Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

Once Upon a Turbulent Time….

Defying the season, a northeasterly wind huffs and puffs its way from the Arabian Sea through the smog-bound Indus and Ganga plains, to caress the tiled roofs and tall Silver Cotton trees in a grassy courtyard of Lalitpur. The wind carries tales of the vast Subcontinent it has just traversed to finally breathe free and luxuriate in the winter sunshine, amidst an audience that feels for the people and landscape it has touched during its travels.

Here, the wind can safely talk of all that it has seen and experienced along the way through the lens of filmmakers, who tell amazing stories at YalaMaya Kendra every two years, shaking pre-conceived notions and forcing Southasians to think anew.

At one edge of this fecund Subcontinent, where nearly a fourth of the global population lives, two pre-teen girls undertake an austere and difficult pilgrimage, prostrating every step of the way for three days through rocky mountain terrain for the well-being of all creatures inhabiting the planet. At another, two Dalit girls, swallowed up by the sea, have to be buried in their mother’s kitchen since there is no other place where their bodies will be allowed to find rest. Growing Up in Ladakh and Six Feet Under track these twin tales at Film Southasia 2019.

On the its Western edge, two boys, who should be playing and studying, are instead forced to fend for their themselves in cold and windy Kabul, devastated by a heady concoction of religion and politics. In Kachin state on the eastern frontier, young women and men find themselves wasted by opium addiction, but there is no other way they will be able to defy the horrific conditions of jade mining. Kabul, City in the Wind and Opium Wars tell their stories.

In between, there are so many stories, each unique and brilliant in its own way. In A Dying Wish, an aged couple in Maharashtra, full of life, asks the government for permission to die before they are overtaken by debilitating illness. In the same state, a patriarch sees fit to impose upon his family a rooster as a pet, and just when the family has adjusted to its quirky ways to begins loving the cock, decides to have it chopped and eaten in the delightful Tungrus.

We see education factories that take the joy out of learning, churning out robotic engineers-to-be by the hundreds in Kota, Rajasthan in An Engineered Dream. Elsewhere in Rajasthan, it is such a struggle for dedicated teachers to cajole children who have barely food enough to eat, to find a breathing space among their chores to live and learn in Are You Going to School Today? In Hyderabad, Deccan, when a student, defying his poverty and Dalit origins, decides to reach for the stars, the state machinery drives him to suicide in We Have Not Come Here to Die. When, in the heart of the capital of India, a young student from a minority community decides to stand up for his rights in a premium educational institution, he is disappeared without trace and his valiant mother and sister launch a futile search in Ammi. Majoritarianism and the global movement to the political and religious right also finds expression in mob lynchings in India’s northern belt over a matter of food choices in Lynch Nation. Across the border, the joy of making music is a dying art, struggling against the puritanical ethos of the Pakistani state in Indus Blues.

As the circle turns we come back to two women, now grown up, one in Karachi and the other in Bangalore, gunned down for trying to create space for free expression, against majoritarian trends. After Sabeen and Our Gauri tell their stories.

Is it all doom and gloom and a time for despair in Southasia? No, says the rollicking Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon. Life will find a way and sprout anew in all its amazing diversity despite the restraining barriers says this film, a mixture of fact and fiction set in the heart of Old Delhi with an ensemble cast of 400!

And the people of the Subcontinent will find their true spirit in their own unique ways, protesting by fasting and Satyagraha as does Dr. Govinda KC in We Are With Dr KC in Nepal or in traversing 7500 km from Kanyakumari to Kashmir in a padyatra with a message of peace and harmony, in Walking with M.

Come then, and watch Southasian life and living in all its splendour at FSA’19, “Where the Mind is Free…”! Come watch, meet and interact! This is just a foretaste. Come feast with us!

A glimpse of hardship

Taran Khan

Three documentaries offer moving and intimate portraits of the rural poor.



