Three civil society groups decline to screen Gopal Menon’s film after the Ahmedabad police interrupted a showing this week.

by Sumana Ramanan

Film maker Gopal Menon cannot find a venue in Ahmedabad to screen his latest film Unholy War, about both fake encounters in Gujarat and the state’s development model over the past decade. Three civil society organisations have declined to host the screening after initially appearing enthusiastic, Menon said.

The organisations probably changed their minds after the city police interrupted a screening on Tuesday of another of Menon’s films, The Killing Fields of Muzaffarnagar, about the riots that broke out in that Uttar Pradesh district in August, Menon said. He had scheduled the screening of Unholy War for Sunday, March 23.

“I am still searching for a venue,” he said. The Bangalore-based film maker said he did not wish to name the organisations because they were all doing good work and he did not wish to jeopardise that. “I can leave, but they have to continue to operate here,” he said.

On Tuesday, five police jeeps led by a police inspector landed up at St Xavier’s College’s Centre for Communication in the Navrangpura area of Ahmebadad, mid-way through the screening of Menon’s film, both he and Hiren Gandhi, his local partner, independently This was confirmed by VB Patel, the police inspector of the Gujarat University police station, under whose jurisdiction the college falls.

Patel said that he had deputed his colleague to go to the venue. “The special bureau told us that they had learnt there was a documentary film on a sensitive topic, and told us to go there,” he said. “We went there just to make sure that the film did not lead to any untoward incident. In any case, we were just carrying out the special bureau’s instructions.” The special bureau is in charge of gathering intelligence.

Menon said that while it was not uncommon for an officer from the intelligence bureau to land up at his screenings, as had happened at venues in Bangalore and Hyderabad, the presence of police jeeps and the interruption of the screening were unprecedented. “The police inspector walked in to the hall asking for the director,” Menon said. “I quickly went outside and he asked me several questions, until the film was almost over. At that point, I said I had to go in for the question-and-answer session.”

Hiren Gandhi, an Ahmedabad-based activist associated with Filmograph, a film society for college students, and the Indian Social Action Forum, who helped Menon organise the screening, said the presence of police jeeps was intimidating. He also said he was not surprised that the organisations had declined to screen Menon’s latest film. “There is a climate of fear here that has been building up over the past 12 years”, he said.

These are the years during which the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi has been chief minister. Modi, who is his party’s prime ministerial candidate, is now in his fourth term. He was in charge of the state during an anti-Muslim pogrom in February 2002.

Menon’s film, Unholy War, has two parts. The first describes the series of fake encounters that have taken place in Gujarat and the second takes a critical look at Gujarat’s development model, evaluating its record on health, education, irrigation and other social indicators.

Menon, 30, originally from Calicut in Kerala, has made 15 films since the time he finished his MBA in Tamil Nadu. The Killing Fields of Muzaffarnagar is his second most recent film. It describes the chain of events that led to the outbreak of riots, what happened during the riots and the consequences, from the viewpoint of the victims, who are overwhelmingly Muslims. The victims describe how their homes were burned and looted and the women raped. The film also shows the conditions in the relief camps, where victims say they are terrified of returning home because the perpetrators of violence are still at large.

Although it has no voice-over, the film has a strong narrative that unfolds through the assemblage of footage, which includes interviews with victims, activists and some Jats, some of who were alleged to have incited the violence. “I did not want to be explicitly appearing to intervene,” said Menon. He said he had 55 hours of footage, shot in the months immediately following the riots, but ultimately had to make difficult choices about selection that reflected the film’s focus.

The film focuses on the horrific crimes perpetrated on the victims, including rape, which he said were among the worst of any riots. “The rape of women and brutalising of children was perhaps even worse than in the Gujarat riots,” he said.

Menon said he wanted to try and release his films as close to the events they documented as possible. “I want my films to have academic depth and intellectual rigour, but they should also be timely journalism,” he said.

Release mor ehere —

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