In 2015, after completing his last feature-length documentary, Muzzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai…, filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney continued shooting in western Uttar Pradesh. During the course of making the film, he witnessed how social media, especially fake videos that circulated on WhatsApp and Facebook, was being used to stoke communal tensions. In order to combat the proliferation of such content in the region, Sawhney and a group of local activists set up ChalChitra Abhiyaan (CCA), last year. A film and media collective, they produce documentary films, news features, interviews and live broadcasts, and with each video, hope to create a counter-culture that holds its own in the face of communal politics. Excerpts from an email interview with Sawhney:
How did CCA come about? You’ve set up a crowdfunding campaign for Rs 15 lakh, and Bollywood personalities like Vishal Dadlani have called for donations to be made.
In 2013, a fake video played a big role in vitiating the atmosphere before the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli massacre. There was absolutely no counter to any of this. Some of the local mainstream media contributed to the polarisation, as well. 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.
Regarding the crowdfunding, we are careful about where we accept funds from. We want to fund a people’s media and the money will be used to pay salaries, buy equipment like cameras, mics, edit machines, projectors etc. Other than that, running costs like travel, food, office rent, training, workshops, film screenings and so on.
Why is western UP of importance to you, considering that you have also made films set in Haryana and Punjab?
Western UP has become a tinder box for caste and communal violence — the scale is unbelievable. This was also a place that’s seen massive peasant movements at one time; today, we’re seeing a growing agrarian crisis in the region. In the recent past, we’ve seen a growing number of alleged fake encounters by the police in UP, along with anti-Dalit violence. This is not just restricted to casteist and communal mobs or individuals, but the state machinery is being employed to carry it out as well. And the local media is only amplifying the state’s version of events. But there are stunning stories of resistance, which need to be documented.
What’s the strategy here?
We’re not really countering each and every fake video with facts. We are trying to create an alternate narrative. For example, in Kairana, the local MP, Hukum Singh, raked up some issue of a Hindu exodus from the town because of supposed atrocities by local Muslims. We decided to look at Kairana beyond the Hindu-Muslim or even communal-secular divide. We tried to look at the myriad problems that confront a town like Kairana, and how factors such as unemployment were actually leading to the exodus of both Hindus and Muslims. The film was warmly received by many in Kairana and other parts of west UP.
We also organise screenings of films on different socio-political issues. We’ve held screenings in a couple of villages in Shamli district and local units of CCA are beginning to be formed. We recently screened Turup by Ektara Collective, a film about love jihad and self-choice marriages. The film was screened at the exact same spot where a public honour killing had taken place 20 years ago in that village. Though the killing was deeply embedded in everyone’s mind, no one spoke about it. In the days after the screening, there were several discussions around self-choice marriages or love marriages.
The idea is to look at local issues that concern different marginalised communities, in their voice. So, part of our endeavour is to train people from local communities to make their own videos.
The crowdfunding campaign states that women in the region have shown interest in becoming filmmakers and storytellers. Could you tell us more about this?
Yes, it took time but now a couple of women from the region are joining us full time. Then there are others who volunteer at screenings. Now that we will finally have an office in west UP, the possibilities of having more women from the region being actively involved with CCA also increases in a big way.
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