Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

‘Ralfa’ and the People’s Anthem


by Pranay Limbu and Dambar Krishna Shrestha on the making Satisaal in the Inferno

‘Ralfa’ and the People’s Anthem by Pranay Limbu and Dambar Krishna Shrestha on the making Satisaal in the Inferno
Saatisal in the Inferno is the untold history of ‘Ralfa’, the group that breathed fire against the autocratic Panchayat system by echoing the villages of Nepal with songs of people. The troubadours sang for social transformation and political emancipation from the regime, which had held sway since 1960.

Raamesh, who uses his first name only and who may be called the ‘lead singer’ of the group, first visited Kathmandu in 1961. He went with his friend Rayan to participate in Radio Nepal’s National Folksong Competition. The noted litterateur Parijat became a fan after hearing the duo’s song. Soon, the ‘Ralfa’ group was formed, with the poet Manjul joining in.

The songs of ‘Ralfa’ became the rallying cry of the oppressed, not only against the Panchayat, but against the
autocratic, unfeeling, Kathmandu-centric state in the later decades. The songs that have reverberated across the hills and valleys, sung by many others, include the evergreen:

‘Gaungaunbatautha, bastibastibatautha’ (Rise from the villages, rise from the settlements)
‘Ek joog ma ek din ek choti aauchha ‘ (The day comes only once in an era)
‘Aau milau hamra haat haru’ (come, let’s join our hands)
‘Sangrasha jo jeevan’ (life is a struggle)
‘Rokneko ho dur darshi bicharka dhara’ (Who comes to stop the stream of visionary thoughts)
‘Sunko bihana’ (Morning of the glory)
‘Koi ta bhane jahaj ma sarara’ (Some fly on the airplane)

These lyrics, the zestful singing and the music firstly rang across the hills and valleys in the deep Panchayat years of the 1970s and 1980s, when they were considered treasonous. They supported the people during the 1990 People’s Movement for democracy, and again during the 2006 People’s Movement for peace and democracy.

Even today, activists, communities and groups that seek social and political change use these songs as the people’s anthem. They are classics, but they are still used as a contemporary call to arms.

The new generation has heard the prominent songs of ‘Ralfa’ and Raamesh, but in the process of filmmaking we
discovered that there were many other songs which need-ed to be re-introduced to the public. Further, the public at large by now knows very little about ‘Ralfa’ and its members. And it goes beyond the activist oeuvre of ‘Ralfa’ – the generation that grew up singing ‘Chi musi chi’, ‘Lekka hami ketaketi’ or ‘Aaitbaar bihanai’ in school grounds does not know these children’s songs are composed by Raamesh.

Raamesh, Rayan and Manjul are very much with us, but with the passage of time and earthshaking political events
every few years, less and less is known or remembered about these poets and singers who added entire new di-
mensions to Nepali music in the modern era. That is what got us committed to producing this documentary. We have
made ‘Satisal in the Inferno’, to help the contemporary Nepali-speaking world understand the life and times of ‘Ralfa’, as also other groups with similar objectives of the same time, ‘Sankalpa’ and ‘Astha Pariwar’.

Raamesh, 73, is at the center of ‘Satisal in the Inferno’. His colleagues Manjul, Rayan, Ganesh Rasik, Shyam Tamot, Ram Krishna Duwal, and J B Tuhure speak to the audience, bringing alive the politics, music and personalities of the times. Not only the participants of the musical campaign of ‘Ralfa’, but the contemporary politicians, actors, writers and critics influenced by the group and its music appear in the documentary.

Raamesh says, “Our songs should not only talk about love and affairs, but should raise the voice on behalf of the people, their challenges and difficulties.” He has turned this belief into the creation of the songs of the people, and thus he became the ‘Jana gayak’, the people’s singer. Raamesh is unflinching in his belief in the people, and he puts the citizenry ahead of the political parties, who tend to meander in their commitment. Indeed, many political personalities have fallen into disgrace, brought down by their deeds in spite of revolutionary rhetoric. But Raamesh has stayed the course, in thought, words and deeds. That is why he is rare,
he is the ‘satisal’ in the ‘inferno’, the pine tree that survives the forest fire.

