A few days after a Maoist attack on a Congress party convoy killed at least 27 people, including the founder of the erstwhile militia Salwa Judum, a poll on the website of the television channel CNN-IBN asked: “Bloodbath in Chhattisgarh: Have human rights groups failed to strongly condemn Naxal violence?”
The options were yes or no, the assumption being that civil liberty activists are more worried about armed insurgents than civilians. That assumption is a familiar one for film-maker Sanjay Kak, whose documentaries Words on Water, on the struggle against the Narmada dam, and Jashn-e-Azadi, on the Kashmiri pro-independence movement, dispense with objectivity and take an explicit and vocal stand against the Indian state.
He has encountered his fair share of dissenters to his brand of dissent, but he sees the debate deepening over such prickly issues as the Maoist insurgency, with which he deals in his new documentary Red Ant Dream. “I don’t get asked any more if I am a Naxalite,” he says in a phone interview from Delhi, where he lives and works. “We have gotten past that one.”
After screenings in Delhi and Punjab, the film will travel to Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad in the coming weeks.
Although Kak makes the case that tribal resistance goes back several decades, and that governments in states like Chhattisgarh are only new manifestations of systemic oppression, the recent killings make Red Ant Dream a red-hot documentary. The film maps three troubled zones—apart from the Maoists in Bastar in Chhattisgarh, there are tribals battling industrialists in Niyamgiri in Orissa, and a culture of protest built around the memory of Leftist revolutionary Bhagat Singh in Punjab. Seen together with Words on Water (2002) and Jashn-e-Azadi (2007), Red Ant Dream is about India Burning, as it were. The three films are about “the idea of resistance”, Kak says, but he traces this resistance through its foot soldiers rather than its generals and ideologues.
“I am not interested in fundamental questions of power relationships,” Kak says. “The film does not try to be a Naxalism 101, just like Jashn-e-Azadi was not trying to be a Kashmir 101.” His films are about ideology, he says, but “not terribly concerned with party formations” or a “party line”. Words on Water inaugurated his attempt to move beyond being a visual stenographer of movements. “Words on Water began as a campaign film and I tried to make it something else, but it eventually is neither,” Kak says. “In the Kashmir film, I was not particularly interested in what X or Y or Z was saying but in evoking another kind of space.”
Red Ant Dream is three films rolled into one. It is in the mould of documentaries like Amar Kanwar’s A Night of Prophecy (2002), which examines protest music, theatre and literature across India, and Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade (2011), whose examination of caste taps a rich vein of Dalit protest music. The Punjab segment in Red Ant Dream, which follows groups inspired by Bhagat Singh’s pre-independence Marxist critique of colonialism and inequality, intermingles with on-ground footage of rallies against mining in Niyamgiri and a clandestine encounter with Maoist groups in Bastar.
Kak could have focused on the Maoists, but he chose not to. “The core material came from Bastar, but that’s not the film I wanted to make,” he says. “The most urgent thing was to say something that would start a conversation about the idea of revolution. There has been an effacement, an invisibilization of radical politics. But I don’t have an abstract nostalgia—there are real engagements and these are about real things.”
The Punjab chapter too could have been its own film. Kak first went there trailing the revolutionary poet Avtar Singh Sandhu, who wrote under the pseudonym Pash. “I asked a professor what remains of Naxalism in Punjab today, and he said culture and poetry. Of course, the connection between Pash and Bhagat Singh emerged, and I could see the mobilization around this constellation.” Some viewers have embraced the seeming digressions into Punjab, while others have been “baffled and annoyed” by it, Kak says.
The most talked about section, at least for the moment, is likely to be the one that gives the documentary its name. Kak travelled to Bastar with writer and activist Arundhati Roy for two weeks in February 2010. He shot Maoists speaking about their motivation to engage the government in battle and sharing a dietary secret—a paste of the eggs of red ants.
Although Kak spent a little over six weeks in Bastar, Orissa and Punjab, it took two years to sculpt a 120-minute film out of the footage. The documentary is packed with crisp, terse images of dissent that aim to provoke thought rather than emotion. “What you don’t want to show is long, vérité sequences of affect and consequence,” Kak says about editor Tarun Bhartiya’s approach. “You don’t want people to say, I loved that girl in the forest. But you do want people to see somebody for 20 seconds and never forget them. It’s a rhetorical or didactic assemblage of images—the idea is to engage people on a continuous basis. You are never trying to seduce them into a state of relaxation.”
The approach to editing pretty much sums up Kak’s larger perspective on the role of the documentary. He belongs to the strain of independent documentary film-making that developed in the 1970s in stark opposition to the broadly propagandist Films Division vision of an India on the up. The country spotlighted by these film-makers is an unequal and unjust place in which tribals are being kicked off their land, women abused by population control policies and slum-dwellers ignored by urban policies. The documentaries are diverse in style and ideology, but they are bound together by disagreement with the way things were.
Kak’s own practice has crystallized in recent years into tracking down ordinary practitioners of radical ideas. He didn’t formally study film-making, but learnt on the job while assisting on documentaries and on Pradip Krishen’s feature Massey Sahib. “It’s about footage and how you view footage—it’s why I am never interested in following a set of characters, or one family or one squad,” he says. “The examination of what is going on is an endless process. These three films are an exposition of a certain idea, formally too. One has tried to fashion for oneself, in the way the three films are edited, a language that is appropriate for one’s politics.”
However, even radical film-makers must make “pitches” at fund-raising conferences and festival marketplaces these days to get their films off the ground. Red Ant Dream was financed by funds given by an IDFA Fund grant and a prize from the Busan International Film Festival, South Korea. “I didn’t pitch for the film, we raised the money based on a trailer,” says Kak, who has strong views on the pitching process. “We are in the process of recouping not inconsequential sums of money from DVD sales—there is solid potential there.”
Part of the thrill, and stress, of making political-minded documentaries comes from raising money, ensuring distribution (usually free screenings at friendly venues) and the odd festival exposure. “You compensate for the fact that you don’t have a budget by doing everything yourself,” Kak observes. “Everything is done with people’s pyaar-mohabbat (love and affection). The economics are always exhausting, but this too shall pass.”
Red Ant Dream will be screened in Mumbai at the Alliance Française on 14 June, 7pm, and at the Films Division auditorium on 15 June, 4pm. Click here for details about screenings in other cities.