In February I had the privilege of visiting south India (Madurai, Chennai and Mumbai) courtesy of Ekta Parishad – an amazing land rights movement, about whom the 2014 festival film Millions Can Walk was made.
The purpose of the trip was to deliver workshops for film students, film-makers and activists about “film for social change”. Specifically opening up dialogue around what we have learnt and done in the UK and Europe, and how this might inform alternative models of film production, distribution and impact in India.
But I went as much to learn about the current challenges and aspirations that young Indian activists have at the moment. And it was incredibly eye-opening, not least because the visit coincided with an escalation in the crackdown on civil liberties that Prime Minister Modi and the BJP Party have been tacitly endorsing since long before his election. Specifically, a young student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, had been arrested the week I arrived for “sedition” – a charge also levelled at Arundati Roy a few weeks earlier, on entirely spurious grounds. He was then beaten up in court by prosecuting lawyers, and neither judge nor government attempted to intervene.
For many of those I met, this was just the latest in a long line of abuses which the UK and EU have been ignoring in favour of the double digit growth objectives Modi is pursuing (which have obvious commercial gains for us, ignoring the fact that they are founded on environmental chaos). So I was asked to appeal on my return to anyone with connection to Indian film, commerce or development to appeal for greater solidarity.
India is home to a fifth of the world’s population. Without civil liberties (and Modi’s government also outlawed foreign aid relating to civic development last year) we know that growth will not take their real needs into account, and make it only more likely that the abhorrent levels of inequality that are pervasive in India will deepen.
In this context, it was a huge privilege to meet many activists – from Bhopal to Kerala – who continue to find creative ways to advance community rights, often under the radar and sometimes – as in the case of Ekta Parishad – on an epic scale. Because Ekta is a social movement and not an NGO they can afford to be much more open about their activity – which in 2018 will include a million person march on Delhi to demand land rights for some of the most disenfranchised Indians; and in 2019/20 an epic 7,500 km march from Delhi to Geneva to meet with activists in Europe and push the UN for greater, more urgent reform around similar issues.
They hope to see similar solidarity marches starting from Western and Eastern Europe, culminating in a People’s Assembly on Justice, Land, Environment. Maybe you’d like to make plans to support or join them?
Pictured: still from Pankaj Johar’s film Cecilia
Meanwhile on the film side: violence and celebrity pervade Tamil and Hindi cinema just as in Hollywood, but sadly there is nearly no alternative cinema to speak of. Again, it was a pleasure to meet a few filmmakers including the delightful and passionate social filmmaker B. Lenin who, now in his late 60s, is hungry to see a new era for filmmaking in India. Together with Tamil actor Shanmugaraja who hosted our workshop at the Film Academy in Chennai, he’s one of a few voices seeking a different discourse. Similarly Pankaj Johar, director of a new feature doc Cecelia supported by our friends at Bertha, about domestic slaves, joined us in Mumbai to preview the film, to much acclaim.
At Take One Action we will of course continue to seek out and honour this work – to encourage and bring to light stories which currently cost these artists far too great a risk – financial and political – to make.
But above all it seems we have to continue demanding that our own countries – Scotland and the UK – show far greater leadership in publicly demanding reform of oppressive states, whatever their economic or political promise… instead of fuelling injustice. This has to include the US and China, and India too.
If you’re already involved, here are some ideas from Indian civil society of what they may need help to do more of.