It is possible to tell some stories of music that talk more to the heart than to the brain through the fictional medium. But some subjects of history can be done justice to only in non-fiction. This is true of Raamesh and ‘Ralfa’, hence ‘Satisal in the Inferno’.


I ran into Perween Rahman at the Karachi Literature Festival in 2013. She met me so warmly that afternoon that it is forever etched in my memory. We spoke briefly about the feature length documentary I wanted to make with her about Karachiʼs sewage system. She was glowing, and since several people around her were vying for her attention, I told her I would visit her at her office in Orangi to discuss the documentary in detail.

That was the last time I saw her. On the evening of March 13th, 2013, she was shot dead on her way home from work. Perween was a much-loved architect and urban planner in Karachi, Pakistan. She was the director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), a non-governmental organisation based in Orangi town, a low income neighbourhood of 2.4 million people in the northwestern part of the city. OPP had led community-based improvement of sanitation in Orangi since the 1980s. These efforts were based on extensive mapping of the townʼs drainage channels under the leadership of Perween.

The mapping team went on to document the entire sewage system of Karachi in the 1990s. They discovered that the
untreated sewage of the city was flowing into its natural drains all the way to the Arabian Sea. This led to an explosive situation with the cityʼs municipal authorities whose claims of functioning sewage treatment plants were now laid to waste. OPP’s sewage disposal plan for Karachi was later accepted by the authorities.

The inner workings of Karachiʼs haphazard sewage disposal and its effect on the urban environment has always held astrange fascination for me. This is what I wanted to make a documentary about. I wanted to film it like an adventure though, as a discovery of the city. And I wanted to film it with Perween. I had pitched the idea to her and she got it.

She said she would help with the fundraising efforts. Little did I know that I would end up making a documentary
about her life and work instead. But who would fund such a documentary? In the absence of grant providing institutions for documentary films in Pakistan, one option is to look for international funds. There
are opportunities for us to apply for grants from institutions like the IDFA Bertha Fund, Filmmakers Without Borders, Sundance, Tribeca and the International Documentary Association. Applying for a grant is highly competitive, so an increasingly popular option for filmmakers is to use crowdfunding platforms like IndieGoGo, GoFundMe or Kickstarter.

If you are really passionate about a project, you can also pitch to interested individuals, corporate bodies, NGOs or TV channels in Pakistan. That worked for me in the case of my documentary City by the Sea: The Future of Karachiʼs Coastline, which was funded by a private company as part of their corporate social responsibility. Adventures in Hingol was funded by family and friends. Sea Turtles of Pakistan was produced by Geo Television. Perween Rahman: The Rebel Optimist was funded by the NGO ‘Asian Coalition for Housing Rights’.

Finding funds is not the only challenge of making a documentary film in Pakistan. Safety concerns are something to consider in choosing a topic to film as the country struggles with domestic terrorism. I have known of people being picked up and questioned by the powers that be when they have been filming ‘sensitiveʼ topics.
While filming for the Perween Rahman documentary, we almost got beaten up at an illegal water hydrant in Karachi
when we lingered on way too long. We also had someone pull a gun on us on the outskirts of the city, well known to be a hotspot of the Taliban at that time.

However, that is a choice for the filmmaker to make about the kind of situation they are putting themselves in. Luckily, I only have to worry about not being picked up while filming hermit crabs and migratory birds on the polluted city beaches!

As for being female while filming, it has only been convenient for me as it tends to let one have greater access to subjects, especially women. And one can always don a burka when travelling to restricted areas in the middle of the night! In some cases I have been lucky to have talked my way out of sticky situations, saving my male colleagues in the process.

