How does the Elephant March without Trampling Others?

The quality of good cinema is that its leaves you thinking. If that is the yardstick, documentaries would almost always be classified as good cinema, because the very reason they are made is to leave the viewer pensive. Sometimes, films like An Inconvenient Truth, or Michael Moore’s many movies, become popular, are seen by the multitude, and manage to affect society. However, sadly, in the vast majority of cases, documentaries hardly get to be seen by enough people that they will shape public opinion.

Thanks to Pedestrian Pictures, I saw two such documentaries — In Search of Gandhi and Freedom…!, and I have been pondering over them since I got back.

In Search of Gandhi (2007) is a film not about history, its about the contemporary India which lives on the trail of the Dandi March. The filmmaker visited various cities and villages en route to see how much people think about and remember Gandhi — and he finds that it is awfully little. Ellis Bridge in Ahmedabad, which was where Gandhi gave a famous speech about equity, is home to a slum, and the government threatens to use its muscle to clean up their homes and build a garden. In most places, people have no qualms in saying that Gandhi’s principles will not work in today’s India, because you have to resort to the unscrupulous and the immoral to get your job done. Perhaps the most shocking was the xenophobic diatribe which a 80 year old Gandhi follower unleashes — his opinions of the Muslim community is that they are like a dog’s tail which can not be straightened. Unfortunately, he is a well respected person of the society there. The tale is the same with youngsters and the emotions in both communities run high post-Godhra and Modi’s ascent to power. Statues of Gandhi lie dismembered, disrespected as Modi’s huge hoardings proclaim a period of wealth and development. In fact, in Surat, Gandhi keeps watch with grave determination over a bunch of people who have congregated in the name of ‘Mahatma Gandhi Laughing Club’. Elsewhere, people have shown little respect while cutting trees to clear off forests, livelihoods, societies, in their hurry to build castlesque shopping malls. The economy is booming, and the booming noise threatens to forever dampen the few noises that remain. (I had written an earlier piece about Mahadevbhai, a play I saw on Gandhi’s assistant, and some posts on India)

Freedom…! was a slightly older film (2002) concentrating on how our 9% Y-O-Y growth is affecting people we don’t think about, sometimes even consciously ignore. Floods in the Kosi river, cutting of Mangrove trees in Gujarat, destruction of forests in Orissa, are shown as case studies of how in some cases people rise up, complain, and ask for their rights. In many cases, the leaders were brutally tortured by the police (Colonel Salve in Kutch — I could not find a link, if somebody can, please let me know and I will put it up), in some cases murdered by perhaps the big-pocketed businesses they were fighting against (Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha’s Niyogi murdered in 1991). However their legacies have lived on, and the remaining unheard voices of fishermen and farmers are trying to make themselves heard, justifying the martyrdom of their leaders.

All this after having seen Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi last night. The story of Siddharth, Vikram and Geeta is a must watch. An extremely strong hat-ke story, incredible performances, and an ending that leaves you pinching your conscience. In fact, the ending is available at Youtube:

And where does all this leaves us? The reason for making these documentaries is to make people think. What is the right model for development? Rampant capitalism which most people are now purporting, can do irreparable harm to our country, its natural surroundings, culture, and even unity. At the same time, the juggernaut of growth and development will roll on, it is not something that can be stopped. The people who have tasted success will not stop at anything, and I am not even sure if they should, because this growth and development is giving India its rightful place in the world — with world leaders knocking at our doorstep ever so often. However, how can we channelize this hunger, and ambition, so that the growth does not come at the expense of the many that have not had the good fortune of being able to get the same level of training, education and opportunities. How does the elephant march forward without trampling his own soldiers?

I wonder.

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