Director-animator Kireet Khurana is known for award-winning films such as T for Taj Mahal (2018) and India’s first live-action, 3D animation feature Toonpur Ka Super Hero (2010). Also the co-founder of The Animation Society of India, Khurana, 52, has been on numerous juries for film festival and awards across the world. His films always carry a social message and present a worldview that is empathetic and heroic all at once. In his yet-to-be-released film Ek Koshish, he presents the plight of the homeless in India through the journey of Tarique Mohammad, founder of the NGO Koshish. Even as he looks for funds for this film, Khurana talks about why advocacy is important for the poor, how there’s a story in every person on the street and why an equitable society matters. Excerpts from the interview:
What prompted you to make Ek Koshish?
As a filmmaker who has made numerous films on social issues, I was invited for the Aspire Circle fellowship programme in 2016, which has top leaders from the social sector as participants. I was the only filmmaker in the group. I heard many wonderful stories from them about their work and its impact on the ground. But the one that touched me most was of Tarique Mohammad, the founder of Koshish, an NGO which is part of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. His stories moved me deeply and I was sure this was a story that needed to be told.
It took me a couple of years to figure out how I am going to make the film, because I wasn’t getting funds. It was a similar situation with my 2015 film Saeed Mirza – The Leftist Sufi, which went on to become one of the top documentaries on Netflix. Emboldened with its success, last year, I embarked on Ek Koshish, on the plight of the homeless. This is an entirely self-funded venture.
What did you want to present through the film?
India has the largest number of homeless – an estimated 70 million. Their plight is pathetic and the state has washed its hands off. There are very few NGOs working with them. Koshish is unique as it doesn’t just do ground work, but also works on the advocacy level to implement laws that empowers these people. Koshish unearthed the infamous Muzzafarpur Shelter scam in 2018, in Bihar, where girls as young as six were raped and murdered every single day. They also got politician Brajesh Thakur implicated, despite death threats to their team. This is one of the sections we’re covering in the film.
The draconian Bombay Anti-Beggary Act, 1959, allows state enforcement agencies and the police to arrest anyone on the suspicion of beggary and put them in the inhuman beggar homes, where sewage water runs through taps and dead bodies lie unattended for days. Koshish has not only taken on the task of changing all this, but has achieved major breakthroughs in improving the condition of these jails, also ensuring the homeless are repatriated with their families. Tarique and team have repatriated more than 75,000 homeless across the country.
The film is a call to action. Apart from raising awareness and empathy, we hope to build impetus to repeal the Bombay Anti-Beggary Act, 1959, and appeal for laws that are more inclusive.
Can you tell us about some of the success stories of Koshish?
I met some people who left their homes due to petty quarrels, came to the city in the hope of making a living. Decades later, they find themselves homeless, ashamed to go back to their families due to their personal failure. But they were in the shelter as they needed medical attention and had no choice but to call their families for help.
Another instance is of a woman who lost her way near a village in Chennai, found herself in Mumbai. Unable to speak the local language, she somehow came to Mumbai and was last found languishing on the streets before she was picked up by the authorities. With the help of Koshish, she finally opened up and shared fragmented details about her village. Eventually, she had a tearful reunion with her son whom she met after about 15 years.
What were your take-aways from the making of this film?
The first thing I learnt was that there are people who have dedicated their entire lives to helping others. It put my conscience to shame to know that these individuals have made personal sacrifices to help the poor. As for the homeless, each one is an individual and deserves as much dignity as you and me, each one has a story to tell, a family to talk about. Getting to know these stories first-hand was enlightening for me.
Prior to this, I too had the cliché view that beggars have their gangs, it’s a racket. But that’s not as widespread. There are power struggles on the streets yes, but they are human after all.
The film has been shot in different parts of the country. Did you see a different approach in the village than in the city, to those who are marginalised?
The power structure remains the same. It’s always the powerful which tries to subjugate the weak and crush them, exploit and dehumanise them. The poor remain poor, there is no difference between urban and rural. There are only less or more cruel exploiters. The atrocities remain the same, whether it’s the homeless manual scavenger of Mumbai or the daily wage earner in Bihar.
Even as we have seen numerous homeless people in cities walk out, saying they’ve had enough, what do you think can be the remedial measures to make it a more equitable society?
I think the country needs a much more empathetic leadership. The politicians and bureaucrats need to be sensitised. Although I did meet and interview a few wonderful bureaucrats who are doing some wonderful work, they are the exception than the norm. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to rehabilitate the homeless, what is lacking is political will.
Your recent collaborative animation, Pravasi, highlights the cause of migrant workers. What brought us here?
It’s very clear why we are here. The lack of empathy, the self of entitlement and the apathy towards the working class and daily wage earners. The nation collectively has failed them.
What has influenced your work?
Looking back, I think the biggest influence in my life has perhaps been my father Bhimsain, who animated the iconic short film Ek Anek Ekta (1974) with the indelible Ek chidiya song. He used to find great ways of telling a message in an engaging and entertaining manner. I would like to believe a lot of that has rubbed off on me and therefore, I instinctively gravitate towards a strong controlling idea in a film.
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