YOUR SILENCE IS NO ANSWER: POWERFUL VOICES SPEAKby Vinta Nanda July 27 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 54 secs
Can filmmakers, journalists and artists be apolitical? Vinta Nanda talks to Joy Sengupta, Bishwadeep Dipak Chatterji, Urmi Juvekar, Joy Bimal Roy, Puloma Pal, Vinod Ranganathan, Sharada Ramanathan, Nandita Puri and Caesar Das. Listen in…
“If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you have taken the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu.
Recently, when a writer pitched a story to a producer, she was told, “You’re too ‘left’!” It was said to her to explain why the story, which was ‘wonderful’ otherwise, could not be greenlit. This is not an isolated case because over the last couple of decades, more so since 2014, many proposals of writers and producers have been rejected on similar grounds. Words like ‘in the present atmosphere, it will not sell’ and ‘we wish networks were more open to diverse stories’ are commonplace and have been heard by most working in the mainstream entertainment industry.
As far as the streaming channels are concerned, there was an (aberrant) moment when they took risks, until, of course, authorities swooped down upon them and characterised ‘nuanced storytelling’ as ‘underhand commentary to deliberately insult the majority Hindu community of India’. However, these channels must be admired for still, in the current atmosphere, continuing to give space to honest stories like Sudhir Mishra’s Afwah and Hansal Mehta’s Scoop, so what if, ironically, they are camouflaged like needles hard to find in a sex-crime-feelgood-stack?
The television industry has been a gone-case since long, and the less said the better about the cinema industry, which, in a bid to stay neutral, intensifies the spectacular Bollywood genre into an extravagantly absurd one, e.g. Rocky aur Rani…, or gives unconstrained mandates to the storytelling, which drums up the right-wing propaganda, e.g. The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story.
When writers and artists who deviate from the acceptable narrative can be labelled as ‘Left leaning’, then one can roughly account for 60% of competent storytellers cancelled from the system. The 40% who work in the mainstream are either Right-Wing supporters or those who ‘silently’ watch dystopia unfold. If asked what makes them agree to work on ideas, which they disagree with, the answer is a common refrain: “Stay underground or you will be struck off”.
It’s author and journalist Nandita Puri’s words that reverberate to this. She says, “The freedom to think is the essence of creativity. Having said that, it's easier said than done. As a filmmaker or writer in works of both fiction and non-fiction, especially in the latter, it is imperative to be apolitical. But we are humans and try we may however hard, our views inadvertently colour the canvas. In that case it's always better to run through with another person, preferably of opposing political views, to get a balanced opinion. In case that fails...just refrain from making that film. Which of course, given human nature, is nigh impossible! Recently I was asked to give my views on the current Manipur situation. When I realized my thoughts would be coloured with my political views...I just refrained”.
I asked more artists from the entertainment world if it is possible for filmmakers, writers and creative artists to be ‘apolitical’. I started with the three times national award winning sound engineer Bishwadeep Dipak Chatterji, and he said, “Filmmakers like all artists, by default, become political prisoners in their own societies. The prevailing political situation in the country can strike you down if you are anti-establishment or encourage you as a propaganda tool. Those filmmakers or artists that consciously choose to remain in the ‘safe-zone’ often end up making mindless mediocre populist films that are mass-produced, devoid of intellect, which suits most ruling political parties that come to power”.
So, how do we define the ‘safe-zone’ that Bishwadeep is talking about here? Can we call it the tiny area covering a part of the whole that the authorities mandate through various means, including richly flawed data, for media and entertainment to highlight, so that by consequence the larger universe becomes invisible and therefore easy to exploit? This thought strikes me particularly today because of the violence and bloodshed in Manipur and the viral video of young women paraded naked, and gangraped, which has shaken India.
Screenwriter Vinod Ranganathan chose to counter question me when I asked him if it is possible for him as a writer to be apolitical. He asked, “How can a creative person be apolitical?” I nudged him to say more, so he added, “Being apolitical means being oblivious to society and surroundings and that is the death knell of creativity”.
Documentary filmmaker Caesar Das elaborated by saying that ‘in a civilized society, politics is omnipresent. Finding a space devoid of politics requires understanding of politics out-and-out, and then exploiting the loophole to remain impartial. Filmmakers operate in this worldly zone independently, with different motives and without any guide, and some crave to transcend the zone too. But even to achieve cinematic metaphysics, directors must live the politics of our mundane existence’.
Joy Sengupta, actor and theatre practitioner, believes that it is impossible to be apolitical as a filmmaker. He echoes Ranganathan’s thoughts: “Every time you pick a subject, a character, you pick a time and a slice of society. Your camera captures the social conditions of a particular society, which those particular characters inhabit. You may focus on the psychological or emotional demeanour of the characters, but no character operates in a vacuum. Whether it’s Devdas and his alchemic emotions, or Charulata and her fascination for her brother-in-law, they reflect the class/caste conflict of a feudal unit in the former, and the independence movement, social reformation and women's emancipation in the latter.”
Screenwriter Urmi Juvekar searched for the meaning of the word ‘politics’ and told me that ‘the definition that pops up is as follows: Politics is the way that people living in groups make decisions. Politics is about making agreements between people so that they can live together in groups such as tribes, cities, or countries.’ For her, 'apolitical film’ is an oxymoron - all genres included! She believes that being apolitical is a political stand.
