Gopal Menon's 21-minute brutally stark film on the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat has drawn various reactions. C.K. MEENA speaks to the film-maker.
Go-getting activist... Gopal Menon.
"ARE you really only 27?" I asked Gopal Menon after listening to a precis of his action-packed life. The stocky, stubble-faced film-maker replied, "Yes," and then corrected himself: "I'm 28, actually." His birthday, this April 29, had slipped his mind since he was busy screening his film on Gujarat. "This is the first time in months that I'm relaxing," he said, sipping cold beer while meeting a string of journalists at hourly intervals. "I've been living at Koshy's since yesterday."
Everyone's talking about Gopal Menon's 21-minute brutally stark film on the post-Godhra violence titled "Hey Ram: Genocide in the Land of Gandhi," which was screened at several places in the city. The film has already been viewed at hundreds of venues across the country since March and, says its maker, it has drawn varying reactions from those who say it is a watered down version of what actually took place, to those who feel it will incite further violence. His purpose is clear: "I wanted people to know the magnitude of what happened there. To know that this was not a communal riot. This was genocide."
Purposeful is a word that best describes this young man. He's a go-getting activist and if that sounds like an oxymoron it isn't, in today's world. Like so many of his generation, he is focussed and market-savvy, although he shares the political perspective of the more easy-going 1970s leftist. His brand of politics wasn't bred in the family. His father is a retired-government servant, a god-fearing man who "goes to Guruvayoor temple on the first of every month." But his honesty and conscientiousness seems to have left an impression on his son. "His approach is humanistic," says Menon, whose childhood memories include seeing his father helping a group of villagers set up a cooperative. While his parents stayed put in Kozhikode, he had a chequered academic career, moving school several times right from his kindergarten days. He lists them rapidly: "Fatima, Little Flower, a Sai Baba school." He breaks off to shudder in recollection. "We had to get up at 4 a.m. and if we didn't the warden used to beat us with a stick. I lasted there only a few months." His next stop was the Kendriya Vidyalaya in Malappuram district, and finally, the Kendriya Vidyalaya in Kozhikode. He did his pre-degree in Feroke College where his involvement with the Students Federation of India got him in trouble (since the college was dominated by those belonging to a rival party), forcing him to move to Guruvayurappan College to graduate. "Student politics in Kerala isn't as radical as it used to be. It has become mere party politics."
Books were a passion. "I used to love reading, more than physical activity," he recalls. "I had finished with fiction by the time I was in the 10th Milan Kundera and all that," he waves his hand dismissively. In college, non-fiction gripped his attention, and he became an avid reader of magazines that kept him in touch with current events and social issues. "I somehow stopped reading completely, after graduation. The only book I read was, when a friend of mine forced me to read The God of Small Things."
It was during his second year of graduation that he helped make an ecological film for the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishat, and tasted blood, as it were. "I wanted to go to film school, but my parents didn't want that," he says bluntly. Acting on their advice, he enrolled for a management course at PSG College, Coimbatore, but promptly got involved with the local unit of People's Union for Civil Liberties. "During the third and fourth semester I attended only one class!" He completed the course "with great difficulty" and only because his parents wanted him to "at least have a masters degree." At Coimbatore, he had fun doing promotional films on all the institutions that the PSG management ran: the engineering college, the orphanage, the hospital, and so on. He tried to make two films for the PUCL but couldn't complete them for want of funds. "I want to complete them now," he says. One of them was on the people arrested under TADA in the wake of the 1998 serial blasts.
Another aborted venture was a film on communalism, supported by the Delhi-based Other Media Communications. He wanted to draw links between the major communal clashes in India Surat, Meerut, Bhiwandi, Coimbatore, and so on and make "a number of media packages: different versions, such as a one-hour film, a 21-minute film, a one-minute spot and a music video." Now that's a marketing man talking!
Menon has had no formal training in film-making, except for a short course at the Pune Film Institute. "Some credit goes to Sony also," he laughs. "Digital technology has really democratised the medium." He is an enthusiastic advocate of the digital camera since it saves a tremendous amount of money, labour and time. For instance, his Gujarat film cost only Rs.20,000 including travel and stay, whereas raw stock alone would have come to Rs.1.5 lakh. He points out that the digital camera is unobtrusive and therefore makes his subjects more willing to open up.
"The Naga Story: The Other Side of Silence," a 45-minute film on the history of the Naga people, is ready for screening, and a film on Kashmir's "disappearing" young people is due next. Meanwhile, there's an ambitious film on Dalit issues in the pipeline. It is "an overview, an in-depth analysis," which he started making in the year 2000, covering five States Bihar, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. He plans to make a 45-minute film out of his 89 hours of footage and has recorded music from Karnataka. "I'm tired of Delhi," says Menon, who plans to move to Bangalore. You can be reasonably sure that he isn't going to "settle down." India has too many burning issues waiting to be captured on film or rather by a digital camera.
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