35 years ago, in November 1980, the news story about the infamous ‘Bhagalpur blindings’ first broke out in the Indian Express. In the preceding months, 31 undertrial prisoners had been permanently blinded by police officers, who used sharp objects to pierce their eyes and then poured acid into them -the acid being codenamed ‘Gangaajal’ (holy water). The news report sent shockwaves across the country and reverberated worldwide. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said that she was ‘sickened’ by what she read and the 15 officers were promptly suspended. The journalist whose exposé on the ghastly incidents caught the nation’s attention, is my father, Arun Sinha.
As a child, I read old, yellowing newspaper cutouts about some innocent lives ruined by police brutality and heard accounts about their destitute families. However, it remained a historical event that occurred before I was born. Then in 2003, renowned filmmaker Prakash Jha made Gangaajal -inspired loosely by the blindings episode. Although it didn’t intend to be a factual docu-drama and has a fictional premise, I’ve naturally come to associate his film with my father’s journalistic courage. 12 years later, as Jha is gearing for the release of the sequel Jai Gangaajal, I had the incredible honor of interviewing the man and hearing his thoughts on the subject. As he spoke eloquently on topics far and wide, I felt a surreal wonder of things in life coming full-circle.
Here are some excerpts.
When the incident occurred in 1980, you were a documentary filmmaker. Did you ever consider making a documentary about it?
It was actually around ’84 or ’85 when I went to Bhagalpur. Until then, to me, it was something that was reported and consumed as a kind of barbaric incident in Bhagalpur. But as I was talking to people there, I learned the inner truth about how when those 15 cops were charged, the entire population of Bhagalpur came out to the streets in their support. That aspect was very interesting to me. Later, I wanted to make a film not just about the incident, but about the ramification of the incident as far as the society-police relationship is concerned. What happened in Bhagalpur was that the system had somehow failed to deliver, and both the society and the police were viewed as being impotent. Then suddenly, when the incident took place, it offered them a kind of relief, a great incinerating experience -to be able to collectively handle criminals and crime in some manner. There is even an old article by your father, about how the people of Bhagalpur were running a campaign in support of the 15 police officers, endorsing their actions as justice.
When you make a film about an incident that occurred over 20 years ago, the witnesses and victims may be difficult to locate. Did you find any of them during your research?
My film is not about the factual incident. What happened in Bhagalpur became a pivotal part in my story. But I didn’t want the audience to think about the incident that occurred in Bihar. I just wanted them to think that something of that nature can happen right in the middle of wherever they live. It is a more universal theme, and we created new reasons and premises around it. But the essence of what happened in Bhagalpur was definitely pivotal to my film. I didn’t have to find witnesses or victims because there was enough source material available.
“Reality is more bitter than fiction all around us. But my challenge is to create the characters, the incident, the drama, premise, conclusions and the equations, within the realm of reality.”
In reality, all the blinding victims were still under trial and some of them were in prison for petty crimes or insubstantial charges. However, in your film, the victims are all anti-social elements and hardened criminals. As a filmmaker, do you feel burdened with the responsibility of ultimately showing the authority figure (eg: the police) as the good guys?
I’m only burdened with the responsibility of telling a good story. That is my main concern. It’s true that there were some innocent victims and that often happens in a mock-justice system. If they have personal enmity with someone, they will falsely charge them to get their revenge. Things happen. Reality is more bitter than fiction all around us. But my challenge is to create the characters, the incident, the drama, premise, conclusions and the equations, within the realm of reality. So there will be a lot of heavy dialogue in my films, because that’s the grammar of our commercial cinema. There will be violence but not to the extent of gore. I try and create a bridge between the expectation of the commercial audience and believable characters. I never want to be judgmental and say that this is good or this is bad, but I am interested in trying to understand why things happen and what are the equations in play. And if I find dramatic resonance, then I’ll definitely turn it into a story.
Of all your recent films, you are revisiting Gangaajal, after 12 years. Why is that?
I wanted to revisit the society-police relationship as it stands today. Back then, it was “every society gets the police it deserves”, but today when I talk to honest cops, who are in powerful IPS positions, they tell me that they are so deterred to take action. Before arresting a suspect, an officer has to consider it 10 times. As soon as he makes the arrest, people from the perpetrator’s community or religion will come and start a dharna (protest); there will be NGOs created and they’ll talk about human rights; some will approach the MLA who is connected to them and there will be calls made from the minister’s office; the media will cover the story. And if somehow you can avoid all of the above, then someone might raise the issue in the Vidhan Sabha that this is a great injustice. So today, the policemen are very wary of getting entangled in a case, because they are likely to be answering questions all their life. They don’t want to be trapped in a mess and hope that the case will be resolved without having to take much action. The adage today is that “Inaction is virtue and efficiency is a crime”. So I wanted to revisit this subject. And the film is going to be very interesting.
“I wanted a female lead because in the story, the system conspires to bring in a ‘weak’ police officer.”
