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Police violence, inner workings of power put under the scanner in artist-filmmaker Pallavi Paul's 'The Blind Rabbit'

Jun 05, 2021 / 10:11 AM IST

Premiered at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam earlier this week, 'The Blind Rabbit' looks at the Emergency, 1984 riots, 2019 Jamia Library attack and the 2020 Delhi riots.

'The Blind Rabbit', directed by Delhi-based contemporary artist and filmmaker Pallavi Paul, premiered on the opening day of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (June 2-6).

Somewhere in the middle of Pallavi Paul's new film, The Blind Rabbit, is a heart-rending story of children arrested during the Emergency unable to remember their home address when the time comes for their release. There were hundreds of boys aged 7-16 who were picked up from the streets during 1975-77 to bump up the number of daily detentions.

"At the time police were instructed to make 18-20 arrests every day," says a retired police officer who is interviewed in the film. The officer, whose identity is not revealed, goes on to say that under pressure "very young children" were also put in jails and remand homes after "falsely" tagging them as "found while committing a crime".

The Blind Rabbit, which premiered earlier this week at the 50th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), is an explosive film on police violence. A combination of documentary and fiction, the 42-minute film uses archival footage, social media content and interviews to create a series of landscapes of unanswered questions.

One of those unanswered questions is about what happened to the hundreds of children who were unable to find a way back to their homes. "These children were from socially vulnerable backgrounds. When India was to be re-democratised, this group of children became a problem. The state didn't know what to do with them. The police were again given the task of finding where to put them back to. The kidnapper now transmutes into the psychogeographer," Paul said in an interview to during the IFFR (June 2-6).

The police soon started reassembling fragments of childhood memories from the young boys. One child remembers a train that comes near his house, another recalls a tent, yet another a drain. "One of the children describes an old rabbit who can't see near his house," says the filmmaker, who has just completed her PhD programme from the School of Arts and Aesthetics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. All documents related to this police operation are now lost, leaving little information about the fate of the children.

The film, which examines police violence, complicity and corruption by analysing some of the most vicious events from the Emergency, 1984 riots, 2019 Jamia Millia Islamia library attack, and 2020 Delhi riots, works on the shards of time and space that amplify the brutality behind the establishment's narrative. "We see the police as a symbol of state. However, in order to develop an understanding in an imaginative and decisive way, we need to be able to see the inner life of power," says the filmmaker.

It was the desire to examine the "inner life of power" that propelled the film's journey in the first place. Paul says she had started to think about a film on police violence in 2019 when "the world came into the project". First it was the assault inside the Jamia library on December 15, 2019. Later, the Delhi riots and the George Floyd murder in the United States.

"A lot of material was getting generated (on social media) by the ongoing violence. All I had to do was (wait) for them to find a way to speak to each other," says Paul, whose works blur the boundaries between academic work and art practice. "People were shooting on mobile phones and uploading them freely. We were surrounded by images," she adds.

Working in the middle of the pandemic, editing provided a "sharp way to enter these images". In the film, sound is used as an image to narrate the two incidents of policemen raining blows on a Jamia student as his friends try to rescue him, and police forcing a group of boys to sing the national anthem during the Delhi riots last year. "I have produced the terror of these moments by redacting the images and by provoking the people watching to (imagine) what happens when you can't see and all you hear are terrifying sounds," explains the director. "The terror comes from the blindness, of not being able to see."

Paul will also deliver the IFFR Freedom Lecture this year.

Paul interviewed as many as 50 former police officials for the film. One of them is heard confessing to his complicity. "After all these years when I think about that time or look back, I feel the way police committed atrocities and misused its powers, the way innocent people were thrown into jails, now I feel there was nothing like justice in those days," he says. At the end of the project, there were three hard drives full of material, including those from archives and social platforms.

"Pallavi Paul found narratives that keep us wanting to know more and more, even though the history she uncovers is a dark one," says Maaike Gouwenberg, programmer of IFFR's mid-length section. "She works with found footage, shares untold and never archived stories, and dives into the brutal side of her country, and brings it together with elegance," adds Gouwenberg.

'The Blind Rabbit' is part of the short- and mid-length section of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

"The International Film Festival Rotterdam is a festival where we are not primarily concerned with the red carpets or movie stars on the catwalk: the director as the author is the star as far as we are concerned. Their freedom to tell their story the way they want is of great importance," says Peter van Hoof, programmer of Rotterdam festival's short and mid-length programme.

"Art is able to change the perspective of life, and thereby tilt the view of the world and that of the harsh reality. At the same time, the artists can put their finger on the sore spot like no other, without having to join the direct political debate," van Hoof adds.

John Xaviers, programme officer, art practice, at the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), agrees. The IFA supported The Blind Rabbit project along with Five Million Incidents, a year-long art project co-curated by Goethe Institute India and Raqs Media Collective.

"Pallavi's strategic use of metaphors, sounds, darkness, inter-titles and silences in The Blind Rabbit evokes a picture of state/police brutality that is otherwise inexpressible through conventional filmmaking tactics," Xaviers says.

"Art has the power to draw in people who often do not fall within the reach of general political discourse, which makes art more important in regimes that are not conducive for truth telling."

Faizal Khan
first published: Jun 5, 2021 10:07 am
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