Simmering silences

Print edition : March 11, 2005

In Kaya Taran, Sashi Kumar explores the consequences of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots at the individual and social levels through the prism of Gujarat 2002.

FEATURE films and documentaries are fairly distinct genres, yet the desire to document and understand the agencies involved in communal violence can produce a creative overlap between the two. Sashi Kumar, a noted print and television journalist as well as a film and media critic, has scripted and directed many docu-features on regional and international themes. His first feature film, Kaya Taran, based on N.S. Madhavan's short story, `I>When Big Trees Fall', seems to be impelled by the same concern for uncovering the truth that underwrites documentaries on communalism.

The protagonist of the film, Preet, is a young sikh journalist who, when confronted with the anti-muslim violence in Gujarat 2002, returns to his traumatic childhood escape from the anti-sikh violence of 1984. He aligns his own experience of threat with that of other beleagured minorities -- muslims subjected to vilification and attack, christians accused of conversion -- and learns to reject the unselfconscious complacence of hindus and their bland circulation of stereotypes.

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Scenes from Kaya Taran.

Kaya Taran poses a question -- how does one come back to the present after returning to the past? -- and sensitively re-nuances the classic trope of journalistic discovery so familiar from social realism in narrative and cinema, but does so through a more contemporaneous emphasis on an individual subjectivity hedged in by uncertainty. What the protagonist `discovers' is his own location in narratives of fear and recovery, atrocity and succour.

Preet's anxiety about his identity emerges through a sudden attention to everyday actions: shaving a beard, seeing a neighbour tying his turban, hearing an aggressive communal comment. Self-location takes place not in the heroic mode but in the subtle twists and turns of the commonplace -- that spacewhich asserts itself, howsoever precariously, after grave violence. This culminates in a donning of the turban, an act that signifies a palpable shedding of fear, more than a mere assertion of sikh `identity'.

If a filmic representation of violence runs the danger of voyeurism and sensationalism, then a representation of communal violence entails the added difficulty of re-opening wounds or aggravating wounds that have never been fully sutured. In a quiet yet poignant way, Kaya Taran confronts the making of traumatised generations. If the young sikh journalist represents a generation already marked and made by 1984, the young boy from Gujarat (represented in the film by the same actor who enacts the role of Preet as a child) who recounts the violence against his family in 2002 at a Sahmat meeting belongs to a new generation of traumatised children. This moving film, especially for those who lived through 1984, evokes the bitter relays of narrative, the way one act of communal violence triggers a reservoir of social and personal memory, one death recalls another, in a seemingly inexorable passage from 1947 to 2002.

The reflective, contemplative pace of Kaya Taran, its refusal to be hurried, not only sets up a critical contrast with the unshown horror of 1984, but resituates filmic and documentary conventions of representing communal violence. Relatively small acts of violence, such as pursuing motorcycles, knocks on the door, the breaking of a window and menacing phone calls begin to represent the large-scale killing of sikhs that swept northern India. The fear that congeals around a single event and two saved lives in the film is so immense that, paradoxically, the very rectitude of the film is able to suggest the magnitude of the carnage in 1984 more dramatically than a visual display of violent acts.

THE film's understanding of a multireligious country takes shape subtly in a number of ways. There is an attempt to recover the religious space of worship as a sanctuary for those in distress and danger, a space that should be sacrosanct, as well as a reminder of the difficulty of doing so now that the hindu communal imagery has grotesquely mutated all mosques, gurdwaras and churches into hotbeds of terrorists and turned them into objects of hatred and attack. This is done by weaving into the narrative a gentle convent in Meerut that houses old, retired and often terminally ill nuns, who, even as they await their own deaths, save the sikh mother and child from a set of bloodthirsty killers. Indeed this convent can be read as a sign of the national secular.

The `national' is an understated yet encompassing formation where nuns from many regions, cutting a swathe from south to north, come to live together, while the `secular' is configured on the more easily recognizable Gandhian terrain of reaching out from one religious tradition to another: more precisely, reaching out from the body of Christ to the kesh of a sikh boy. This vivid engagement between some of the corporeal motifs in christianity and sikhism is played out in a crucial scene where Jaggi's (Preet's) mother, disguised as a nun, begs divine forgiveness for her complicity in the shearing of his hair while the nuns seek their rapprochement with the act through the symbology of the resurrection of Christ. The religious identity for these sikh and christian women resides in an intricate working of their values and beliefs which must now be reconfigured in the pragmatic interests of survival, and yet somehow also resist and stave off the communalisation of these identities.

Finally, the film juxtaposes two notations of mortality. First, through its focus on the convent for old nuns, the film displays a remarkable ability to linger on diseased and ageing women, to confer sympathy, dignity and value on what would be an unglamorous subject for conventional cinema. The convent becomes a site for acts of faith in both a religious and an existential sense, as well as a source for regeneration. Second, a poem by Guru Nanak - `Azrael, the angel of death, holds me by the hair and yet unaware am I' -- becomes the closing frame of the film and is sung with unforgettable luminosity by Madan Gopal Singh. Both these notations of mortality, the gentle fading away and the destined death, stand in stark contrast to the bestial killings of 1984 and 2002. Indeed it is these human and humane intimations of mortality, rather than any form of polemic, that situate communal violence as unacceptable.

There are at least two outstanding performances in the film: Seema Biswas as Sister Agatha, once an orphaned child and now the nun who looks after the convent, and Neelamabri Bhattacharya, who plays Jaggi, the seven-year old sikh boy. The dialogues by Madan Gopal Singh, in their reticence, and their sparing yet effective use of Punjabi, give Kaya Taran its depth and resonance.

Even as Sashi Kumar's exploration of the personal and social consequences of the 1984 carnage through the prism of Gujarat 2002 stays away from a frontal depiction of the brutality of 1984, it expands the space of political violence and its effects. The effects of communal violence can turn, over time, into small individual decisions, into articulate acts of empathy, recognition and reconnection. Or they can turn into memories, emotions and repressions that live within the silences of social discourse -- simmering silences that may be triggered into speech by renewed violence, or that may quietly, invisibly, perniciously, shape daily life.

Kumkum Sangari is Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

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