Hardly anybody in the business, or out of it (audiences), has asked why the Muslims (175 million) or the Christians (28 million) don’t figure in our soap operas. Also why, when they actually do feature occasionally, they are caricatured in the most stereotypical ways, also specifically designed to pander to the popular imagination of one section of the majority community, which is, presently, feeding off the social media propaganda machines of the Hindutva brigades and forming opinions from it.
National Award winning filmmaker Sharada Ramanathan says that ‘a filmmaker can't be amoral or apolitical’, and goes on to add, “A director's vision that finally translates into a screenplay has its starting point as an idea based on a world-view. It’s that world-view, which embodies the political, cultural, social, religious and geopolitical sensibilities. And the nature of the final visual depiction is determined by this entire chain of consciousness - it shapes the director's ability to distinguish between, say, depiction and glorification, and problematization versus simplification. And captures complexity”.
We are, primarily, an agrarian society, agriculture plays a vital role in India's economy. And, 54.6% of the total workforce of India is engaged in agricultural and allied sector activities (Census 2011), which accounted for 17.8% of the country's Gross Value Added (GVA) for the year 2019-20 as reported by available data. Do we talk about this community, forget the abysmal representation of farmers and agriculturalists as characters in the over 800 channels running fiction programs or for that matter in the 1000+ movies made in India every year, and on streaming channels, cumulatively funnelling thousands of hours of content?
Joy Bimal Roy, author, filmmaker and artist says that the question is a tough one to answer, particularly in today's climate of politics. He adds, “One cannot help being affected by the inequity that pervades the atmosphere like a miasma. One would think that all filmmakers with integrity would reflect the times in their work. But sometimes the opposite can happen. One can deliberately make escapist fare to give people an opportunity to forget the present and experience epiphany for the duration of the film. This holds true for fiction than documentary, because the very nomenclature of the latter means documenting a subject. Here too one can escape, for example, into our rich past of culture and tradition, to give one a sense of pride. But the fact remains, that escapist fare is made to escape unpleasant realities. In other words, one can't escape politics”.
Urmi compliments Joy Bimal Roy by saying that all films, be they fiction or documentary, tell stories, which are about the struggles of an individual to fulfill their desire in a certain world. She asks an important question: “Isn’t then interacting with the world, negotiating, fighting, struggling, falling in love, exploiting, and making an agreement, the stuff the stories are made of, politics?”
Meanwhile film editor Puloma Pal believes that it is in one's best interest to be aware as comprehensively as is possible about the political moorings and the kind of 'politics' that can be ascribed to one's work. She affirms, “Even a well-considered decision to have an apolitical stance is ultimately a - political one!”
Caesar Das thinks that over time, our social life has turned into a form of political discourse and to be apolitical, therefore, first requires an awareness of pervasive politics, and apolitical filmmakers tend to be more politically informed than politically motivated filmmakers. He says he observes life and the intricacies of filmmaking with wonder, believes that politics doesn't mean leaning left or right, and he admires filmmakers who can stand tall in difficult situations, think clearly, feel nobility, follow their conscience and do the right thing.
“From the edit table where one is 'choosing' a shot over several other 'possibilities', I am tempted to say there can be no apolitical stance while making films. The very act of framing, lensing, deciding between options, even setting the background, the most minutest of omission, of say a small artifact from the frame, everything down to when sound tracks are being modulated, mixed, there is no part of filmmaking that is not mediated,” adds Puloma Pal. And, she goes on to say, “As such being consciously political makes the whole task of filmmaking more actionable, and most times simply helps to cut the clutter! Having said that, a film is after a point of time, out in the world, and open to interpretations - how a film is received and what political motivations are ascribed or not to it we have no way to control or even predict”.
If one is to discuss the representation of Dalit, Bahujan Samaj and Adivasi (DBA) communities in the soap operas, films and web series we produce, the math and the sociology will shock. Basically, roughly 5 to 10% of India is represented positively in Indian storytelling and it largely belongs to the Hindu mainstream dominant castes across socio-economic divides. One is not even talking here, yet, about the tribal communities, a population - which does not feature on the media and entertainment map of the country, and not, therefore, on our collective consciousness.
Joy Sengupta’s wise words correctly help me wrap up the discussion: “The one who deliberately tries to keep his characters in a tight apolitical vacuum, is also making a political decision. It is possible that a filmmaker is ignorant of the moorings of his time, his ignorance itself reflecting the culture of that society at that particular time. After all, being political is not just about aligning with a party or a system or an ideology. It is reflecting the values inherent in society, born out of certain conditions and wanting to do something about it, in encouragement or discouragement - consumerist or rustic, materialistic or spiritual, modernist or chauvinist, progressive or regressive etc. etc. etc....”
How many of us knew, two week ago, about the Meitis and Kuki communities of Manipur? How many of us knew about the easily inflammable fault lines between them? Why have cultures and stories from an integral part of India never been told on Indian mainstream entertainment? Hasn’t, then, the systematic invisibilisation of these, and other, vulnerable communities already put millions at risk of being exploited by the corrupt? What if the video that went viral had never surfaced? Would we have ever known what was going on, and why? Aren’t we, journalists, writers, storytellers, so-called watchdogs, failing them?