Of reels, reality and revolution 

A woman recalls watching her granddaughter crushed under the wheels of a bus, in this neglected area that sees infrequent public transport.

Published: 21st September 2023 06:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st September 2023 06:33 AM   |  A+A-

Director Sanjay Ridhwan

Director Sanjay Ridhwan (Photo | Facebook)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Unreliable faltering streetlights, narrow corridors of run-down buildings, and mosquitoes lurking in stagnant water — these images punctuate the documentary Perumbakkam. In 40 minutes, director Sanjay Ridhwan guides us through evictions, and resettlement colonies and interrogates how the state government, which began these housing projects in the 1970s, marginalises communities under the guise of beautification.

“This film was about a question I had, how important is an area and how does relocation affect people,” the filmmaker explains on day two of the 20th Social Justice Film Festival at Madras School of Social Work. 

The film’s first frame features the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board’s oath: ‘God we shall see in the smile of the poor’ and this line is soon rendered ironic. The residents’ raw testimonies linger much after the film has concluded, an autorickshaw driver asks why “people of blood and skin are dumped” into buildings far-flung from the city. A resident proclaims the government has left them to die here and another dubs her house a swimming pool. A woman recalls watching her granddaughter crushed under the wheels of a bus, in this neglected area that sees infrequent public transport. (“I saw bones where there were none, she was split in half.”) 

What is development and who is it for? How does a hamlet in the hinterlands of north India lack ambulance services while the country explores the dark side of the moon? How do we tackle the climate crisis? These questions seamlessly root themselves into the 20-odd documentaries of the festival. The three-day event — organised for the 145th birth anniversary of Thanthai Periyar — featured documentaries, short fiction, and feature films from across the world. It aims to “represent the latest arguments and issues discussed worldwide on social justice,” explains Amudhan RP, organiser and filmmaker. 

“Right now, there is no tendency to listen to people. if you look at any panel discussion on a TV channel however important the argument may be, the idea is to fight or outscore each other and not clarify things. What we need is patient story-telling, in-depth arguments with data and analysis. Our festivals are designed in such a way there is space for calm sharing,” Amudhan says.

Viewfinder on progress

In The Leopard’s Tribe, Mumbai’s blaring traffic is juxtaposed with the bird calls in Aarey Forest and the chants of protest sites. Director Miriam Chandy Menacherry follows the battle of Adivasi inhabitants as they attempt to protect the forest they call home and their deity — the endangered big cat — against the government’s encroaching attempts. As resident and farmer Pramila Bhoir — who was arrested for protecting the city’s green lungs — says, “One does not have to be educated to speak the truth.” This line rings true in Megha Acharya’s Miles Away which features three women at a brick kiln struggling with debt, and the humorous short fiction film Pehla Anda which features a 10-year-old getting her period for the first time.

In Court, a badminton match between Aftab and Ajay turns into grounds to examine the current religious context. Researcher Mubeen Sadhika says it asks the majority community to extend friendship to the minority community. For this reporter, the festival also questions the lens through which social justice is understood. 

Sujata Mody of Pen Thozhilalargal Sangam says this festival took her back to her late teens when she watched difficult films. “The idea of social justice is important and these films have tried to convey a degree of injustice and it shows the class inequality in our society…these films can change your way of thinking and motivate you to look for answers within society,” she says.

Of environment & access

From the haunting testimonies of Kerala’s landslide survivors in The Unjust and the Beyond to the lands flooded by Iqbal Hussain’s Submerged, these documentaries capture the repercussions of the climate crisis. “The Unjust and the Beyond was not an aesthetic project but a political one, we avoided interviews with environmentalists as they have often ignored the problems of the downtrodden people,” explains director Ratheesh. 

Environmental justice falls within the ambit of social justice, explains activist Archanaa Seker. “There is a climate report which calls the US a chief planet wrecker. Wherever in the world they’re looking at the environment, there seems to be a discrepancy between the haves and have-nots and the rich and poor,” she says. India, too, is not too far from being on this list. 

In our own backyard, North Chennai has been the ground for environmental natural disasters.“The Cooum River splits Chennai into north and south and whatever south Chennai needs from workers to resources and products, comes from North Chennai. Whatever south Chennai refuses as garbage, poverty, things we should not see as a world-class city, it goes back to North Chennai,” says Archanaa.  
“Marginalised people need inclusive spaces where they can express themselves and live with peace and dignity,” says Amudhan. Social justice has long been an international argument. Films continue to document the present, question people in power, and carry arguments to the future. 

Who is development really for? The three-day Social Justice Film Festival, organised on the weekend of Thanthai Periyar’s 145th birth anniversary, answers this through films focussing on evictions, environmental disasters, access to infrastructure, and caste. 

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