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Smaller films can be a catalyst for change: Mayank Bokolia, director of Aadha Chand Tum Rakhlo

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, the filmmaker talks about the ideology that permeates his films and sensibility as an artist.

Mayank Bokolia with his crew at the screening of Aadha Chand Tum Rakhlo Film

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Mayank Bokolia’s fiction short film Aadha Chand Tum Rakhlo explores the friendship between two boys in the holy city of Benares. Seen through the eyes of an artist, the film contends with the difference in religion and caste as children try to make sense of these man-made barriers. In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, the filmmaker talks about the ideology that permeates his films and sensibility as an artist.

Your fiction short Aadha Chand Tum Rakhlo features a young Dalit boy who tries to understand the idea of impurity. What was the inspiration for the film?

When I was a child, my grandfather used to take us to the village, so I always had that connection with the village, while being in a city. Growing up, I became involved with several social campaigns and noticed that there is a lot of difference between the dalit in the city and one in the village. Their problems are completely different.

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Such as?

Like there is still suppression there. It’s here in the city as well, but one is not recognizable as a dalit in the city. As soon as one gets to know that a person is a dalit, somewhere there is the feeling that the person is beneath me. And art can play a very big role in changing that mindset.

Kala (art) evokes feelings and compassion and that is the medium to change people, because thought needs to take on other ways of thinking. In the current scenario in the country, if one does not like one’s way of thinking, that person is killed off, as we have seen happen in so many instances. The freedom to speak is taken away.  

I am a stage poet and travel the country with my poems and I see my art as a responsibility. Till now, I don’t think the commercial aspect has affected me and I try to protect myself from the economics of the market and keep myself away from all that.

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Why did you choose Benaras as the setting for your film?

There was a time in my life when I was travelling all over the country and went to Benaras. I found it to be a very mesmerizing place. Their finesse with language is so commendable as well. As I am a dalit, I am very aware of the suppression that my forefathers have borne and Benaras as the stronghold of Hinduism has that same attitude.

The Brahmin there walks with a superior air and as it is the oldest city in the country, the Brahmins still see themselves as being the ones closest to God.

There is the dome caste there that cleans the cremation grounds where corpses burn day and night and the brahmins see them as untouchables even today. They may not express it openly, but they carry the discrimination within themselves. And if it is within them, then the discrimination is a part of them and hasn’t dissipated.

The largest temple in Benaras, Kashi Vishvanath Mandir, has a masjid right next to it. I am an ardent admirer of Ustad Bismillah Khan and have spent my life listening to his music. He lived in Benaras and would do his riyaz at the Balaji mandir there. This is the reason why my film is dedicated to him.

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In fact, I wanted to ask you about the unusual choice of music in your film because the shehnai has its own character which permeates your film.

When I was writing the film, I was listening to Ustad Bismillah Khan’s compositions on a loop. It is then that I had decided that my film will be dedicated to Bismillah Khan Sahab.

I also listened to several of his interviews and he would only talk about secularism. He didn’t believe in religion and caste. He would say that everything is ‘sur’, so in effect it meant that everyone is One. Just as ‘sur’ doesn’t belong to anyone, the moon doesn’t belong to anyone either. It’s the only planetary body that we can see from Earth with the naked eye. 

You have seen Benaras through the eyes of children in your film and also looked at the labour of children along the Ghats as they dive and earn their livelihood. Just like labourers, they too count money earned at the end of the day. What was the thought behind capturing this aspect?

When I was roaming around the Ghats, I met these children. They are children who are from Benares. They aren’t actors.

The boy who plays Feroz in the film, for example, sells tea and cigarettes along the Ghats. The children in Benares also have a certain maturity, so I thought that instead of taking actors, I should work with these kids and they performed very well.

They have a certain innocence and it’s remarkable that the child working on the Ghats can act so well, so these flowers are meant to bloom and achieve their potential, it all depends on the opportunities that they get in life. 

My film has been screened in several places and it’s strange that after travelling the world, it will be screened for the first time in Delhi at WIFF, but everyone has appreciated the acting talent of the boys, even though they are not actors. 

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You have chosen to show the central characters as belonging to the minority communities — one is a dalit and the other is a muslim. Why was it important for you to choose these communities?

In this country, the state of muslims and dalits is such, that they do not tell anyone that they belong to this religion or community, society will let them know that they are dalits or muslims [sic]. So, I chose my characters from these communities.

I also wanted to ask questions through my film. That in my opinion is more important than the answers. I do the same in my poetry as well. Cinema, painting, poetry all raise questions.

There’s also a strong comment against the commercialization of religion in Aadha Chand…. The business that surrounds religion where anything can be sold as being holy.

I have recently made a documentary on the Jaagran culture in Delhi titled ‘Sacred Night Clubs’, and realized that the people who are involved in the industry see god as a product. They talk like that as well, “Send Ganesh to Karol Bagh or send Kali to another place” etc. 

In Benares, there are students from BHU (Benares Hindu University) who paint along the ghats, so I thought that I would make painting the narrator of my story and tell my story through a painting. A painting is an art which captures an entire story on one canvas. So all these connected for the film and that’s how the film came together.

Since this is the first screening of your film in Delhi, what was your response when the film was chosen as part of the festival?

I was really surprised because it’s been about a year and a half since I made this film and I have tried to get it screened here but somehow it wasn’t happening. There are very few avenues left in Delhi for screening films like mine. So, it’s really commendable to have such a festival.

It’s also important for such festivals to take place because sitting in our cocooned lives, we do not know what all is happening in our country. There’s a film Sikkim Soccer Girls that will be screened shortly and another one on African footballers in the country, all these make us aware of what’s going on in our country.

Exactly, and I feel that film festivals like these carry a big responsibility as they exchange culture.

Entertaining cinema is part of the market so that’s different, but smaller films can be a catalyst for change. The discussion around my film may have some effect on audience members and if it can create some dialogue, then my film has succeeded. These days, dialogue is being clamped down upon and if artistes are not allowed to express themselves, I wonder where we are headed as a country.

Aadha Chand Tum Rakhlo was screened at the Woodpecker International Film Festival on 11 November.

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Woodpecker International Film Festival