The options are wide open. You can make it happen. The bottom line is, keep telling stories.

Experiments with Truth: The Documentary Crisis

Documentaries are like birds, with feathers and wings. They fly, they cross borders, they migrate, they rest in strange places. These are particularly exciting times for docs with wings when images are being produced by just about everyone and let loose at a scale that was unimaginable two decades back when Film South Asia was born. And these are challenging times too for documentary film makers because everyone is a film maker today. Images that made films, that made heroes and heroines of film makers are now being made by everyone.

Two decades back, travelling deep into their respective countries the South Asian film maker brought images that made us smile, cry or be horror struck. They now come live, made by the people who are the story. Some of it is ugly when it comes coloured with blood and made by reporters who are participants and chroniclers of the attacks on Dalits and Muslims in India. Most often however the images come as life affirming. They are about people’s everyday, their little joys and pleasures, pain and suffering, achievements and failures. They are sometimes witness to inhumanity, at others to compassion.

Images are bringing us together, creating a community of a shared aesthetics and the sensory. It is also a community with a sense of immediacy, a temporality that is of now and of the past at the same time. This has never happened at the scale at which it is happening today. The image makers are creating and foraging personal archives of lives, events and the emotive that are marked by memory as also change by a mapping of the present. The documentary as an instrument that has at its core an unwavering relationship with the factual, with evidence, with the real is now the most gripping story that has everyone hooked across media and across countries.

Besides capital it is the documentary image which is seamlessly connecting people in a world wide web of sensory responses to the ordinary and the extraordinary that make human lives. Each and every technology that can produce images is being deployed by millions across the globe to tell their stories. They are seeking a connection, an entry into a sensory network of the emotive that is travelling across borders, across cultures, across languages, across nations, across enmities in multiple directions. The documentary today truly has vast wings and it is flying as it has never flown in the past. Is this a crisis for the art form and the professional documentarist?

All art forms are perpetually in a crisis. There would be no art if there wasn’t a crisis to be overcome. These crisis come gift wrapped in lurid and mocking cellophane paper, they come in the form of technology, they arrive as paucity of funds, they drive in as the industry, they come dressed in the uniform of authority or they simply knock at your door as the censor. But they always do arrive, unfailingly and repeatedly. They also fly in as challenge of form, of aesthetics, of the grammar of story telling.

The documentary arguably is the most difficult art form to experiment with because of its intrinsic and etymological relationship with time, with that which is now, that which is the ‘truth’, with that which is the ‘real’. This is a crisis that the documentary form has grappled with since its inception and will continue to do so till it survives as a form of story telling. However the current crisis is unique in the sense that it threatens to make the form redundant as art, as a form of self conscious story telling through images that are in dialogue with its own history and grammar. The brave new documentarists come with no baggage, they simply reduce the form to its core objectives, a form that allows images to be created from that moment that can never be recreated, time that gets trapped in an image for posterity.

This crisis though rapid in its appearance didn’t come unnoticed. The documentary filmmakers have been responding to it even as it was unfolding. The response until now has been two fold. At one end, there has been a re-description and re-presentation of the documentary in spaces that until now were denied to it, the art museums. The documentary in the last decade has slowly inched itself inside museum spaces, facilitated both by experiments with form and the deployment of writing on it by the academic world which strengthen its case as an artistic response to the world. Art museums struggling to respond to the challenges posed by the cataclysmic changes in media and communication have been redefining what construes art and simultaneously creating and even discovering new art forms. The documentary is one such new art form. At the other end, the story telling is becoming more and more grand and vast in its ambition and in its scale. The documentary now has to mimic the large heart of the fiction film, it has to carry us through momentous events, it has to lock us into an emotive response that until now was the preserve of the fiction film. The documentary art practice of everyday no longer hides in its mundane details the churning of life with its insignificant moments and stories, but it has to be imbued with the allegorical, the potential of being more than what it can be, the confluence of a temporality and aesthetics that locates itself outside the form.

