Sunday, 19 November 2017

SANJAY KAK IN CONVERSATION - video & transcript - 09/2017

Filmmaker and activist Sanjay Kak in Conversation 
with Professor Virinder Kalra.

Sanjay Kak in Conversation, BFI from Pivotalis Films on Vimeo.

Sanjay Kak has been making documentaries since the mid-1980s and is part of a generation of independent Indian film auteurs who have challenged dominant narratives and who have sought alternative distribution for their work. During a richly illustrated conversation, Sanjay Kak talks about his work as an activist and filmmaker. The session was chaired by Virinder Kalra, Professor in Sociology, University of Warwick.

Recorded at "This Land Is Ours"(a weekend of films by Sanjay Kak at the BFI London) in September 2017.
Sanjay Kak introduces the film Red Ant Dream before moving onto a conversation about his practice as a filmmaker and activist in India. (Including clips from his films and an audience Q&A).

In addition to the video I've posted a transcript of the conversation (scroll down).

Professor Virinder Kalra's main areas of research are: racism and ethnicity in relation to popular culture and policy; theoretical engagements with diaspora and postcolonialism; and popular culture in South Asia. He has made significant and consistent impact in these arenas, influencing and shaping academic and public debate.         

With special thanks to David Somerset and John Heathcote of
Pivotalis Films for the video.

Sanjay Kak in Conversation  - transcript

VIRINDER KALRA: Actually I am feeling like a rock star in this auditorium with all these lights on me! I'm not used to that. I'm really honoured. 

Actually, it's a great privilege for me to be sitting here with Sanjay. He is a documentary filmmaker who's been working for the last 30 years in this field, but, really, he is, like, one of the trusted critical voices out of India. And, for me, personally, this is why it's such an honour because I’m always eagerly waiting for the next thing that might come out of the Octave Studios... And I don’t know how many of you know that he has ventured into... We should have bought a copy of the book, really. He's ventured into publishing and after Red Ant Dream, he has produced this amazing book. It's a book - a book is an understatement -called Witness which is a collection of photographers from Kashmir documenting from the 1980s, really, the struggle. I just wanted to make sure to mention that because some of you may be thinking, “Oh, four years since Red Ant Dream, what has Sanjay been up to?”

What we're going to do today is we are going to have a kind of in-conversation but very much focused on Sanjay's documentary output, and then we'll have an opportunity for Q&A at the end. So keep your questions, in a sense, because I can imagine that lots of things we'll be talking about might raise questions as we are going along, but I think we wanted to allow for the full kind of breadth of Sanjay's practice to be presented and then for us to go into a kind of discussion. 

But now, I want to take the liberty of opening, really, by quoting yourself from an interview that was done in the Red Pepper quite recently. And this really for me is very central to why I think Sanjay's work is so important and so strong and he says, "So when I say that I'm interested in resistance, it's not some hip fetish about how cool it is to be resisting. To resist is to hope, and hope is revolutionary. We fight with hope".

And in some senses, for me, that's the way in which I approach my own kind of intellectual work or academic work. But do you think this is a way in which you would summarise your filmic documentary kind of eye?

SANJAY KAK: It's always a bit dangerous, I don’t know, for anybody but particularly for a filmmaker to allow any representation to kind of be graven into stone because, who knows, I might change my mind tomorrow! But, yes, whatever the series of personal or political sort of steps were that have preoccupied me for the last 15 years, then I would say that the central preoccupation was to look at people in resistance, you know. 

And so, what I've said in response to that question is actually trying to make sense of that, “So what's the thrill? What's the lure of making a long film in the Narmada Valley in central India about people who are resisting large dams”? Then moving to Kashmir where you look at a people who have fought a moment for self-determination for 30 years, and then "Red Ant Dream" which some of you have seen today.

And, centrally – and I said this earlier today that I think that really the most interesting thing about India is precisely this: that we have a pretty dazzling array of methods of resistance from the Gandhian non-violence of the Narmada Bachao Andolan to the armed guerrillas in the forest of central India. And I think that in the world that we live in, it would probably be very difficult to be prescriptive and say that only this is the way ahead; that I think in the complex world that we live in – and India is not country, it's continent and perhaps a little more than that – that one has learnt to both appreciate and honour the ability of people to fight in various complicated and complex ways.

So, yes, I mean… that has been a preoccupation, but I think that it's also because these movements have asked very fundamental questions. It's not simply because they resist. I mean, today even as we speak, today is the 17th. Is it the 17th?


SANJAY KAK: Yeah. So it's the Prime Minister Modi's birthday in India and on this day he’s chosen to inaugurate the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which has been opposed for people for close to 30 years. And even as he celebrated his birthday, people were being flooded out to their homes. My phone is full of WhatsApp pictures of people like rats being flooded out to their homes. 

So the important thing is not that they lost the battle – the dam got built, but the important thing is that they contributed an enormous amount to our understanding of so many social processes. I mean, the idea of resettlement. The people who were displaced by the Bhakra Dam in the 1950s are still displaced. They are still homeless, you know. So I think that what the Narmada movement did, for example, was that it created a consciousness of that there are people living on the land, damn it, you can’t just say this is a dam site now, you know. You can’t just say this is a steel plant now, you know. You have to acknowledge that there are human beings there.

And then a much more sort of sophisticated understanding of the linkages of hydraulics or hydrology or the ecology of forestry… and, similarly, the questions that the moment for self-determination in Kashmir raises, you know, it asks very fundamental questions of Indian democracy, you know, are you a democracy? If you are, then you have to behave like one. You know, you can’t make a claim to democracy and then behave another way, and so on, to the directory that's covered by Red Ant Dream. 

So it's not simply in my case a fascination with the fact that they resist, but that they resist with an intelligence and understanding which is both very modern and, thank God for that, very pre-modern. You know, they bring ancient wisdoms in conjunction with modern understandings and transform us. 

VIRINDER KALRA: So this weekend we've been really privileged to see "Jashn-E-Azadi" yesterday and Red Ant Dream and I think we want to start in terms of the three films which really I think articulate this idea of a complicated form of resistance with Words on Water. And I know you've just mentioned the Narmada dam, but maybe for people who don’t know about that... Like, again, how did you kind of come to Words on Water as a subject?

