Interview: Film-maker Rakesh Sharma

‘The feminists’ position is extremely short-sighted’

Print edition : April 03, 2015

Documentary film-maker Rakesh Sharma. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Sharma says freedom of expression cannot be conditional.

Praveen Togadia, general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Ahmedabad on November 17, 2002. ‘Final Solution’ lets the viewer to judge for himself the culpability of the Sangh Parivar in India’s worst communal violence through the rantings and deeds of a Praveen Togadia or that of his many lackeys. Photo: AMIT DAVE/REUTERS

Interview with documentary film-maker Rakesh Sharma.

DOCUMENTARY FILM-MAKERS LIVE in a world far removed from the razzmatazz of commercial cinema. They are hampered by shoestring budgets, mainly because the subjects they choose to focus on are not attractive to those who hold the purse strings. They also have to deal with the whimsical ways of the Censor Board, which can wreck their films by demanding that the soul of their story be ripped out.

Rakesh Sharma, the director of Final Solution, the acclaimed, gut-wrenching documentary film shot in the immediate aftermath of the worst anti-Muslim pogrom in independent India, in Gujarat in 2002, offers some insights into the minds of those who ban and their cohorts. The film, which has won several international awards, including those at Berlin and Hong Kong, has been screened at more than 80 film festivals across the world. Mumbai-based Rakesh Sharma is now working on a sequel to the film, Final Solution Revisited, which is to be released in 2016.

The argument that India’s Daughter provides a platform to perpetrators of sexual violence must sound familiar to Rakesh Sharma. There are only two sets of voices—those of the perpetrators of the extreme violence and those of their victims—in Final Solution. In fact, the film has no voiceover at all, with the director choosing to let the main actors tell the whole story in all its gory and despicable detail. Thus, the viewer gets to judge for himself the culpability of the Sangh Parivar in India’s worst communal violence through the rantings and deeds of a Praveen Togadia or that of his many lackeys. Final Solution, which tells an almost hopeless story of a hapless minority, thus begs the viewer to see reason.

Rakesh Sharma’s travails while making his most famous film, and his struggle to screen it in the face of great adversity, makes him uniquely placed to offer insights into why it is important for all of us to be allowed to watch India’s Daughter. He also sheds light on why it is dangerous for society to allow such film-makers to be bullied by the state and its extra-constitutional accomplices.

In this telephonic interview with Frontline, Rakesh Sharma dismantles not only the government’s arguments for the ban but also questions the motives of several activist groups, prominent among them groups of feminists and lawyers, in seeking that Leslee Udwin’s documentary not be telecast or screened.

Excerpts from an hour-long interview:

What are your comments on “India’s Daughter”?

I would liken it to a TV programme, like on the special shows on the regular TV channels like CNN-IBN or NDTV. It is made in that style. As a film, it did not bring out anything new or remarkable. But it is important for the film to be shown and seen. But merely because I think the film is not very powerful, or because someone else finds something objectionable, cannot be the grounds for banning the film.

But the objections that led to the ban are technical in nature, that Leslee Udwin did not get the requisite permissions, that she violated rules, and so on.

The ban is extremely knee jerk, ill-advised and must be revoked immediately.

While many people have said the documentary is very good, bringing out the mindset prevalent among males towards women, others, among them some feminists, lawyers, and so on, have condemned the film.

The first thing is that freedom of expression is not conditional upon us liking the film; it is beyond that. I must uphold the rights of people and their work even if I do not agree with them. If I am only willing to raise my voice for people and the films I like, or if I want to only hear voices I like to hear and want those I disagree with be banned, that is fascism pure and simple.

A lot of the voices speaking against the film from within the government of India have not seen the film at all. To me that is absolutely unbelievable. What it means is that as an institution, the government has sprung into action out of sheer ignorance. It is ridiculous for it to claim that it is banning the film because there may be public protests. There was also some kind of faux nationalism on display in Parliament when it was discussed.

The argument that the film tarnished India’s image is ridiculous. If India’s image was tarnished, it happened because of the heinous nature of the crime [the rape of Nirbhaya in Delhi in December 2012]. The ban is like shooting the messenger. In no way does India’s Daughter tarnish the country’s image in an extra manner. Whatever image India suffered happened on December 16, 2012, and in the days that followed. But even more importantly, India’s image is much more seriously tarnished by the various cases of molestation and rape attacks being reported from across the country—both before and after the Nirbhaya episode. In the last few days, cases have been reported from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of the country. A ghastly case of sexual violence was reported from Rohtak [in Haryana] and video clips [of a rape] were being circulated via WhatsApp. A woman activist in Hyderabad recently circulated images that asked people to identify the culprits behind a rape attack [after blurring the face of the victim]. Given this background, singling out this film supposedly because it casts India in poor light, is laughable.

Some feminist activists and lawyers wrote to Prannoy Roy, the chairperson of NDTV, which was supposed to air the film, raising “legal and ethical objections” to the film. What is your reaction to their arguments?

