In Her Words
In this column we will be featuring the writings by award winning women journalists in India found in the collection of the book ‘Making News Breaking News Her Way. It is a publication by Tranquebar Press in association with Media Foundation, New Delhi which instituted the annual Chameli Devi Jain Award for an Outstanding Women Mediaperson in 1980.
MEMORIES OF A COLLECTIVE
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Mediastrom Collective was formed in 1985, when we were final year students of MA, Mass Communication, at the Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC) in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. We were the second batch of students to study at MCRC, which was to become, over the next two decades, one of the most prestigious media institutions in India.
The founder of MCRC, Anwar Jamal Kidwai, was a dynamic visionary who sought to build a media institute that would provide hands-on education to media practitioners who would ‘think with their heads and work with their hands.’ Born out of an Indo-Canadian collaboration, MCRC aspired to be a production school that sought to create media practitioners -devoted to socio-political concerns.
A J Kidwai’s collaborators in this project were James and Margaret Beveridge. Jim Beveridge was a famous Canadian documentary filmmaker and a close associate of John Grierson, often called the ‘The Father of the Documentary’. Margaret, his wife, was a talented and highly regarded editor. The founding trio ensured that MCRC was frequently visited by filmmakers of different persuasions.One of the filmmakers who visited MCRC and left a lasting impression on us was Anand Patwardhan who screened his hard-hitting documentary, Bombay: Hamara Shahar, about the city’s slum-dwellers. The film opened up a new world to us. Here was a documentary that was observational in nature, without a voice-of-god narration, and one that was driven by passion and politics in equal measure. We were blown away!
The film had a catchy recurring song that commented’ ironically on the inequalities in the lives of the city’s inhabitants. After the film ended, we nabbed Anand and asked him to teach us the song, which he did. Songs were to become an important leitmotif in the films of Mediastorm.
The forming of Mediastorm Collective was accidental and emerged out of the controversy around the Muslim Women’s Bill, following the now famous Shah Bano Judgement. Shah Bano, a sixty-two-year-old woman, was divorced by her husband according to the procedures of the Muslim Personal Law. But, after the divorce, she had no means to support her children. She moved the courts to claim alimony from her husband. It took seven years for the case to reach the Supreme Court which, after several hearings, ruled in her favour. The SC ruled that, under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code, Shah Bano would have to be provided maintenance by her ex-husband with an upper limit of Rs 500 a month. Although, it was not the first time that the court had passed such an order, its comments on the Quran caused a furore. The Muslim orthodoxy reacted with cries of religion being in danger, and the Congress government responded to this crisis by reversing its stand on the judgement. Instead, it supported an independent member’s Bill, thereby enacting the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill in May 1986.
All of us were quick to see that in the entire controversy, it was going to be the poor Muslim woman who would suffer the most. Not to mention the fillip that it would provide to religious fundamentalists on both sides. The women’s movement had reacted sharply and several vocal protests were organised outside Parliament. The anti-Bill movement received another fillip when Arif Mohammed Khan, a minister in the Congress government, resigned. Eight of us got together and decided to make a documentary on the Bill. We felt that it was important to document the movement using the video technology that had empowered us at MCRC. The tentative permission granted to us was withdrawn when the university was drawn into the vortex of the controversy. A J Kidwai informed us that lamia would not be able to support this controversial film. However, he said, the film was important to make and therefore he would help us make it independently. Among other people, he requested the well-known wildlife filmmaker Mike Pandey to support the film.
Mike generously extended to us his technical facilities. But we could only work when the facilities were free, so In Secular India was made as the city slept. We would edit in shifts throughout the night, taking turns to work and sleep on the studio floor. As film production entails a number of expenses, we undertook a frantic fund-raising drive and approached like-minded individuals. The first to make a donation was the publisher of Sage Publications India, Tejeshwar Singh. With the generous help of many individuals (whose names appear on the credits), the film was made and shown to a packed auditorium on 14 September 1986.
In Secular India received much press and public attention. Prior to media liberalisation and the advent of cable and satellite television, the regular source of news and current affairs (apart from newspapers) was Doordarshan. It was common knowledge that Doordarshan was the mouthpiece of the government so, predictably, the national debate on the Muslim Women’s Bill had found no place there. That so many showed up at the capacious AIFACS auditorium to watch a film made by eight unknown students was evidence that people were ready for a dissident visual media. Our collective was formed as a voluntary, non-profit organisation. None of the filmmakers made money through the collective. We relied entirely on the massive support and solidarity of various fellow travellers and well-wishers since funding for political documentaries has never been easy. But the mood for intervention was in the air. We also sensed, like A J Kidwai, that a new media culture was gathering storm.