SANJAY KAK: So, in 1997, which coincidentally was the 50th year of Indian independence, I was commissioned – probably the last time I got a commission of any kind – to do a film about... part of a project, I mean. Six filmmakers were asked to make a half-hour film on different aspects of India and I was asked to make a film on the idea of democracy. And I chose to film partly in Punjab where there was an election being held after a very long time, after the troubles, and one Dalit rally in southern Tamil Nadu. And I was completely befuddled by the time the film was finished, because I couldn’t understand how anybody could sustain a belief in democracy given that it gave them nothing, you know.

And the title of the film was, it was called One Weapon and it came from a conversation with a Dalit landless labourer in Punjab and I asked him, “So why do you vote?” And he said, “ika hathi'āra hai.. sāḍē kola” which means “we have just one weapon so we must use it”.  

So I was actually… after the film was done, I said that I really do want to make a film about democracy. You know, like, what do we live in? And I could have made this film anyway. I could have made it in Manipur or I could have made it in Kashmir but there was something about the Narmada movement which, you know, because it was a non-violent struggle and it wasn’t an armed struggle… armed struggles get very complicated because then it's not possible to penetrate very easily, you know, what else is going on.

So the fact that it was a non-violent struggle, it had a history, a longish history already by '99…they were very open and I thought, okay, this is a good place to make that film. And so actually, the film was... I mean, I went there not to make a film about this, necessarily about large dams, but about the idea of democracy but that… does it work? Is it working? Here are these people who are fighting a battle very honourably with very profoundly worked out arguments with documents that, you know, can go from the ground to the ceiling several times over in this room. So, what is not working, you know? So it was more as much an examination of democracy. 

So, I’ve actually lined up two clips from that film. The first clip that you'll see are the very opening moments of the film because, in a sense, the way the opening moments are structured are, for me, part of what I think is very important for me in film which is that I want you, like myself, to know what it's like to be there, you know. I mean, I'm not just only interested in the politics of it, you know. I am very much interested in the texture of the experience and in somehow communicating, in however jagged a way, what the journey is like. So, perhaps, if you can see the…

[First clip playing Words On Water]

VIRINDER KALRA: Can we get the lights up? 
I was very interested in you talking about bringing people into the films and now we have had a full weekend of intense... You’ve used a lot of still shots with movement and I assume this is intentional but I'm just wondering, how do you feel, what is that? What are you doing with that?

SANJAY KAK: So, one of the big advantages of the independent film is that you are free to discover of, or articulate, a narrative form that best suits you, you know, and I do live in terror of, you know, presenting a proposal to someone and being told that, “Where are... Who are the characters and, you know, where is the narrative arc and what happens at the half-way mark?” And so on and so forth. Not because I think there is a problem with any of that but because every story simply doesn’t fit into that kind of, you know, sort of straitjacket. 

So, in a sense, every film that I have done, it has been quite a struggle to find the appropriate language for it also, you know. That, you know, will there be interviews? Will people speak? How real is their spoken speech? So like I mentioned yesterday that in the case of the Kashmir film, I completely eschewed the interview as a format because in Kashmir people cannot speak the truth to you, whereas Lohari…and in the sequence you just saw, she is a fighting Adivasi woman, so she can speak her mind, you know. 

And so, I think that I'm a little stumped by your question because there isn’t a theory of how a film is to be constructed. For me, I mean, there is tremendous excitement when you're researching a film and then, you know, you're reading a lot and you're kind of reading everything and then there comes a time when you have to start shooting when you just take your books and notebooks and just put them away and almost never look at them again. 

And then the shoot is of course another high, you know, because you never know what's going to happen and then that's done and then you come to the editing table. And, frankly, if I were... I couldn’t make a hierarchy between these three things of which is more important. So I think that, for me, once the material comes in and, you know “Okay, now, this is it”, discovering the logic of the material itself, you know, respecting it. 

So, I think that there isn’t a single formula and the one thing there is, is that this film represented, for me, a big sort of breakthrough because this was a time when I first got myself a digital camera. I started shooting this in '99, and I started shooting myself. So the clip, the sequence you saw just now and the sequence you are going to see after this are both shot by me although a lot of the film was shot by another cameraman as well.
So, in a sense, it was a tremendous liberation because there are situations in which working through a cinematographer – and I've worked with some of the best cinematographers in the business in India, and they are incredible people – but I still think that there are some situations in which only I can react as quickly as needs to be.

So the second clip that you are going to see actually comes from another dam in the Narmada Valley in Maheshwar where it was a bit of a landmark because it was the first privately-promoted dam. So, S. Kumars who were a textile company who jumped into the dam-building bandwagon briefly until they went bankrupt, were involved in this dam. So on this particular day, the people decided to capture the dam site. So what you are going to see is the morning of the dam site capture at the Maheshwar dam. So if you can have pictures.

[Second clip playing Words On Water] 

VIRINDER KALRA: I have to say, again, in all of these films, I'm now having to bring everything together. You do brilliantly capture these moments. I think in Jashn-E-Azadi, the funeral scenes are brilliantly captured. I mean, clearly, from the protestors' point of view, you know, the camera... It feels like it's one of the... You know you feel like you're one of the protestors in Jashn. And, again, I mean, I suppose, I know your sensibility will place you there, but how, as a filmmaker, like, how does that work out?

SANJAY KAK: So it's interesting you say that because the sequence that you refer to in Jashn-E-Azadi, which is the funeral towards the end, coincidentally is something that I shot because my cameraman had to leave that day and we got news in the morning that this important militant commander had been killed and somebody offered to take me there and this is not something that happens often because the funerals are really off-limits for videographers and photographers, largely because that material is used to identify the protestors. So it was a rare opportunity and I went and shot it.

And I think it's very interesting, the parallel between being present in a crowd like this on your own with a camera and being present in the funeral of a militant in Kashmir on your own with a camera, because you're totally vulnerable, you know. There is nobody behind your back. You don’t even know what's ahead. You don’t know what's happening. You just look through the viewfinder and you just trust people around you.