The arguments of the feminists who are demanding a ban are flawed on multiple counts. They have argued that showing the film would pervert justice because the judicial process has not yet been exhausted. This is patently absurd, even if ingenious, for two reasons. First, the case is at the appellate stage in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court. No witnesses will now be examined, nor will new evidence be heard at this stage. The trial is over. There is an implied contempt of court by those alleging that the cause of justice may be perverted. In effect, they are saying: “Our judges are so gullible that if they see the film it will make them forget their judicial training. It would make them forget the Indian Constitution and the Indian Penal Code. They would be so overwhelmingly affected by the film that it would affect their ruling.” It implies that the judiciary cannot be independent-minded. In fact, if we take this sort of reasoning to its logical conclusion, we could well demand a complete ban on reporting of the case on TV because the judges may be influenced by what they see. Extending the same logic would result in a ban on all newspaper reporting. There is no end to this kind of absurd logic.

My second rebuttal to these feminists is that their position is extremely short-sighted and blinkered. What they are saying is that till the pendency of the trial, no film can discuss the incident itself. If we were to uphold such a principle, I would have been able to release Final Solution only 10 years from now [almost 25 years after the 2002 carnage in Gujarat]. Just take the case of my own film; what they are in essence saying is that till every bit of the judicial process is finished in the Naroda Patiya case and the Gulberg Society case [both incidents were among the mass killings of Muslims that were featured in Final Solution], there can be no reporting on them. This, despite having judgments available in the Naroda Patiya case; and in the Gulberg Society case, despite a suit pending in the Ahmedabad High Court against the government of Gujarat and in which Narendra Modi has been implicated. In effect, the demand of these feminists for a ban is subverting the cause of freedom of expression, of journalistic reporting, of even the right to information.

They have also raised the issue of Nirbhaya’s family’s right to privacy.

I completely agree that this must be given weightage. But the fact of the matter is that Nirbhaya’s parents have participated in the documentary. I actually admire their spirit. In a nutshell, my point is that the clause on withholding of identity was inserted into laws governing sexual violence to ensure that the survivor and her family are not made to suffer infamy, harassment or shame of any kind. The people who are in the best position to judge whether a violation of privacy has occurred are the victim and her family. We are nobody to sit in judgment on this and say, “It does not matter if the family agreed to be filmed. It should not be shown because it is against the law.” We need to look at the spirit of the law.

Surely, the right to privacy rests with the victim and her family, it is not available to all and sundry supposedly acting in their interest.…

If you see the film, it is very clear that Nirbhaya’s parents do not feel any sense of infamy. In fact, they are actually celebrating the spirit of their daughter. As far as I am concerned, this is one of the most important aspects of the film—of the shifting of shame from the victim and her family to the perpetrators. In fact, it is quite remarkable coming from people who are of a lower-middle-class background. As a film-maker I would say we need to go all out in support of Nirbhaya’s parents, instead of saying, “They may have spoken, but the film should be banned.”

In this case the right to privacy belongs to Nirbhaya and her parents, not to the feminists and their groups. The parents have appeared on at least eight to ten TV channels. So, the argument by the feminists that this documentary film-maker from England [Leslee Udwin] has somehow misled the gullible family and so it is incumbent on the feminists to rush to protect the parents is without any basis whatsoever.

The parents have consistently held that they would not be shamed by talking about their daughter; and that this would be the best way of paying homage to her. Their brave stand led to the issue being brought centre stage. It led to the formation of a commission to suggest modifications to the legal framework governing sexual offences. If this is their contribution, how can we say they do not have a right to speak about what happened to their daughter? Who are we to decide?

What about the argument that the film ought to be banned because it could raise law and order issues?

The government has banned the film, saying it fears that outrage against the film could raise law and order problems. This is extremely unfortunate because this is exactly the right-wing logic that is advanced to ban films like mine, or prevent films made by Anand Patwardhan or the film [ En Dino Muzaffarnagar] by Subhradeep Chakravorty on the Muzaffarnagar riots [in Western Uttar Pradesh in 2013]. Any District Magistrate in any district across the country can make the claim that a film will lead to breach of peace or foment trouble and proceed to ban the film.

Perhaps the most significant ruling on challenges to bans on free speech came from the Supreme Court in its ruling in the Rangarajan vs P. Jagjivan Ram case. The court said the mere apprehension of law and order problems does not provide enough grounds for banning a film. The state cannot abrogate its responsibility to ensure law and order. It also clearly stated that the state must establish a clear connection—of cause and effect— between the film’s screening and the disorder it would create.

The feminist groups, by supporting the ban, are opening a Pandora’s box. What they do not understand is they are surrendering our very hard-won freedoms on a platter to people who are engaged in curbing our freedom.

But the government’s contention seems to rest on a narrower base. It claims that Leslee Udwin violated the terms of her contract, and that she used it for commercial gain, that rules were not adhered to.

There is a larger issue here, as also a smaller, procedural issue. The larger issue is whether a convict has the right to speak, on camera or otherwise. Legally, it has been established that a convict can speak, if due processes are followed. Does the film glorify his point of view? You have seen the film, I have seen it; the answer is a resounding no. In fact, when you hear him, we feel horrified.

Worldwide, people do want to understand what drives criminals to the kinds of things they do. For instance, Nick Broomfield made two documentary films about Aileen Wuornos, a commercial sex worker accused of multiple murders in the United States. There is also the film The Thin Blue Line, by Errol Morris, which actually resulted in the convict being released. The point I am making is that there is a record of cinematic interventions based on film-makers’ interactions with undertrials and convicts. The demand by activists that such efforts be banned results in the elimination of the very possibility of work of this kind.

Such films also show people the kind of mindsets prevalent in society. If a person sentenced to death for rape and murder can speak, as he did in India’s Daughter, it also shows the hollowness of the claim by people who argue in favour of the death penalty as a deterrent. As a film-maker, if I am interested in making a film on the death penalty, I may want to speak to 40-50 people on death row to challenge this notion. So, a film can contribute in important ways to the public discourse on important issues and ought not to be treated as being relevant to an individual case.

Isn’t the ban a reflection of the mounting high-handedness of the state (as well as state-sponsored or state-sanctioned acts) against opinions and views that run contrary to the dominant ones? Is not the latest episode only an extension of what has happened to authors of books, plays, music, art and other forms of expression? Only the medium is different in this case.

There are two things here. First, feminist activists assign disproportionate power to the medium of cinema. One can understand this 100 years ago, when people got scared upon seeing the arrival of the steam engine in a cinema hall or they went rushing out of the hall thinking a bullet had actually been fired inside the hall. But visual literacy levels have increased manifold since then, especially in the last 20 years after the advent of satellite TV. People are watching these channels, they are watching YouTube and videos through all kinds of social media. There is now 24×7 exposure to images. In such a context, it is silly to argue that a person who is capable of choosing what to watch from a range of sources somehow needs to be controlled when he/she steps into a cinema hall. The argument seems to suggest: “He/she must be guided because we cannot trust his/her judgment. He can be saturated with all these images, but cannot be trusted with a documentary.”

If it is alright for a person to be able to decide his/her parliamentarian but if that is the degree of wisdom we accept of a person, surely they ought to be wise enough to decide what kind of films they want to watch. If we allow people at 21 to decide whom to marry or what career to choose, why can’t they take much simpler decisions about cinema? The entire logic of censorship, which may have been valid till the 1920s and 1930s and perhaps even the 1950s when the Cinematographic Act came into being, is no longer valid. The realities have changed completely in the last 60 years. After all, no law can be divorced from the context it operates in; otherwise we would still have laws that prescribe a fine of 8 annas if you stole somebody’s chicken!

The larger issue is the provision of the ban allows a trigger-happy state to come down not only on films but also books, plays, works of art and theatre groups such as the Kabir Kala Manch [formed in the wake of the Gujarat carnages in 2002]. This is the atmosphere in which extra-constitutional groups are able to freely attack people like the writer Perumal Murugan. We need to step away from the mindset that considers people at large as gullible idiots and that also gives authority to some because they are somehow empowered and enlightened.

Are documentary film-makers particularly vulnerable because of the nature of their work and how they go about it and the difficulties they face in funding their films?

Yes and no. Yes, there are pressures, but documentary filmmakers, unlike commercial producers, can manage to make a film with a few lakh rupees. But there is no source of funding for documentaries, in India, at least. In the last 10 years the number of documentary film-makers going to the Censor Board with their films has come down. But film-makers like Anand Patwardhan and I believe that it is not enough to insist on the right to free speech [and therefore avoid the Censor Board], but it is important because it matters in the realm of public opinion. For us to stay in the fight in the realm of public opinion, it is important for us to demonstrate that there is a problem with the system of censorship. This is the reason Anand and I engage with the Board.

Another important reason for submitting to the Censor Board is that, often activists who organise the screenings of our films have to bear the brunt of the local authorities [as well as extra-constitutional groups]. While Anand and I agree that eventually there ought to be no place for the Censor Board and that it ought to reconstituted as a body that only issues ratings for films, we would not like our supporters to be targeted for facilitating our right to free speech. After all, this is not about some airy-fairy debate in the abstract about free speech but about real people and real issues.

Of course, I also advocate the establishment of a body along the lines of the Press Council of India, which could act as a grievance redress mechanism, especially to protect disadvantaged social groups. This body would need to be outside the control of the government; it could have representation from the judiciary, social scientists, journalists, filmmakers, activists and so on—people who have an understanding of society around them and the legal issues involved. After having interacted with members of the Censor Board over many years I can say with complete confidence that a majority of them do not have the intellectual capacity or the wherewithal to comprehend the range of issues involved vis-a-vis the constitutional guarantee of free speech or other rights within our legal system.

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