In the documentary My Name is Salt (directed by Farida Pacha), set in the saline desert of Little Rann of Kutch in India, a sequence shows the middle-aged protagonist fretting over the quality of salt crystals forming in his fields. “Leave it to the sun”, advises a fellow farmer stoically. This quality of chance and the never ending toil that accompanies the life of the rural poor formed the canvas for three documentaries that were screened at Film Southasia’ 2015.

The opening film at the festival, Drawing the Tiger, does not focus directly on the question of rural poverty in Nepal. Rather, it follows the rhythms of life of a family that subsists on less than “a dollar a day”, as the film’s website describes it. Directed by Amy Benson and Scott Squire, a Seattle based couple, the film credits Nepal-based journalist Ramyata Limbu as a co-director. Shot over seven years, the film documents the journey of a young girl, Shanta, who leaves her village for Kathmandu with a scholarship. She promises to return to care for her parents, and help them break out of the trap of poverty. But tragically, she fails to return. The magnificent mountains surrounding the village of Bahunchurra in Central Nepal frame the long days of Shanta’s parents, who are deep in debt and under threat of losing their land unless they manage to repay some of their loans.

What stands out is the constant and difficult labour that define Sushila’s, Shanta’s mother’s, days and nights, from planting the maize to chasing runaway goats, to cooking treats for her grandchildren when she visits them in the city. The years of hard work take a toll on her health, and towards the end of the film a doctor advises her not to work. “Then how will we eat”, she asks simply. Drawing the Tiger tells the story of how the promise of a better future lies away from the village, through migration to cities and to other countries, and then complicates that promise. It is also a snapshot of the kind of uneven penetration of technology that has marked the rural terrain for much of Southasia. In several sequences, children amuse themselves by watching films on mobile phones, and a neighbour sends word of absconding livestock by calling from across the mountain. All this appears, to Shanta’s grandmother, like progress. In a moving sequence, she describes all the ways in which the current condition of her family seems like paradise. In her youth, she recalls, she had to walk to the river to fetch water, and had to work hard for a cup of rice. Now, she said, there was water at the doorstep, and you could buy rice by the bagful. The irony of her dirt poor family described in such terms makes the film a rich insight into the paradoxes of Nepal’s development narrative.

Farida Pacha’s My Name is Salt in contrast, moves almost wordlessly, creating vivid tableaus from the life of a family of migrant workers, labouring for eight months in the Little Rann of Kutch. Their harvest is salt, and the film begins with the arrival of a pump that will supply the brackish water which will yield the salt crystals. The film moves from long shots of the baking desert, the heat rising in vapours, to intimate mid shot of Sanabhai and his family as they tend to their salt fields. In a beautifully choreographed sequence, the family moves in a bizarre dance, treading the salt with their bare feet, crossing the camera one after the other. It is a joyless dance, one of difficult postures and no ease in movements. Yet the very next sequence shows Sanabhai’s young daughter dancing with carefree abandon to music as she plays on the salt field.

Pacha imbues the bareness of the terrain with the incessant industry of the family. The emptiness of nights where nothing happens is punctuated by days with no rest. Humans work as hard and with greater efficiency than machines, as the pump requires constant tending and repairs. Again, as in Drawing the Tiger, women form an active part of this landscape of labour. Sanabhai’s older daughter  wrestles with the mud to form the bunds for their fields, and sets the pump running with her mother Devuben when needed. The thud-thudding of this machine forms the soundtrack for much of the film. Mobile phones provide entertainment for children here too, but they communicate with winking mirrors across the desert. Pacha’s protagonists are not joyless – the family goes to the market and enjoys the rides and the shops. But they return to the unforgiving glare of the salt fields, and once their harvest of crystals is gathered, they pack up their possessions in sacks and move on. The fragility of their existence and the ecosystems that support them is beautifully and heartbreakingly brought home in Pacha’s closing sequence, when the desert is show to be transformed into a sea during the monsoons. The salt pans are washed away, the boats lying on the parched earth sail through the waters. Yet the next year, the film tells us, Sanabhai and his family will join 40,000 other families who will return to till their fields of salt.