In a strange twist to the tale of the documentary, it is people armed with a range of electronic equipment capable of transforming what they see into images who have become the most ardent protectors of the form even as the professional documentarist is withdrawing into another world. The documentary it was always argued has a limited audience and today when the documentary image is the most visible image across the globe, the documentarist is facing her toughest ever battle for survival.

The film space was a secret tryst between the director, cinematographer, the sound engineer and the editor. It was a space to be experienced as a sensuous collective intervention that hid in its underbelly myriad sound tracks, colour/light strategies and multiple narratives that came together in ways that were inseparable when seen as a moving image, a story, a film. It was a truth that was manufactured as truth.

The same shades of truth are now being manufactured by people at large and it is no longer a secret tryst but part of a hyper reality that can be fake, fractured, omni present or dressed but with the same documentary zeal for the real and for the now. The obsession with the real and the present and the documentary is at an all time high and that is the crisis that the form faces today. Everyone has the capacity and the capability of producing their real, their present, their narrative and more importantly a community out there to accept it and make it their own.

As a practitioner what has surprised me is the reams that have been written on realism and the documentary while there is almost an intriguing silence on magic realism and the documentary. The word was almost invented for the documentary but has not even skimmed the practice and its understanding. The hyper reality of the documentary form, its commonly used phrases like – the magical documentary moment, the fantastic in the mundane everyday, all point towards a certain discomfort both by practitioners as well as film theorists to acknowledge that disjunction which is the key to magic realism is structurally present in the form. If at all the experiments and moves in the documentary art form have been more with surrealism rather than experimenting with magic realism, which is grounded in hard material reality. The reasons are somewhat obvious. The surreal does not take the documentary away from its pretence of realism and at the same time allows it to psychologize the inner world of the object to archive the inexpressible, the unconscious, etc while magic realism would subvert its truth claims in fundamental ways. The documentary has to learn to unlearn the relationship between truth and evidence, it has to move away from forensics and see truth as disaggregated, as hard and yet slippery, the narratives have to drive truth and not the other way around. I think the future for the documentary practice especially in the non west context lies in opening a new register of magic realism. There lies the brave new documentary.

– Rahul Roy is an independent documentary film maker from India and an FSA alumini.

Documentary Bears Witness

There is a nip in the air as the November weather clothes Kathmandu in its charming best. It’s time again for FSA – the 11th edition in its 20th year! We greet you – our audience – hoping you will enjoy the smorgasbord of films put together for you.

These are not easy times as the world and Southasia lurch towards extreme ideologies, locking individuals and whole communities into silos of exclusivity. At a time like this, we trust the power of non-fiction film to open a window to allow a glimpse into our common humanity.

Our documentaries “bear witness” to these threads that bind us. So, in Among the Believers – banned in Pakistan – even in the most rigid of madrasas where hatred is preached day in and day out, the little wards sneak off to grab a spot of cricket, while brave citizens battle threats to life to provide them with open-minded education and access.

The Colour of My Home quietly and poignantly takes us to the homes of people, predominantly Muslim, displaced by the riots of Muzzafarnagar, in the heart of the Ganga plains. The film attempts to understand what it means to be uprooted and then ‘rehabilitated’. How does one reclaim one’s citizenship in times like these?

What does it mean to be born to women jailed for crimes (allegedly) committed? Born behind Bars explores the shadowy world of a Telengana prison where children are allowed to stay with their mothers up till the age of six, imbibing a morally ambiguous universe. What becomes of childhood if pushed into a dark, dank rathole mine to extract coal, risking life in a bid to earn a living? The brilliantly shot Fireflies in the Abyss takes us into the world of young Suraj, an immigrant from Nepal in the Jaintia hills of Meghalaya. Even When I Fall follows two young girls from Nepal sold to a circus in India as they grow into independent young women seeking to stand on their own feet. Childhood can also include joy and passion, of the kind 11-year-old Zaid experiences in kite running and flying in Famous in Ahmedabad.

