For the last couple of months, Varanasi has become the centre of attention for Indian politics with the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal contesting for this Lok Sabha seat. It has also drawn a sizeable number of filmmakers, artists and academicians to the holy city to study, document or simply observe this general elections’ biggest fight.
Similar interests have taken filmmaker Kamal Swaroop to Varanasi, where he was stationed for over a month, to shoot a documentary. However, his film, Battle of Benaras, is more about the exploration of crowd dynamics, the anthropological aspect of the city’s population and its history of languages than the political battle itself. “I am apolitical but I am interested in watching it graphically — the way crowds move, groups are formed, and how they operate in spaces,” says Swaroop, “This interests me more than knowing if Kejriwal is a nice person or Modi, a fascist.”
Swaroop is known for his 1988 film Om Dar-B-Dar, which was a satire on mythology, politics and philosophy. In 1981, he read a book called Crowds and Power by German philosopher and author Elias Canetti and found it to be a fantastic work on the nature of crowds in relation to power and leadership. In the run up to the recent polls, Swaroop noticed similar patterns emerging in Varanasi and wanted to explore the idea in a film.
He pitched the idea to producer Manu Kumaran and Medient, a US-based film production company. Within three days, Swaroop was in Varanasi, with his crew of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, graduates, shooting the film. As someone who has had a mythological element in many of his films, Swaroop sees Battle of Benaras as a “mytho-historical treatment of the subject”. He draws parallels between the ancient city’s history of power struggles from the times of Shaivites and Vaishnavites, to the ones in its Islamic and British past with that of the current political contest.
“People remember these events and they mythologise, even poetise it. These stories are then orally passed on for years,” says Swaroop, who is equally fascinated with the people of Varanasi, their oral traditions and “peculiar” cosmopolitanism. Swaroop, 60, is talking to local people, professors of the Benaras Hindu University, researchers, historians and archaeologists to piece together Varanasi’s history.
Three groups of the crew have been tracking the three main political parties — BJP, Congress and AAP. These groups have been regularly attending rallies and speeches for the last one month. The film’s apolitical stance has kept them away from trouble with any of the parties. One of the highlights of the film is the once-active CPM party and their gradual decline in the city. “During the ’60s the Left was very prominent in Benaras and took active interest in the city’s literature and art scene. I want to know what happened to them,” he says.
A self-confessed “Benaras romantic”, Swaroop has had a long-standing association with the city. He was the art director for Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari (1989), which is set in this city. His last film Rangbhoomi, a documentary on a turbulent, unknown phase of Dadasaheb Phalke’s life in Varanasi fetched Swaroop the National Award for Best Non-Feature film. He is expecting the film to be complete by June-end, following which the producers will decide on its release.
In spite of Battle of Benaras’s academic implications of anthropology, crowd dynamics and others, it has adopted the narrative style of drama. Modi, Kejriwal or their challenger, Kamla, a transgender and an independent candidate, are all colourful characters. To accentuate the theatrical effect, the filmmaker has mostly kept the camera static. “It is akin to the angle from which an audience watches a play in a proscenium space,” says Swaroop. This is how he intends to present “a celebration of the theatre of politics”.