Five incidents of mob violence that shook India, and the documentaries that ensured we wouldn't forget the horrors inflicted on our fellow countrymen.
In a new five-part series, Firstpost views bloody chapters in Indian history, through the lens of filmmakers who painstakingly documented their human toll. Some offer a granular perspective, others a wider framework to understand the contexts in which such violence occurs, and what the aftermath entails.
Featured in this series are Subasri Krishnan's What The Fields Remember, on the Nellie Massacre of 1983; Teenaa Kaur Pasricha’s 1984 - When the Sun Didn’t Rise, on the countrywide anti-Sikh massacre of 1984; Nakul Singh Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots; Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, on the 2002 Gujarat riots, and Deepa Dhanraj’s Kya Hua is Shahar Ko?, on the Hyderabad communal riots of 1984.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
FINAL SOLUTION, Rakesh Sharma’s documentary on the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots — that left 2,000 dead, hundreds raped, and more than 2,00,000 people, most of them Muslims, homeless or displaced — begins with these words by George Santayana.
It is perhaps fitting then that Final Solution, in a sense, marks a culmination of Sharma’s own past.
“I come from a family that suffered during Partition. I heard various kinds of narratives growing up. A large part of my extended family harboured hate and intolerance as they had sustained massive losses in terms of property and life,” Sharma explains.
Also in those formative years, Sharma was exposed to the works of Premchand, Sarat Chandra and Yashpal; there were always books aplenty in the household thanks to his father — a writer of short stories who held a day job as a banker. Sharma remembers being particularly struck by the stories of Manto — a writer he didn’t initially understand but later grew to appreciate. “I could relate (his writing) to the narratives I had heard from within my family and the gatherings I would go to, where I would meet people with similar narratives of hate,” Sharma says.
He was a college student at the time that the 1984 anti-Sikh violence erupted. Unable to sit silently at home in the midst of such atrocities, Sharma volunteered briefly at relief camps. Later that decade, he moved to Bombay to work on Shyam Benegal’s Discovery of India. When the 1992 Bombay riots took place, Sharma took a break from his documentary filmmaking and ran a relief camp in the suburb of Jogeshwari full-time for 8 months. And when the 2002 Gujarat riots occurred, Sharma had just released his documentary on the previous year’s Bhuj earthquake — Aftershocks: A Rough Guide to Democracy, a story he stumbled upon while installing solar lamps in quake-affected villages in Kutch as a volunteer.
After the 2002 carnage, Sharma decided to intervene not as a volunteer, but as a filmmaker. Not that a film was on his mind when he went to the epicentre of the violence. Instead, “I could see there was a counter-narrative being peddled that this was a spontaneous reaction to what had happened in Godhra,” Sharma says. “Everything was being swept under the carpet. A month after the riots, when I was travelling in the bastis, I could see that FIRs were being fabricated or manipulated.”
Ijaz, a four-and-a-half-year old eyewitness of the riots in Chamanpura
What he witnessed decided Sharma on making a film, but the question then was: Why, and for whom?
“I had zero interest in singing to the choir, preaching to the already converted,” says Sharma. “I had utter clarity that I can’t possibly engage with the fundamentalists because they are operating not at the level of reason, but faith. However, there is a vast majority in between (nearly 75 to 80 percent, who are neither hardcore fundamentalists nor secular) and this was the audience I wanted to reach, with a very simple objective: to hold a mirror and say to them, ‘Is this what you support? Is this what you want for your children?’”
Final Solution went into production on 2 October 2002 (a date Sharma specifically chose). Sharma was detained at the end of the first day’s filming “for questioning” — an experience that gave him “the added fillip to finish the film”, come what may.
“I could see that my arbitrary detention and on-spot interrogation was an attempt to intimidate me. It sparked a fire in me. The credit for my being able to stick with making the film should go to the Modi government and its police; had I not been arrested, I would have probably given up after a month of shooting [the documentary] as the kind of people we were interacting with and the horrific stories we were listening to had taken a tremendous toll on me. This episode motivated me and kept me focussed. I wasn’t going to let anyone intimidate me – I, in fact, resumed filming the Gaurav Yatra the very next morning,” Sharma said.
Sharma’s research for Final Solution lasted from January to October 2002, encompassing fact-finding documents, legal papers, petitions filed. Factual accuracy was critical, Sharma knew. “I knew the film would come under immense scrutiny and would be attacked,” he says. “In the classical sense, I was not doing research with the people, but I was extremely, sharply aware of the details.” Material based only on hearsay was not included, and firsthand experiences formed the backbone of his narrative. “If I was told that ‘someone’ had slit open a lady’s womb and impaled the foetus on a sword, my first question would be: ‘Did you see it? If not, I am not interested.’ It was as simple as that,” Sharma says.
The making of Final Solution reflects two novel approaches.
First, is how Sharma chose to shoot with his interview subjects: to retain optimal spontaneity, he didn’t meet them beforehand.
“The first time people are communicating with you, trying to convey everything to you, that’s when they are at their spontaneous best, that’s when a lot of emotions seep through,” he explains. Of course, Sharma returned to his respondents after the first round of filming, to glean more details as they recalled them. But, “by the second or third narration, it goes in the realm of ‘As I had told you...’, ‘I think you know about this...’, ‘The person we met that day...’ etc.,” Sharma points out.