Finally, from India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya, Tarun Bharatiya’s Brief Life of Insects offers a whimsical and charming look at the link between farm routines and songs. His narrative follows Bas Hos Shadap and his friends in a Khasi village called Umpohwin as they “thresh the paddy and sing”. Away from the fields too, they perform for the camera with their instruments, struggling briefly to remember the the tunes that come so naturally to them during the rhythm of the task. Despite its air of whimsicality, the film is not naïve or overly roseate in its view of village life. The farmers talk about the troubles that come to their homes during the pre-harvest season. The film’s visuals too are a testimony to the sheer manual effort that goes into the threshing. There is no machine in sight, and the work is done entirely by the farmers. But their voices add a certain cheer to the work, and lighten their cares, as one of the protagonists’ notes. The links between creativity and its environment, between culture and its ties to the seasons, come through in the 22-minute film, which simply makes one smile.

Together, the three films from the swathe that makes Southasia are a potent reminder of the beauty and intense loneliness of manual labour, Pacha’s film in particular frames the hands and feet of  Sanabhai and his family like sculptures,  caked with stubborn mud, muscles taut and tense against the elements. They also act as antidotes against romanticising rural life, by demonstrating how families live on the edge, always hungry, never entirely secure, subject to vagaries of nature and markets alike. With Southasia rapidly urbanising, the films are a reminder of the brutality and fragility that defines the lives of the rural poor, from the Himalayan villages of Nepal to the salt fields of India.

~Taran N Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on cinema, Islam and gender. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006 where she worked closely with Afghan media producers and filmmakers. Her work can be seen at

~This article is part of a series of column on cinema by Taran N Khan for Himal. Read her earlier column on what is it about funny women that scares Bollywood?

FSA panel discussion challenges censorship

Photo: Shikhar Bhattarai

Film Southasia 2013 delivered a swift rebuke to the Sri Lankan government’s attempted censorship by organizing a panel on how freedom of expression is restricted in Southasia. The discussion, which could be informally titled ‘Censorship without borders’, featured Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times; Shahidul Alam, eminent photographer, writer and activist from Bangladesh; Narayan Wagle, renowned Nepali journalist, editor and novelist; and Burmese filmmaker Thet Oo Maung.

The discussion took place in the time slot originally reserved for the documentary No Fire Zone by filmmaker Callum Macrae, which the Nepali government, on request from the Government of Sri Lanka, has banned from the festival along with two other Sri Lankan selections. No Fire Zone, which has been suppressed by the Sri Lankan and other governments at numerous venues across the world, shows the atrocities committed against civilians in the final days of the war against the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam). Kunda Dixit described the film as very powerful, saying that “in a war crimes tribunal, this would suffice” as evidence. He went on to say that the situation in Sri Lanka is deteriorating, with journalists being attacked, the emergence of Sinhalese ethnic triumphalism, and increasing authoritarian tendencies of the state and in society.

Panelists spoke about their experiences with censorship in their respective contexts. Shahidul Alam recounted incidents of censorship and related threats he has faced. “There will always be people who will try to censor, and people accept it,” he said. Alam cautioned against the practice of self-censorship, which is common in such repressive climates, and suggested that “Collectively we need to find creative ways of challenging these positions.” In this regard, Kunda Dixit gave an example of how government restrictions that allowed only music and not news on FM radio during emergency rule in Nepal were subverted by singing the news on air.

Narayan Wagle provided a perspective on the Nepali context, saying that “self-censorship is the rule of the game now.” Declaring that political propaganda and populism are hindering media operations in Nepal, he asked, “Are we really free to criticize anything?” and described the situation as an “atmosphere of compromise”.

In Burma, the space for media is expanding but there is still a lot of censorship, according to Thet Oo Maung. He said that especially in rural areas, people are still afraid of the police and army, and that media outlets are not willing to cover sensitive topics like ethnic and religious violence.

In the Q&A session that followed, noted cultural critic and journalist Sadanand Menon from Chennai pointed to street censorship, where right-wing mobs have enforced restrictions on speech. He also described how the Indian state relies on British colonial laws like the sedition ordinance to curb dissent and expression. Menon mentioned the thousands of sedition cases against people protesting the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, and also the recent attacks by a Hindutva group on the Kashmir film festival in Hyderabad.

