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Interview Hindi

Any healthy society needs resistance: Sameer director Dakxin Chhara

Director Dakxin Chhara speaks about the nature of his political art, the risk of making a film like Sameer, and why the CBFC needs a complete institutional makeover.

Shriram Iyengar

The trailer of Sameer tells the story of a young man caught in the web of a terrorist plot. The police use him as a mole, simply because he fits the profile; it is how he is perceived by others. An award-winning playwright and documentary filmmaker, Chhara makes his debut as a feature filmmaker in Hindi cinema with this film, starring Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. 

It is not surprising that the film is directed by Dakxin Chhara. Starting out with his Budhan Theatre Group, Chhara is one of the few playwrights who continue to promote social activism through the arts. Coming from the de-notified Chhara tribe, which, according to the colonial Criminal Tribes Act, is a criminal community, the filmmaker has constantly fought perception and societal discrimination to make a mark.

The strong sense of ideals shows through in his speech and films. 'The removal of a person will not change anything," he tells us when speaking about the ouster of Central Board of Film Certification ex-chairman Pahlaj Nihalani. "The whole system needs to be revived." 

The influences of Chhara, an avid reader of Paash aka Avtar Singh Sandhu, Sa'adat Hasan Manto, and Mahasweta Devi, show strongly in his political and social view. What sets him apart, though, is his drive to express these views through cinema. A dangerous attempt, especially when any odd group is capable of getting a film banned today, putting its producer and director under financial distress. But the filmmaker is adamant: "Unless we are a fearless society, we will not be a democratic society."

In a long and intense conversation with Cinestaan.com, Dakxin Chhara spoke about his decision to make a feature film, the political purpose of art, and why the CBFC needs a complete makeover. Excerpts:

One of the lines that stands out in the trailer is when a politician says, 'This is a game of perception.' It is a theme that emerges from your life as a theatre artiste, as you have worked to change a cultural perception of the tribes in Gujarat. Can you expand on that? 

The community I belong to is the Chhara tribe in Ahmedabad. Unfortunately, due to the colonial law, any person with that name is deemed a criminal. The colonial law has judged 200 tribes across the country in a similar way. People are born criminals.

The law was still in force five years after India's independence, and continues to exist in different forms till date. There are almost six crore people suffering from this stigma. The Pardhis of Maharashtra are an example. Any child born in this community is registered at the police station, even before he can talk or walk. This perception of society is what I have struggled to change in the last 18 years of my work in theatre. 

If people are not treated as human beings, then this country will never change. This perception is also treated in several forms. Today, if there is a blast, or any terrorist activity, the first suspicion goes to the Muslim and minority communities. This needs to be destroyed, and that need lies at the soul of the film.

The experiences I have suffered through my childhood, I felt, should not be borne by others in any community. I needed to break it, and the theme of the film revolves around that.

Although this is your first feature film, you have been involved in the making of documentaries. This is a particularly sensitive subject for a first film, especially at a time when a political subject ends up being cut down to size. Did that fear of running into issues creep up when you were writing or making the film?

From the time of scripting, I knew this was not a normal film, it would be a hard-hitting film. It is not very subtle. My work in theatre has made me very outspoken. If I see something wrong, I have to speak about it. It is my upbringing. 

I knew from the scripting level which dialogues will cause trouble. Exactly those were the lines that were pulled up.

Also, theatre, apart from teaching you aesthetics and art, socializes and politicizes your view. It teaches you depth. I knew the problem. But if I had compromised with the dialogues, then I wouldn't be Dakxin Chhara. So I fought against it, and have managed to get a release date. It took me six months, but, fortunately, we are there. 

Although there have been changes in the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) recently, with the removal of Pahlaj Nihalani, there is still an ongoing battle between the board and filmmakers. Why does this exist in an industry that once had Sahir Ludhianvi, KA Abbas and Ritwick Ghatak?

Well, my personal view is that any institution's head is a chairperson. As a head, you must be liberal because you are representing an institution which is promoting art and culture. You cannot be attached to an ideology. Pahlaj Nihalani as a person may not be the problem, but as an ideological believer he is. The change is a good move. But changing the chairperson does not mean the institution will change. Only if the ideology is removed completely can we talk about change.

CBFC is an institution which controls every film that releases in the western part of the country. And there is such incomplete information available to filmmakers online. The procedure to get a release certificate after the submission of the film was unknown to me. I live in Ahmedabad. There is no information available as to what rules and regulations you need to follow before submitting the DVD to the board. I had to make four trips from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. This is basic information. If you cannot make information like this available... I mean, you don't even pick up the phone. I don't know why!

Thousands of films are made every day, and this is such an important work to certify films. But there is no sense of responsibility there! The revival process of the institution needs to begin. The process of certification, reccomended by the Shyam Benegal committee, needs to be accepted.

