In one of the more memorable scenes from Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s first documentary, The Cinema Travellers (2016), the camera settled on the faces of the audience members in a tent, in a village in Maharashtra, in thrall to cinema. It was a tender scene encapsulating the power of movies – the different ways in which they unite and liberate us, make us human.
There’s a similar scene in their latest short documentary, The Hour of Lynching, where the camera focuses on the people in the audience, sitting under a tent, in a village in Rajasthan. This time, though, they’re not watching a film but listening to an activist from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad – their faces impassive, but not devoid of curiosity, as if waiting for a nudge for this universe to make sense.
The speaker, Nawal Kishore Sharma, chief of the VHP’s gau raksha cell, says, “The youth serving our religion have been arrested” – referring to the lynching of a Muslim dairy farmer, Rakbar – “on mere pretext of constitutional law. Our cow protectors have been jailed [in Rakbar’s case]. That night [of his death] I was with them. And now I’m also being made an accused.”
He speaks for one more minute, telling his listeners that “Mother Cow is imploring” them to rise and “behead the heathens”, and that if Hindus “lose their minds” they’ll clear “Hindustan’s kachdapeti (garbage)” – the 200 million Muslims in the country. People applaud and raise slogans of “Jai Shri Ram”.
Cinema was a soothing balm in one tent, a wonderful illustration of the human spirit, but what would you call the second one? Isn’t that case too, it can be argued, an example of human spirit – a common cause that brings people together, empowers them, and makes them connected? If filmmaking is understanding the human condition, then how would such a movie look where the human itself is under question – easily swayed, faltering, crumbling?
The Hour of Lynching opens with a title card which, in part, reads, “In 2014, Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister of India. Since then, 47 people have been murdered in cow-related hate crimes. Seventy-six percent of these were Muslims.” And then, almost preempting a ‘whataboutery’ boomerang, states, “No cow-related lynchings were reported between 2010 and 2013.”
This is a powerful thesis – backed by stats and facts – laying the foundation for the rest of the documentary. But in a world where beliefs trump facts, numbers twirl in our consciousness like inconsequential back-up dancers.
A few days ago, I read, and re-read, a comment on Facebook by a New-York based Indian, on a column on Indian liberals, shared by my friend: “It is amazing how a few dozen cases of lynching (none endorsed by the central government) hog any discussion of the current government among the liberals.” It was a remarkable bit of literary baton twirling — “a few dozen lynchings”, as if even one is okay.
Divided in two parts – the first centred on Rakbar’s family in the aftermath of his murder and the second on Sharma and other Hindutva proponents – The Hour of Lynching is an account of a nation in a flabbergasting flux: a desperate desire to assert dominance, lust for violence, unchecked power and yet, a strange persecution complex. “They slaughter cows, kidnap our girls, and steal our vehicles,” Sharma tells a few villagers earlier in the documentary. “We can’t even park our unlocked bikes in front of our houses.” To this an older man in the group says, “This is a fact – we’re living in fear.”
The other part of the documentary shows what living in fear actually looks like. A few women surround Asmeena, Rakbar’s wife, consoling her. “Such is the reign of Modi,” one of them says. “The life of Muslims is worth nothing. We’re being killed like cats and dogs.” Two stories of fear separated from each other by two religions and a few kilometres. Asmeena, continuing to sob, covers her head with a saree; Sharma walks freely, issues threats, gives speeches.
Even this stark juxtaposition – of the perpetrators and the victims – could have made for a compelling documentary, as it probes their mindsets and motivations, something that’s difficult to incorporate in a news article. But Abraham and Madheshiya go further, spinning stories in a story.
Rakbar’s lynching is not just the death of one man – and of human values – but also the slow poisoning of an entire family. His relatives – controlling and patriarchal – make Asmeena mourn for months in purdah. They also, as claimed by Rakbar’s daughter Sahila, take away the compensation given to her mother. Asmeena can’t work anymore, so Sahila drops out of school, tending the family cows.
The documentary also captures the pervasive spread of hate – now no longer confined to a political party or an ideology. At one point, Rakbar’s father, Suleiman, is smoking hookah with his friends. “If we dare express our anger, we’ll be declared terrorists and shot,” says a man with a conical beard, his face (perhaps deliberately) out of focus. “If the government stops supporting them, and gives us free reign for a day, we would seek revenge. We would go after the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] folks. We’d hunt them down, I promise!”
Amid all this, the only voice we don’t – and can’t – hear is of Rakbar’s. We see him once, at the start of the documentary, when Suleiman hands his passport-sized pictures to (presumably) another relative. The two photos, both of them slightly soiled, are identical – Rakbar, wearing a white shirt, looking into the camera; in effect, looking at us. A man who got swallowed by the night – a night that refuses to end.