In my case, however, along with me, my audience was also going to hear the story for the first time. I felt this was the best way, and it’s worked for all my filming since 2002, says Sharma.
Kaniz retelling the horrors of the riots in Final Solution
The second noteworthy aspect was in Sharma’s choice of a narrative form. He explains it thus: “I knew I was telling the story of this time in Gujarat through many concentric and connected stories — little stories that add up to bigger stories. And these little stories are not only of the victims but also of the perpetrators, the ringmasters, the political leadership and the election campaign — the film draws all these connections all the way through. So, through a series of mini portraits, the idea was to construct a meta-portrait of our time.”
Sharma decided to do away with a single camera; he filmed with two cameras for Final Solution — a decision that allowed him to capture all the subtle shades and nuances of his interviewees and their environments that would have otherwise been lost. He also made it a point to be as unobtrusive as possible while filming: no lights, reflectors, tripods or microphones were used, no one called out “roll”, “cut”, “okay” on the shoot. “What I am interested is in the emotion, the feeling, the moment and the narrative,” Sharma says. “To me, that is more powerful than getting a snazzy frame.”
In its completed form, Final Solution has four chapters — ‘Pride and Genocide’, ‘The Terror Trail’, ‘The Hate Mandate’ and ‘Hope and Despair’ — each an hour-long, as screened at the Berlinale. Later, for Indian audiences, the film was cut down to two-and-a-half hours (in two parts) and further shortened to 90 minutes for the BBC and other TV networks, and classrooms in universities abroad.
Sharma opted not to reach out to any of his interviewees through NGOs, activist groups or those working on ground. This had as much to do with maintaining his respondents’ spontaneity as with maintaining a low profile. “There were a lot of people who were watching us, right from the special branch and intelligence to the BJP, VHP and RSS,” Sharma says.
BJP supporters in Gujarat clad in saffron.
A large part of the craft of filmmaking is not what one knows technically. It’s about one’s navigational skills in a treacherous universe, he adds.
His years of filming in high-tension areas have imparted certain traits that helped him forge connections with the people featured in his film. “People want to share their stories and they want to see how interested you are, how sincere you are, do you have any ulterior motive, are you going to profit from this in an immediate manner etc. When those barriers are broken, there is a different kind of opening up that happens,” he says. His empathy would be called on time and again when interviewing survivors of sexual violence; Sharma remembers his very first meeting with Sultana (a rape survivor) who had declined to be interviewed by others. Years later, when asked why she allowed him, she said, "You treated me not as a victim, but as a human being... you cracked a joke and I laughed after a long time. That’s why I said to you – why don’t we do the shooting right now?”
Filming Final Solution was a perilous undertaking. Sharma’s team had a highly detailed contingency plan to ensure their safety and that of their work. The previous day’s tapes weren’t carried by them on shoots; they weren’t stored in their hotel rooms either. Instead, they’d be dropped off at different individuals’ homes by a messenger. A different messenger would pick up the tapes and send them off to Mumbai in batches. A dummy tape with some footage was kept on standby all the time; if ever there was a mob-type situation and the team was asked to show what they had shot, the tape would be switched and the fake footage shown.
Apart from this, Sharma worked out a schedule with a few close friends in Delhi: he was to call them every day at 8 PM. If they didn’t receive his call, his friends would phone Sharma instead at 10 PM. If he was still unreachable by 8 the next morning, they were to immediately move a Habeas Corpus petition in the Supreme Court as soon as it opened.
It’s a plan that Sharma would need to put into effect if he was ever arrested.
Making Final Solution was only half the battle. With his film banned for a few months in 2004 by the Central Board of Film Certification, Sharma devised a strategy to ensure his film would be seen — and widely.
The Pavagad pracharak [the late] Prahlad Shastri during one of his incendiary speech rallies.
Even as its release in non-Indian territories was well chalked out, in India, Sharma decided that he would forego any monetary expectations. Collaborations with small publications ensured the film CDs directly reached their subscriber-activists, with an appeal to screen and distribute it in their district.
“My purpose was circulation and not recovering the cost of my filmmaking,” Sharma explains, enumerating the many ways in which he ensured that Final Solution had a wide and diverse audience: “I tied up with Communalism Combat with a clause that every subscriber of the magazine got a free copy of the DVD with an appeal saying ‘Please pirate; circulate and screen’.” To fight the censors’ ban, Sharma ordered 20,000 copies of the film and sent them out as part of a campaign called ‘Pirate and Circulate’, the tag line for which stated: ‘Get a free copy only if you promise to pirate and make five additional copies’. “The more they tried to bury my film, the more it was circulated,” Sharma says.
Another campaign, Show@Home, invited people to show the film to their family and neighbours; if you promised that a minimum of 25 people would come for the screening, you’d get a free copy of the film. The campaign was proposed as an act of civil disobedience by Late Himmatbhai Jhaveri, an old Gandhian, and launched on 2 October 2004, on the Mahatma’s birth anniversary. “I had this objective that Final Solution needs to be the most circulated documentary in India,” Sharma says. “And it was.”
Naroda Patiya burn victim Shahjehana
The 2002 Gujarat riots left 2,000 dead and displaced more than 2,00,000 people — largely the Muslim population of the state. Sexual violence was visited on hundreds.