And the thing… is that I don’t know what it is because, in both these situations, something emanates that allows you to cut through the crowd. Because I had been in the funeral, I waded my way right down to where the body is lying. I may not have used that image. And people would make place for you, I don’t know why. There is nothing. I'm not wearing a little sticker which says this guy is kosher, you know. So how is it that... what is it that your body language or your own confidence about why you are there, that communicates itself? 

And even in the Narmada Valley, you know, to be in the middle of a protest, there was never a moment in which I felt insecure or vulnerable. You know, you just feel... in fact, you even feel that the crowd is actually going to protect you from the cops – and they can’t, actually – but there is just... I think that is what it means to be part of a protest, you know, and it's just the same way that in Kashmir also, it's not that because I was a paid-up member of that way of looking at the universe, but because there is a certain… I mean, I'll have to use old-fashioned words… like, there is a sincerity of why you are there. I really do want to see the texture of what's going on there that people don’t feel threatened by you and, in fact, quite the opposite: they are very welcoming and, sort of, the crowd barks for you for that reason.

VIRINDER KALRA: I suppose, the crude question would be: what is the power of the camera in this context? But I'm saying “the crude question” because, in the Narmada clip, there are other cameras there but, clearly, they are not getting what you're getting.


VIRINDER KALRA: But I'm just wondering both like how does the power of the camera get dissuaded, because on the Kashmir clip people do know that this will be used, you know, I mean like, in demonstrations here now. You know, we play big games of, you know, videoing the police as they are videoing us, right? And so the camera has become this very strange kind of technique or technology which everybody kind of thinks has some power. So, I mean, how do you think that works?

SANJAY KAK: You are absolutely right. I mean, for example, in that sequence, those who saw the film yesterday will notice that as soon as I pan down to the women, the slogans shift into English.


SANJAY KAK: You know, “We want freedom. We want freedom. We want freedom. We want freedom.” And I don’t doubt that that's simply because they see that this is a camera here, that now this is meant for the outside world. So, you know, the slogan must be in English. In the case of the Narmada Valley, I do remember, not this protest but on an earlier protest, I was briefly... I don’t know if I was arrested but the same District Magistrate kind of, I don’t know, held me for half a day.

And word got around the area that this guy who had just arrived from Delhi to make a film has been arrested, you know. And from that day onwards, I was fine because everybody knew Bhaiya apka tho arrest hogaya tha , you know, like “You were arrested”. So, in that sense, I think that people also want... you know, the power that you speak of, the power of the camera – even the most vulnerable people want that power.


SANJAY KAK: It's not only something they fear. So when I went to Bastar, it took a couple of days to enter the area where the senior cadre were and I just decided that I would not shoot until I met the senior cadre because it was not fair all the younger guys had come to walk us in. And so, finally, on the third day when we reached them after two days of walking in the forest, one of them took me aside and said, “Listen, you can film anything you want. There are some people you can’t film and that's not because they are senior or junior but because those are the people who live the forest. You know, so it could be a 14-year-old boy who is a courier and who goes out to buy medicines or whatever, but he is not to be shot”, and he said, “You know what, don’t worry, they will not allow you to film them” and that's true. They were very, very careful.

As for the rest, they said, you know, “Shoot whatever you want”. So why did they do that? You know, why would some people who are otherwise so secretive do that? Because they understood as much as I did that it wasn’t effective to continually represent the Maoist guerrillas as these masked people.
So I think that the power of the camera is not simply something that only the powerful can wield, you know. It's also something that the powerless can also deploy and increasingly are using.

VIRINDER KALRA: I suppose this democratisation of the camera has a lot to do with digitalisation. 

SANJAY KAK: I mean, even earlier, yes. So, you know, the VHS footage and then now the digital camera, it has really... I have used both in Red Ant Dream and in Jashn-E-Azadi and a little bit in Words on Water as well. I've used sort of what I call archival material quite extensively, and that is because each of these movements actually did have their own video, you know. 

So, in that sense, that's very much part of the formal style that I would like… that I like to deploy which is that it can be very effective sometimes to suddenly slide into a kind of material which there is no way you have accessed. So to use the footage shot by the commander of the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army team, when they are actually doing an attack, obviously, I kept the blood and the gore out. You know, I've kept the images of the young guerrilla women stripping the arms from policemen and taking them away. I mean, I have. I have exercised some discretion there. But just that sense of what goes on there, I couldn’t access it. So, yeah, technology is allowing us to jump across the lines, so to speak, very quickly. 

VIRINDER KALRA: I mean, in terms of technological change, I suppose I'm thinking - because we aren’t going in chronological order just because you don’t like doing that in your films, so, in the talk we shouldn’t. If we jump back to your earlier work, in a way, you couldn’t just pick up the camera. You had to have a team. And so, there is a shift. Because of the technological changes, you can argue that maybe Red Ant Dream or even Jashn-E-Azadi it would have been very difficult to make them just because of the economics, just because of the kinds of teams you have to amass. And I suppose, it's that kind of shift that I think which… you know, I'm alluding to when I say about technological change.

SANJAY KAK: So the clip that I'd like us to see next is from a film that I finished in '99 called In the Forest Hangs a Bridge. It was the last thing that I did which was shot on film and it was also, in a sense, a commissioned work – with all those limitations – and yet it was a curiously successful film by which I mean that it... I say successful where I mean it still lives. People still screen it. And what it's about is a community in the northeast of India in a village in Arunachal Pradesh who every alternate year have to rebuild the skin and bamboo bridge across the river and it's a 1,000-foot long bridge, so it's quite a spectacular act. And I did it for a government agency which is meant to promote rural technology. 

I won’t prejudge it for you but I will say that when I screened it in Delhi, I remember this particular screening. It came on a day when the film had just been... I mean, we had just heard that it had won three major awards that day for best cinematography and best editing and for best film, and somebody asked me that, “What are you going to do next”? And I said, 'Well, I don’t know but whatever I do, it will be a much more angry film,' and it was a stupid thing to say and I didn’t know why I said. 

