The tears flow freely. Occasionally, speech becomes difficult. Avantika Maken often looks away from the camera, as she recounts the pain and trauma of her childhood, which was scarred by the assassination of her parents Lalit and Gitanjali Maken in the aftermath of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The couple was shot dead by three assasins, one of whom was Ranjit Singh Gill aka Kukki.
Sister Selmi Paul, the sibling of the deceased Sister Rani Maria, patiently talks through the days when she struggled to come to terms with the murder of her sister by Samunder Singh, a common farmer who was egged on by the feudal moneylenders of the region. Kia Scherr based in the US, smiles through her tears, as she bids goodbye to Mumbai — the city where her husband Allen and daughter Naomi where gunned down during the 2008 terror attacks — only to return. These three distinct stories, titled The Orphan and the Convict, The Farmer and the Nun and The Terror and the Mom respectively are the narratives of people who have been victims of extreme, senseless violence and are at the heart of Rubaru Roshni, a 110-minute documentary that has been directed by Svati Chakrabarty Bhatkal and produced by actor Aamir Khan, also the narrator of the documentary.
The film was released on television on January 26, simultaneously in seven languages. It’s also available on Hotstar. Svati says, “I started thinking and filming this project four years ago when I was 50. Now when the film has released, I am 54, and I am a completely different person. The film has changed me completely. I have given up my thoughts of retribution, revenge and anger which I held earlier.”
Svati, who also co-directed Khan’s Satyamev Jayate, makes her debut as director with Rubaru Roshni. “Satyamev Jayate was over by then and I was keen on continuing to do something meaningful,” says Svati, who’d read an article in The Indian Express in August 2015, which mentioned the broad premise of Avantika and Samunder’s stories. “I was struck by the flow of events. I kept thinking that if this was true then, this was the story I wanted to tell,” says Bhatkal, who adds, “We and the world that we live in are stuck in this world of more violence, which leads to more vengeful acts. How do we break this vindictive cycle? And here we had these three stories as examples and it made me feel that yes, we can break this cycle and restore some degree of peace in this world.”
The film ensures that one hears both sides of the story. Chakrabarty remains a voice, who at times prods the subjects being interviewed. The film includes a lot of archival videos and photos, which help in establishing a historical timeline. One hears Kukki, who talks about the choice he had to make, to either chose a Phd degree in Kansas, or “to do something about the Sikhs”.
Samunder Singh talks about his days in prison, after his arrest, as he waters his current crop of onions. Kia has started many initiatives in Mumbai — programmes to deal with loss, and grief — in the very city where she lost her family. “It took about one-and-a-half year to do my primary filming. Also, it was not easy. They were all recalling the most vulnerable and poignant moments of their lives. Like for example Avantika said, ‘that do your filming, but I might not agree to everything in the end,’ which I was quite okay with. I said, at least we shall undergo the process,” says Svati. The film takes us through their lives, daily habits and how they came to terms with the one incident and that one person who changed it forever.
The third story, Terror and the Mom, took a special toll on the filmmaker. “We wouldn’t edit after six in the evening, we would pack up. As a Mumbaikar, I had reported on that in my journalist days. The 2008 incident was something that impacted us all.”
The three stories encompass three decades — ’80s, ’90s and 2000s — and deal with issues of significant national and international importance, but, according to Svati, are completely devoid of any political agenda. “The film is not a political commentary. But these incidents have had a larger socio-political backdrop, so the context is significant. And what we really wished to showcase was the complete sense of loss of the victims, after being affected by such extreme violence. Even the perpetrators are victims at the end of the day.
Kukki has lost the best years of his life. Samunder lives the guilt every walking minute,” says Svati, who started her career as a journalist with Free Press Journal and has had subsequent stints in publication and e-learning spaces. Satyamev Jayate was her first foray into the audio-visual medium.
Rubaru Roshni is a welcome anecdote in a society where violence has become a way of life. “I think Kukki summed it best when he said ‘that violence is a shortcut, it cuts you more than it cuts the other person. Violence is a boomerang, a poison which we undertake ourselves, hoping it will affect the other person.’ But I think if we all look within ourselves, we can all find it in us to forgive and have empathy for others,” says Svati.