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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Ordinary men are the best narrators of the idea of India

Watching the Beating Retreat and Republic Day inspired filmmaker Bharat Bala to tell the story of India. Continuing with his Virtual Bharat series, what he calls an online museum of ordinary lives and their extraordinary spirit, he shares pandemic experiences with Rinku Ghosh

Written by Rinku Ghosh |
January 29, 2022 3:40:01 pm
Bharat Bala on location in Kashmir

It’s called the pink school. No, it has nothing to do with any Government propaganda. Ajibai ki Paathshala in Maharashtra’s Thane district is a weekend school where women over 65 and even near centurions attend classes wearing pink saris as uniform and dutifully carrying their satchels. Their dream is to die educated and worldly-wise, not what society has decided for them.

There are more path-breakers like these ordinary women, like the Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh. Denied entry into a Ram temple because they belonged to a Scheduled Caste, they tattooed the name of the lord on their bodies and printed them on their wrap cloths, turning their mind and body into a temple itself, and claiming their right to humanity. Then there are the surprise picks. Did you know that a village in Punjab makes it mandatory for all its girls to learn Hindustani classical music? Or that turmeric Holi is played in Maharashtra as a fertility festival? Or that Kerala’s best classical dance teacher is a Muslim who has mastered all forms?

Filmmaker and storyteller Bharat Bala, the man who reintroduced Vande Mataram to us, is on a mission of piecing together a popular narrative of India seen through the extraordinary pursuits of ordinary people. His online Virtual Bharat series –which is intended as a collection of 1,000 short films and of which he has completed shooting 100 — focuses on untold stories that he’s picked up from his travels across India. “Some people tell me Indians don’t find India cool anymore and that it is no longer the country we loved. I don’t have the answers to such questions but I found plenty to be proud about,” says Bala, who makes a quiet but passionate statement about an India that has been, is and should be despite the force-fed narratives swirling around in current times.

Ajibai ki Paathshala in Maharashtra’s Thane district is a weekend school where women over 65 and even near centurions attend classes.

Bala has always been fascinated by the idea of India as his father was a Gandhian. “My upbringing in Delhi was very nationalistic. I remember attending every Republic Day and Beating the Retreat till we moved to Chennai. Ever since then I have been invested in exploring the epical scale of this country by finding the unfamiliar in familiar parts of India and looking at it through the eyes of its commonest people. My parents were liberals but the idea of a nation was very important and clear to them. My father, a photojournalist, encouraged me to discover and celebrate this country. When I was making advertisements, he asked me if I could build a big idea of India in the same way I did storyboards for products. That was the starting point.”

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You call Virtual Bharat a virtual museum of sorts that encourages conversations. While you may have attracted hits, has it really impacted the way people think?

I have completed 100 stories though I haven’t released all considering that the pandemic held up some post-production work. Why I chose the cloud approach is because it is easily accessible, where you get stories from every corner of India, in almost every language and all under 10 minutes. Technology upholds newer ways to experience humanity and because it is democratic, it connects all sections of society. The story-telling is even more impactful because of our subconscious engagement with these slice-of-life experiences.

Women over 65 attend weekend school (Source: Bharat Bala Films)

The film on Ajibai paathshala had a global impact. While filming, I asked an 86-year-old student what motivated her to attend school at this stage in her life. She said, “When I go to heaven and am asked what I did right on earth with my time, I can say I learnt to read and write. Yes, I have done my karma, taken care of the land, been a wife, mother, grandmother, fulfilled my familial roles and now I want to make good use of the time I have left for myself.” Such a spirited reply. A Pakistani influencer picked up the story and made it viral. Not only that, this thread of conversation prodded curiosity and helped spread awareness about educationist Savitrabai Phule and her pioneering efforts to educate women in the sub-continent. That’s why Virtual Bharat works — because it can create a borderless world even when cross-border tensions dominate.

How did you capture a pandemic-hit India?

I filmed through the pandemic. The lockdown was my most productive time as we documented a monumental amount of footage across 16 states in nine weeks, from Kashmir to Kerala. And only because it was a silent India without a beehive buzz of people rushing about that I could perceive the deep and interwoven relationship between mankind and the environment. In Banaras, I sat by the Ganga, whose waters are the subject of so much debate on pollution, and could actually see the pebbles nesting calmly in the river bed. It was an amazing sight of how the cessation of human activity had changed the circumstance and revealed the stillness and bigness of nature. The city that pulsates to the heaving force of humanity squeezing itself through the maze of alleys, was empty. The railway yards at Mughal Serai, a junction town where people from all corners of the country criss-cross each other, never looked more expansive. It led to questions of how development posed new challenges to humanity. We caught birds chirping in the middle of the day in Mumbai, a sound that’s so drowned out at other times. Not even a pigeon flew out of the cornices of the VT Station through which five to six million people pass through every day.

Yet you found some human stories in this silence…

The pandemic was an inflection point for humanity. And I found everyday people doing humongous work to save lives. To me, they represented fearless Indians who had a remarkable presence of mind and got into action.

The stillness of Banaras (Source: Bharat Bala films)

In Guwahati, I met a dhaba owner who would show up at his shack every day despite the lockdown. He would cook religiously every morning and then feed the homeless who lived on the streets and who indeed had no means to sustain themselves during the shutdown. He would go looking for them in odd places, for example under the flyover, and distribute food. He used up his own supplies as donations had not come by then. In Srinagar, a woman official devised a unique strategy for effective contact tracing of Covid-positive patients and helped families in isolation. Then there was this maulvi in Lucknow who summed up the consequences of human overreach so simply yet pointedly: Muskhkil hi ghadi mein madir masjid khatkhate toh hain, dharm sankat aisa aaya hai ki inke darwaza bhi bandh ho gaye. (They seek solace in shrines during crises but this time even their doors are shut for humanity).

There are such deep human stories. There will always be a conflict between created myth and the real self. Like the Ramnamis. So powerful was the spirit of these people that they didn’t fight to enter temples but tattooed Lord Rama’s names all over their bodies. Neither am I engaging with the audience with a sense of deliberateness nor am I forming opinions. I am going on a journey with my audience. The important thing is how we can celebrate every moment of consciousness, inspiring someone in Serbia, for instance. We have to evolve and connect to people at an intimate level.

A still from the film, 123 (Source: Bharat Bala Films)

You are working on two films on 75 years of India’s Independence. How will they be different from Virtual Bharat?

Let’s not look at India@75 but the opportunity it presents to change, transform and innovate for the many years that come after it. The penetration of technology in our country has been phenomenal, it is empowering and has improved people’s confidence. It amazes me that there is a sticker of Google Pay on a mobile vendor’s cart and everybody is harnessing a new tool of communication and expression; they are making their own videos and posting on various platforms. Innovation keeps happening. It’s like surfing, riding a new wave every day. We as a people are cresting it every day.

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