But I think, in retrospect, whatever is the work I've done after that is a departure from the kind of more celebratory tone of this film. I love it. I love the film but perhaps if I were to have made it five years later, perhaps I would look at the same world somewhat differently. So I'd just like you see the clip from the In the Forest Hangs a Bridge.

[Third clip playing In the Forest Hangs a Bridge]

VIRINDER KALRA: I was really glad that you kept this clip, or showed us this clip, because I think there is a sensitivity that you have towards the culture which kind of reminds me of that maxim “from the seeds of culture blossom the flowers of resistance” or “grow the flowers of resistance”, and in a sense, I think that your eye… you see that eye in Red Ant Dream as well, and within the context. So, I mean, I think it's nice that you're happy to sort of still present something like this in that way.

SANJAY KAK: I think I should explain what I meant when I said that I thought I was going to make an angrier film was that, you know, it needed for us to go to this remote corner. What is that? What is this film? It's a reflection on community. It's a reflection on the possibilities of community. And yet you need to go to the most remote corner of India in order to recreate that sense of community where everywhere else we have broken it, you know. We have savaged it.

And the Narmada Valley, which is where I went to immediately after this film was done, was precisely the landscape where you could see this happening, that when you did not have anything better to offer people, you were actually taking away from them what they had – which was land and a kind of livelihood, you know. Now, this is not some kind of easy, eco-romanticism that led Adivasi to be where he or she is. 

But it is true that you know, we seem to be celebrating our traditions, our Adivasi culture and so on, even as we trample it under foot. The more we trample it under foot the more important it is to put it in the Republic Day pageants and in the postage stamps and in the, you know, "India Incredible" or whatever the story is.

So I think that's actually what I meant. And, yes, I mean, when I say that it's very important for me to communicate, I remember when we started editing this film we had series of disasters when we were shooting this. My crew had an accident. My assistant camera woman was a young woman who had to be taken off, and the sound recorders had to be taken off in a chopper. It was a complete disaster, and we had a very narrow number of days to shoot it in. And so when we reached the editing room, my editor, who is a very sort of forbidding Indian woman editor, she turned to me and said, “So what are we trying to do? What's this film?” So I said, “I just want people to know what it felt like to be there for those days that the bridge was built. You know, that's all I want, you know”.

And, in a sense, that is a recurrent part of what I try to do. Like, no matter what my larger didactic, kind of, or political intentions are, I do believe that I can persuade that the argument must rest on a bed of empathy, and that empathy can only come when you actually know what it feels like to be in that village in Kashmir or in a boat with the people in Narmada Valley, or wherever it is. That it's very important to have without falling into the trap that television documentary has, which is you have to have this character and we must enter the inner life of the character and we must, you know, be dragged up and down with the emotional kind of ups and downs.

So, it's a way of saying that, “Look, you know you can have an emotional hook without necessarily entangling yourself with one, two, or three characters, which is normally what the television documentary demands of you”.

VIRINDER KALRA: And which... I suppose as a segway… you’ve learned this is a process, because A House and a Home is kind of quite character-based. So, in a way… I suppose, at this point you came to... Like, where did you come to this point in your process of documentary filmmaking in a sense?

SANJAY KAK: So this clip is from a film I made in South Africa. It's a companion film to the film that we showed yesterday which is This Land, My Land, Eng-land. So it was meant to be part of this project of six films that looked at people of Indian origin in the world over. Eventually, for various reasons which have to do with complicated things like the rupee being devalued versus the dollar, we ended up finishing only two films, and those who saw This Land, My Land, Eng-land would have noticed that although there are characters in the film, it's not as if the film is dependent on the emotional... you know, the pull of those characters, you know. They do speak to you. They are characters but it's not... that entanglement is not necessary. It's a kind of – what should I say? 

In some senses, perhaps it's Brechtian that, you know, you do and you don’t in that sense?

So, the clip I'm going to show you is around one of the characters in the film who is a real estate agent called Ebrahim Patel who called himself a estate agent of change, and why does he say that? Because the film is shot in '91 and Mandela is just out of Robben Island and Apartheid appears to be crumbling. And so Indians are able to buy properties in white areas and, you know, there is a lot of movement going on and that film was really about land, housing, and the idea of home. So this is just a small clip which we can watch and that we can talk about.

[Fourth clip playing A House and a Home]

VIRINDER KALRA: And this piece was commissioned by Doordarshan but, I mean, the films already from Narmada wouldn’t get commissioned by anyone and... I have a few friends who try and put commissions into Channel 4 or the BBC, and they want to do something very serious. I mean, just yesterday I was talking to a friend who was doing a kind of decolonial sort of following Livingstone's footsteps into Africa, and the Channel 4 commissioners came back and said, “Well, can you have an adventurer with you who goes like rafting on the side while you do the...? And we are really happy with all the politics of your decolonising, but like, you know, some guy who is doing adventure. Like the adventurers went”.

And, I mean, there are numerous examples of how the commissioning process here has really... I mean, and Channel 4 and I think Channel 5 when they started were amazing. Like, things like the Bandung Files, etcetera, etcetera were put all through that. But commissioning now seems to be a very... I mean, and so, like, I just was wondering how you would react on that as a process. Yeah.

SANJAY KAK: So this was an aberration, actually, even by… definitely by Indian standards. I think I mentioned this briefly yesterday that the early '90s were a period when sort of India was just sort of stepping out onto the world stage and, you know, the sort of... It had started appearing on the horizon as this new, emerging kind of… whatever, superpower or some such. So I think that the timing was perfect. We landed up at the doorstep of Doordarshan with a proposal called Crossings and we said we want to make six films about Indians abroad.

And I think they were not paying very close attention as people in Doordarshan tend to not to, to what exactly what we wanted to do and so they thought this brave saga of how Indians had conquered the world. And so when we actually presented the two rough cuts of the England film and this, I have to tell you that they were completely flummoxed, because they could not see any reason why we should be interested in a bunch of young people on the fringes of the art scene in London. I mean, why was that of any consequence to anybody? You know, why was it not about the lawyers and doctors and bankers and so on, so forth? 
But, fortunately for us, we had – which is rare for a documentary – we had kind of written these treatments and those treatments were – it was a chance in a hundred – were very close to the finished films in terms of what we had said we were going to do. So, sort of, legally speaking, they didn’t have a leg to stand on. 

