Reality show

Print edition : August 26, 2011

Ajay Sinha, directorof the film. - AKHILESH KUMAR

Khap, a movie on honour killings, does not get a screening in the State most affected by the social problem.

ON July 29, a Friday, when new films were released in theatres across the country, one particular film attracted much unwanted attention. The movie Khap, by Mumbai film industry debutant Ajay Sinha, was released across the country but cinema halls in Haryana did not screen it, apprehending violence and protests by sections of the public. In western Uttar Pradesh, heads of some khap councils have threatened an agitation.

The movie, with its provocative title, was meant to send a message to those very sections who were protesting against its release as it had allegedly given the institution of khaps a bad name. Ajay Sinha, the director of the movie, is known for his serious television serials. He may have known what he was getting into by not only talking about the deplorable trend of honour killings but also titling his movie after the very institution which has been in recent times responsible for sentencing to death many young couples who allegedly violated gotra or clan norms.

The movie did not get good ratings from reviewers. Apart from Om Puri, Govind Namdev, Alok Nath and Mohnish Behl, the rest of the cast does not offer much reason to be written about. It has a relatively unknown pair in the lead. But that is not the point at all. Some reviewers have commented on the loudness and the goriness of the violence in the film. But people who have directly dealt with such issues, been affected by them in their home States, and are resisting them, feel that what the film has shown approximates reality. The movie deserves kudos for approaching an issue in a way different from many recent films, such as the critically acclaimed Aakrosh (2010) by the well-known director Priyadarsan or Love, Sex and Dhoka (2010) by Dibakar Banerjee, which dealt with the subject of honour killings.

The 2010 Aakrosh should not to be confused with its namesake of 1980 directed by Govind Nihalani, with Om Puri, Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil in the lead (exploitation of tribal people was its theme and it opened with a scene of an honour killing). It had big names like Ajay Devgn, Bipasha Basu and Paresh Rawal in the lead roles.

Loosely based on honour killings with caste violence as the backdrop, it was described as the unofficial remake of the 1988 Alan Parker movie Mississippi Burning. Its plot was based on the real-life incident of two FBI workers investigating the murders of three civil rights activists who had gone missing in 1964.

The critics of Khap could have given it some points for the originality and the frontal nature of the title, the importance of which has not been underestimated by the organisations targeting the movie. The importance of the film lies in the fact that it has not only openly attacked them but questioned their undemocratic styles of functioning in areas that fall purely in the personal realm.

A scene from the play "Hamlet - The Clown Prince". It was part of The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Fest 2010 in Coimbatore.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The stunning silence of mainstream political parties against the backdrop of the protests in Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh, where khaps and similar institutions exist, is therefore not surprising. After all, khaps have always played a crucial role in mobilising caste-based support at the time of elections.

The website of Khap describes the movie as a contemporary tale of traditional massacre erupting in the heartland of central India where certain villages still follow cruel age-old customs. It is a story where passion, dishonour and deceit unfold; where the sweet innocence of youth is throttled by uncompromising beliefs.

The story otherwise is simple and has been repeated a million times in popular cinema; the only difference is in the nature of the resistance encountered by the lovelorn youngsters. Two youngsters belonging to the same khap (a cluster of clans or gotras claiming common lineage and within which marriage is prohibited) fall in love, and almost coincidentally, an honour killing is reported from the girl's paternal village. Her father, who had left the village years ago in protest against the honour killings practised there, now returns to investigate the unnatural death of the couple. He is met with stiff opposition from his father and the patriarch of the village, played by Om Puri. While the murdered girl's father is distraught, the murdered boy's father is unrepentant. This shows that there is no uniform acceptance of the death diktats passed by elders or community leaders masquerading as elected representatives (as has been observed, the elected representatives remain silent or are sidelined on such occasions). Families of besieged couples have sometimes approached the police and courts for protection. It is another matter that the political system has thoroughly failed young couples seeking protection even though the courts have been sympathetic to them. The film ends on a radical and positive note with the patriarch assuring his son that he will put an end to such killings.

In the making of the film, Ajay Sinha met with a cross-section of people who had taken up the cause of such couples; he also held a special screening of the film for them in the national capital. As a director whose television serials have treated social issues with sensitivity, Sinha made the film after doing some research into the issue of honour killings. He studied the Manoj and Babli honour killing case, which was reported in the media, and met with people like Jagmati Sangwan, vicepresident of the Haryana unit of the All India Democratic Women's Association, who have been highlighting this menace at the State and national levels.

A note from Ajay Sinha, posted on the website of the movie, says:

I have been reading and hearing news of the inhuman killings of young people in love wanting to get married or already married. The young ones are killed by none other than their own families their brothers and maybe even by their fathers. Their tales are so heart-wrenching. How can a father kill his son or daughter in cold blood in the name of honour? We know that marriage between people carrying the same genes is scientifically harmful; but killing the young lovers for making this mistake is going too far in the name of honour. The khap panchayat is made up of 40 village panchayats. Young people are not allowed to marry within this khap let alone within the clan.

These incidents have long been happening in our country, especially in the State of Haryana, but lately they have been coming to light thanks to our evolving media and alert news channels. Most of us are not even aware of these atrocities happening with our young generation; we live within our protected cocoons of security and acceptance and when we read about these cases we look upon them as something happening beyond our realm of reality.

All of us need to realise that this menace is not far from our doorstep. If this warped sense of honour is festering in the minds of some of our fellowmen, then the day is near when this poison enters our bloodstream too. I felt this tumour in our society needed to be exposed our media is doing its best but it is the duty of all thinking and progressive people to address this issue and condemn it for what it is, and that's what I have tried to do in making this film.

OM PURI (IN green turban), flanked by Govind Namdev and Manoj Pahwa, plays the patriarch of the village where an honour killing takes place.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Ajay Sinha has involved himself thoroughly with the issue at hand and dared to make a movie that unfortunately cannot be shown in the State most affected by the problem. One can fault the man for not having cinematic finesse, but his courage to take on a subject like this needs to be acknowledged.

Despite a popular demand in some States to screen the movie, cinema owners have demurred. It is understandable because the political leadership in these States have deliberately failed to send a clear message to them as well as to the protesters. It is very undemocratic. I heard that in Karnal [Haryana] the movie was screened and then discontinued following police intervention. Instead of guaranteeing protection to the movie-goers and the cinema owners, the police ensured that the movie was not shown, Ajay Sinha told Frontline over the telephone from Mumbai. It was also ironical that barring some individuals in Rohtak who issued a statement favouring the screening of the film, no one in the Mumbai film industry, save a few, bothered to back the beleaguered film director.

In a press statement in Haryana, academics, activists, retired bureaucrats and government servants, and women's organisations such as AIDWA expressed their concern over what they called the culture of intolerance spawned by khap zealots. Calling the decision of cinema owners in Rohtak not to screen the movie unfortunate, they said it was a direct attack on the freedom of expression guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. It was ironic, they said, that some people representing khaps had issued threats even before viewing the film. They said that the film had been cleared by the Censor Board and those protesting against it were free to approach the courts if they wanted to. The signatories added that honour killings were a grave problem in certain parts of the country, which deserved serious discussion in different forums like the mass media, literature, films....

Films like Khap may not be the best among meaningful cinema and may be unable to win critics' favour for their seemingly simplistic treatment of subjects, but there is no denying that they depict what happens to normal people in seemingly very normal societies, which condone such acts in the name of honour and tradition. Sadly, there are no aesthetic aspects in the manner in which such killings are executed. They are brutal and without mercy.

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