Five incidents of mob violence that shook India, and the documentaries that ensured we wouldn’t forget the horrors inflicted on our fellow countrymen.
In a new five-part series, Firstpost views bloody chapters in Indian history, through the lens of filmmakers who painstakingly documented their human toll. Some offer a granular perspective, others a wider framework to understand the contexts in which such violence occurs, and what the aftermath entails.
Featured in this series are Subasri Krishnan’s What The Fields Remember, on the Nellie Massacre of 1983; Teenaa Kaur Pasricha’s 1984 – When the Sun Didn’t Rise, on the countrywide anti-Sikh massacre of 1984; Nakul Singh Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots; Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, on the 2002 Gujarat riots, and Deepa Dhanraj’s Kya Hua is Shahar Ko?, on the Hyderabad communal riots of 1984.
For many filmmakers in India, Deepa Dhanraj’s 1986 film Kya Hua is Shahar Ko? has been a huge inspiration for their own pursuits of political documentary filmmaking. There are particularly two reasons for the repute and regard Dhanraj’s film enjoys till date: A) It was one of the first documentary films of its kind and presented a rioting city through multiple lenses in an objective manner. Hence, in the hindsight, the film becomes an important part of the journey in terms of the way documentary filmmaking has changed/evolved over the years in India. And, B) With Kya Hua is Shahar Ko? Dhanraj not only puts forth a portrait of the city of Hyderabad amid communal violence, but also documents the growth of a politically-infused fundamentalist ideology that over the years would become a dominant narrative in Indian politics.
Today, the film is prophetic. “What we filmed in 1984 was a process of supremacist politics in action. Everything was present — the particular political language, the slogans, the uniforms, the flags etc. It was basically observing Hindutva in the making,” Dhanraj says.
Since the late 1960s, incidents of communal violence and civil unrest had begun occurring sporadically in various parts of Hyderabad. Through the 70s, this situation kept escalating and by the early 80s it became ever more frequent with the political manoeuvring of religious sentiments and the instillation of the idea of the ‘other’. In 1984, this rhetoric was categorically being played up and placed along with the elections and the Ganesh festival.
Prior to 1980, the Ganesh festival was celebrated in homes in Hyderabad. By 1981 it had become a new public spectacle with large Ganesh idols cast in militant forms being transported in trucks in a massive procession that would culminate in the centre of the city. Senior RSS, VHP and BJP leaders would mark their attendance in these processions and address the participants. Invariably, every year during the Ganesh procession communal clashes would take place and people would be killed.
On 15 August 1984, the erstwhile chief minister of Andhra Pradesh NT Rama Rao (NTR) of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) was removed from power unconstitutionally while he was undergoing heart surgery in the United States. The Congress party, threatened with the rising power of the regional party — founded by NTR on ideas of Telugu self-respect and dignity — worked behind the scenes to stage a coup by swearing in the Finance Minister Nadendla Bhaskar Rao as the new chief minister. Upon his return, 17 opposition parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supported NTR in his “Dharma Yuddham” fight for the restoration of democracy against an authoritarian central government. When NTR asked for a vote of confidence in the Assembly, the BJP supported him while the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) supported Bhaskar Rao. For 31 days the Assembly was unable to meet due to clashes between Hindus and Muslims.
Incidents of mob violence, looting, vandalising of shops etc became rampant, and at the same time, there were reports of street-corner stabbings of random innocent passers-by. Around 250 shops and houses were burnt to ashes. While the official estimates suggested the death toll to be around 54, it is speculated that more than double of that number lost their lives. It was widely reported that the law and order situation was being cited as an excuse to buy time to engineer defections to prevent NTR from returning as the chief minister.
“Hyderabad is my city, I grew up there and have a very emotional attachment to it,” says Dhanraj, who, during the 80s, concerned with the alarming rise in communal violence in her city, became a part of a group named Hyderabad Ekta. Founded by academics, lawyers and activists, Hyderabad Ekta’s principal objective was to create “a secular forum which would work for communal harmony”. “We shared a similar sense of loss of the ganga-jamani tehzeeb or syncretic culture of the city and the title of the film, Kya Hua is Shahar Ko? was a common refrain that many conversations about the city would start or end with,” Dhanraj adds.