So, yeah, they were not terribly proud of these films but they were screened on national television and, you know, at that time, there was only one channel. So that's not a small thing, you know, to have a film going out all across the country. It was a big deal. I still meet younger filmmakers who were like in high school when they caught one of these films, and they remember them, you know.
But yeah, they were… after they got buried and this was not the digital era. So it's not like today when DVDs kind of circulate very fast or .MOV files can be traded. So, in a sense, the films... These two films kind of disappeared and I'm delighted that we were able to show This Land yesterday which must be about I think the second or third time in the last 25 years that I've shown it. So it's not really a credit to the commissioning process. It was a kind of accident and a happy one, and, yeah, that's how it went. 

VIRINDER KALRA: But I mean, like the Narmada film or Jashn-E-Azadi, even if you presented the (chuckles) mildest treatment to commission...


VIRINDER KALRA: It was not going to get commissioned. So...

SANJAY KAK: No. So there are two or three things. One is, of course, the commission and the other thing is that I was just speaking to someone earlier today that I think that one of the most interesting things about the Indian documentary situation right now is the screening of Indian documentaries. 


SANJAY KAK: You know. I mean, without hurting anybody's feelings, this audience would be considered a complete disaster in India, because when we screen films, you know, averagely we'll get 100 people. And when I show a new film in Delhi, if you have a 400-seater auditorium, we'll fill 400 seats, you know. 

This hasn’t happened overnight. You know, it has happened over 20 years of very hard work which filmmakers have put in, you know. And that is connected to the absence of funding because we didn’t have television funding because we didn’t have state funding – or very little of it. Where are you going to show your work? So, starting with Anand Patwardhan, filmmakers make a film and they hit the road, you know. They create links with political activities with small film festivals, with activist groups, with NGOs.

So what has happened today is that we have a very robust alternative distribution circuit. So if I make a new film, like when I made Red Ant Dream, if I wanted to, I could have spent a year traveling around India showing the film and I wouldn’t be now… 20 years ago I'd probably have to buy my own tickets, but now the groups are able to actually raise money and, you know, fly you down or put you up at a nice friend's house and so on and so forth.

The only thing is, of course, there is no revenue, no serious revenue. So the revenue comes from DVD sales and all that, you know, which is not inconsequential now but it was, I mean, 10-15 years ago there was hardly any money coming. So we are in this strange situation, documentary filmmakers, where we have a very robust audience but we don’t have funding and, if you ask me – I keep saying this of the Indian documentaries – I'm not saying that they are the best documentaries in the world, far from it, but because of this kind of connect with the audience, the practice is very diverse.

So I might represent one kind of filmmaking which sees itself as political, but 10 other filmmakers who I take very seriously, they make completely different kinds of films and they have audiences for their films.


SANJAY KAK: You know, ranging from the most kind of avant-garde film practice to even more kind of agitprop very straightforward, you know, sort of political propaganda in some senses. So what has happened is that everybody… because you are not making a film for that little old lady in Wembley, or whatever the phrase in British television is, you know. Like, who you have to... like you have to cater to some kind of average audience that everybody is making a film and they know that they are going to find that audience, you know. 

So, that way, it's been very interesting and, of course, we've spoken of this before. Digital technology, which coincided, like I said, with when I started making Words on Water has transformed our practice, you know. We are being able to not just shoot the films but also edit them, also colour-correct them, and subtitle them and mix them, and then we are able to burn them on DVDs and then the activists who screen the films, the digital projector, you know, which you can now buy for 20,000 rupees, and you can get a set of computer speakers and you have a cinema space for 80-90 people.

So some really, really outstanding film festivals have come up in places that most of the people in this room would not even have heard of, you know. So, for now, for 12 years, we've had a really exceptional film festival in a small town called Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, you know.

I have attended film festivals in Nainital, in Azamgarh, in Bareilly… all over, you know. Many of them are annual events but they are able to bring filmmakers, they are able to bring audiences, you know, I sell DVDs, you can sell books. So it's become... In some senses, the documentary film festival has become quite a cool thing, which means that you know, sometimes event corporate sponsorship wants to buy in and say, “Okay, we'll bankroll it”, but it's too the credit of the people who organise these things that they don’t accept that money. They say, 'No, we'll work on donations.'

So the remarkable thing about all the festivals that I'm talking to you about is that none of them are funded. In Azamgarh, I know that you know, Azamgarh was a town that got a very bad reputation because the police started framing young Muslim men that, you know, they were, whatever, terrorists and somehow they found it convenient to stick it on Azamgarh. So, a bunch of doctors there said, “Look, this is terrible, you know. Our town is getting a bad reputation”. So when this festival idea came up, the doctors actually... Each of them writes a cheque for 10,000 rupees and 10 of them sign up, so there is lakh of rupees and they organise a festival.

So I think that is actually the most exciting thing that has happened to Indian documentary and it has been very liberating. Very liberating because you never, you know, feel depressed that who will see my film? Because that's taken care of. There are people who will see your film. In fact, you know, a new film comes out and, you know, I start getting emails saying, 'Have you seen that film and what's it like? And maybe we can get it for our festival.' And there is a little buzz around each little film that comes out, you know. 

VIRINDER KALRA: I think, in some sense, that gives you quite a lot of freedom because for... here, on the documentary... I don’t know if you know if he’s here, but MicroMedia is a documentary filmmaking company that I've been associated with for 20 years and it's so difficult for those films to be shown which are about deaths in police custody and that kind of state violence. 

So, in some senses, there is a certain freedom and, you know, that kind of infrastructure being created and maybe we can see something in Jashn-E-Azadi just because I want to also then talk about, well, you know, how does the state respond? Because the state responds… you know, here for certain types of films, they can ban it and quite easily get compliance on stopping certain things from being shown. But I mean, maybe we should, like, go to Jashn-E-Azadi.

