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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Emergency, 1984, Jamia attack: The Blind Rabbit speaks truth to power by excavating truth in power

The Blind Rabbit is a fascinating critique of power, uncovering its workings by laying bare its machinery. It shows that much like history, power repeats itself.

Written by Ishita Sengupta | Mumbai |
Updated: June 9, 2021 11:35:02 am
The Blind Rabbit premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Pallavi Paul’s The Blind Rabbit — a harrowing documentary mapping the oppressive nature of power in India — opens with an image of nothingness. The camera keeps moving forward creating an illusion of an impending destination. There is nothing in sight. The visuals are supplemented by Kedarnath Singh’s poem Bagh, which encloses the collective awe of people caused by a tiger.

That no one has seen the animal in full hardly dents its appeal. People are taken by its grandeur, seduced by its monstrosity. This is a curious arrangement but not entirely unfounded. During the course of the documentary, Pallavi argues that the animal — authoritative despite its invisibility — is a stand-in for power by proposing that the texture of both their allures is similar: created and sustained by terror.

If the violence of history is monopolised by oppressors, then the history of violence is revealed through the oppressed. In her latest work, Pallavi shifts this vantage point by revisiting decades-long instances of brutality — the Emergency (1975-1977), the 1984 riots, and the ghastly attack on the students of Jamia Milia Islamia University by Delhi Police in 2019 — through the perspectives of those who were agents of it: the officials involved. She speaks truth to power by excavating truth in power.

This is a daunting task but this is precisely what drew the 33-year-old to the documentary which premiered at the recently concluded International Film Festival Rotterdam. “The difficulty of the process was the reason why I even got interested in the project in the first place,” she tells over a phone call.

Before one dismisses this as some showy novelty she states her intent — to engage with the inner workings of power. “If you think about it, so much of the progressive works that get made, which is to push back right, or to move towards a more ethical, horizontal kind of world, there is no actual really deep engagement with the inner life of power, its repressive mechanisms. We think of them in a monolithic kind of way.”

She avoids such misstep by rethinking her participation. “The fact that we were right in the middle of this complete landscape of repression made me think that we have to find a way as artists, as thinkers, as filmmakers, to somehow be able to move into this inner life of power, in their perverse inner life make sense of it in any meaningful way. Otherwise, it will just be a thing of a continuous chain of just reactive behaviour.”

Throughout the runtime of the documentary, visuals, except the 2019 found footage from the university’s library, take a backseat, sharpening our ears to the testimonies of the officers. Neither their faces nor names are revealed. This abstinence reveals her preoccupation — it does not matter. “I wasn’t interested in portraying them as characters. I wasn’t interested in asking them about their lives. I was interested in a very specific encounter of a certain kind of violence in which these people have been instrumental.”

The 50 officials she spoke to, some retired, some not, were either involved in the 1984 massacre or the Emergency. In both cases, the nature of violence differed but they all contributed to upending lives. Speaking three decades later, their recollections turn confessional, like we are privy to their therapy sessions. One remembers that the compulsion of arresting a certain number of people daily during Emergency led to the arrest of several innocent people, especially children. The moment of imprisonment blurred the lines between a convict and a criminal.

That Pallavi not just engages but provides them with a space for unburdening showcases her empathy. It also begs the question: who is her empathy directed at? “This is not a question of being empathetic to individuals. But yes, the question of empathy is crucial to developing any idea of a progressive politics over emancipatory politics,” she says.

“We are not empathetic to those individuals. We are empathetic to a moment. And when you’re empathetic to the moment you develop ways of entering it… you develop as an artist,” she says. “These are also people who perhaps, were fodder for larger structures of power.”

This empathy allows her to re-enter a time without the burden of resolution. It also enables her to critique power for what it is–faceless– and not what it appears to be. All documents of arrests from that time were burnt. Children arrested as vagabonds during the Emergency spent months in prison, ultimately forgetting their parents’ names. Many remembered stray details like a peepul tree or a blind rabbit as home addresses.

Pallavi shows nothing — not the children’s faces nor the recent police crackdown in the country. We only hear a stifled voice singing the national anthem to prove his identity, an aghast man reasoning with officers to not hit a woman like that. This is followed by a sharp noise of a stick. The silence deafens you.

The idea occurred to her at the editing table. “For someone living in Delhi, my WhatsApp is filled with a deluge of pictures,” the former Jawaharlal Nehru University student says. “These images are like wounds but sometimes there’s so much on top of it, you forget where the pain or where the sensation is even coming from… It’s like being lacerated in multiple places.”

To bypass this feeling of saturation, she adapted a surgical style. “I realised that the only way to be surgical is to play and extend the idea of blindness further, the terror that comes from not being able to see.”

But then who really can see? Those who were making the arrests or those who were jailed? The Blind Rabbit says neither. There is an instance when a female officer recalls the time she was used as a body double for Indira Gandhi after there was a threat on the former prime minister’s life. She was told nothing except to wear a white sari to work. Later Gandhi wanted to click a photo to see who filled in for her. But as the press pounded, the officer’s sari tore and she left for home without any documentation of the day.

The anecdote opens up the distance between power and its machinery, bringing to the fore the only accepted way of working for it– sacrifice. That decades later the officer retells the incident with awe only proves Pallavi’s analogy.

The Blind Rabbit, which took two years to complete, is a fascinating critique of power, uncovering its workings by laying bare its machinery. Using blindness as a conceit, it entreats us to see that much like history, power repeats itself. But the visual artist remains apprehensive about the documentary being shown in India. “After its festival run, I will upload it on the Internet. The idea is to basically get people to watch it… to find new ways of resisting,” she says.

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