Julika and I spent the afternoon of Wednesday last week sorting through the mountain of books and SICHREM-branded t-shirts that we would take to sell at Thrissur. The plan was to attend this six-day long film festival in Kerala’s cultural capital, manning a stall within the grounds as a means of small-scale fundraising.
After minimising the heavy books we had to carry, and streamlining our stock to the most popular texts, we took an auto back to my house to pack as much as possible into our two rucksacks, rather than the huge cumbersome holdall back they’d used to store them in at the office. A quick nap and some food, before taking a taxi to the bus station for our sleeper coach at 9:30pm. The bus was surprisingly comfortable – blankets, curtains, even a pillow. Julika and I shared a cosy double bed section, and despite having our own separate divots to sleep in, I still apparently tried to steal her blanket in my sleep.
9 hours later, and with some sleep, we arrived in the small city of Thrissur and decamped at the YMCA. The day was ours to do as we pleased, with preparations for the festival just beginning, so we walked into the centre where Lonely Planet assured us of a Hindu temple atop a hill with “sweeping metropolis views”. The small rise we found sitting in the middle of what was effectively a very large roundabout was at first sight so unrecognisably our destination that we thought we had got lost. It was only upon reading the sign by the lone building stood there that we realised those urban vistas translated as views of various shops across the road from this small, closed temple. Sigh.
Not to be perturbed, we ventured around the small park. As I was taking some pictures, Julika suddenly came running. She was so agitated I thought something bad had happened, until she shouted, “Elephants! Elephants! There are elephants!”
We climbed onto a stone wall which ran around the elephants’ enclosure, and watched as various men fed and washed different individuals. It quickly became apparent that the animals were tightly chained however, by two feet, and the nearest individual was blind and extremely aggressive and unhappy. It seemed an incredibly inhumane way to treat animals kept only for the purpose of temple festival duties, and we later got into a heated debate with our colleague on this subject. Considering the religious significance of elephants to Hinduism (Ganesh, the god of luck and prosperity, has the head of an elephant), it made even less sense to treat these fantastic animals with such impunity. I later found an encouraging article relating to this issue, which restored my hope a little.
The following five days of the festival ensued with much dancing and celebration. Choosing a prime spot near the entrance to the university campus where the festival was being held, each morning we would unpack our (increasingly lighter) bags onto the tables and await our first customers. In between manning the stall, which we set up under a temporary structure with a tin roof, Julika and I would take turns in watching different films.
The focus for the VIBGYOR festival this February, in its 8th year, was stolen democracies. Even though my area of interest gravitates towards gender-related issues and sexual minorities, I was surprised by the number of films on show which I felt I had to watch. One of these was ‘Immoral Daughters’, by Nakul Sawhney, which explored honour killings and the cultural beliefs which perpetuate them. The stand-out clip for me was an interview with ganga-smoking village panchyat leaders. A young couple who married with their family’s consent were murdered by other villagers, with police complicity, for the crime of marrying too close within the community. When their families rose up against this act, panchyat leaders then ordered their excommunication. The cameraman asked one member of the panchyat whether rape and murder were treated in the same way, to which he replied, “No never. We never give excommunication for that.” Unbelievable.
There were so many other interesting films I saw, ranging from 5 minutes to an hour and a half in length, that it’s impossible to mention them all. The one that had the greatest impact on me is definitely worth mentioning though.
Anders Ostergaard’s ‘Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country’ documented the horrific military violence against Burmese citizens from the viewpoint of an underground network of covert journalists, who smuggled their footage via the internet and trusted couriers to report to the outside world. Illegally filmed on handheld cameras, the peaceful protests by Buddhist monks, students and citizens against the military government, and the military’s violent retaliation, were shown moment by moment. As events unfolded around the frontline cameramen, you were living it with them, and it was real fear I felt when the first people started being shot, and when huge crowds were running for their lives and being gunned down. It is not an understatement to say that I was shell-shocked by what I saw. The entire audience, which would normally raise a clap when the first credits started rolling, sat in stunned silence to the very end.
When the monk that we had seen around VIBGYOR over the past couple of days took the stage, we learnt that he had been one of those involved in the protests, and had seen it all. Nobody asked him any questions, but everyone listened when he started to speak. It was an unsettling end to the day.
The following morning brought a little more normality, with the usual and tiresome parade of men wanting our numbers/email/to go for a drink. I began to feel like I was on repeat, answering the same questions with every visitor to our stall. “Where are you from? What’s your name? Are you a student? Why are you in India? Oh you work for this charity? Why?” It was endless. Even Julika – with her seemingly limitless willing to chat to people – was tired by the end. I had already crawled under the table to hide and go to sleep.
This is not to say that there weren’t very positive moments either. After being interviewed by a journalist from Keralan newspaper ‘Manorama’, Julika and I found our photo in print the next day, to the delight of the other stall-holders and various film-goers.
We also gained an impromptu invite to one of the VIBGYOR volunteer’s 18th birthday party, where the usual happy birthday was followed by different people performing songs, and a young lad with a guitar singing Enrique Iglesias tunes. As soon as the drums started playing however, everyone went crazy, dancing like it was the last thing they would ever do, and it was so great to see. On the penultimate night, I narrowly escaped performing at the cultural evening, when I read the performer’s list and to my horror saw my own name at number 23. People sang, people danced, people got drunk and had a good time.
My favourite part of the week though had to be meeting artist K.G. Babu. After approaching the stall on the Monday, this gently-spoken Keralan invited me and Julika to his family home, where he wanted to draw us. So Tuesday morning saw us breakfasting at his table on delicious coconut pancakes and scrambled egg, before he got to work on our portraits one at a time. Whilst it was Julika’s turn I wandered about the garden beneath all the different fruit trees – jackfruit, papaya, mango, cashew fruit, coconuts, large lemons (they looked like melons to me), and more – and stood on the levee next to the canal, hugely appreciating the strong breeze which blew away the humidity of Thrissur.
Babu was kind enough to show me his studio, and the enamel paints he sometimes uses on his canvases. I couldn’t believe it when he offered the original sketch he had made of me. Clutching it in hand, we returned to our stall for the final hours of the festival.
It was a last-minute rush to the bus stand, and a sleepless trip back to Bangalore, but these little inconveniences were more than balanced out by the various unexpected and exciting events which unfolded through the week. To top it off, we made over 5000 rupees from selling books and SICHREM t-shirts, so felt we’d earned a day off from the office when we got home.