This premonition was contained in naming the collective ‘Mediastorm’ -that indeed we were part of a new moment.
In 1987, the country exploded with news from Deorala village in Rajasthan. Roop Kanwar, a young Rajput Widow, had decided to burn herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. The ‘sati’ event had taken place in the presence of the villagers and the police did nothing to prevent it. What was horrifying was that powerful Rajput groups along with the family of the in-laws had decided to organise a chunri mahotsava glorifying the sati, turning the sati sthal into a pilgrim spot. The government responded initially with some ambivalence as it probably did not want to risk alienating the powerful but conservative Rajput lobby in the coming state assembly elections. Women’s groups in the country, on the other hand, were outraged.
One of our members was not in the country, but the other five decided to take a train to Jaipur. Packed into one car and armed with a hired studio camera, we travelled to Deorala. As we emerged from the car, the desert stretched endlessly in the distance, broken only by the sight of a stream of people – men in colourful turbans and veiled women circling the sati sthal in silence. Occasionally, there were cries of’ sati mata ki jai.’ In retrospect, we must have looked very odd to them, wearing ethnic salwar kameez in an attempt to ‘merge in’ (that misplaced assumption and attempt has been laid to rest since!). We were immediately cornered by a gang of men, subjected to interrogation, and asked to leave.
We never got to Deorala again, but our filming in Rajasthan sought to explore the socially restrictive world of Rajput culture where women had no status without their husbands. One of the moments in the film, From the Burning Embers (1988), that we were very happy with was a discussion with Jat women who spoke out without fear against the restrictions of their upper-caste sisters. The big question in the print media was whether Roop Kanwar had taken this step voluntarily. For us, after our experience of shooting at a school run by the Rani Sati Mata Temple in Jhunjhunu, there was no douth that Kanwar’s action were mediated through social circumstances. We shot a sequence where young girls prayed every morning to the Sati Mata. Needless to say, the school authorities asked us to leave immediately.
During our shooting trips in Rajasthan, we managed to generate a major archive of footage. Not all of this was used in the film, but we preserved the footage. A few years later, when Kalyan Singh Kalvi got elected from Barmer district and became the minister for energy, we found an old interview by him in our archive, where the politician had not only defended sati but also placed it as one of the major aspects of Indian culture that had to be defended. Women’s groups used the footage to hold a press conference since, in his new avatar, Kalvi was denying his role in defending sati.
The film was also enriched by a street play performed by jana Natya Manch, which we shot in MCRC. AJ Kidwai always managed to find ways to help the collective, and shooting a play with a multi-camera set up in a studio was not something we could have done without his help. One of the richest memories of working as a collective was the way people helped us in whatever way they could. Vidya Rao sat through the night to sing a song that was composed by Kajal Ghosh. The songs for the film were penned by Kalindi Deshpande.
In Secular India was the only film that was made by the eight of us because two members soon got married and left the country. The remaining six became the core group. To this day, we have stayed friends and collaborators in our many different pursuits. Moreover, as a group of filmmakers, we made many allies and some of them became friends for life. But one friend and ally we lost very early was the talented playwright and street-theatre activist, Safdar Hashmi.
Safdar was a friend and we had asked him to write us a song that would be a leitmotif in In Secular India. Initially, Safdar was a bit reluctant because he said he had never written a song before. Then one day, in a tea shop, he sat and wrote the whole song. Sung by our friend, Sumangala, in the film, Ek Pardanashin (The Veiled One), it remains for many of us as moving today as it was then. Safdar would also write some powerful songs for Mediastorm’s second film, From the Burning Embers. In 1988, an organisation working for communal to harmony decided to honour Mediastorm and Safdar’s theatre group, Jan Natya Manch (JANAM), along with others, including writers Bhisham Sahni and Kuldeep Nayyar. The award carried a plaque and a cash prize of Rs 15,000.