SANJAY KAK: Before we show the clip, I'll just say one thing which is that one of the advantages of staying out of the broadcast/formal exhibition space is that because in India… otherwise you will require your films to get a censor certificate and, as you would know, certainly these last few films would not get a censor certificate. So, the small film festival has a very precarious existence. It's not quite clear whether they are violating the law or they aren’t, but somehow we are kind of brazen it out and we just pretend that, “No, it's okay. You know, we have been allowed to show them” but... so that is another reason - to stay out of the formal distribution network is that you can then show a film in its full form.

So the clip that we are going to see from Jashn-E-Azadi, I mean, I'm sorry to those who saw it yesterday, they'll sort of bear with the five minutes or so. It's also because it kind of… for what sets out to be a political film, it also, I think, tries to use various kinds of material in such an intricate way which I think is, for me, very important that what should be the appropriate language for political cinema? You know. So that's the reason I picked this clip for today.

[Fifth clip playing Jashn – E - Azadi]

VIRINDER KALRA: We'll wait for the lights to come on. 

What frenzy is this? In some ways, I think, Jashn-E-Azadi, we get a lot of the frenzy, and I think many of you were here for Red Ant Dream so we might not show the clip and we'll go into a conversation maybe around that. So I have to let you just… vent off. So the frenzy of 2017 and the last year of cow-related murder and the kind of ideological tyranny which is seeping into Indian state institutions. You know, what is the frenzy?

SANJAY KAK: I think, obviously, it's a very disturbing time to be India. Once again, if there is anything hopeful... because what are we seeing? We are seeing a kind of huge majoritarian wave, you know. Perhaps it's a majoritarian wave which has been long suppressed and it's now kind of coming out and that's what makes it dangerous, you know.

So, you know, the politics of Hindutva was earlier constructed around, say, the construction of Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. But, you know, a temple can only be constructed at one place. But the moment you say that every cow that's killed is sacrilegious then it's equivalent to having a temple on every street, you know. So it allows a certain kind of political mobilisation even if you have an accident. If you hit a cow and it dies, then there you have it. You have a reason for a communal configuration, especially if the driver of the car happens to be a Muslim. 

So, in that sense, we are sitting really on a powder keg of conflict. But what I find really remarkable is that the same thing, the opposition to whatever is going on is simply not as yet terrified in the ways that it ought to be. That's very interesting that the people who are used to speak up continue to speak up, and, in fact, many more people. I have just come from Delhi after having been involved in a major protest which used the borrowed name of "Not in my name" and we staged perhaps close to 100 protests all over Delhi on September 10th.

And what was most interesting is that one of the vanguards of the protests on 10th September were a bunch of contemporary dancers who took it upon themselves and... I mean, I might sound patronising, but, you know, documentary filmmakers think that they hold the burden of political responsibility. But it was amazing, that these 30 contemporary dancers rehearsed and on the 10th of September, they boarded the metro and they had announced this route, and they performed on the streets in 30 different places. They had worked out this performance holding hands and, you know, kind of, join people into the circle and so on. 

So, to me, the fact that a completely cocooned elite subgroup, like contemporary dancers, should now, in 2017, decide to take to the streets in this way – and they got such a good response that they've actually decided to make it a monthly event that they will invite other dancers and every... you know, so I'm picking on the dancer because, you know, it's about as, sort of, an unusual bunch of people.

So once again, it might be delusional or self-delusional on my part but I think that, you know, as things get worse, more and more people are coming on to the other side, you know, and people are being forced to choose. So the people in the middle, who kind of, you know, were sort of, “Yeah, but it's pretty complicated”, I think they are beginning to see that it's not complicated; that we are heading for a kind of Armageddon if we are not careful. Yeah.

VIRINDER KALRA: Okay. At first, I think we should all say thank you for the sharing Sanjay has done of his work before we go into…

SANJAY KAK: Thank you. 

VIRINDER KALRA: Do we have a roving mike?

VIRINDER KALRA: OK, so is there someone here? 

AUDIENCE Q1: Hi I'm Bhavna Rajpal. Sanjay thank you. I'm inspired by your absolute fearlessness. Thank you for the quick clips from all the films and especially Red Ant Dream. I'm going to ask you two questions related to Red Ant Dream: the first one is... extreme close-ups. I was very uncomfortable with Lingaraj Azad’s extreme close up, because at once the close-ups become a way of crossing the professional/formal boundary, but when it is so close, what are you trying to say? The film began with close-ups, but Lingaraj Azad's closeup was extreme.

My second question to you is about the people in the film: have they watched the film, and has anybody from the government of India watched Red Ant Dream? And thank you again.

SANJAY KAK: I have a very small buffer, so you might have to remind me of the second part. About the close-ups, that was a very deliberate decision to shoot Lingaraj like that. He's an activist that I've known for a very long time, and admired. And I've always been very, sort of, distraught at how he comes across in films, and he's in a dozen films, you know. Somehow the richness of his experience and his sincerity never came through to me, and it was almost like a challenge for me that this man is so wise, he is so sincere, how come I don't get it from any of these films that I've seen, you know? 

And obviously we shot a lot with him in different magnifications, but I do remember the cameraman I was working with – that I didn't shoot myself – I did tell him that "Okay, let’s go really close and I'll ask him a second question", which was important to me. And I just... I want you to stare in the face of a man who has been through the struggle, you know. He spent his whole life in struggle, you know. And maybe it's disturbing, but then I'm okay with that, you know, I think that it's a way of forcing. So, in essence your response is pretty much what one intended to, you know. And the second question was...?

SANJAY KAK: About audience, and had they seen it. Yes. If you're talking about in Punjab, I did a series of screenings which were very, very exciting because we travelled to places where probably no one had ever seen a documentary before, so it was fantastic, you know. And did the Maoists watch the film? I'm certain they did because when I was inside every night they were screening films, so I'm certain they watched it.

AUDIENCE Q1: Government of India?

