When the present is inadequate, the past rolls up its sleeves. When the true stories are bleak, the myths stand tall, offering explanations, soothing anxieties, giving hope. Hindu nationalists are poor fact-checkers, and it makes sense because untrammelled pride isn’t looking for verifiable truths; it is waiting for confirmation: for you to agree with them, for facts to bow down in front of beliefs.
Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s new short documentary, Searching for Saraswati, locates itself at the centre of an intricate dance between fact and fiction, unfolding in the hamlet of Mugalwali in Haryana. Sahiram Kashyap, a farmer, is convinced that the holy Saraswati river has surfaced in a village well. Gopal Das, a Hindu priest, inspired by Donald Trump’s “make America great again”, thinks this is India’s chance.
The news brings great happiness to the village. There are poojas and processions. There are promises – that the village will be turned into an international tourist spot. The hysteria spares no one, not even the school children who are told that the “Western archeologists, historians and scientists have misrepresented the Saraswati river by calling it mythical”. Amid all this, there’s a shot of a science museum with its front doors locked.
Like their first documentary, The Cinema Travellers, a meditative piece on the travelling cinemas, Searching for Saraswati believes in the powers of quite observation, allowing its characters to tell their stories. Here they talk to each other, not to the camera, which, much like the audience, is a silent witness to the spectacle, speculation and contradiction. The Saraswati river has medicinal powers, claims Kashyap. It can cure leprosy, fix an ailing heart, do things that can shock doctors. And yet, when asked why does it not cure his wife, he becomes silent. More than a few times, the camera pans to the water in the well; it is dirty, with a tadpole inside.
Science is a constant source of unease in the documentary. Early in the film, a few villagers say that the international scientists have tested the water and confirmed that it’s from the Saraswati river. “Have you seen that report?” asks Jarnail Singh, a farmer, one of the few skeptics in the village. He gets no answer. During a procession, vans have posters stuck on them, proclaiming, “Saraswati ki kahaani, Vigyaan ki zubaani [the story of Saraswati through the language of science].” Das, in a telling scene towards the end of the film, tells the other villagers that, “Kalpana Chawla” a scientist from Karnal, a village in Haryana – “went to space but before she could reveal the secrets of the cosmos and land on Earth, God exploded her space shuttle. Because He says my secrets will remain hidden.” If science cannot be reasoned with, then it will be dwarfed, distorted and disregarded.
At 19 minutes, Searching for Saraswati is taut and dense, packing several subplots and ideas. We learn about the individual and governmental interests: that Das wants to float a charity, and not a trust, because the funds would be tax-free; that the state has set aside Rs 50 crore for the project. But more importantly, about the mass ignorance: An activist, P.P. Kapoor, says that he filed an RTI (Right to Information) report, wanting to know the details of the correspondences between the government and such organisations as Archaeological Survey of India and NASA. The district government replied, “The information is not available in this office.”
Searching for Saraswati comes at a pertinent point, during the time of the BJP-led government, when myths have been regularly dressed up as facts to present India as a fount of scientific advancement. This charade, unceasing over the last four years, has been fronted by the party’s senior politicians who want this country to live in the past than in present. Some of their assertions seem laughable but, coming from elected politicians in a democracy, they also indicate a larger national mood. We remain a country where a mosque was demolished because of our unchecked reverence for the past – a reverence that has often caused mayhem and riots, murdered people. In such a climate, any flimsy, funny rumour can escalate quickly and dangerously.
Searching for Saraswati then not just tells a story but also signals a warning, tries to look, with the help of the past and the present, into the future. The documentary is constrained by its runtime though, especially because some of the issues raised by it have been discussed many times before, and you long for such a film to go further: interrogate the links, for instance, between belief and bigotry. You want to know more about Kashyap – whether a soft-spoken pious man like him supports Hindutva. Or about Singh – who, like Kashyap, is a farmer as well, but holds very different views. We may know the likes of Das and Kashyap from the headlines and newsreels, but people are complex and contradictory, tied less to an ideology and more to a twisted version of their own world that stopped making sense eons ago.