Forced to flee his home and country at the age of five due to the raging civil war instigated by the majoritarian Sinhala regime, Jude Ratnam returns, older and wiser. In Demons in Paradise, he dissects the implications of the strife and – at the risk of being branded traitor – recounts how it brutalised his own Tamil community. From Myanmar, before the Rohingya issue exploded, comes a lyrical depiction of a country emerging from years of dictatorship in Burma Story. The crowd-funded Sramik Awaaz brings out voices of women working in garment factories of Bangladesh. In Afghanistan Night Stories, for the first time, a woman with a camera enters the male barracks of soldiers to capture their hazardous missions.

There are interesting experimentations in form and technique, such as the bitingly satirical Nuclear Hallucinations centred on the protests against the Kudankulam Atomic Power Project in Tamil Nadu. Or the tale of two transgender women in search of a rented apartment in Chennai, rendered through theatre, songs and dances in Is It Too Much to Ask?

Southasians take to music, song, dance, theatre and cinema, to tell their unique stories from different nooks and crannies of the vast Subcontinent. In Indian-administered Kashmir, the rhythms and blues of resistance take the shape of hip-hop and folk music in Soz: The Ballad of Maladies. A rock star teaches young girls in one of the most forbidding and orthodox neighbourhoods of Karachi to sing in Lyari Notes. The “Ralpha” group of troubadours took on the powerful Panchayat regime through their songs for political change in Nepal. Their history is recounted in Satisal in the Inferno. Ima Sabitri is the story of a diminutive powerhouse of a woman, the backbone of a renowned threatre group, who adroitly depicts the violation of human rights during army rule in Manipur. Then we have Rasan Piya, the story of an ethereal musician of the lineage of Tansen, who represented the acme of Southasia’s composite culture, teaching, singing, writing till the age of 107, when he passed away in 2016.

These are the gems strewn throughout the calendar of FSA ’17, too numerous to recount here. The stunningly shot Machines that takes one into a modern version of Dante’s inferno, where de-humanising physical labour and hardships in a Gujarat textile factory unmask the ugly face of industrialization. The gently humorous cadences of Last Days, Last Shot explore death and dying in the city of salvation, Varanasi. Lock and Key introduces us to recovering addicts in Indian Punjab and Aspatal describes health care based on the courage and goodwill of the ordinary people of the western Nepal midhills.

In the FSA ’17 schedule, you will find multiple award-winners and others that have just started out in their journey to festivals around Southasia and the world. The variety and depth rule out the possibility of favourites. Indeed, it was a difficult and heartbreaking process for FSA’s international committee to select from the more than 300 films that were submitted. The reason we have the largest number ever being exhibited – 63 – is due to the high quality of entries this time around. It just goes to show what a good job all our non-fiction filmmakers are doing despite the constraints of resources and curbs on freedom of expression.

The FSA family of participating filmmakers is growing by leaps and bounds, and this time we have added so many more. Most of our filmmakers, right since 1997, have kept in touch with the festival, often connecting us with new talent and alerting us to some of the best non-fiction coming out from the far corners. One of FSA’s first ‘alumni’ – Farjad Nabi from Lahore, who has moved from making non-fiction to feature films – is a member of our jury this time.

Of the 63 films selected, twelve are being screened in the ‘Documentaries of Dissent’ section, where the focus country this time is India. Six are part of the student selection meant to engage with fresh new talent in the field of non-fiction. We promise you interesting times from the 2nd to the 5th of November. Even as the surrounding mountains bear witness, we bring you Southasia, warts and all, in a clear, unvarnished reflection of our life and times.

– Mitu Varma, Director Film Southasia

A haven for non-fiction!


In the last edition the theme of the festival was ‘Documentary won’t be confined’. MALLIKA ARYAL shared her thoughts on how FSA is a space to defend the free spirit of documentary filmmaking.


