sbcltr spoke to documentary filmmaker, Nakul Singh Sawhney, about his cultural-political media co-operative

For a little over a year, ChalChitra Abhiyaan has been making short documentaries on issues that plague Indians living in rural India. From following up on the communal polarisation leading up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, to demonetisation, to on ground reports on the Bhim Army, the arrest of Chandreshekhar, the emergence of new Dalit leaders, these documentaries have helped ChalChitra Abhiyaan build a strong community. The man behind the venture, documentary filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney, is someone who has constantly sought out socio-political stories that bring out social justice. From his earlier films such as Izzatnagri ki Asabhya Betiyan, which deals with honour killings and Muzaffarnagar Abhi Baqi Hai, which highlights the sectarian violence in Muzaffarnagar (2013). It is no surprise then that he continues to tell stories that highlight the mood of real India, beyond the confines of the metropolis. sbcltr spoke to Sawhney to understand more about the idea behind ChalChitra Abhiyaan, what it takes to sustain such a project and his plans for the future.

Read the excerpts below

Tell us a bit about your work since your last film especially in context of Chal Chitra Abhiyaan
ChalChitra Abhiyaan is a sort of film and media co-operative based out of Western UP. Though it’s a year old now, but still in its nascent stages. We’ve been making short videos and short documentary films on a whole range of issues in the region. From the effects of demonetisation on farmers, to a film on communal polarisation called Kariana, Surkhiyon ke Baad, a film where we followed up on the riot survivors of the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli massacre who still haven’t received compensation, called Muavza (Redressal)  to a whole range of videos and group interviews in the run up to UP elections, with farmers, Dalit students, Muslim youth and women from the region. The series was done in collaboration with The Wire and Gorakhpur NewsLine, called Chunavi Charcha. In the recent past we’ve been following and looking at the anti-Dalit violence and the witch-hunting of Bhim Army activists very closely, and have produced a series of videos on the same. Though we’re mainly based out of West UP, we also made a short documentary film on the recent Azadi Kooch yatra in Gujarat led by Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Sangathan and Banaskantha Dalit Sangathan, called, Savitri’s Sisters at Azadi Kooch.  

The idea is to look at local issues that concern different marginalised communities, in their voice. Issues that are often glossed over by the mainstream media because of corporate control or the stranglehold of strong political parties or caste and religious or gender biases that play out while reporting. And so, part of our endeavour (and a very important aspect of ChalChitra Abhiyaan’s work) is to train people from local communities to make their own videos. That process has also begun, though like I said earlier, it is a at a very nascent stage.

We also organise film screenings of a whole range of films on different socio-political issues. There is a treasure of some such incredible films, both documentaries and fiction, but they rarely make it beyond select circles. There are some incredible cine movements like Cinema of Resistance, People’s Film Collective in Kolkata, Ektara Collective in Madhya Pradesh to name a few, who’re working to create such spaces. ChalChitra Abhiyaan then also seeks to contribute to a larger progressive cultural movement. Film screenings have also begun in a couple of villages in Shamli district and local units of ChalChitra Abhiyaan are beginning to be formed. But then again, everything is at a nascent stage. We are still slightly unclear about the exact form and shape the organisation will take. Miles to go as of now! But yes, we’ve made some initial inroads and are beginning to settle in. Some of our videos have made quite an impact and have been able to contribute to the local discourse on some issues.    

How did the idea for something like this come to you?
I continued shooting in Western Uttar Pradesh after Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai…. While working on the film we realized how vicious and deeply divisive social media teams were constantly at work. Whatsapp and even facebook were flooded with fake videos being circulated with the intent of creating communal tensions. In fact, a similarly fake video played a big role in vitiating the atmosphere before the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli massacre of 2013. There was absolutely no counter to any of this. Even the bulk of the local mainstream media contributed to the polarisation, in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. A lot of local activists in West UP felt the need for a progressive media and cultural alternatives. ChalChitra Abhiyaan emerged out of this need or vacuum. It’s taken a while to get it started. Things have happened gradually and organically, but whatever little we’ve been able to do has been effective and been noticed. Like I said earlier, there was little or no counter to the very systematic falsities spread on social media. In Kairana’s case, the local MP, Hukum Singh raked up some issue of a Hindu exodus from the town because of supposed atrocities by local Muslims. While sections of the the national media amplified this lie, some debunked it with enough evidence. But we decided to look at Kairana beyond the narrative of Hindu-Muslim or even communal-secular. These simple binaries is exactly where divisive politicians hope to have us trapped. We tried to break that discourse and tried to look at the myriad problems that confront a town like Kairana, and how those factors were actually leading to the exodus- of both, Hindus and Muslims. Issues of unemployment, caste discrimination, gender discrimination, poverty etc. We tried to foreground what we felt were the ‘real’ issues of Kairana. The film was warmly received by many in Kairana and other parts of West UP.