Working with Hyderabad Ekta for the film team was a chance to collaborate with a group that was working in a very engaging way on the ground in the old city with the possibility to return the film to the same constituency. Intense discussions on what the film should address to enable it to be received by communities while respecting their religious identities and political affiliations fed into the filming and editing process.
Propelled by the curiosity to know and understand the attraction that thousands of young men had to the new forms of Hindu supremacist mobilisation in Hyderabad, Dhanraj, along with her partner and cinematographer Navroze Contractor decided to shoot around the time of the Ganesh festival in the old city. Keshav Rao Jadhav of Hyderabad Ekta was keen on having a film that could be screened in the old city that could start conversations between communities. An idea of a film on the communal violence was not their intention, at least at that point in time.
“We had no idea that a riot would take place before our eyes,” says Dhanraj recollecting what followed when they were filming the Ganesh festival procession where BJP leader Tiger Narendra took on the stage addressing the masses below. “His speeches were getting more agitated and news started trickling in that some people had been stabbed. Very close to the stage, shops were being set on fire. The police started firing into the crowd and the panic began. People on the trucks noticed that we were filming and someone threw a stone at the camera. It hit Navroze on his eyebrow, he was shaken for a moment but he didn’t put the camera off, he continued filming. We didn’t edit that shot, you see the camera swing down lose focus and come up again.”
Dhanraj and her team were shooting on 16 mm film on a rented camera; each negative roll lasted only for 10 minutes. She mentions how difficult it was to load and change a new magazine in those conditions amid ruckus, violence and gunshots. “I had to stand guard while Navroze did it. Otherwise, it looked so furtive because you have to put your hands into a black bag.” In all this, while Contractor moved around trying to get close to the action, Dhanraj and the sound recordist would be on either side of him. “We moved whenever he did… It was like being in a numb zone.”
For them, the true story of the film opened up only when they reached the burning shops and spoke to the traumatised shop keepers. In the space of an hour in a systematic attack, 230 Muslim shops had been burnt, people had been brutally assaulted and many had been killed. That’s when they decided that the best approach towards the film would be to do an investigation into what had happened. But getting that clarity was also not enough.
“Things were moving very fast on the ground and it was very hard figuring out where to be. Every day, decisions had to be made about what to prioritise, it was also very challenging how to conceptualise what the film could be. Sometimes it felt like every new sequence we had shot would overturn the previous conceptualisation,” explains Dhanraj adding they finally zeroed in two tracks that they intently followed: One, the continuing incidents of communal clashes in the old city, and the other, the volatile political situation in the state. “Both were linked.”
Throughout the film, Dhanraj weaves in one contrast over the other. Personal and formal one-on-one interviews with MIM’s Salauddin Owaisi (aka Lion of the Deccan) and BJP’s Tiger Narendra, vis-à-vis footages of them on public platforms dispensing rhetoric of political speech fuelled with communalist and fundamentalist ideologies. And, at the same time, interviews and footages of the victims and working class of the old city — whose 45 percent of the population comprised of Dalits and Sunni Muslims — who lost their livelihoods in the wake of communal violence and long periods of imposed curfew. Along with close-up documentation of the political leaders and hate speeches, Dhanraj also introduces dignified observations of different kinds of creative and labour-intensive jobs the daily-wage workers did in the old city to sustain their livelihoods. For instance, pounding waraq, baking sheermal rotis, loading sacks of grains weighing quintals, modifying car parts and embroidery being some of them.
One of the victim testimonies in the film says, “We are hearing that it is all politically motivated, but we don’t know what the truth is. Nor have we had an opportunity to understand it. Everyone is struggling to survive, where is the time to understand all this? We feel terrified. I escaped just now from a terrifying moment, the sweat on my body has not yet dried.”
“The film thereby creates a contemplative space for facets of the riots that are often neglected,” Dr Nicole Wolf points out in her essay titled History, Context and Reflections on Re-screening a Political Film (2013) for Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, Berlin, Germany.
Dhanraj’s observations of different households during the time of curfew cumulatively tries to focus on the larger picture — trying to understand what went wrong, what had happened to the city?
