Buniyadi Nirmaan: Cinema waala

(By Vibhore Vardhan, a volunteer with the JJSS)

There is a scene in Cinema Paradiso where the projectionist reflects a movie out of his window, out across the town square, on to a wall of the neighboring building. A euphoric hush engulfs the open square as the agitated crowd sees the moving images on the wall. They all gather in front of the building and start watching, happily immersed in the magic that is unfolding on the screen, under the starlit sky.

In the last year and half, I have had the privilege of being part of several such magical moments. They were seeded by Kamayani di’s large collection of socially relevant movies and the desire to screen them for our saathis. We both believed in the power of movies, especially documentaries, to change the way we see the world.  I vividly remember the first one that I watched, Born into Brothels, and can still draw inspiration from it after nearly a decade!

So, I got a couple of pico-projectors and started film screenings as part of the JJSS children’s club in Araria. Soon after, they became one of the founding pillars of our buniyadi nirman activities:

“Probably the club’s biggest draw these days is Meena, an animated series created by UNICEF for the girl child, in the early nineties, sadly still relevant. Thanks to our new tech-gear, we have been able to screen two clips every Sunday. From pointing out the differences in diet and work distribution that are the societal norms, to how girls can do male-tasks, Meena and her parrot, Mitthu, have shared a lesson or two with everyone. But not everything has to be educational, so we have screened films like the Lion King and slowly building a content library that can be shown to the children.” – JJSS 2013 update

But we didn’t stop with the kids. Our goal was to make good cinema available to everyone around us. So, we let the movies play in Araria. Some of the notable ones were India Untouched screening at the JJSS karyakarni meeting on Ambedkar Jayanti and Chak De at the JJSS girl’s scholarship meeting. From Mirch Masala to Peepli Live to Well Done Abba, a good movie became our way to unwind during the JJSS training center construction!

Soon it was time to take the screenings to the villages! It was one of the bright spots during my stay in Parihari. सिनेमा वाला आया है (cinema waala has come) – became the crying call when I entered the hamlets. Any and all surfaces became our screening point, daylight and battery being the only constraints. I still regret that one occasion when I had to leave Lachha Bitha after the youngsters had spent several hours in getting the battery charged. It remains unchecked on my todo list.

We had a great collection of socially relevant movies, but we were desperately looking for hour-long documentaries in Hindi and educational content for the kids. Populating our content library became the top-most priority in 2014. In addition to Araria, I had the kids of Adharshila clamoring for their TV night. Thanks to Sanjeevni’s help, we made good progress in the last few months. And we made full use of this updated library during the last five months holding screenings across two states and dozens of villages.

The void for documentaries in Hindi was filled to some extent by Satyamev Jayate. Despite critiquing the show for its scripted melodrama and often not presenting the full picture, I am very thankful to SMJ team for going where no one else in the mainstream Indian media has gone before. Seriously, it reflects the dismal state of Indian media that the alternative to SMJ is nothing at all! But to SMJ’s credit, it is not the choice because there are no other choices. It would be unfair to not admit that some of the episodes and the songs have overwhelmed me, strengthening my resolution to do more, much more…

As we started screening SMJ episodes, I found out several new reasons to like the show. Its coverage of plethora of social issues allowed us to customize the screening to the audience. While we showed “Toxic Food” to a group of farmers in Budhgaon village in MP in order to seed further conversations about Adharshila’s organic farming initiatives, the theme changed to gender related issues in Bihar. Here we watched “Female Foeticide” during the second meeting of scholarship workshop and “Domestic Violence” at another informal meeting at the center. Even related themes like dowry and love marriage, both strongly embedded beliefs of the patriarchal society, were brought out in the open due to these screenings.

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

Not every screening prompted a discussion to our liking. It took us a while to accept this. We tried formats where we had discussion before and after the screenings. We had silent screenings too. Mostly, we got politically correct responses, but once in a while, their facial expressions and other spontaneous reactions during the screenings hinted many untold stories. But over time, we noticed that many of our saathis were internalizing the screenings in their own unique ways. After all, each seedling has to germinate on its own.

Probably the biggest impact was felt when youngsters like Vijay started taking initiatives to show SMJ in their villages. He saw the episode on “Big Fat Indian Wedding” with a bunch of teenagers at the coaching center in Amgachhi, and felt strongly about it to show it during his night stays in the village as part of the summer camps. Similar reaction after seeing “Alcohol Abuse”, a topic he felt needed to be discussed more openly with sangathan members.

One thing that SMJ does beautifully is dispel the myth that social evils are limited to a certain demographics. It selects examples from across the spectrum of Indian society, especially its “creamy layer” – the educated urban middle class folks – and shows that they do worse than their rural counterparts. This is an eye-opener to rural India as it helps them realize that education, money, and urbanization do not magically solve all societal problems. Whether you give 60 thousand rupees or 60 lakhs, the act of giving dowry is a problem in itself – this self-reflection is an important step towards building a society that practices equality based on gender, caste, and class.

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Both the availability of mobile phones that can play videos, and the ease of sharing, has made the villagers hungry for multimedia content. They are even paying over 10 rupees per “chip-loading”. But all they get from their local mobile shops is cheap entertainment in the form of B-grade films, item songs, and religious soap operas. What is needed is a localized video library that carries a good selection of socially relevant content. Documentaries that makes them aware of the larger issues, cinema that entertains without propagating old stereotypes, educational videos that enables self-learning, health and sanitation videos that promotes good practices etc. But that is just the first step…

“My parents say that they love my brother and me equally. But then why am I the only one who keeps getting interrupted to do household chores?” This question, rather a sudden outburst, from a seventeen year old girl took us by surprise at the closing moments of the second workshop. Until then, very few words had been publicly spoken by the teenage girls, even after having watched Aam ka batwara, Female foeticide, and Well done abba in the preceding 24 hours. We were delighted at having such an emotional response, but careful in handling it – for outspoken girls are quickly labelled as having a bad character. So, we discussed on how to present our viewpoints in a polite and tactful way. It felt like a perfect closing moment to the workshop. Three months later, the same girl disclosed that she was about to be married. The glimmer of hope that had sparked was gasping for air!

Change does not happen by simply showing it on the screen. A lot of work has to be done to prepare the ground so that new seedlings can sprout from it.  Cinema is just one of the tools out there. The actual nurturing needs to happen before, during, and after the germination. Together with Adharshila and JJSS, I hope to work towards this one straw revolution…

“We realized that the important thing was not the film itself but that which the film provoked.” — Fernando Solanas

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