Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Kamal Swaroop’s Varanasi drama

Film-maker Kamal Swaroop and his small crew of three spent 45 days in the midst of the political maelstrom in Varanasi last year. It was, as we know, a historic election campaign. Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party defeated Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party in a city known as much for Hindu worship as for ostracized widows and an industry feeding off burning corpses. This election campaign was monumental in its ferocity. Swaroop captured the entire election with his camera—from the filing of nominations to the rapture when the winner was announced.

The cameras follow the city in daylight and on fire-lit nights, inside its breathlessly fluid lanes, along holy banks and teeming maidans (grounds). The documentary, titled Dance For Democracy/Battle Of Banaras, is 2 hours and 10 minutes long. Thumping, raspy notes of drums and bells dominate the soundtrack. The hand-held camera gazes at leaders and transfixed crowds, and moves right into the frenetic sensorium of the city in those days.

The film-maker and his producer, London-based Manu Kumaran, have decided to approach the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT).

Dance for Democracy / Battle of Banaras does not have a narrator or an editorializing voice. It shows, does not tell. Narration, if any, is by the TV reporters whom Swaroop shows as they sum up the news for the camera. Both candidates mock each other—Kejriwal repeatedly refers to Modi’s 56-inch chest; Modi to Kejriwal’s lack of political lineage. In one long scene, shot from a low angle, Modi compares himself to astronaut Neil Armstrong. Each accuses the other of being a misfit in the constituency.

Swaroop, who madeOm Dar-B-Dar in 1988, is an award-winning director, one of the few Indian experimental film-makers, and an expert on Dadasaheb Phalke, the pioneer of Indian cinema. “Frogs are the souls of dead children," he says, whenever he is asked about the hundreds of chloroformed tadpoles that appeared in Om Dar-B-Dar. This was 11 years before Hollywood director Paul Thomas Anderson used frogs raining down as a denouement in his film Magnolia (1999).

In Om Dar-B-Dar, the young protagonist Om, while reading out a book aloud, says, “Aatankari tadpolon ne mendhak banne se inkar kar diya tha (terrorist tadpoles had refused to turn into frogs)." There are hundreds of tadpoles in the film, a carefully constructed piece of non-sense that combine the amphibians with advertising, sleazy magazines, typewriters, Yuri Gagarin and Mount Everest.

Swaroop tells me they are moving the tribunal because he does not think a revision committee of the CBFC will change the no-certificate order. “For me, this film is a study of the camera," he says. “Only the camera speaks. We have shot what we saw."

The inspiration for the documentary, he says, was Elias Canetti’s German book Masse Und Macht, Crowds And Power in English. “It is a book about the dynamics between crowds or packs and mass leaders. I thought this Varanasi campaign would be a perfect way to re-examine Canetti’s findings." Incidentally, Swaroop had a job in Richard Attenborough’s Indian shoot of Gandhi (1982), which required him to “handle crowds".

How long will it be before we get to watch how this free-spirited, seasoned film-maker sees the dance of democracy?

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