“Every time we went into a curfew area it was very tense, we knew from police reports where incidents had taken place, in most cases, people were keen to speak to us as there had been no officials or media people who had visited them. We met with people from both communities,” Deepa says. She further talks about how one incident, in particular, left them so traumatised that they decided not to shoot with victims anymore. They interviewed a Muslim teacher who spoke very assertively about how there was no problem in his area and that both communities lived there very harmoniously. The next day when Dhanraj and her team arrived in the same area they found that the teacher’s family had been attacked at night and his son-in-law was critically ill in hospital.
“He showed us the fresh bloodstains where his son-in-law had been attacked and dragged out of the house. He named his attackers, some of them were those whom he had paid money to contribute for the Ganesh festival. One of the attackers was a police constable in mufti, he had dropped his ID card in the attack… All the families were packing up to leave the area,” she recounts.
Apart from meeting victims of violence the team also met people mostly daily wage workers who were suffering from the structural violence of extended curfew. It took a terrible toll on women particularly who had to manage a complex system of loans and barter to organise food for their families. If they had jobs in the new city which was not under curfew there was no possibility of keeping them.
Dhanraj and her team shot Kya Hua is Shahar Ko? over a period of approximately 40 days during their two-month-long stay in Hyderabad. Doordarshan and All India Radio were also covering the incidents in Hyderabad, but it was evident that their portrayal was to a minimum extent “a statist version”.
While making the film she and her team did feel the responsibility of Kya Hua is Shahar Ko? being the only alternative audio-visual account of the communal violence that ensued in Hyderabad and placed it a political context in the mid-1980s. Wolf, in her essay, ascribes Kya Hua ss Shahar Ko? as “the only independent, non-state funded documentary film engaging with the specific events it follows and analyses.”
“This was one of the toughest films we have ever made,” reveals Dhanraj. She continues: “In no other film of mine have we had to be so focused and concentrated while filming. And this sense of being so totally responsive to the moment while simultaneously wondering how it was going to fit eventually into a larger narrative was very hard. And remember we were using very expensive film negative, every foot of it mattered. The biggest challenge of the filmmaking process was how to find cinematic language while filming public events, interviews and survivor testimonies. At the same time as we were chasing events, we had to figure out how we were going to contextualise them in the edit, what kind of analysis we were going to present.”
Each situation needed different approaches. While shooting the politicians like Owaisi and Narendra addressing masses on podiums, the camera would be very close to them and would evoke an urgent mobile style of reporting. When shooting personal interviews with them, the framing was done very formally in quiet settings. Hence, in the edit, they could show a contrast in their private and public personas.
Dhanraj informs that after a lot of deliberation they decided they would shoot the testimonies of the victim families in “a more formal and respectful framing”. She says, “We refrained from using dramatic close-ups; the interview was always a long, static shot, to convey a calmer unfolding of events however traumatic. In Navroze’s words, he wanted to put each person in ‘a proper light’.”
Like every film, Kya Hua is Shahar Ko? has a journey of its own. After the film was ready in 1986, Dhanraj had to wait nine months for the censor certificate. Once, they received the certificate, Hyderabad Ekta started screening the film in the old city using a 16 mm projector, two large film cans, a sound speaker and a portable screen that were transported from one place to another for every screening. For over three years the film was screened by Hyderabad Ekta members in Hyderabad and across India in many locations such as universities, film clubs and communities in urban and rural settings along with extensive debates and discussions. As a result of these repeated and exhaustive screenings, the copy of the film became almost unwatchable.
In 1987, Kya Hua is Shahar Ko? was also shown at the International Forum of New Cinema, as part of the Berlin Film Festival. And as luck would have it, while back in India there was not even a single usable print of the film available, the one with the Arsenal film archive survived and was eventually used for the digital restoration of the film in 2013 by Wolf as part of the Living Archive project. DVDs of the film were released and demand for screening the film led to a revival 25 years after it was made.
When asked how the film has changed her as a filmmaker, Dhanraj responds saying, “In all my work since then, there is the absolute necessity during the process of filming to really ‘see’ and be with the people we are filming with.” With this film, she also discovered the “closet historian” she is at heart. She adds, “I seem to always feel the need to contextualise events historically.”
— All images courtesy of Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art (Berlin) | © Deepa Dhanraj