Kathmandu Valley’s love affair with documentaries started in 1994 when the first ever ‘Himalaya’ film festival took place. I wasn’t even a teenager back then, but remember attending the opening. A small hall that would, during a normal event barely hold 120, was packed with some 300 people, ready to burst. I sat on the floor of the hall and watched in silence with the audience. I remember little of the film, but what I will never forget is the audience—the palpable excitement, enthusiasm, anticipation. It felt like I was going to be a part of something big.

Over the next few years the festival morphed because Nepal is more than just the ‘capital’ of the Himalaya – it is also the ‘capital’ of Southasia. The years following the first Film Southasia festival, Nepal and rest of Southasia was going through extraordinary political times. FSA became a movement where journalists, activists and filmmakers from the far reaches of the Subcontinent and beyond found safe haven in Kathmandu every two years. Meanwhile, a generation grew up watching highly charged non-fiction film of great variety, including ‘real-time’ anthropology to travel diaries, archival presentations and dedicated, courageous and even lonely – activism.

The generation of Kathmandu documentary-viewers groomed by FSA is what I like to call the ‘perfect’ audience—we are young, excited, and we love good storytelling. I had the honor of working as the festival director for two festivals and continue to advise the FSA team today. During my time at FSA, one of our priorities was to groom a generation of excitable audience who will pay (money) to watch documentaries like they would watch a commercial film. In our selections, we went for variety and representation of course, but concentrated on the craft displayed, with Southasia as our playground. We moved the festival venue to a duplex theatre and it worked like a charm.

Watching the audience queuing up in front of the ticket counter, attending the interactions with filmmakers, I have been proud to have been a part of a festival that prepared this generation of audience who respect the work of filmmakers, watch films critically, are energized by the novelty of ideas and methods of storytelling, and most importantly, demand quality work. The FSA audience asks sharp questions, makes unique observations, and soaks up stories. This is the FSA audience we have seen over the last two decades, which will once again be part of the 10th edition of the festival this weekend 19-22 November.

Nepali documentaries have matured with FSA and its sibling festivals in Kathmandu— from Dhruba Basnet’s 2001 film The Killing Terraces that brought images of Nepal’s civil war to Kathmandu to Mohan Mainali’s 2002 film The Living of Jogimara that brought the issue of the war disappeared into discourse, Kesang Tseten’s 2012 Who Will Be A Gurkha, on the grueling process Nepali youngster with the dream of joining the British Gurkhas, and now to Ramyata Limbu’s 2015 Drawing the Tiger that beautifully depicts hopes, dreams, disappointment and heartbreak of a young girl in post-war Nepal.

I had a unique opportunity again this year to be part of the FSA ’15 selection committee. For two months, we met every evening for a few hours in FSA’s screening room at Krishna Galli, and were transported to places like Barpak (Nepal), Mes Aynak (Afghanistan), Nagaland, the underbelly of Delhi and the Nepali fruit markets of London. Munching on masala peanuts (in the true spirit of Southasia), we watched, discussed, re-watched, discussed again. Emotions ran high, tears were even shed sometimes, and one would have been surprised if there had been a fistfight (it almost happened, once). These 43 films are the result of many months of work of selections, happening through earthquakes, strikes and shortages.

Fundraising for FSA has always been hard, and this year it has been especially challenging because a lump sum that would have made FSA possible was promised over months and months of negotiation, and cancelled at the last moment without adequate explanation. FSA has since its start been run on a shoe-string budget, and when a promised sum doesn’t come through, it is not just the festival that suffers, but the entire documentary community of Southasia.

This year, the Festival sat down twice to decide whether to postpone FSA ’15 –once after the earthquake and once during the blockade, with scarcities rife. Both times, the organizers decided to proceed. The event was moved from the commercial duplex to the more modest Yala Maya Kendra in the old, historical city of Patan, a space that has become synonymous to cultural events and talks. As we go to press with the catalogue, the FSA’s programme coordinators are running around in bicycles from caterers to travel agents, designers and printers, to the designers. It is amidst a spirit and bravery that this incredibly motivated team is organizing FSA ’15.

