Berlin: It is a measure of a people’s, of an institution’s, of an audience’s astounding commitment to cinema. Deepa Dhanraj’s Kya Hua Is Shehar Ko? (What Happened to This City?), made in 1986, was shown at the 63rd Berlin Film Festival here. It is a historic, prescient film on the Hindu-Muslim riots in Hyderabad in 1984—and it was a sold-out show. How many international film festivals in India could boast of a sold-out show of an archival political documentary from, say, Brazil or Rwanda or Indonesia? That too, made a thoughtful, sensitive, activist filmmaker, rather than an all-guns-blazing Michael Moore type?
What’s more, Dhanraj’s documentary was specially restored and digitized by the Living Archive Project of the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin. Its first screening was in the Berlin Film Festival’s International Forum of New Cinema (“Forum”) section in 1988. It was presented and re-screened this year by the Forum and Forum Expanded: the Forum, headed by Christoph Terhechte, is the more experimental, cutting edge section of the festival, while Forum Expanded, headed by Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, explores the relation between film and other media and environments. It speaks of the Arsenal’s vision that it would restore and showcase an Indian political documentary made 27 years ago. It believes that the issues of Hindu-Muslim relations and marginalization that the film addresses, are as relevant as ever.
Kya Hua Is Shehar Ko? was one of three Indian documentaries shown in the Forum this year, along with Sourav Sarangi’s Moddhikhane…Char (Char..No Man’s Island) and Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar’s Powerless. Dhanraj is an award-winning filmmaker who has been actively involved with the women’s movement since 1980, including the Yugantar film collective. She has a powerful body of films, mostly documentaries, on a range of issues, including population and reproductive rights, women’s rights, communal issues, education, poverty and justice. These include Something Like a War, The Legacy of Malthus, Sudesha, The Advocate and Invoking Justice. Her films have been instruments of her activist work, as well as been selected at film festivals.
Kya Hua is Shehar Ko? was shot during the Hindu-Muslim riots of Hyderabad in 1984. It analyses the reasons they occurred and gives a voice to both sides, including the hate speeches of Hindu and Muslim leaders demonizing the other community. It observes the police inaction during the savagery, and also connects the causes and aftermath of the riots to deeper issues of poverty, marginalization and real estate politics, with a thundering, didactic poem in the climax.
“It is an intense experience seeing the film after 27 years,” Dhanraj said at the Berlin screening. “It’s like meeting a younger version of the film. This film was prophetic in addressing the rise of Indian fascist politics. You see the formation of the fundamentalist Hindu and Muslim identities in Hyderabad in 1984 when the film was shot—and by the 1990s, the Hindutva national project was complete. In 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished, and in 2002, over 2,000 Muslims were killed in Gujarat by Hindu mobs. We intuitively saw this when making the film, but we couldn’t yet see what the Hindutva agenda would eventually become.” Hyderabad Ekta, founded by Keshavrao Jadhav, to work on communal harmony, held many screenings of the film in Hyderabad’s Old City, largely a Muslim ghetto. “The communities are so polarised, it was also important for victims from both communities to know the others’ sufferings. The film became a bridge between the two communities,” she explained.
The film’s subject is more keenly relevant than ever, even though Dhanraj admits she has doubts about its editing and her film smarts at the time. N.T. Rama Rao of the Telugu Desam Party was deposed as Andhra Pradesh chief minister when the riots occurred, and a character in the film comments that the Congress was, in fact, the puppeteer that engineered the riots. “Mr Sultan Owaisi, leader of the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen party, who appears in the film, has passed away, but his son Akbaruddin Owaisi was arrested recently for making hate speeches,” Dhanraj said. “He still evokes, as his father did, the ‘lost glory of the Muslims’, as if all the Muslims were once nawabs, when in fact, the majority of them were very poor.”
The film also explores the long-term economic impact of the riots. “For casual labourers, even 20 days’ curfew can mean a slide into destitution, and it can take years of indebtedness to recover from it. Hyderabad’s New City is part of the global economy through its IT revolution,” she said. “But the Old City has remains unchanged—it is still a money order economy, with labour migrating to the Gulf and Malaysia, but even this has been drying up.” According to film curator Nicole Wolf, who presented the film in Berlin, the Indian embassy tried to block the 1988 screening in Berlin, but the film was shown nonetheless.
Many other Indian filmmakers have subsequently addressed communal issues, including Anand Patwardhan’s Ram ke Naam, Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (which premiered at the Berlin film festival), Madhusree Dutta’s I Live in Behrampada, Suma Josson’s Bombay’s Blood Yatra, and Remembering 1992 by Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar’s students at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2012, the twentieth anniversary of the Mumbai riots. Fiction features on the subject include Zakhm, Fiza and Black Friday. Films apart, there are concerns about the growing nationwide media campaign supporting Narendra Modi—the chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots—as India’s next prime minister. Is she hopeful of the next generation? “I believe that the next generation will continue to address these issues,” Dhanraj said. “In 1984 we were trying to make an inquiry into the reasons for the riots legitimate and visible. It is such a big elephant in the room, how can the next generation ignore it?”
Dhanraj’s recent work continues to reflect her long-standing feminist concerns. In fact, there has been a spate of recent films on female Indian leaders, including Kim Longinotto’s Pink Saris and Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang, both about female vigilante Sampat Pal. There’s also Longinotto’s Salma, shown in Berlin’s Panorama section this year, on a Tamilian Muslim woman, who was confined to her home for over a decade by her conservative family, but eventually becomes a published poet. Dhanraj’s own documentary Invoking Justice (2011) is on the revolutionary Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat, a court that delivers justice. It was established by Sharifa Khanam in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu, in 2004, and offers a powerful beacon of hope.
“I haven’t seen all the other films, so I don’t want to comment on them or their subjects,” Dhanraj said. “But the Muslim women’s jamaat has the law and police on its side, it is morally sound and has a sustainable approach. They want justice through a Muslim institution, so the men find it very threatening. And that is why it is so explosive.”
Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals and Curator to festivals worldwide. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org