JNU alumna Pallavi Paul wowed audiences at the Rotterdam festival with a new film on police violence and a speech on people’s resistance
The International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) was looking forward to its golden jubilee in 2021 when the coronavirus pandemic paralysed the world. The IFFR, which heralds the celebration of cinema every year with a January schedule, would go on to create a new format—an online event in February and an expanded physical festival in June—to help filmmakers and the film industry.
Around the same time that the IFFR was busy with its 50th year plans, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) doctoral student Pallavi Paul had been firming up her new film project, one that centred on police violence. “I started to think about the film in 2019 and then suddenly the world came into my project,” reminisces the Delhi-born Paul, who has since completed her PhD from JNU’s School of Arts and Aesthetics.
The police attacks on students at Jamia Millia Islamia in December 2019 followed by the Delhi riots, the police crackdown two months later and the George Floyd murder in the US gave an urgency to her project. A year later, The Blind Rabbit, directed by Paul, an acclaimed contemporary artist and filmmaker, had its world premiere at the IFFR on June 2 in a rare physical screening in the port city of the Netherlands.
Selected for the IFFR’s mid-length film programme, The Blind Rabbit is a 42-minute documentary, which uses experimental fiction to delve deep into the power structures that foster police violence, complicity and corruption. Using archival footage, social media videos and animation, the film traverses troubled periods in independent India’s history like the Emergency, 1984 riots, assault on Jamia students and the 2020 Delhi riots.
“If we think about art, there is hardly any work that goes into the inner life of power. We see 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,” explains Paul about the point of departure of the film, which was made in the middle of the pandemic last year.
Several retired police officers were interviewed for the film, which doesn’t identify them, using only their voice. “I started talking to a lot of police officials, but those still in service were unable to speak on record because of rules and provisions,” says Paul.
“Then I started talking to retired police officials who are not bound by the rules,” she adds. “Stories started to tumble out.”
One such story is about the forgotten orphans of the Emergency, children who were picked up by the police from the streets to complete daily arrest quotas. Two years of detention led to an erasure of their memories of home, which became limited to fragments like a nearby peepal tree or a train, tent or drain.
“When India was to be ‘re-democratised’, this group of children became a problem. The state didn’t know what to do with them because they had forgotten where they came from,” says Paul. The police were again given the task to find out where to put the children back. “The kidnapper now transmutes into the psychogeographer,” says the director.
Sound as image
Paul’s masterly use of sound, images and text to examine the savagery and grotesqueness within a flawed system elevates her experimental film to a greater cinematic vision rarely seen in Indian cinema today. The harrowing experience of two Jamia students trying to save their colleague from a brutal police assault in New Friends Colony on December 16, 2019—which became a symbol of student resistance—is retold at the beginning of the film through the sound of blinding blows from batons and disquieting screams on a blank screen.
Then again, in one of the interviews, a former police official is heard saying how the police were ‘instructed to make 18-20 arrests everyday’ during the Emergency. Another says that ‘we definitely felt what we were doing was wrong’. “We would write he was inciting violence making anti-government speeches,” the officer says about the false arrests. “The experience while working in force comes automatically,” says the officer responding to a question on who asked him to write false reports.
‘Blindness’ is a recurring theme in the film’s power play of texts and images, which render a tectonic stress to the narrative that alternates between documentary and fiction. “If we keep getting sucked into one of those major events, we lose sight of the larger structure,” says Paul about the artistic imperative to go beyond the obvious.
The Blind Rabbit—which received the support of the India Foundation for The Arts and Five Million Incidents, a year-long art project co-curated by Goethe Institute India and Raqs Media Collective—was one of the two Indian films featured at the IFFR’s June event. Tamil feature film Koozhangal (Pebbles) by PS Vinothraj won the festival’s top prize, the Tiger Award, in February.
Art & academia
“Pallavi has pumped fresh insight into the meaning of non-fiction cinema and the interface between non-fiction practice and art practice. She is blurring the boundaries,” says Ranjani Mazumdar, professor of cinema studies at JNU’s School of Arts and Aesthetics. “She has maintained an excellent balance between art practice and academic work. This interface is rare in our field,” says Mazumdar, who supervised Paul’s doctoral research across various sites like cinema, contemporary art, law and forensics by examining philosophical possibilities of the non-fiction form.
“Pallavi Paul’s experimental film practice, pedagogy and critical written analyses are receiving the deserved attention in a renewed round of a contemporary global crisis, the response to which has been intensified classism, patriarchy, casteism, communalism, sectarianism and xenophobia,” says Rohit Goel, director, Bombay Institute for Critical Analysis and Research. He collaborated with the filmmaker to teach an online course on cinema, concept and form early this year.
On June 5, Paul also delivered the festival’s Freedom Lecture, a collaboration between the IFFR and Amsterdam-based cultural organisation De Balie. In its fourth edition, the Freedom Lecture is presented every year by a filmmaker chosen from the entire festival selection from around the world.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer