"Our words haven’t reached those who should have heard our voices."
This is one of the lines spoken in the beginning of Ammi, a documentary film by Sunil Kumar, produced by Pedestrian Pictures, which was recently screened at the YMCA, New Delhi and then last week at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The essence of this line echoes throughout the film, prompting the viewer to recognise the gaps overlooked by the JNU administration as well as the law while investigating the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed.
After Najeeb went missing on 15 October 2016, there were many cues left to be explored, from the minutest of forensic details (it is claimed Najeeb’s slippers were found on the staircase along with his phone and wallet in the room), to the fact that he was thrashed by students from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in his room the other night, or the perplexing events which took place after his last conversation with his mother, Fatima Nafees, who was on her way to meet him.
All these issues are at the center of Sunil’s film, which is an investigative attempt to outline the emotional and factual aspects of the case, and he does so with the help of Fatima Nafees, who Najeeb and many of JNU's students call 'Ammi' (mother).
Sunil, who comes from a background of student activism, initially wanted to capture the growing saffronisation of university campuses, but decided to shift focus on to Najeeb’s case. “Ammi is a woman who went through a drastic transformation in these two years. Think about this: A woman who comes from a low-middle socio-economic background, who had not been out of the house much, is now standing fearless against these forces. She and Radhika Vemula are the two women who have literally lead these movements, channeling a kind of pain we can only imagine,” Sunil said when I asked about Ammi being the storyteller of his film.
Pain is evident from the very start of the film, where Fatima is seen shouting at university personnel, who ask her and the students to clear the area when they are placing and lighting candles in the campus. It is an image that portrays the exhaustion of a mother.
The film can be seen as being composed of two parts or perspectives — one that portrays the emotional side, while the other that probes into the series of events that took place before and after Najeeb’s disappearance.
The emotional side
Sunil begins by taking us to the narrow streets of Badaun, Najeeb’s home district in the state of Uttar Pradesh. We are shown an ordinary house, marked by the acknowledgment of a missing child — which is visible in everything shown to the viewer. Listening to stories by his school teachers and neighbours who called Najeeb an innocent, obedient and aspiring child only adds to the painful aftermath of the incident.
But a more intense form of emotion comes from the account of Fatima, whose longing for her son is heartbreaking to watch. Rather than sympathy, Sunil’s approach is to make the viewers empathise with her situation. No matter what role we play in our families, we can relate to another's frustration of not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones.
We see her poignantly speaking at length about Najeeb’s aspirations and goals. We also see her raging against the ignorance of the police and the administration. For Sunil, working with Fatima was challenging. “I asked for her forgiveness for taking her back to that state of trauma before I began interviewing her. We have to understand that Ammi has two lives — one where she is out in the streets, fighting, and the other which is marked by personal loss. Every person who has experienced such loss is bound to break down in their personal space, which is an important aspect that people need to see. Her crying in the house or in the street is a part of her fight.”
But Najeeb’s family isn’t the only group emotionally involved in this crisis. There is an observable sentiment brewing in JNU as well. In one shot we see Sadaf Musharraf, Najeeb’s sister, who has been very active in the scene, address a gathering at the university, where she talks about the departmental ignorance towards the case. The camera turns to a student in the crowd having a breakdown. It’s a strong and a rather pessimistic portrayal of the situation.
“At any moment in time, I could spot tears in some student’s eyes,” Sunil added, "These are students who had not been very close to Najeeb, most did not even know him before this.”
The investigative side
Sadaf’s role in this case is quite radical. In the film, there is a conversation between Sadaf, Fatima and the JNU vice chancellor, which she seems to have covertly shot on her phone as no cameras were allowed in the room. She has also been vocal against the loopholes in the investigation, which she points out at various junctures in the film. Ammi puts Sadaf on the political pedestal. Although in one of the gatherings she claims it is not about a Muslim child and can happen to anyone, it would be an error to overlook the communal hatred generated against Najeeb, as witnessed by many of the students in the hostel.
An important objective undertaken by Sunil while making the film was to present a perspective about Najeeb’s disappearance in a transparent manner, to understand what may have led to it and the events that followed through.
“The film wouldn’t have been possible without the immense help of JNU students,” said Sunil, while talking about the challenges he faced when shooting on campus. “At any random point of time, the guards or any person would want to know what it is we were making and what is was about. The interviews we did with the students describe some vivid details of how the incident took place on the night before Najeeb went missing, and they are of utmost importance.”
The film carefully presents the story event-by-event with the help of detailed interviews and archival footage. It creates a graspable timeline, making it easier to understand the course of events. Most narratives by Najeeb’s fellow hostelers or the other students of JNU speak of hate directed towards the Muslims and other marginalised communities.
“Initially I wanted to get opinions from the ‘other side’ as well,” Sunil said, responding to a very basic criticism of the film: that it doesn’t include perspectives of the university administration or the ABVP students. “Firstly, there is no way I would have gotten interviews from the administration, when they haven’t even been responsive to the press. Secondly, I did contact some students from the ABVP, but they did not respond to the query.”
The importance of making a film like Ammi is not its obvious rebellious response to the rise of Hindutva in campuses, but rather putting forth an unbiased interpretation of so many external factors.
There is an captivating point made by Geeta Thatra, a PhD scholar from the university, in the end of the film where she talks about time becoming a means to produce a neutral conclusion to the case — the longer it takes, the easier it becomes for the authorities to tell us they could not find him.
From a feud between students to a sociopolitical uproar that is now in its third year of continuity and has been contaminated with so much communal hatred (including bizzare fake news linking Najeeb with ISIS), Najeeb’s disappearance may not really be as complicated as it seems, and this is a hypothesis Ammi sets out to examine.
“What really happened to Najeeb, where he is now are the not the questions Ammi is supposed to respond to. A student disappears from a campus overnight and the ways in which it has been pursued both by the authorities as well as the public is what I would really like the viewers to understand,” Sunil said.
Ammi has been selected to be screened at the upcoming Kolkata People’s Film Festival (KPFF) which starts on 17 January.
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Updated Date: Jan 26, 2019 11:26:42 IST