The speakers highlighted alternatives and responses to the specter of censorship, including the online Nepali portal, which features hard-hitting news content on political issues. Shahidul Alam gave an overview of the Rural Visual Journalism Network run by DRIK, which plans to have mobile reporting units operating throughout Bangladesh. Already, the initiative has produced over 600 news reports.

In closing, Kunda Dixit ‘thanked’ officials for trying to stop the screening because it resulted in “a lot more people knowing about the film”.

Posted by Rajeev Ravisankar


Hall 1, Day 3

Day 3 of FSA ’13, on a rainy Kathmandu Saturday ideal for curling up with a movie, presented more superb documentary amid the buzz surrounding No Fire Zone, a powerful documentary on the atrocities committed against non-combatants in the final days of Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamil Tigers that has been banned along with two other Sri Lankan selections from the festival by the Nepali government on a request from the Sri Lankan government. FSA is glad to report that such censorship has only succeeded in the film receiving a great deal of attention from the local media, and that we’ve been getting questions and calls all day. The films will remain in competition and will be screened in open protest at a non-commercial venue, Yalamaya Kendra at Patan Dhoka, at 6.30pm this evening, where we expect a full house.

In Hall 1, the day began with Hombre Maquina (Machine Man), a bold short film from Bangladesh that celebrates the incredible efforts of manual labourers in Bangladesh, using beautiful composition, closeups and repetition to show men and women who work like machines to do work that, in many cases, could not be done through automation. This includes brickmakers moulding 18,000 bricks a day in their team of 4, and shipbreakers pulling collosal vessels to shore. This was followed by another short film, The Old Photographer, one of several short submissions from the Yangon Film School, a heartening sign that Burma’s democratic opening will allow others in our region to begin understanding a society so long cut off from its neighbours. Director Thet Oo Maung took questions after the screening, and described the slow but encouraging gains made recently by Burmese filmmakers. His film focuses on an old Indian photographer in Yangon who has lived through much of the turbulent history of Burma’s Indians and is a legend among Burmese photographers. Thet Oo Maung presents a touching portrait of his subject, capturing his memories just weeks before they were lost to amnesia following a stroke.

Two of the day’s films looked at migration, a vital concern for all Southasian societies today. Playing with Naan follows a Nepali migrant working as cook in a restaurant in Japan, and takes a holistic view of his life by showing us his story alongside those of his family struggling as farmers in his native village and his young wife and child in Kathmandu. It exposes many of the problems that those leaving Nepal to look for better futures are confronted with – lack of education and jobs at home, exploitation by recruiters and employers in foreign lands, exorbitant interest paid to loan sharks, the consequences for families missing fathers and sons, and how governments have done little to help those going abroad and protect them from exploitation. It’s all very relevant now as the plight of Nepali migrant workers in Qatar makes international headlines.

Expecting, which follows an undocumented Afghan immigrant in the Netherlands and his pregnant Kosovar refugee wife as they try to survive while navigating a convoluted asylum system that has them trapped, unable to return home to their own torn societies but unable to work or access basic services in their new home as they wait for necessary documents that never comes. In a powerful half-hour, the film exposes a system that is clearly not responding to the needs of refugees. Here again, given the recent tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa that claimed the lives of almost 200 African migrants desperate to get to Europe, the issue of migration and our global responsibility to deal with it is especially relevant.

In place of the banned No Fire Zone, FSA organised a panel to discuss media censorship across the region. Kunda Dixit (editor of the Nepali Times), Narayan Wagle (noted Nepali journalist, novelist and editor), Shahidul Alam (Bangladeshi photographer, activist and FSA ’13 jury member) and Thet Oo Maung (director of The Old Photographer) spoke of government restrictions and self-censorship in their respective countries, and also provided heartening examples of how brave journalists and activists have used creativity to defy their governments.

