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20 years later, a film on the 1984 riots

By Shobha Warrier
October 01, 2004 13:07 IST
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A still from Kaya TharanInside the pupa the butterfly might have longed for day to dawn, to flap its tender wings among the flowers.

Nobody knew if it yearned for freedom or felt more secure in the pupa's warmth.

What we know is that Preet, a young Sikh boy, feels strangulated within the confines of his childhood memories.

The images of his father and brother being butchered before his eyes haunt him after 18 years.

The long run he and his mother undertook to escape the rioters and their precarious climb over the high walls of a nunnery in Meerut are fresh in his memory.

What confuses him most is how the nuns changed his identity.

What still terrifies him is his bumpy ride inside a coffin to escape the terrorists' wrath.

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That was in 1984, when Preet was a child. He could not comprehend the events unfolding around him.

In 2002, as a 24-year-old journalist, he could understand what was happening in Gujarat, when the Bharatiya Janata Party state government allegedly supported a brutal offensive against a minority community.

Preet travelled from Delhi to his birthplace Meerut to research a 'story' on conversions and to talk with the superior Sister Agatha, who had taken care of him and his mother 18 years ago.

It turns out to be a journey that liberates his mind from terrifying memories. He no longer feels strangulated by them. He is unafraid to come out of his pupa.

The butterfly is liberated.

Preet's liberation and his 'conversion' back to the identity he was born into is at the core of Sashi Kumar's maiden directorial venture, the Hindi feature film Kaya Tharan (Chrysalis).

Kumar, the wellknown television personality, is also chairman of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

A still from Kaya TharanKaya Tharan is a loose adaptation of a short story written in Malayalam by N S Madhavan, an officer in the Indian Administrative Service.

Madhavan titled his story When Big Trees Fall, an allusion to the infamous statement uttered by Rajiv Gandhi, then India's prime minister ('When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake') on November 1, 1984, the day after his mother Indira Gandhi was assassinated.

In it, Kumar saw the fear a young boy felt inside and titled the film Kaya Tharan.

"As I am a contemporary person, it is natural for me to move into this question of when your identity is about to slip from your hands and you just about manage to grasp it again," he says. "That is the process of a butterfly emerging from a pupa. It is the process of a regeneration or apotheosis. It is also an exhortation not to be pessimistic, that you can reassert your identity and go forward."

The 1984 riots in India unleashed terror against the Sikhs, allegedly by ruling Congress party activists. But those horrific events, where over 3,500 Sikhs lost their lives, have remained anathema to filmmakers who prefer to talk of the freedom struggle and the subsequent Partition of India.

Why are filmmakers reluctant to tell the truth?

Kumar is nonplussed.

"We have had films on everything but the 1984 riots, for some reason, have not figured in films," he says. "It was a scar on the identity of the Sikhs. Unlike other denominations, for example the Muslims, who have a larger bonding to look at, the Sikhs are our own. What is nice is, except for fringe elements of some extremist groups, there is no vendetta in them. There is more of inexplicable hurt. I have tried to capture their sense of hurt in the film."

A still from Kaya TharanAlthough he has Leftist leanings, Kumar's film maintains a balance in the political message it conveys.

He has tried to encompass issues that worry Indian intellectuals, like minority bashing, reservations for the so-called lower castes and religious conversion in the form of political statements, or the arguments of journalists at the Delhi Press Club, from where the film starts.

"The film is politically autonomous," says Kumar. "It is not a pro-Congress or pro-BJP film at all; it is not even a pro-Marxist film. I feel Marxists in Kerala are as guilty about what's happening to the tribals in Wayanad (in northern Kerala) as anybody else.

"I tried to look at these issues in an autonomous, artistic mode, also not in a totally removed or totally ivory-towerish fashion. This film is about identities; it is about identities in a plural society, and the dilemmas especially when you belong to a denominational identity. To the vast majority of Hindus, this is not a conscious problem."

Though the narrative moves back and forth, Kaya Tharan is like a smoothly and silently flowing river, redolent of the silent journeys the late filmmaker G Aravindan undertook in his works.

Kaya Tharan is more personal, like a fine work of poetry, or a powerful short story or a delicate painting. In these days when filmmakers talk about 'money and compromises' without qualms, here is a filmmaker who dares to use a surrealistic ballet choreographed by the renowned dancer Chandralekha.

"I made the film in a dialectic mode. I used a lot of surrealistic elements," says Kumar. "The narrative is disrupted every once in a while through some alienative mechanisms, which help you to empathise more with the content rather than emotionally plunging headlong into it, and then getting lost and choked and then coming out and forgetting about it."

A still from Kaya TharanPreet's search for his identity receives its impetus one morning in 2002 as he lathers his face to shave off a two-day-old stubble. He decides not to shave, and washes off the lather.

In Meerut, he learns from Sister Agatha about the events of 1984. The nun explains that she could facilitate his and his mother's escape only by destroying the Sikh boy's identity.

The nuns forcibly cut his hair and took him out of the nunnery in a coffin. (One of the most understated moments in the film is the scene of Preet feeling breathless inside an elevator when the power goes off. Only later do we understand the reason for his suffering.)

After 18 years, ruffling his hair, Sister Agatha says, 'I hope you no longer feel angry when I touch your hair.'

Except for Seema Biswas (Bandit Queen), who delivers a powerful performance as Sister Agatha, the film unveils several new faces.

Kumar extracts excellent performances from them, especially from those who played the nuns.

Angad Bedi (Indian cricket legend Bishen Singh Bedi's son) plays Preet to excellence. Neelambari Bhattacharya, great-grandson of India's first elected Communist chief minister, the late E M S Namboodiripad, is a scene-stealer as the young Preet.

This feature first appeared in India Abroad, the newspaper owned and published by

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Shobha Warrier