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A Conversation with Docu-maker, Soumitra Dastidar

By Cafe Dissensus

Soumitra Dastidar is a Kolkata-based documentary film maker for the last 15 years. He has a Master’s in Political Science and started his career as a journalist. Later on, he switched to making documentary films and worked closely with Catherine Berge, a renowned French documentary filmmaker, while she was making Gaach (The Tree, 1998) on the life of the colossal figure of Bengal cinema, Soumitra Chatterjee. The film was produced by Nayeem Hafizka and Ismail Merchant.

Nothing Official is Soumitra’s path-breaking documentary for which he travelled to Gujarat risking his life to document the pogrom unleashed by Hindutva brigade. He again went to Gujarat in 2003 to see the aftermath and made Genocide and After (2003). These two films brought accolades galore. In 2005, Soumitra made A Letter to My Daughter on the state repression in Manipur, which was critically acclaimed in India and abroad. After making some thought-provoking documentaries on ecological issues such as Story of a Golden River and India Mortgaged, he made another path-breaking documentary, Musalmaner Kotha (Story of Muslims) in 2013. Soumitra has won numerous awards in India and abroad. His films have been shown in many universities across the country. As a popular filmmaker, Dastidar always keeps ‘people’ at the centre of all his documentaries.

In this conversation, Soumitra Dastidar speaks to Cafe Dissensus.

Cafe Dissensus: Thank you for making a very timely and sensitive docu on Bengali Muslims and their lack of development. Before making Musolmaner Katha (Story of Muslims), you made a docu on the Gujarat Riots in 2002. As you write, the docu on Gujarat riots was widely screened by the Left associated unions to showcase, by default, the prevalence of communal harmony in Bengal. Then what made you turn your gaze to the supposed plight of Bengali Muslims in Musolmaner Katha?

Soumitra Dastidar: Actually, the Sachar Committee Report (2006) opened my eyes. More so, I was reading a wide range of articles, news reports about the plight of Bengali Muslims. It prompted me to take up the project seriously.

CD: Could you please tell us a little more about the logistics of making the docu – Where did you shoot it? Who funded the docu? How many crew members were involved in the making of the docu? 

SD: We shot the documentary in various districts of West Bengal. We made a recce first and then shot in regular intervals in Malda, Murshidabad, Burdwan, Hooghly, Howrah, North 24 Parganas, and Kolkata. There was crowd funding. Also some NGOs came forward with money. We had three to four persons in our unit at a time.

CD: How did you bridge the gap between the interviewer and the interviewee? Did you find any difficulty in relating to issues of those you were interviewing or how did you manage to make them speak freely to you?

SD: As such there was no problem in relating to the problem to the interviewee. Many of them were aware of the situation because they themselves had been victimized. Sometimes we had to rehearse with them before the shot. But overall, it ran smoothly. They all spoke freely and spontaneously as well.

CD: Your choice of respondents in the form of the poorest of Muslims – zari and bidi workers, local social activists, etc. is commendable because it provides a ground-up view. However, you do focus a lot on Nazrul Islam, the retired IPS officer, who is at loggerheads with Mamata Banerjee. Why did you give so much screen space to Mr. Islam? Is there a particular political message underpinning this move?

SD: No, there was no political message as such. The fact is that Mr. Islam has been vociferous for the development of Bengali Muslims for many years. He has written several books and also researched on this subject meticulously. Hence, he got considerable space in the film. Also he criticised the Left Front government on several occasions before and he has criticised the present government, too. So there is nothing special in this regard.

CD: Since the docu showcases the appalling socio-economic indicators of Bengali Muslims mostly during the Left regime, why did the Mamata Banerjee government disallow its screening at Nandan? Certainly, it was not simply a case of not getting a clearance from the Censor Board.

SD: I think they disallowed it without seeing it properly. Yes, there are criticisms. Mr. Nazrul Islam made some scathing remarks. But the government must allow dissension to flourish; otherwise what is democracy all about?

CD: As you mention, while Bengali Muslims loved to watch the docu because they could relate with it, the majority community seemed to resent it. How did a docu based on a discourse of justice turn into one of communal conflagration? Does it reflect the larger tendency of the majority Bengalis to sweep the dark side of the State – in the form of Muslims – under the carpet? 

SD: Yes, there is a tendency to sweep the problems under the carpet. The majority Hindu Bengali seems unperturbed by its neighbour, namely Bengali Muslims. I think the majority has remained aloof from the minorities. An indifference towards their neighbour has crept in. There are various reasons for this. Political, social etc…

Well, a discourse of justice should not turn into a communal conflagration. Why should it be? Unless there is some sinister intervention from outside, I don’t think it can turn into an ugly conflict.

CD: Is an ordinary Hindu Bengali apologetic that their Muslim brethren have remained mired in poverty and illiteracy, despite their liberal claims? Or is there a genuine antagonism to Bengali Muslims? 

SD: I don’t think that an ordinary Hindu Bengali is that apologetic towards the Muslims. Time and again, I have seen their ugly mentality. Yes, there is antagonism. Few people are genuinely concerned about the plight of the Muslims as such. A hateful mentality is very much there, I am sorry to say.

CD: Bengali Muslims are heavily under-represented in Government and other jobs? This has been the case during the Left rule. And it has not changed, as a recent report (2016) shows, during the Mamata regime. Do you think that religion operates as a gate- keeper in Bengal? 

SD: I can’t give you concrete evidence, but there are many incidents, some of them I have heard, where religion operated as a gatekeeper.

CD: Given the virtual absence of the Bengali Muslims in the literary-cultural and media discourses in Bengal, your documentary is a significant contribution in initiating a dialogue between the two communities in Bengal. Do you think we need more such documentaries in the current situation where mistrust between the two communities seems to be growing? 

SD: Of course, it is the need of the hour, considering the way polarization is taking place in Bengal. Take, for example, the recent Basirhat-Baduria flare up. We must come forward to do away the mistrust. It is a continuing process. We must initiate a cultural movement.

CD: What, according to you, should be the way ahead for the Bengali Muslims in West Bengal? 

SD: For the last three decades, a churning has started in the Muslim community in the field of education. Al-Ameen Mission had taken the initiative. The mission to educate the community has turned into a sort of movement. Many poor families are coming forward breaking the shackles of poverty. There are numerous doctors, engineers now. Also Muslim boys’ and girls’ representations have increased but as far as the government job is concerned, still Muslim representation is minimal. But education has opened their eyes. A genuine middle class is emerging from the community. So, I think education is playing a big role. Also, for economic development, many of them can turn towards entrepreneurship; if you look carefully, a good many youngsters are taking this initiative.

CD: Are you currently working or planning to work on other projects on Bengali Muslims? Could you please tell us a little more?

SD: Well, I am now very engrossed in finishing my project on Bengal Partition, Infiltration, etc. I think there is a direct relation to what I have said in Musalmaner Kotha. We are dealing with the problem from a historical point of view and the current situation prevailing in the border areas.

Photo: Dhaka Tribune


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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