Nepal has long been a space where filmmakers from all over Southasia gather every two years and they feel free when they are here. The organisers make sure that the delegates are well taken care of – they can let their hair down in an atmosphere of camaraderie and inclusion. This year has been incredibly challenging for Nepal as we deal with the aftermath of earthquakes of April-May, and the final phase of the festival was organised amidst a blockade. The idea was, that the spirit of Southasia, the energy of this international event, must not dissipate. The odds must be overcome.

There is something that has to be said about the safe haven that storytellers need to nurture their creativity and community. Nepal has become a de-facto venue for events that can be held only with difficulty elsewhere in Southasia. Journalists and activists here have fought hard for freedom of expression, and it is to the advantage of the larger Southasian community, including documentary makers. While societies in so many parts of our Southasian neighborhood have created insurmountable barriers for the screening of films, in Nepal we have been able to keep the door open. At FSA, we are part of the campaign to defend the free spirit of documentary filmmaking.

If a film, for any reason, is clamped down, FSA will find creative ways of showing it. With that belief and the hope for future this year’s FSA’s slogan is also aptly ‘Documentary Won’t Be Confined’. This year as you roam the streets of the old city of Patan between FSA screenings, look around the Darbar Square in its ruins, imagine what it was, and how Nepal is rebuilding it, take a moment to pay homage to the Valley of Kathmandu that has been home to FSA for the last two decades. May the next 20 years of FSA be as interesting, transformative and exciting as the last twenty.


Mallika Aryal is a video and print journalist, former director and present advisor to FSA. You can find her on twitter at: @mikaness

Representing silence


In the last edition the theme of the festival was ‘Documentary won’t be confined’. PUJA SEN wrote about political documentaries which were part of the selection for FSA’15. 

At the time of writing, more than 40 writers, 10 filmmakers, and various artists and scientists have returned their national awards in protest against the growing environment of cultural intolerance in India. What spurred these actions was the lynching of a Muslim man (suspected of having eaten beef) by a Hindu-right mob and the apathy of Indian authorities in the face of it. The task of resisting fascism — by filmmakers, writers and artists — is often a dangerous business in Southasia. Apart from the constraints of censorship, there is the very threat to life. On 31 October 2015, three bloggers in Bangladesh were assaulted in the capital city for writing critically against religion, only the most recent in continuing attacks on writers asserting their freedom of expression this year in the country. Where does the political documentary fit in this landscape, and can it help disturb the status quo in Southasia?

The documentary, by definition, calls on ideas of truth and veracity, having the power to uphold challenges to official or popular discourse. In this, its closest kin in the written medium could be said to be the investigative reportage. However, the documentary is able to go beyond reporting and do something that is difficult to accomplish in all forms of journalistic writing: representing silence. In the lineup for FSA’15, two entries stand out in this regard: Subasri Krishnan’s What the Fields Remember and Iffat Fatima’s Khoon Diy Baarav (Blood Leaves its Trail). Both films show us how historical memory is formed and political erasure is enacted through the silence of the state and central government.

Krishnan’s film is about the Nellie massacre of 18 February 1983, where more than 2000 Muslims were murdered under an ‘anti-foreigner’ movement, better known as the ‘Assam Agitation’. Krishnan’s quiet and haunting visuals evoke the trauma of the event and offer no catharsis to the viewer. The film bears witness to the characters’ memories of violence and loss.

Similarly, Fatima’s film, focused on the enforced disappearances of young men by state police and the armed forces in India-administered Kashmir, shows us what the trauma of waiting and uncertainty does to parents and families of the disappeared. Both these films foreground personal remembrance as a challenge to the deliberate silence of the state. This is what makes the documentary a powerful form, its ability to archive a collective memory against the officially mandated discourse.