SANJAY KAK: Government of India. Okay, so, frankly I don't care if they did or they didn't, you know. And frankly I have always maintained that I don't believe that people in power don't know what is going on. I am not making films to persuade the government of India, you know. I think that people pretty much know what's going on, and so I'm much more interested in ordinary people, so I'm not even vaguely interested in whether somebody wants to see it or don't want to seat. That's the kind of NGO filmmaking where you believe that just because I have made a film the government will stop mining in Chhattisgarh, you know. That’s not going to happen, so why bother?

AUDIENCE Q2: Hi, thank you for your films and for being here. I found your use of archival footage involved in Jashn-E-Azadi and Red Ant Dream really powerful, and I'd like to know more about how you find these images? Like, where are these hard drives? 

I imagine makeshift archives, in these places you go to, of these movements. And I like how your use of them kind of places your own images in a lineage, that these images have been made before and you're making them now, which leads to my second question – an adjacent one – of how, in many of the world's liberation movements or anti-imperial movements, there have emerged militant cinemas. And yesterday you spoke of the lack of filmmakers from other parts of India confronting Kashmir, but I wonder, especially because we have seen these images in the film yesterday, is there a militant cinema within Kashmir?

SANJAY KAK: So, firstly, for the first part of your question, I can't tell you – even 10 years after the film was made – how delighted I am that you have picked on something that not only do we place our material in that lineage, we actually flag it. So the device that is used, what is superimposed on the archival material, is actually… and there are points even on the clips that we've shown today, that we move between that and the real footage to tell you, you know, "Tomorrow this will be archive". So, it’s a little in-joke between my editor and my close collaborator Tarun Bhartiya and myself, which we hope somebody will pick up, and obviously you did, so thank you for that.

Where are these archives? They're not formal archives. I spent close to 10 months in Kashmir asking people, because I knew there was video, but the thing to remember is that during the troubles, which is when the archive material is from, the material was being shot by militant groups themselves. And so it was highly, highly contraband. And the reason why that material has disappeared is because how do you have it? So there were young cameramen who were shooting this material on behalf of militant groups who are now respectable journalists and who don't want that connection made. Kashmir is in a state of war right now. So someone like me who lives in Delhi is in a position of enormous privilege to be able to go in and work with the material and come out. 

But people there cannot do that, you know. So to have any kind of connection with that material is very bad. I eventually, at the end of 10 months, when I had almost given up and the film was sort of being structured, received, pretty much anonymously, a bag of videotapes. And it was encrusted with mould and... that's a story, because I actually had to physically have an assistant open every VHS cassette, with a muslin cloth literally clean every square inch of the tape, and we put it into a VCR and digitalised it while it played first time because we were not sure whether the emulsion would stay. 

And this is just one box, right. This is just 10 VHS tapes that were there, and so the material you see is from there. It was entirely an accident, except that it was very powerful material and I haven't even used one hundredth of it because it was very traumatic to see some of that material, and I remember my editor looking at it and said that, you know, we have to be very careful, because this can run away with the film, you know, it's like a steroid, and so we have to use it very carefully. So, although there's a lot of material in it, it is used almost gingerly, you now. Like, I'll show you a little bit and move on, I'll show you a little bit and move on, because it has the potential of actually being a different film, and we didn't want it to be that film.

In the case of the material from the Maoists, when I was leaving they gave me a pen-drive, and actually I have to tell you that the day I was leaving, one of the senior people took me aside and said, "Listen, you've been here for 2 weeks with us", and obviously there are some real human bonds that begin, so he said, "Just use whatever material you shot and whatever material you like, don’t think that this doesn't reflect badly on us or anything like that", which was an exceptional release to get, in the sense that they were totally OK with my using the material in whatever way, but they also gave me a pen-drive with material on it. So that's how it is. Although some of that material from central India is even available online, you know, on some revolutionary websites of sorts. 

AUDIENCE Q3: I was wondering how much dialogue there is between what you do and, you said, this alternative distribution network in India with other parts of the world? So places like Europe and maybe Latin America?

SANJAY KAK: So, I don't know if you have sense of this, but Indians are particularly self-absorbed in all sorts of ways. I don't think it's crossed anyone's mind really that we need to tell other people what we're doing, because it's a continent, right? We're so busy just talking to each other that, you know, it takes so much time you have a whole universe to deal with. 

I think that I, personally – although I am not directly involved in that distribution and these alternative film festivals – I always speak about it, whenever there’s an opportunity, because I really do think there is something that other filmmakers in other parts of the world do learn from this. And there is a long history of this in India. 

Even in the '70s we had something in Kerala, in Southern India, called the Odessa Collective, and they were actually screening film classics, you now, from Battleship Potemkin to Wild Strawberries, in villages. And eventually is was so successful, and you know, obviously the audiences were Malayalam-speaking, so they had this crazy system where somebody would stand at a mike and translate on the fly. But it worked, people would turn out and so you have a whole generation that grew up in rural Kerala who had seen classics. And then at one stage, John Abraham, who was one of the key figures in the movement, actually wanted to make a feature film, and so they started collecting I think 1 rupee from everybody in the audience, and he made one of the landmark films of India's alternative cinema called Amma Ariyan, about a young Naxalite who vanishes. 

So there have been these experiments and what we are seeing now is a kind of reprise of that. So, the group in Kolkata, for example, who called themselves The People's Cinema Collective, they have a fantastic programme with children, you know, where they go to the outskirts of Kolkata and they just set up a screen and a projector and show films to children. They show Iranian cinema, they show all kinds of amazing, wonderful things. Actually, that's a very, very exciting sphere and I think we should be talking to other people about it, but I think the people who are doing it are just too busy doing it to even write about it or set up a website. They don't have the time to, because there's no funding and they all have jobs, they're scientists and you know, teachers and students and activists and so on. 

VIRINDER KALRA: Are there any other...

AUDIENCE Q4: Hi Sanjay. Watching your films from yesterday –  the one from My England and the one subsequent ones, the one thing that struck me is that there was a theme that comes through which appears to be about identity. But to me there is also the other side of it, for want of a better work or phrase. If I were to coin a neologism, it is about we-dentities: where do we belong? And Homi Bhabha talked about the idea that gradually, as circumstances around us start becoming unfavourable, we start feeling at home. And there's something that cuts though both ends of the world, the global North and the South, that sense of not feeling at home anymore. And I just wondered how this might go forward in terms of your own plans and projects and what you might want to do to address something which is super fun and yet is the cause of a global meltdown in current times?