Can you tell us a little about the issues tackled in ‘Jai Gangaajal’? Does the title again signify ‘purification’?
Yes, absolutely. It is exactly that. The main issue in our country today is zameen (land). Land has become the most important commodity on which all the politics, all the industries, bureaucracy, police, all the posts are working. No matter what you want to do -any kind of development, whether it’s industrial, housing or urbanization, you need land. Everyone is after land acquisition. So a lot of crimes today are related to it. In Jai Gangaajal, there is no male hero. I wanted a female lead because in the story, the system conspires to bring in a ‘weak’ police officer. The elections are incumbent, everything is set; so they want to appoint a female officer because they believe, ‘we can manipulate her, she will stay put at her desk, give us a salute, and our work will continue smoothly’. But after her appointment, she turns around and begins to confront the truth. So a tough guy character like Ajay Devgn’s in the first film, couldn’t have worked here. I needed it to be a woman.
Has your personal background (hailing from a politically charged state like Bihar) got anything to do with your strong motivation for telling socio-political stories?
I’ve never thought of it that way. I am primarily interested in understanding how society functions. An individual can act in any manner -some guy can get loaded, go to a college and start shooting. That just means he’s crazy, mentally ill. But when an entire society becomes mentally disturbed or begins to change its values; begins to set new goal posts, then that becomes very interesting to me.
For example, Anna Hazare’s movement is not a one-off thing. It is a culmination of several social developments which took place during the prosperous boom between 2000-2010 in India. If you really see who are the people that fueled that movement, you will find an extraordinarily gifted and educated mass who gathered around him. Suddenly you realize that the relationship between people and government became that of client and service provider. People are no longer asking for a job. They are asking, why are things not functioning when they are paying their taxes. In the late 80s and early 90s, during the free market economy, the entire population was working hard to secure a government job. Government was mai-baap. In the late 90s and early 2000s when there was a huge population ready to serve the private sector, their needs and demands were different.
“I am primarily interested in understanding how society functions. An individual can act in any manner… But when an entire society becomes mentally disturbed or begins to change its values, then that becomes very interesting to me.”
In the last 15 years, I’m sure, observant as you are, you must’ve noticed how much has changed in this country. In every possible way -the whole meaning of success, of education, of progress, development, the pressures of the economy. It’s amazing how it is affecting our own social relationships -family and individual relationships.
I like to understand what is dividing society. If you study the birth of fanaticism all over the world, you’ll realize that it’s because of the fear being instilled by vested parties, to be able to garner support and votes, nothing else. There is no war between the people of Pakistan and the people of India. But the politics here, and the politics there, keeps the fire of hatred burning.
“There is no war between the people of Pakistan and the people of India. But the politics here, and the politics there, keeps the fire of hatred burning.”
So I keep observing, understanding, and when I make Raajneeti 2, everything will be taken into consideration (laughs).
As you study these long-term social trends and dynamics and try to remain true to your subject matter, how much time do you usually have to spend on writing a film?
It can take years. On Jai Gangajal, I spent around 3-4 years. Assimilation of incidents, facts, quotes, conversations, happens over time. I have a notebook where I keep on noting down everything. Over time, things become clearer in my mind. Each character I create, is either someone I’ve seen or known or I assimilate different characteristics to imagine a character. In my films, the conflict is not about “My father is rich and yours isn’t, so we can’t get married”. Instead, the conflict is about an ideology. The step that is taken or the statement that is made, is wrong. And people will fight over that. My challenge is to dramatize it, commercialize it and make it an interesting story. That is why it takes me a long time.
“In my films, the conflict is not about “My father is rich and yours isn’t, so we can’t get married”. Instead, the conflict is about an ideology.”
Has dealing with the censor board gotten easier over the years?
It’s never too easy. There’s always someone who raises an objection. It happened during Aarakshan, Raajneeti, Chakravyuh. At times, I’ve had to go to the Supreme court. But you do what you do, what you believe in. I’m very fortunate that actors, technicians and people in this industry, believe in what I do and they work with me with great admiration and commitment.
Finally, Is there a dream project that you’ve always wanted to work on, which we can look forward to seeing in the future?
(Thinks) The next film that I am going to do is definitely a non-social issue based film. I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time. There are a couple of subjects I’ve been working on. In fact, as you talk to me, the day after tomorrow, I am going into hibernation for 3 weeks. I am going to Paris and I plan to sit in cafés, just by myself and think about the good subject. It’s going to be a different kind of story.
‘Jai Gangaajal’ starring Priyanka Chopra is scheduled to release on March 4th, 2016. Prakash Jha has won 8 National Film Awards and many other national and international awards for his work in Indian cinema. Some of his acclaimed films include Damul (1984), Mrityudand (1997), Gangaajal (2003), Apaharan (2005), Raajneeti (2010), Aarakshan (2011) Chakravyuh (2012) and Satyagraha (2013).