Shubhradeep Chakravorty who died on August 25 last year as much of a brain haemorrhage as of the humiliation and harassment from the Central Board of Film Certification and the Hindutva forces, was an extraordinary man who built his extraordinariness through ordinary, frequently rotten, circumstances.
Shubhradeep’s most recent film In Dino Muzaffarnagar has still not received clearance from the Censor Board (Meera Choudhury, his surviving partner, is fighting for it) and was not allowed to be screened after it was made in the run-up to the BJP Modi government coming to power. Once the BJP came to power, the fate of the film was sealed.
This was not the first time Shubhradeep fell foul of the Hindutva forces. He was attacked at screenings of his previous films and yet nothing would prevent him from getting the film to as many people as possible. He died trying to do that. He will be remembered mainly as an intrepid documentary film-maker but his attitude to everything in his life might be called intrepid.
As a child, he suffered from congenital cataract, a condition which prevents most children affected by it from getting even a primary education but Shubhradeep not only studied till postgraduation, he also read reams and reams of research and made films, all the while letting nobody even know that even after his operation in adulthood, reading, using his eyes in general, was always a constraint.
Chakravorty was born to Bengali parents and his father, posted in various parts of North India, eventually settled in Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh. Shubhradeep fought humiliation and mockery in school because of his eye condition, grew up in the sparse and unimaginative context of eastern Uttar Pradesh, struggling against conservative mores to run a theatre group (he actually started a chapter of IPTA in Faizabad) and with his over-protective mother to eventually run away from small-town Faizabad to big, bad Delhi.
In Delhi, he worked with the CPI till internecine politics saw him thrown out of that fetid party and then he worked as a journalist with Doordarshan for years before quitting because his anti-communal work around the time of Ayodhya had put him on to what was to become his vocation: using film to uncover the lies that communal politics built itself with. Ayodhya was the moment which firmed his convictions and his politics. He said he would have been happy to have died a martyr’s death in the fight against the destruction of the Babri masjid.
But it was more than a decade before he was ready to make his first film. Godhra Tak (2003) involved unravelling the tapestry of lies that was passed off as the ‘primary cause’ for the meticulously pre-planned pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. His final film In Dino Muzaffarnagar (2014) was the first and most brilliant of the handful of films to expose another pogrom, this time in the run-up to an election.
In between were several other films like Encountered on a Saffron Agenda, examining encounter killings in Gujarat and Out of Court Settlement (2012) and After the Storm (2012), both about Muslims harassed, targeted, murdered, acquitted and yet harassed and tormented by the state, from Shahid Azmi to poor Muslim youth arrested by the state whom Azmi himself fought for to his death.
It is difficult not to see Azmi and Chakravorty in the same light and to commend Chakravarty even more for his doggedness in exposing the fascist state as a Hindu himself. Anand Patwardhan has commented on the indifferent quality of Chakravorty’s film-making with the exception of In Dino Muzaffarnagar but in many ways it might be said that Patwardhan was missing the point.
Shubhradeep Chakravorty was a man on a mission and his concern was not so much excellent film-making as putting a point across. He was also primarily a journalist and so the films are more journalistic chronicles and his journalism was of the best kind. He spent hours, days, weeks and months doing the research for the films. They are not the shallow rubbish that passes off for journalism these days. Chakravorty made 22 recce trips before shooting Godhra Tak which is an indication of his commitment and his methodical thoroughness.
Nothing would stop Shubhradeep on his mission, whether it was the betrayal of friends and comrades or the grudging and petty indifference of the documentary film-maker community which drove him to religious groups among others for funding for his films.
It is paradoxically the limited and twisted circumstances of eastern Uttar Pradesh that produced a sensibility as tough and dogged as Chakravarty’s. It is paradoxically a movement as limited and twisted as Hindutva that produced a series of films as relentless and scathing as Shubhradeep’s oeuvre.
What we have from this meteoric career is not only an incredible personal journey but a clear historical record of the rise and rise of the vicious Hindutva movement We must remember Shubhradeep Chakravorty not only as one of the most determined figures of our time but also as one of the most useful film historians of our sad and sorry moment in the communalisation of India.
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Ashley Tellis is an Associate Professor in Gender, Writing and Research at IMHST, BALM, Chennai