'Gau rakshaks operate from a place of impunity'

Updated: May 26, 2019, 07:22 IST | Aastha Atray Banan

The duo behind The Cinema Travellers is back with a documentary that will have you questioning what the next five years under the BJP government means for Muslims

'Gau rakshaks operate from a place of impunity'
Still from the The Hour of Lynching

Cow vigilante violence is like a forest fire, which no one seems to be talking about. There is so much silence around it, and we have made this film so that it is not historically hidden," says Shirley Abraham of her 18-minute documentary The Hour of Lynching, made with fellow filmmaker Amit Madheshiya. "This is the most relevant time to release the film, especially as BJP gets ready to take over again, as it encapsulates the horrific legacy of the government. It's a cautionary tale about what happens when there is ultra majoritarianism, and about what will happen now," says Madheshiya. The two Mumbai-based artistes have previously worked on The Cinema Travellers, which got the special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016.

If their first film was about the charm of travelling cinemas, this one is about the lack of any kind of respect for human life. The documentary follows the aftermath of the murder of dairy farmer Rakbar Khan, who was killed last July as he led his cows home, in Alwar, Rajasthan. The 29-year-old, who hailed from Haryana, was allegedly lynched by a crowd on the suspicion of cow smuggling. The docu shows the plight of Khan's wife and young daughter, who are all but left bereft.

Filmmakers Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya
Filmmakers Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya

As one family number says, "There is no value for a Muslim life". The documentary also gives us a peek into the mind of the cow vigilante, this time in form of VHP's cow protection unit, members of which justify their actions with their love for the holy cow, one even asking us to look into the eyes of the cow to know it's a gentle creature that needs protection. "Rakbar's family was falling apart. But we also wanted add the narrative of the perpetrators, who want to legitimize this action, by branding the minorities as a threat to their way of life. How do they make sense of this life? The family used grief, and the cow vigilantes use denial," says Abraham, who hails from Bhopal.

As per reports, out of the 47 cases of vigilantism deaths till April 2019, 76 per cent were Muslims. What the two filmmakers found most upsetting was that in the middle of campaigning, no one was talking about these deaths. "The vigilantes know how the media works, so they put up a performance for us, and it was up to us to editorialise that performance. They kept berating us and telling us we need awakening. What was most eye-opening was that we realised they work from a place of impunity - they know nothing is going to happen to them," says Madheshiya, who says that the only major challenge they had to fight was that the vigilantes judged them every step of the way. "They would say things like 'oh you mustn't even know Hindi'." But both had to face another challenge as well - about not getting disillusioned through the process. "After we spoke to the main accused who worked with the VHP, I felt physically sick. We wanted to figure out their motivation, and after three hours with him, I felt something terrible in my gut. But we got over what we were feeling, and went back and made the docu," says Madheshiya, adding that it was tough not to answer back or argue, but they realised that their film was the answer they had to give.

To keep their creative freedom intact, the two independently produced the film and the supporters, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Field of Vision, came in only at the time of post-production. They started making the documentary last July and it released on The Guardian website last week, with the aim of getting maximum views. Abraham quotes American author/activist James Baldwin: "It is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace."

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