They were giving us an 'A' certificate, I had applied for 'U/A'. The problem was that despite giving me an 'A' certificate, they wanted me to beep out curse words. I tried to explain to them that when an ATS officer is investigating a terrorist, he is not going to be polite. Secondly, I did not understand why, if I am getting an 'Adults' certification for my film, I need to mute words of abuse. An adult is going to watch it. It is explained by your own rulebook and regulations. Then why are you not following it? 

There is a need to revive the entire institution and upgrade the Cinematograph Act. It was written in 1952; we are in 2017 today. Even the amendment was made in the 1980s. I think we need a new Cinematograph Act, or at least to look at it with a fresh energy and fresh mind.

You talked about ideology, and with the government in place, making a film inspired by the events surrounding the 2008 bomb blasts in Gujarat was never going to be easy. In addition, there is the threat of an extra-judicial party taking offence to what you are saying. Considering that filmmaking is an expensive process, how do you as a filmmaker tackle it?

It is a risk, a huge risk. As an artist, you must have a fire raging within you. In a country as democratic as ours, whose basic values are under threat, it becomes the responsibility of artists to speak out. The first duty, and nature, of art is that it will speak the truth about the time. Today, the way art, culture, and literature are being suppressed, it is scary. You will be simply shot dead, and we have seen that. 

Everyone around is afraid. Hence, we need a fearless society. If we are not a fearless society, we are not a democratic society. These things are interconnected, and to make such a society, you have to speak what you feel. You could be right or wrong, but you have to speak out. 

I know there can be negative and positive reactions to the film. I have fought so far, and will continue to fight if need be. But I will never compromise against my constitutional rights. 

You made several documentary films before turning to a feature film. What was the experience like, and what was the challenge in it? 

Even in this feature film, you will see the documentary filmmaker. The canvas for a feature film is quite big. If you have to get your message across to the masses, the feature film is a good platform. Documentaries help you to get the point across to several people, but a feature has the beauty of combining entertainment with the message. Take Rajkumar Hirani, for instance, who gets his message across with subtle entertainment. That's the magic! 

How and why did you choose Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub for the role of Sameer?

Zeeshan is an old friend of mine. The film also has Alok Agrekar, who plays a character named Manto in the film. They were both part of some plays we did.

Zeeshan and I had worked on a play some time back, Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky. It was not a commercial play. It was a play based on the stories of some homeless nomads in the constituency of then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Their shanties had been destroyed, and they were being driven out of jobs, and the city. It was very important to speak up for the rights of these people. 

Some time later, we met during the shooting of Umesh Shukla's film. I narrated him the story, and he agreed immediately without reading the script. 

Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub

The character of Manto reminds me that he is another writer who spoke for voices that were suppressed, and irked a lot of people. Do his works have an influence on you as a filmmaker? 

Yes, I read Manto. I read Paash [Avtar Singh Sandhu]. I read Mahasweta Devi and Anton Chekhov. These are some of my favourite authors. These writers, like Laxman Gaikwad, who speak of change. They speak of revolution.

I believe that any healthy society needs resistance. In the absence of that.... Paash has this beautiful poem that speaks of the danger of staying silent 'Sabse khatarnaak hota hai/Sapnon ka mar jaana [the dying of dreams is most dangerous],' he says. Deathly silence is dangerous. I personally find it disturbing. 

We all see things but keep watching as mute spectators. We watch the country's diversity being destroyed. It hurts me, and I think it should bother everyone. Not just in films; we should oppose it in every medium. Raise a voice against these elements.

The common man does not have time for this. His life is spent trying to make ends meet. He does not want anything to do with politics, or democracy, or even dictatorship. All he knows is his family's well-being. He won't raise a voice. It becomes the duty of artists to wake him up. It is a risk worth taking. 

You have worked with the Budhan Theatre Group, an initiative to help out people from the denotified tribes in Gujarat. How did that come about? 

Budhan Theatre is based on the life of Budhan. He lived in West Bengal and was killed in police custody. He belonged to the de-notified tribe of Samars in Purulia. He was innocent, but just because he belonged to a particular tribe he was imprisoned and killed behind bars. It [Budhan] was my first play in 1998. It proved to be a landmark for my life. We still do these shows, and my group was named after him. 

Before Budhan, I never had any formal training in theatre. I only kept working in theatre. When I heard the news of Budhan, I decided I had to say something about it. I have been influenced greatly by Mahasweta Devi. 

The motto of this group was to change the perception of the communities of denotified tribes in society through theatre. They are branded thieves, but they have a right to live a dignified life. To bring about that realization among civil society, the police, and judiciary, we took to theatre. It was the best weapon we had. 

It has certainly brought about a lot of change. Today, a lot of children from our communities have gone on to become lawyers, journalists, teachers and actors. Theatre did not just bring about activism, or social or political change. It transformed social change into a commercial one. This is very important for the survival and livelihood of these people. 

I have directed 10-12 plays. If you ask a rickshaw to Chhara Nagar, nobody will take you. 'It is a thieves colony,' they say. But if you ask around about theatre and plays, then they will take you to the exact spot. It is one of the most active community theatres around. We are currently staging Chekhov's A Chameleon in Gujarati.