By Divya Sachar
A few days ago I was rudely woken up at 230 am by what seemed like distant war cries. “Jai Sri Ram”, the voices screamed. It turned out to be a BJP rally in the dead of night. The incendiary tone was unmistakable, and slogans like “Jai Bhavani Ma” (also used during the Gujarat riots) were being bandied about amid warnings of “jihad”, “aatankvaad” and “nahin toh aaj Bihar, kal saara desh”. The rally went on till 4 am and was clearly held illegally. One can’t use loudspeakers after 10 pm in Delhi, and this brazen act, more so because it was a stone’s throw away from the ruling Aam Aadmi Party’s office, could not have happened without police complicity. It is clear that the BJP has begun preparing for UP 2017.
Nakul Singh Sawhney’s ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ explores the ramifications of exactly this kind of vitriolic election strategy employed by the BJP. The film documents the consequences of the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 and analyzes what caused them in the first place. The communal riots have practically destroyed not just the secular fabric of the area, but have also demolished the economy running on the fuel of sugarcane farming. Farmers rights have been seriously affected, and it’s the poor who are bearing the brunt, while politicians reap electoral rewards. The film works as a document of the ruins left in the wake of the riots, both material, and emotional, and asserts its solidarity with the working class. Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai has been criticised for its romantic solution of utopian communal harmony but that’s not a problem, in my opinion. It is the director’s point of view and not every film is supposed to give solutions.
Amid an interview and narration soaked chronicle, what struck me the most about the film was the narrative held together by an eloquent, though somewhat underused, metaphor of the Camera as Witness. The Camera sees and documents what the Establishment does not want you to see, and three examples of this somewhat bind the three acts of the film together. The first time round the crew is asked to stop the camera by a BJP politician, clearly uncomfortable with his hate speech being recorded. The second time round, in an eerie echo of Patricio Guzman’s Battle of Chile, the cameraman himself is shot dead while shooting, and ends up recording his own death. (In the case of this film though this footage was borrowed from a news outlet.). The third time round the police starts filming the filmmakers themselves. In this scene the Camera as Witness metaphor goes on to become even more powerful and complex. The police begin filming videos of the aggrieved Muslims as well, who are already complaining to the filmmakers about justice not being served by the police. The Camera is now being used for intimidation, and not just a chronicler of truth. The Camera as Witness is a compelling symbol for freedom of speech, and alarmingly enough, the filmic metaphor actualised into tangible, physical reality when goons of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the BJP, arrived to attack the screening of the film at Delhi University recently.
But apart from this powerful metaphor, the film suffers from bouts of the ‘Show and Tell’ approach. A man says he drives a rickshaw and the camera cuts to a rickshaw. Moreover, abrupt cutaway shots break the rhythm of the film. The film could have also been tighter, and the middle section gets tedious, with too many dull talking heads. I also had trouble getting the rural accents, and had to watch the film twice just to understand what some of the people were saying. English subtitles would have helped immensely. The film succeeds as documentary journalism but one wishes there would have been something more cinematic in it to succeed as art.
‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ joins the annals of the Indian political documentary, but lacks the narrative sophistication of say, an Anand Patwardhan film. This does not in any way take away from the importance of the film, which is a great piece of documentary journalism and ought to be watched.
This review first appeared on the website takhty.in