December 19th, 2012
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Documenting dissent

“Documentary activists use a lot of pain and anger. Satire is more powerful and cannot be confronted easily. It is yet to be properly explored as a medium of political activism”K.P. Sasi- documentary


Talk Circle: K. P. Sasi / Devadas Palode


There is this particular lie that the nuclear lobby and the developmentalists are spreading, with regard to the Kudankulam anti-nuclear protests – “These are just foreign funded protests which started out in the last 2 years. Where were these people in the last two decades when the plant was being built?” There is only one answer to them – Go watch one of K.P. Sasi’s documentaries.

The year was 1989. K.P Sasi was on his first trip to Kudankulam, where a historic movement was in a fledgling stage. He rolled the camera and asked the old woman where she had learned about the ill-effects of nuclear energy. She talked about ‘a documentary of the depicting the ill effects of nuclear radiation. He admits that this old woman’s comment was the first ‘real’ recognition that he got. His videos of the Kudankulam struggle of 1989, in which one man was shot dead, is enough to shut the mouth of the nuclear lobby. He has particularly harsh words for the Kerala politicians whom he calls ‘one of the first groups to be affected’ if an accident occurs at Kudankulam. They are a combination of arrogance and ignorance, he says.

What is the credibility of the censor board or rather the state to dictate terms to artists? If they have to censor something, it is the TV serials that they should turn their attention to first. The kind of negative influence these have on people, it is a crime that it is not censored.

True to his outspoken nature, he accuses A.P.J. Abdul Kalam of misleading people by his constant support to the Kudankulam plant.

“Kalam is not even a scientist to make such claims on the safety of the plant. He does not have the qualification to make such pronouncements. Safe disposal of nuclear waste is a myth”

In the last three decades, many of the major people’s movements have been captured by K.P. Sasi’s camera. One of the earliest to adopt documentary film making in the country and a scathing critic of the development model being followed by the Indian state, he has given a voice to the oppressed from Narmada valley to Kashipur.

IFFK Protest against torturing K K ShahinaNow in Kerala with the editing work of his latest documentary, the subject of which he does not want to reveal now, Sasi talked about everything from censorship to the rising cost of the ‘local chai’.

A common character can be seen in various instances of censorship, be it the recent IT Act or the denial of certificate to ‘Papilio Buddha’. The same thing is at work in the decision to replace the open forum at the International Film Festival of Kerala with a ‘Meet the artist’ programme, he says.

“There was certain vibrancy to the IFFK, mostly due to the nature of the debate at the open forum. Even in fests outside the state, the vibrancy owes much to the crowd from Kerala. We can watch most of the movies screened in the festivals through the internet. But the sheer variety of voices heard there cannot be replicated. The decision to change the nature of the open forum is ridiculous and it exposes fascistic tendencies of ministers like Ganesh Kumar. A minister’s role is to facilitate an atmosphere for critical thinking in such fests. He should realize that culture is not something which can be controlled,” says Sasi, who was at the forefront of a protest at the IFFK venue last year against the Karnataka police’s targeting of journalist K.K. Shahina.  The only suggestion he has is to improve the depth of discussions in the open forum.

He feels that exclusion of ‘Papilio Buddha’ from the fest purely for its brand of politics is unfortunate.

“Gandhiji would be the last person to be offended by that film. If our politicians actually respected his ideals they would not have imposed the AFSPA in North East nor would they have suppressed the various people’s movements in India. What is the credibility of the censor board or rather the state to dictate terms to artists? If they have to censor something, it is the TV serials that they should turn their attention to first. The kind of negative influence these have on people, it is a crime that it is not censored. Anyway, now the State also censors identity through the Unique Identity cards,” he says, pointing out that he has many other disagreements with Gandhi’s politics. He says that he cannot particularly stand the condescending nature of an upper class construct like ‘harijan’.

K P Sasi- Documentary a medium of political activismThough he is the son of K Damodaran, one of the founders of the Communist Party in Kerala, he was not swayed by politics until his late teens when he read his father’s works and was influenced by the wave of post-emergency activism. Starting out as a cartoonist, he realised that documentary was a more powerful medium for political expression after watching Anand Patwardhan’s 1978 documentary ‘Prisoners of Conscience’, based on the emergency and Tapan Bose’s ‘An Indian story’ based on the Bhagalpur blinding incident.

His grounding in cartooning meant that satire was one of the main tools in his films. The biting sarcasm in his music video ‘America America’ in protest against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (which according to him offended Indian Americans than Native Americans) is testimony to that.

“Documentary activists use a lot of pain and anger. Satire is more powerful and cannot be confronted easily. It is yet to be properly explored as a medium of political activism”

Over the years, he has documented Manipuri people’s struggle against AFSPA (Redefining peace), issues of water privatisation (Source of life for sale), displacement of tribals in Odisha (Development at gun point), Narmada issue (A valley refuses to die), climate change and many other pertinent issues of our time.

“No one understood the spiritual side of the adivasis struggle against the Narmada dams. The water submerged their Gods, which are a collection of stones. Their world view and their existence revolve around these stones. They reacted the way they did primarily due to this”

His music video ‘Gaon Chodab Nahin’ became one of the anthems of defiance for adivasis all over the country in their struggles against corporate and state power that were trying to usurp their land.

“The State sees only the minerals lying beneath. The do not see the people above. The adivasis did not need anyone from outside to go and ‘help’ them. They had a beautiful life with everything that they needed being produced in their village. The State and the corporates went in and destroyed this. I have seen the displaced adivasis becoming decadent and violent. The Government is turning a peaceful set of humans into blood thirsty animals,” he says of the situation in Odisha’s mining districts, which the State loves to call ‘maoist-infested’ districts.

For him, documentary film-making is about studying an issue, clarifying questions and telling truth to the world, something which he finds increasingly hard to do with the rising expenses in a ‘growth-oriented’ economy. He made his first film at Rs. 2000, an abysmally low sum unimaginable in today’s circumstances.

“Even the cost of the local chai has increased from 25 paise when I started to 8 rupees now”



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