activism that heals

r v ramani

Sashi Kumar's first feature film Kaya Taran (Chrysalis) is based on the aftermath of the Indira Gandhi assassination in 1984. With a focus on the dilemma faced by present day journalists on the issues of conversion, religious clashes and minority status in this country, Sashi Kumar has given us an amazingly well made and a well-meaning film indeed.

Besides being a refreshing cinematic experience, Kaya Taran offered me great hope in dealing with sensitive issues. It came as a welcome relief, coming in the wake of many other documentaries and feature films on such vexed issues that have only served to problematise a problem. In their disastrous attempts at problem solving they have staked a strong claim to social activism, but here is a film that dealt with disturbing events in our recent past by providing a lovely healing touch.

The focus of this article however is not the film per se. It is a Hindi film with strong Malayali leanings and a fresh cast. The camera work is by Ashwini Kaul and the music is by Issac Thomas, I especially liked the sound track of the film that was gentle, soft and appropriately understated, as opposed to being sensational, authoritative and righteous. Though the film began to resemble a suspense thriller at many points it thankfully moved away from it at appropriate times and stuck to its basic intentions. The film contained many a masterly cinematic touch and a real deep honest engagement with the form of cinema. It embodied a quest to reach a cinematic reflection or a solution that set it apart from the other recent films of its ilk. The film did have its share of shortcomings in the acting and make up departments. The pacing of the film too could have been more free and bold, but by the time the film ended on its truly masterly stroke, I for one had no complaints. I would even go to the extent of saying 'Thanks Sashi, for making this film. It is socially relevant, not just in our societal context, but it also is a kind of activism that addresses the core of filmmaking and impacts filmmakers and artists, who dare to deal with such issues'.

This reminds me of Katha Utsav held at New Delhi, last winter where I had an opportunity to screen my recent film, forge excellent relations with the participants of a Pakistani delegation and attend lectures and seminars. It was in one of those sessions that I heard Mr. Varghese, another veteran journalist speak. He was knowledgeable, soft spoken, collected, authoritative, even patronizing, but above all, well meaning. In the course of his talk, he made a very interesting point when he said, 'all activism, should be primarily healing'. I agree whole-heartedly, which now brings us to the question of what is 'activism' and what is 'healing'.

For the purpose of this article I shall try and deal with these 2 issues. It is rather unfortunate, that activism has been defined, cornered and monopolized by a few activities in cinema, arts and social politics. I believe everyone is an artist and everyone is an activist. Let me explain. Broadly speaking, activism, could be propaganda driven, message driven, or even commerce driven. It could be form driven or personal anxiety driven. Alternatively one could be impelled by one's sense of social concern or righteousness or turn to activism to acquire personal fame, goal and achievement. Activism could take on multiple forms, involve silence, withdrawal, a voluntary non-action or simple participation. It could even be a complex mixture of all these or something else altogether. For me though all these are same and there exists no hierarchy between any of these elements. They are all important in different contexts. As far as filmmaking is concerned, the very act of someone trying to make a film is for me - activism in cinema, irrespective of what the filmmaker is dealing with.

Now, let's go back to the statement, "all activism should heal". In other words, I assume, activism and healing are inseparable. So that brings us to the question - what is healing? This is where the crux of the problem lies. Just like activism is driven by a motif, healing is also directly connected to what has given rise to activism in the first place. So it is important to see the healing in that context. This is where form comes in. When Laurie Baker brings in activism to architecture, in human dwellings and settlements, he addresses the form directly, and creates new meanings for the form which in turn allows him to create more self-reflectively in form. He goes beyond the "convenience" or the "use" of the medium or form. He doesn't merely use cement, bricks, steel or mortar, and he doesn't merely make use of spaces and structures, rather he completely reinvents the meaning of every bit of cement or brick or steel used for the purpose of housing. He addresses and questions the basic form and codifications of architecture. In doing so he provides breathing spaces both for the form and content and brings the healing touch. That's how healing works - by giving strength, new meanings and introspection to the form. When this introspection, self-reflectivity and new meanings in form do not come forth, the form remains abused, used, manipulated and the healing touch never comes. Without growth or breathing spaces in the form the intended activism fails. In my opinion this is the main problem with most of our films. They make use of the convenience of the form, its availability, its supposed power and reach, but never quite address the form or bring in new meanings and definitions. Not surprisingly the activism remains distorted, it fails and it can never heal, for they have not addressed the form, but have only used the form.

I recall that someone recently asked me in a workshop about who my favorite filmmaker or film was. To which I replied that all first time filmmakers are my favorites and that their films are my favorite films, because it is in their work that I see a real zeal for exploration, playfulness with the form, and an attempt to bring in new meanings and definitions. The craziest thing about language, art and filmmaking is that they are not bound by any definitions. Anyone can dare to create and bring in new meanings. This brings me back to Sashi Kumar's film. It's his first film. He has evidently worked at the various nuances of filmmaking. It is the product of a lot of self-reflection, questioning in the 'usage' of all possible cinematic tools and 'grammar'. It is this questioning that brings in a new form and language, complemented by good intentions, the healing automatically takes place. It healed me. I would rate this film as the finest example of its kind in recent times, where activism is dealt with a healing touch. A healing, which is liberating.

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