkata People’s Film Festival started with a series of stories from the margins of India and South Asia, recalling memories of the tragic shahadat of Rohith Vemula – the young student who became a national symbol of resistance soon after. The first film of the day was the world premiere screening of After Sabeen – a film remembering Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud who led a life that was brief but completely devoted to people’s concerns. She was shot dead on the streets of Karachi by unknown assailants in 2006 while on her way to a friend’s house from the 2nd Floor Café which she had earlier helped found. After Sabeen was less about her life itself and more about the traces she left behind in her death. Schokofeh Kamiz’s film is a tribute to activist lives of women. It takes us through the lives of the women in Sabeen’s personal world after Sabeen, especially that of her mother Mehnaz and friends; women who have been trying to rebuild their own lives little other than memories and rich legacies to function as building blocks.

The immediate context of Sabeen’s assassination was a seminar at the 2nd Floor Café on the controversial Balochistan question. The difficulties of the Balochis in Pakistan is not an isolated issue but part of a wider trend of persecution of minorities by nation-states across South Asia. That was the theme that the following two films dealt with. 298-C, by Nida Mehboob, kept us in Pakistan and told us about the maltreatment of the Ahmadiya community through the story of an Ahmadiya family that returned to Pakistan after 8 years. Rohingya’s Dream, followed the story of Arafatallah – a child born in the stateless Rohingya community. Filmed in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, Mohammad Mahdi Khaleghi’s film took us through the child’s dreams, aspirations and tragedies that transcend national boundaries.
Gouri Patwardhan’s In a Shadowless Town traces the histories of memorialisation of the Dalit-Bahujan community in the city of Pune. As they have struck a chord with the young and old cultural enthusiasts of our times, the ‘heritage walks’ often claim to represent the true cultural heritage and ethos of cities. In the walks conducted in the city of Pune, the statues and monuments which are integral to the lives and aspirations of the Dalit-Bahujan community are selectively invisiblised from the mainstream making of history. As the film captures the historic event of Bhima-Koregaon, it documents voices from the community asserting their emotions pivoting around these public statues and monuments which would strengthen them to carry out their everyday fights. These are the only statues or memorials in the otherwise starkly Brahaminised city of Pune which would provide them with a sense of a community which have been denied to them historically.
The second film of this segment was Vivek Gopinath’s Rampatar or Dividing by a Platter. This film deals with the issues of caste-based oppression and discrimination as well, as it tells a tale of this specific bowl ‘Rampatar’, glorified with the name of god Ram, which in its avatars is used in Gujarat, even in schools during the mid-day-meal, to discriminate Dalits from the upper-castes. This bowl, over the ages, has become almost a symbol of untouchability for the Dalits, and the film successfully captures snippets from the intense emotional concerns the bowl evokes in the people from these communities.
The post-lunch session screened Pawan K Shrivastava’s new Indian fiction, Life of an Outcast following a discussion with the director. Pawan’s film traces the story of a Dalit family and their lives through three generations caught under the wheels of caste-discrimination. In a lively interaction session with the audience and the moderator, Pawan took us through his personal journey, his views about cinema and politics and his convictions as a filmmaker.
In the inauguration session of the film festival, the 6th issue of our yearly magazine Pratirodher Cinema was released with a series of reviews, interviews and critical commentaries. As a measure of resistance to the Brahmanic and mainstream inaugural traditions, there were no elaborate rituals; instead, the Laali Guraas Collective was invited to speak and sing of marginal voices. They performed their songs, urging us to resist with all and any means we have. On behalf of the People’s Film Collective, Dwaipayan Banerjee spoke in some detail on the goals, principles and yearlong work of the Collective in general, and the ideals behind the Kolkata People’s Film Festival in particular. On behalf of the festival screening committee, Kasturi spoke about the film-submission and film-programming process of this year, highlighting the trends and patterns from this year’s film submissions, and giving a broad overview of the films that are being screened in the 6th KPFF.
The inauguration was followed by the first film of the ‘Education Tales’ series. Are you going to School Today?, directed by Anupama Srinivasan, was a film about the everyday life in a set of government schools in the so-called backward Dungarpur district of Rajasthan. Moving back and forth between the school, the locality and the homes of the teachers and students, it brought out the wide range of attitudes, emotions and feelings that constitute the teaching-learning process. The film displayed tremendous empathy towards the efforts put in by the teachers to make education meaningful despite the difficult circumstances that public education finds itself within.
The next film, Scratches on Stone took us miles across to the north-eastern parts of the country, areas that we know of primarily through occasional news that filters into what many people of those parts call “India”. Amit Mahanti’s camera followed the efforts of Zubeni Lotha to document the contemporary reality of the state which are inseparable from the memories of a decades-long violent conflict surrounding the Naga demand for self-determination. This brought a history of a different violence to the surface – the history of representation of the Nagas as “uncivilised” and violent in colonial anthropological frameworks perpetuated through photography such as the work of Austrian ethnologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Mahanti’s film sought to bridge the Nagaland from Haimendorf’s images with that Zubeni wanted to document.
The last segment of the day had two documentary films from India. Yeh Mera Ghar or The Colour of My Home directed by Sanjay Barnela and Farah Naqvi captures the struggles of internally displaced immigrant life in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar communal violence. We often overlook the struggles of people and their lives as we move from one disastrous event to another – the way mainstream media feeds us. The sixty thousand people who were displaced in the riots – how did they find their homes again, if at all? The film captures how the haunting memories of the communal violence form a part of their everyday. Yet, the film speaks of hope and resilience as it traces personal histories of these people struggling to make their homes.
Our last film for the day was Samarth Mahajan’s We, The People. Samarth is a self-taught filmmaker whose film hinges around the utopic site of the city of Delhi, Jantar Mantar. The film captures the myriad protests happening at Jantar Mantar, and tries to unfurl the inherent irony of the place of protest which has been sanctioned by the Delhi police. It especially traces the stories of three instances of indefinite protests in order to illustrate the contemporary socio-political upheavals and aspirations after the promises of our freedom struggle over six decades back.
The first day ended with rage, hope and resilience – awaiting more such stories and conversations from the ongoing festival!
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