The last film of the day in Hall 1 was Celluloid Man, an epic tribute to P K Nair, the Indian archivist who has almost singlehandedly created the National Film Archive that chronicles the history of Bollywwod, especially in its earliest days. With stunning archival footage and revealing interviews with prominent Indian film personalities, the film reminds us how cinema has changed lives and minds in our region, and also given us a precious addition to our regional culture. More than anything else, the film is a reminder of how terribly we neglect the preservation of our own history (the vast majority of early Hollywood films have been lost forever), and how we must make a greater effort to save important material since “without an archive, there can be no history”. A sobering lesson, since even as we celebrate the centenary of Southasian cinema we are realising that we have already lost vast chunks of that legacy.

On that note, we head off to Yalamaya Kendra to screen our Sri Lankan films. At least at FSA, history will not be silenced.

Blog by Roman Gautam

Friday Afternoon

You can’t always be expected to know what you don’t know, and one of the most important things about documentary films is to let you into worlds that you didn’t know existed. “The Human Factor” tells the story of the father and two sons of the Lord family, behind-the-scenes Hindi film musicians who are estimated to have been involved in one in three Hindi films of the 1970s-80s. Almost everyone involved in the making of a film—from actors and directors to hairdressers, caterers and assistants—is credited by name, but not the musicians who create the music that becomes such an integral part of the finished product of the film. “The Human Factor” looks behind the scenes of these under-recognised artists by focusing in on Bombay Parsi family the Lords. Patriarch Cawas Lord, in his nineties when he filmed for this documentary, admitted that he didn’t really enjoy the music he played. Well, he granted, he enjoyed it while he was playing it, but not after. For the Lords, making film music was bread and butter (and jam!), but a job like any other. When synthesisers and other technology pushed them out at the end of the twentieth century, they retired in a dignified manner, but have been credited in recent years with various awards recognising their enormous, and often thankless, contributions towards Indian film.

A change of subject matter, but not entirely of tone, was in evidence at a talk by Gargi Sen, director of Magic Lantern Movies, a documentary film distributor. Gargi discussed the difficulty of getting documentaries disseminated to the public, emphasising the important work that Magic Lantern Movies does. The audience appeared to be full of young documentary makers, which was certainly encouraging, and a vibrant q&a session followed.

Blog by Elen Turner

How do we perceive, accept and project the idea of Southasia?

This panel discussion, organised by Himal Southasian magazine and FSA, featured Kanak Mani Dixit, journalist Sadanand Menon, Mallika Shakya from South Asian University, and Shahidul Alam, pondering the question of representations of Southasia.

This session was also the official launch of the latest issue of Himal Southasian magazine, fittingly titled “Under the Shadow of the Bollywood Tree”. Issues are available for purchase at the venue, at a discounted FSA price.

Kanak Mani Dixit, chairing the discussion, opened by commenting that recently, the concept of Southasia has begun to gain texture and traction. Himal Southaisan has promoted the idea of Southasianism for over twenty-five years, and has been activist as well as journalistic in spreading this concept. He pointed out that a blurring of the boundaries of Southasia is even visible this year in the FSA programme, in which it is not always easy to discern exactly which nation-state the films have come from. The films are regional, not nation-specific.

In yesterday’s FSA opening, Mani Shanker Aiyar’s stated that Southasia is understood by peoples’ differences from each other. Panelist Sadanand Menon responded to this by claiming that what unites Southasia is the undying love of censorship. Governments not only try to impose it in their own states, but are also able to persuade their neighbours to engage their own censorships. India, of course has what Sadanand called the “new beast” called street censorship, of mobs imposing their will. Kanak suggested that north Southasia is the “problem-child” of the region, perhaps North Southasia and South Southasia may be an appropriate way to divide the region conceptually, but Sadanand Menon pointed out that although South Southasia has tended to be freer of the extreme violence of North Southasia, these divisions are still too broad.