The threat of the documentary is keenly felt on the ground, judging by the attempts to ban screenings and the difficulties in getting censor-board certificates for films that challenge national narratives. Nakul Sawhney’s film Muzzafarnagar Baqi Hai was disrupted by the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) student cadre – the youth wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – in a college screening in Delhi University this year. This spurred protest screenings all through India, and even outside, including here in Kathmandu. The film depicts the aftermath of the communal violence that shook north India before the 2014 general elections, eventually winning BJP candidates electoral seats. Sawhney’s film engages directly with events on the ground (in the tradition of Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma – both of whom, incidentally, are among the filmmakers who have returned their national awards in India), in which we see characters defy and challenge mainstream accounts of the riots, and resistance to the effort to communalise Uttar Pradesh. Sawhney takes us on a journey through regional and national politics, while staying close to those affected by its violence.

It is the political potential of films like these that make regional festivals such as FSA so important – they widen the scope of artisic and political interaction and create platforms for circulation beyond national boundaries. In countries in Southasia, where the space for dissent is shrinking rapidly before our eyes, the political documentary may stand out as the form par excellence.


Puja Sen is Consulting Editor at Himal Southasian.

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

“Let’s get together: it’s stupid to fight, and lovely to be friends”: Film Southasia 2013 launch

The official Film Southasia 2013 opening had it all: intelligent speeches, beautiful music, and some serious political controversy.

Three addresses started the proceedings, from Kanak Mani Dixit (FSA Chair and editor of Himal Southasian magazine), Sadanand Menon (the FSA Jury Chair) and Mani Shankar Aiyar (Indian Politician and Writer). One theme ran through all addresses, reflecting the ethos of the Film Southasia Festival: that greater unity is needed amongst the nations that make up Southasia, and that film is one means through which this can be consolidated. Kanak Mani Dixit commented that in these days of ultra-nationalism throughout the region, it is imperative to reach out to the ‘other’ side without losing sight of one’s own ethos and views. This is, India need not be hostile towards Pakistan, it will not weaken the Indian identity; similarly, Nepal need not be hostile towards India. The overarching animosity between India and Pakistan tends to overshadow, and leave behind, the other countries that make up Southasia. Sadanand Menon furthered this line of discussion, stating that while many genres of the arts around Southasia have been pushed into conformity, and ultimately commodified, documentary film is one genre that has resisted this and provides a platform for non-conformist views to be aired. Mani Shankar Aiyar—described by some on stage as a politician who actually makes sense—said that he had always found it easier to connect with people from around the Southasian region than from further afield. Therefore, he finds India’s foreign policy baffling: they are best friends with Paraguay, but don’t know what to do about Pakistan! Southasians from Afghanistan to Nepal to Myanmar to Sri Lanka (and of course, India in the midst of it all) are enormously diverse, but it is in everyone’s best interests to recognise the connections and similarities.

The talks were followed by beautiful Baul musicians from Dhaka, singer Anusheh Adanil and her guru accompanying her, a memorable and uplifting opening to the festival.

Some breaking and serious news was announced before the screening of the first film of the day: Kanak Mani Dixit had warned that the spaces for open discussion were being constricted in Nepal, and this news emphasised the truth of his statement. The Sri Lankan government has pressured the Nepali government into censoring the Sri Lankan films to appear in this year’s FSA. Callum Macrae’s “No Fire Zone”, and Kannan Arunasalam’s two films “The Story of One” and “Broken” will not be screened at QFX Kumari Cinema. But, refusing to be silenced, FSA will screen these films at a ‘private’ screening, the venue and date of which will be announced on Friday morning. As Kanak stated, “FSA protests this unwarranted intrusion into the cultural sphere. It obstructs our festival’s goal.” The three films will remain in the official competition, and hopefully greater interest in them has been generated, and they will receive strong audiences.

Blog by Elen Turner