SANJAY KAK: I mean, I find it really difficult to see patterns in my own work and even to figure out what's going on. It's not some mumbo-jumbo but it is very intuitive, and within the material what it is that holds you and what doesn't hold you. But over a period of time you do trust your instinct because, you know, it tends not to totally fail you. I also… in some ways, it's not always that I'm provoked by something that I've just seen and I say, "I think that I should make a film about this". 

For example. Red Ant Dream – the questions that lies underneath that film had been in my head for, like a decade, you know. My editor and very close collaborator Tarun Bharitya ... I mean, he and I always wanted to make a film about revolutionaries in India. You know, it was something that we'd been talking about since Jashn-E-Azadi, so, similarly, so much of the work... the roots are very old, in that sense you keep kind of... and therefore, what is not at all trying to be topical or contemporary, it's just a question of when is the wait correct, when you feel equal? 

I could have made a film in Kashmir 10 years before I did, but somehow I just didn't I’m a  Kashmiri, you know. I should have been, but somehow I just didn't feel ready. And people ask me, "How come you didn't think of making a film in Kashmir?", and I didn't have an answer, I didn't have a coherent reason for not doing it. 

In a sense it is... yes, I think the only thing about growing older is that you recognise certain patterns in your own approach to the world, it's just that I am still not able to put it to words, you know. 

So what will the next thing be? I can't say. I often think that I would really like to examine the whole issue of Caste, for example, you know. But it's such a loaded thing in all sorts of ways in India to take on, especially from someone of my kind of privileged background, that it does dissuade me, you know? Do I want to put my head in the mix here? So yeah, it's little bit of when does the opportunity suddenly arise? When the possibility of going to Chhattisgarh came, suddenly I called Tarun and I said, "There’s an invitation to go, so let's get going on that film!", so long before we went we had already started thinking about the film and so on and so forth. You have various landscapes which you have kind of traversed in your head, and then some day something happens which allows you to put your flag down and say, "Okay, now let's pitch camp here and go for it". So yeah, I don't know if I'm answering your question, but I'm...

VIRINDER KALRA: Oh, OK. I'm just looking at time. Maybe we can take a couple... let’s take all the people who want to ask questions?


VIRINDER KALRA: And then maybe we'll have a quick response, because...

AUDIENCE Q4: It will just be a quick response...

VIRINDER KALRA: Yes. Okay, we'll take a couple, or you can ask afterwards....

AUDIENCE Q4: Thank you. Just following on from what you're saying about instincts and your editing process [inaudible], how long do you take to edit? Do you change things around a lot or do you come up with the editing quite quickly?

SANJAY KAK: Yes, that is an indulgence now, because we have desktop editing so one doesn't have to rent an editing suite to edit anymore. So really, at least the last 3 films have come out of pretty long editing processes, and in both cases the editing and shooting... I mean, it's not simultaneous, but it is as well. In the case of the Kashmir film I think when we were little more sort of half way with the material... although we start viewing and discussing the material with my editor right from the start… but yeah, that luxury is there, that one is able to go back and forth. 

For example in Kashmir there was one trip where he said to me, "Okay, just go to Srinagar and just stand at street corners and let's just get some stuff like that", and I know that that helps, that there are sequences in the film which I constructed from that kind of material... so like that, you know, like what do we need? What's the texture that will give pause. But then, like I said, it's a 2-man unit, you know, and it's not that expensive. 

I do the sound myself, the cinematographer is there, they are friends, they work for next to nothing, so yeah. I have to say this, though. This practice of ours in India, it benefits from some extraordinary technicians. I mean, the cinematographers that I work with... the South African film that you saw, the little clip from back then, he's the guy who shot Dhoom 2 and Raees so you know, he's like a big Bollywood cameraman. Red Ant Dream, part of it is shot by this guy who's shot Dhangal you know, all the Amir Khan films. 

They're great guys who will come because they do love the documentary, you know. And it's just a question of getting their dates, and if their dates are available they do show up, you know. So, I think that we benefit from... or the sound work. The sound designer that I work with is a big-shot sound designer, and he literally does this work on the weekends, and it’s only when he's ready for me to come down to Bombay that I'll just go for a long weekend and we wrap it up. 

There is that. It comes that there is a kind of a backbone of very gifted technical inputs without which the films – although they look apparently very king of loosely constructed –  but there is some serious engineering that goes behind them.

AUDIENCE Q5: Hi. You mentioned in the clips that the last episode of not so angry a film was about the bridge built across the river, and then since then you made Narmada and then Kashmir and then Red Ant Dream, which clearly sort of shows that you're getting angrier. Of course I'm simplifying you, but what I'm trying to say is: do you come to a point – this might be a naive question – where you have so much despair it's almost turning into cynicism or anything like that? Do you come across anything, or if you do then how do you come out of it?

SANJAY KAK: So, you judge do I look like a burnt-out case?

SANJAY KAK: No, no, no. I'm not at all burnt out, in fact, back... I think there was a very perceptive line that he read at the beginning that like, it's not anger, actually. It is hope, actually. If one didn't feel that any of these interventions mattered, then it would be very, very... you know, it would create tremendous stress. 

But I know that –  I'm sorry if this appears like a boast –  but what I've worked up in the last 15 years, which is kind of political work, it has had a big impact in India. My Kashmir film has really, really played a part in denting the consensus around Kashmir. You know, young people saw it, it became a very hip thing for college students to have secret screening of the film because it was very briefly banned and so on and so forth.

So no, I'm not at all cynical, I'm not at all burnt out. I actually have been telling Virinder about how energised I am about my emotion in these stories, you know, personally. So not at all, not at all. Don't I look like a happy person?

VIRINDER KALRA: I think on that note we should say thank you again to Sanjay.

SANJAY KAK: Sanjay: Thank you.