Free Press Journal

Exploring the unseen faces of protests

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Farmers at the Kisaan Protest

Filmmaker Samarth Mahajan of Kahaani Wale explores the human faces behind the culture of agitation in the country through a social media campaign, writes Shillpi A Singh 

Kahaani Wale, an artist collective based in New Delhi, paid a befitting tribute to the man who had led many successful non-violent protests that eventually helped India achieve Independence from colonial rule by launching the trailer of their multimedia campaign titled ‘Hum Le Ke Rahenge’ on his 148th birth anniversary on October 2. The documentation campaign hinges on a series of short films, photo stories, and blogs to explore the human faces behind the culture of protest in the country. These elements will be released over a period of next few months on Kahaani Wale’s YouTube Channel and Facebook page.

Creative Director at Kahaani Wale, Samarth Mahajan, who holds an engineering degree from IIT Kharagpur, comes with a rich experience in filmmaking, and his films have been screened at more than 50 platforms and won awards at international film festivals. Mahajan’s debut feature documentary, The Unreserved, about Indians who travel in the General Compartment of Indian Railways, will be screened at Film Southasia 2017, Kathmandu. In a freewheeling chat, he gives us a rundown of the elements that played an important part in his documentation of the culture of protest.


Kids at the Kisaan Protest

About the campaign 

The crux of the campaign is to cover protests and protesters who are mostly the aam janta (common people). “We plan to release a short video, focusing on one protest every week, and accompanied by photo-stories and written accounts based on our experiences. The first leg of the campaign focuses on protests that happened at Jantar Mantar. It gives a viewer an experience of how this country protests and how protesters leave no stone unturned to get the attention that their issue deserves,” he says. In due course of time, Team Kahaani Wale plans to take the campaign to the nook and corner of the country.

Why Jantar Mantar?

It is unarguably the capital’s protest zone. Located in the heart of the city, Jantar Mantar is one of the five observatories built by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur for practising astronomers. Its name comes from the Sanskrit words – Yantra (instrument) and Mantra (formulae) – for a place to observe the movements of sun, moon and other planetary objects. It was declared an official space for the protest following Bharatiya Kisan Sangh’s Mahendra Singh Tikait led farmers’ protest in the capital in 1988 that had crippled administration for many days. But until yesterday it was the heart of India’s space of dissent where protesters congregated; their yantra was agitation and mantra being unique for each of them. It is the space that gives us a sneak peek into India’s vibrant democracy.

On a given day, there are at least 25-30 protest camps that happen here. “It represents a microcosm of India’s protest culture. For protesters, Jantar Mantar is that beacon of hope in times when people start questioning if we do live in a democracy. So it made for a good starting point,” he says. But thanks to an environment court ruling on October 5, 2017, the capital’s protest hub will no longer be what it used to be.

Why this name?

“Hum Le Ke Rahenge” denotes the persistent efforts that protesters put in to achieve their seemingly impossible goals. It sums up their never-dying spirit that survives on a flickering hope,” he says. The aim of the people who throng this place sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, is to be heard by anyone and everyone who seems to care, or just stand to stare and maybe share their concerns and sentiments, in sympathy, or solidarity or to support the cause. There is a story behind every face. “The campaign, Hum Le Ke Rahenge, is exposing that face of protest. It is an honest attempt to build a vibrant repository of collective action, amplify these dissenting voices and preserve them for posterity,” he adds.

Imran Pratapgarhi at Lahu Bol Raha

Why Gandhi Jayanti?

The Team says it is their way to remember Gandhi’s immeasurable contribution and see the impact of his teaching on the methods of protests of common people today. “The act of protesting requires a lot of effort to come out, and protestors spend energy shouting for few hours. I realized it is their deep sense of belief in the democracy, and the fact that they’d be heard. Sometimes there is just no other hope. So they stick to it even if their struggles go on for years,” he quips.

About the Team

Aman Kaleem, the founder of Kahaani Wale, is a filmmaker and creator of the project. Other members, Tanvika Parlikar, Meenakshi Pareek and Mahajan, are Young India Fellows, while Imtiyaz Ali, Creative Associate is a literature graduate from Delhi University.

“Our stories emerge from our deep conviction in the principles of democracy. We want to create narratives that push the viewer to recognize the different sides of the story and not consume any information as a monolith,” he says.

Kick-start

“We started off by covering one protest but seeing the magnitude of the experience that enriched our knowledge of protests and protesters; we expanded it to a full-fledged standalone project to cover the growing culture of protest of all hues here at Jantar Mantar,” he says. The shoot has been done with a two people crew and the Team attended more than 20 protests over a period of last many months and used a hand-held 5D camera to minimise intrusion into people’s space.

#Protest 

They chose protests irrespective of political leanings. Most of the group protests start on the social media with a hashtag or a page that culminated on the street to convey the cumulative anger and dissent, he noted. Like it happened for Not In My Name, Save Bengal, Gorkhaland March, etc. But the individual protestors are left to fend for themselves, camping here to get themselves seen and heard. “We came across protests which use unique methods of protesting like Gorkhaland March, which used a 110-meter overhead Indian flag,” he adds. 

Mob mentality

The protests were full of action and activists tried their hands at poetry, songs, drama, and slogans to add rhetoric to their cause. For bigger protests, the mood is no less than a carnival; there were food stalls, balloons and toy sellers and knick-knack vendors floating all around the protest site. The selfie conscious protesters were also seen in large numbers and were busy clicking themselves with impunity to transmit the latest from ground zero on their social media handles.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead who once famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” Team Kahaani Wale too believes that these stories of resilience will engage, provoke and ultimately inspire to act.