Every day after his morning namaz, Shamshad Ali hurries to the Shiv temple nearby. He is the Ram of Kheriya, and has to reach on time to rehearse for the annual Ramlila performance. For nearly five years, he has been playing the lead character, and it has made him the person he is. “I don’t use swear words and I also abstain from smoking. Yeh sab Ram ko shobha nahi deta (these vices don’t suit Ram’s character),” he says. He also makes it a point to be punctual. “As Ram, I have to set an example for youngsters in the village,” he says.
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Ali is also the central character in Molly Kaushal’s new documentary, titled Leela in Kheriya, which looks at the unique Hindu-Muslim tradition of the Ramlila in Kheriya, a small village in Uttar Pradesh’s Firozabad district, which is famous for making glass bangles. Besides Ali, the film also focuses on the stories of others who play various key roles in the Ramlila. Towards the end, the stage becomes a point of convergence for their personal lives as well.
“Ram has become such a contested space today. But here in Kheriya, Ram binds all communities together,” says Kaushal, a scholar of Indian folk traditions, who teaches at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. “In fact, not just here, Ramlila has done it everywhere. Lord Ram and paddy bind entire Southeast Asia together.”
The film begins with the furnaces in the glass bangle factories, using those images as metaphors for creation and the wheel of time. The camera then moves to the by-lanes of Kheriya, where individuals and their daily lives get enmeshed in multiple ways with the 22-day carnival of the Ramlila. Most lead characters in the act are played by Muslim actors.
“Initially, I gave up the idea of making this documentary since I thought it would be mere rhetoric to say, ‘Oh, Muslims are participating in Ramlila’. But when I saw their lives, which revolve around the heat and dust of glass bangle furnaces, I realised how those 22 days put their individual stories on the back burner and make them feel at peace with Ram and his ilk,” says Kaushal.
Through interviews and monologues the characters give a glimpse into their lives — their sorrow, hopes, tales of courage and faith. “For each of them, participation in this leela in itself is a moment of redemption,” says Kaushal.
Directed, scripted and narrated by Kaushal, the film was first screened at the Delhi International Film Festival in December, and has now been submitted for the National Film Awards. This is Kaushal’s second film. Her debut documentary Landscaping the Divine — Space and Time Among the Gaddi focused on the sheep-herding community of Himachal Pradesh, who live in the higher reaches of the Dhauladhar range.
Kheriya is also a village where Hindu-Muslim camaraderie seems to exist not only during Ramlila but all through the year. The film shows how there are no religious taboos anywhere in Kheriya. People wear their religion on their sleeves — tilaks and skull caps make their presence felt while temple bells and azaan reverberate in the air. In a scene, at dusk, Muslim children are seen chanting the Hanuman Chalisa. “But nothing can be more representative of the various communities that live together than the stage of Ramlila,” says Anil Johari, organiser of the Ramlila, who also plays Ravan.
Shahabuddin, the main comedian of the show, has his own tale of sorrows — four of his children died early, while his only surviving son is in Tihar jail. In the film, Shahabuddin says he neither has the money nor the capacity to get his son released. Yet, when he entertains people during the interludes and makes them laugh with his antics, he feels the stress lifting off his head. “When I saw Lakshman lying unconscious during last night’s performance, it reminded me of my own sick and dying children and I couldn’t hold my tears,” he says, in the film.
On stage, he is at his funniest. Johari says, “Once when Shahabuddin was too depressed to come on the stage, we went to his house to request him. This Ramlila can’t be the same without him making us laugh.”
As for what makes them leave their work and perform on the stage year after year, Ali says, “What have I gained out of the Ramlila? I have no words to describe that feeling.”