Even recently after the anti-Dalit violence in Shabbirpur and the subsequent protests by Bhim Army, Bhim Army was vilified by large sections of the mainstream media. It was evident that the local media and administration were attempting to deflect attention from the Shabbirpur violence on to Bhim Army and paint them as some sort of violent vigilante organisation. Our team did a series of videos then (and we continue to do them now as well) to bring out the reality from the ground around the caste violence, which continues even today. I think we were successful to some extent in breaking false perceptions that were being created by sections of the mainstream media. Some of the videos went very viral, on Whatsapp and even Facebook. Some of the videos were ripped and re-posted by many other fb channels and in fact, got several thousand more views on those channels than they got on our official page!   

How do you sustain and fund ChalChitra Abhiyaan?
For this one year, we’ve worked on a shoestring budget. We’ve actually been funding it ourselves. We sometimes do projects on the side to be able to fund ChalChitra Abhiyaan. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been a little inconsistent and erratic with the regularity with which we’ve produced our videos. But a couple of well wishers have started to extend a little support and we’ll soon be going on a crowd-funding drive. Many people have been appreciative of our work and have offered to help. We will reach out now! We still don’t have an office in West UP. We’ve been leading a very vagabond-ish life in West UP so far. But we hope to get a little more organised once a little money comes in.  

But sustenance has been a possibility because we work very closely with local progressive activists and progressive socio-political organisations. They’ve always helped us in a big way. Even shared their offices with us, given us places to stay and fed us too. Without this support system we wouldn’t have survived even for a day.  

What is your long term goal with this? What is the kind of message that you want to send out?
Long-term goal is revolution! Heh!
On a serious note, our tagline is ‘Counter-Culture is Mainstream culture’. We see ourselves as not just a media organisation but also as a film co-operative and a cultural organisation. It’s at that level that we wish to intervene. Along with producing videos, we hope it emerges into a large film and cultural mass-organisation. With film clubs, video production units and cultural units in villages and towns and cities across West UP, and who know, across the state in the years to come. It isn’t a top-down approach like mainstream films and news channels adopt. It’s the other way around- Bottom-up. That’s always more difficult and time consuming. The process is far more organic and requires immense patience. But if counter-culture has to be mainstream culture, then there’s no other way to go about it. It’s been a great experience so far, and I can see it getting better.       

What has the response been so far?
The first one year has been fruitful. We’ve learnt so much. Like I said earlier, the response has been quite good so far. Videos have often gone viral and even the film screenings have been well received. People have begun to approach ChalChitra Abhiyaan to make news features on local issues that affect them which are being glossed over by the mainstream media. So, on the whole, I think we’ve made a fairly decent start. But then again, it’s only a start. We still don’t have a website! But we’re in the process of setting it up.

You have also consistently followed your work in Muzaffarnagar, can you tell us a little about that?
We are still in touch with many of the riot survivors and organisations that work with them. On the fourth anniversary of the Muzaffarnagar-Shamli massacre we recently released a new film called, ‘Muavza’ (Redressal). It looks at riot survivors who still haven’t received compensation as yet and how they’ve struggled to piece together their lives.
The thing is, the immediate effects of a riot are known to all of us, but long-term impact is often not talked about. Starting lives from scratch is no joke. The long-term ramifications are very disturbing. And mind you, bulk of the victims of the Muzaffarnagar-Shamli massacre are from very marginalized, working class backgrounds. A large majority of them are lower caste Muslims. So many children, specially girls have had to drop-out of school and their education came to an abrupt end. Many of them were married off at a very early age. Many riot survivors had to seek fresh employment and many kept moving from city to city hoping to find some consistent employment. Many had to start their small businesses from scratch. And that takes forever to pick up, since you now have to find new customers, a new clientele. Many still don’t have their own homes and are living in small, cramped rented rooms with large families. The long- term impact of a riot is another story. It is just as brutal as the immediate effect of a riot.

What are you working on next?
Like I said, we’ve been following the anti-Dalit violence as also the growing resistance by young, emerging Dalit groups. Along with the shorter videos that we’re regularly uploading, we are also hoping to make a larger film on the same. Let’s see. We’re also looking at some other issues like the impact of GST on small traders and businesses. There’s a growing agrarian crisis in West UP. We haven’t been able to look at that in great detail, except for a couple of group interviews. Once ChalChitra Abhiyaan is a little more organised, and we will hopefully be soon, you’ll see a lot of these videos with greater frequency.  

If you had to give one message out to our young readers, what would that be?
Well, I think I am kind of young myself to be sermonising! 😀


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