Having accepted, we discovered that the person to give the awards away was going to be the Information & Broadcasting minister, H K L Bhagat. Mediastorm and JANAM were in a quandary because we did not want to take the award from a man who was allegedly one of the prime architects of the Sikh genocide following the killing of Indira Gandhi in 1984. After discussions with Safdar, we decided to respect the jury (that had impeccable credentials) without legitimising Bhagat. We would accept the award, but not attend the ceremony. Our MCRC class-fellow, Akhtar Ali Khan accepted the award on our behalf and read out a statement. JANAM followed the same strategy, but issued a statement that categorically held Bhagat responsible for the pogrom against Sikhs.
Within ten days of the awards function, hoodlums armed with iron rods bludgeoned Safdar in Sahibabad. He was rushed to the hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. The thousands who accompanied Safdar’s slain body on his last journey were a testimony to his immense popularity and people’s growing outrage with the cynical politics of the Congress. Soon after, our documentaries on the Muslim Women’s Bill and on sati were recognised by the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 1991.
Kiska Dhann, Kiska Desh (Whose Country is it Anyway?) made in 1991, was Mediastorm’s most difficult and ambitious project. The film sought to track the rise of the Hindu rightwing and the deepening communal divide in the country by forces unleashed by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. We decided to place the Babri Masjid dispute at the centre but sought to understand its reverberations across the country. It is for this film that we travelled the most -we went to Bhagalpur, Ahmedabad, Bombay, Faizabad, Lucknow and A yodhya. The last leg of the shooting covered the bricklaying ceremony at the Babri Masjid and L K Advani’s rath yatra which had wreaked havoc across North India.
The mosque, as we saw it during our several trips, was heavily barricaded with barbed wire and virtually inaccessible to the media. Only Hindu devotees could go in and offer prayers at the Ram chabutara where an idol had been kept. It seemed like a lost battle. Even the policemen on duty to protect the mosque did not see anything wrong in the festivities and rituals offered by the devotees. They probably thought our camerawoman was harmless and let her go through. The camera was on and, subsequently, we were the few who had footage of what was happening inside. Kiska Dhann was shot before the demolition actually happened. Everywhere we noticed how memories of violence had marked the site. In the village Logain, close to Bhagalpur, a woman described the frenzy of the violence and how people were buried in the fields. It is with Kiska Dharam that we began to see the limits of just focusing on the ‘event’. We had to access a subterranean world of memories, suspicion and hatred. It is for this reason that the film, which originally began with the dispute at the Babri Masjid, became something much larger in its scope. Whether we succeeded or not is a different matter and, in hindsight, we may have been hasty in the way we analysed communalism in the film. But sometimes, strange things can happen when we least realise it.
The film has been our most widely shown documentary and everywhere the screening was followed by a discussion. We enlisted Madan Gopal Singh for the main song of the film which added a different kind of layer to the documentary. Many told us how valuable the documentary was in generating discussions. Though we do see the problems in our film today, we also came to recognise how difficult it was to analyse the complex experiences of communal conflict. Eleven years after our documentary, we saw the worst carnage ever in the history of independent India -the pogrom in Gujarat led by the state government. Many asked Mediastorm to rush to Gujarat to make a film on the violence and trauma of the riots. But we just could not. The time for neat analysis was over -Gujarat had rocked the country to its core. We were no longer sure if a documentary could even remotely capture the violence and terror of 2002. Perhaps a new form was required for this.
It has been a long journey since the last film. Many ask why Mediastorm has never made another film as a collective. The answer to that one is that there is a moment for particular kinds of formations, and our moment of collective work was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the media scene was different. Subsequently as we grew, our interests changed. We continue to share a common politics but filmmaking today with portable equipment is much more of an individual exercise in creativity. We continue to collaborate with each other on various other projects and remain the closest of friends. Our shared history marks us as the ‘Mediastorm women’ even today.
Shohini Ghosh is Professor, Sajjad Zaheer Chair, AJK Mass Communication Research Centre,Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, where she teaches Video and TV Production.
Sabeena Gadihoke is Associate Professor, Video and TV Production, AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
Shikha Jhingan is Assistant Professor, Department of Journalism, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi.
Ranjani Mazumdar is Associate Professor, Cinema Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Sabina Kidwai is Associate Professor, Film Editing, AJK Mass Communication Research Centre,Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
Charu Gargi is Assistant Professor of Video and TV Production, Centre for Media and Culture Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Mediastorm was given the Chameli Devi Jain Award in’ 1991, sharing it with Pushpa Girimaji.