Kanak suggested that the overarching concept of Southasia works on a macro-, intellectual level, but that he has found that the closer one gets to the grassroots, the more important the regional becomes. Shahid Ululam agreed. He commented that if India and Pakistan play cricket, Bangladeshis are evenly split in who they support. India is not well-loved in Bangladesh, something that surprises many Indians he has spoken to. Local issues are far more important to most citizens than national-level ones. Further complicating what the regional and the national means, Shahid Ululam stated that has found ‘Bengal’ a more useful concept than ‘Bangladesh’ in promoting his Dhaka-based photography centre to outsiders. Bengal is widely recognised, it has historical and cultural currency, whereas Bangladesh connotes the image of Kissinger’s “basket-case.”

Mallika Shakya spoke about the teaching that goes on in the name of Southasia. Ethnicity, religion, linguistic nationalism all have quite different understandings and academic engagements in each nation, so teaching the concept of Southasianism can be a challenge, but one that is more suited to be taught at the South Asian University in Delhi than other more ‘national’ universities, because of its outwards-looking focus.

Kanak ended with the important statement that the discussion of Southasia is, at present, in a bubble, going on in airport lounges, in English, between around eight thousand people. If we don’t have a proper forum for discussion of the concept of Southasia, then the discussion will remain an elite one. The discourse of Southasia needs to be vernacularised.

Blog by Elen Turner

Boundless Autonomy

On March 9, even cynics had to admit that Indian democracy is a functioning one, when Justice S Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court, laid down a far-reaching judgement on censorship with regard to the documentary film Had Anhad (Bounded-Boundless).

In the matter of Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology vs the Chairperson, Central Board of Film Certification, documentary filmmaker Shabnam Virmani challenged the order dated 28 May 2010 passed by the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). The order upheld three of the four excisions to the film Had Anhad ordered by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) on 5th November 2009 while granting the film a “V/U” Certificate, which would allow unrestricted viewing.

Had Anhad is part of a series of four films ( around the legacy and teachings of the 15th century poet-philosopher Kabir, which Virmani says were “part of a larger project bringing together the experiences of a series of journeys in search of Kabir in the contemporary.” The journeys inquire into and express the spiritual and socio-political resonances of Kabir’s poetry in the form of documentary films, folk music videos, music CDs and poetry books.” In Had Anhad, the filmmaker journeys from Ayodhya to Malwa and Varanasi and across the border to Karachi, in search of “Kabir’s Ram”, the benevolent spirit, rather than the “militant Ram” (the deletion of “militant” was one of the cuts demanded).

The CBFC granted certificates of unrestricted exhibition to three of the four films, proposing minor changes which the filmmaker accepted. However, certain excisions were proposed to Had Anhad, with regard to utterances that allegedly “promoted communal disharmony”, referring to portions discussing the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Another cut demanded was the excision of the latter part of this sentence: “In recent Indian politics, Ram has been invoked by certain groups to consolidate Hindu identity and votes in divisive opposition to Muslims living in India and the neighbouring Islamic state of Pakistan.” The deletion was supposed to ensure that “friendly relations with foreign States are not strained.” The CBFC directed Virmani to carry out four excisions, without adequate hearing. It is this order that the petition challenged.

In a historic judgement granting Had Anhad a “V/U” certificate of unrestricted viewing by the CBFC without any of the excisions, and ordering the Respondent Union of India to pay the petitioners costs of Rs.10,000 within four weeks, Justice Muralidhar observed, “The film maker finds that Kabir‟s Ram is beyond legends and narratives. The film lends democratic space to the „speaking subject‟ and the „citizen viewer‟ to engage in a civilized debate on issues that are perceived to be contentious. It invites introspection into and the cleansing of prejudices from the inner recesses of a bigoted mind with the aid of Kabir’s words and thoughts. It demonstrates how the created barriers of regions, borders, languages, religions, nationalities and nations melt away in Kabir’s universal message of love and compassion. A viewer who stays to see the film till its end is unlikely to be left feeling hateful or vengeful towards any religion or community. The viewer might be impelled to contemplate on the futility of bigotry and violence. Viewed in this light, and in light of the settled constitutional law of the freedom of speech and expression, none of the excisions as directed by the CBFC, three of which have been upheld by the FCAT, are legally sustainable.”


(Text by Laxmi Murthy)