The journey to forgiveness

Ambika Shaligram
Thursday, 14 February 2019

Journalist and filmmaker Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal talks about the process of making her documentary film Rubaru Roshni and her takeaway from it

Pain, empathy and forgiveness are inter-linked. But have you considered that peace too can be a part of this triumvirate? All these emotions can set you free. The journey, however, isn’t easy, discovered  Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal. Bhatkal, who is the digital media head for Paani Foundation, entered into a space, which was dark and forbidding. At the end of it, she found herself Rubaru (face-to-face) with Roshni (light).

Her documentary film, Rubaru Roshni, which premiered on Star network on January 26, explores the concept of forgiveness. It’s an anthology of three real-life stories that took place in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000 respectively. Orphan and the convict talks about Avantika Maken Tanwar whose childhood was disrupted after her parents were shot dead at their home in Delhi in 1985 when she was just six. The killer was Ranjit Singh Gill aka Kuki who attacked Avantika’s father, Lalit Maken, after he read a book in which Maken’s name was mentioned as one of the Congress MPs responsible for the killing of Sikhs in the riots that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.
The Farmer and The Nun talks about Sister Rani Maria who, while travelling in a bus in 1995, was stabbed 54 times by a farmer, Samundar Singh and was deserted on the road. The nun in the title is Selmi Paul, who is Maria’s sister. 

The Terror and The Mom is about two of the 164 casualties in the Mumbai terror attack case of 2008 — the husband and teenage daughter of US resident Kia Scherr. 

The film features the perpetrator and the victim’s family. Can you forgive the perpetrator for killing your father or sister? Bhatkal discovered, ‘Yes, you can’. Here’s more about the filmmaker’s journey...

Did your journalistic instinct come to the fore in choosing these stories? 
Definitely, my journalistic instinct has guided me. I am not sure if it has helped me in picking these stories. But, the journalistic curiosity in me drove me to work on the film.

How did you establish the bond with the families? 
It’s a matter of trust. There was no way that we could take forward a process of this nature, which was very intense, without trust. I was very clear that I had to be willing to give it a lot of time to understand their point of view. I had to put myself in their shoes. I also wanted to know more about them. 

At any point, did you think you were not neutral? In Avantika Maken’s case, her father was killed for being part of the Sikh riots. Did these back stories influence your work or the way you wanted to show their stories? 
When I started talking to the families and sharing their life, I was neither a journalist nor a filmmaker, I was one human being talking to another human being. The way they came across to me, it was very difficult for me to be judgemental. Who knows, but for a quirk of fate, it could have been me sitting there and having committed those crimes. Certain sets of circumstances push human beings to a point. I was fortunate that my life didn’t throw me those challenges. In case it had, I wondered what I would have done? 
When the families began talking, I knew that it was a difficult territory that they are walking in. They had allowed me into a very private and difficult space. I was constantly aware that I couldn’t be pushing my deadline and agenda. 

Do you think emotions like love, hatred, forgiveness are cliched or overrated? Did you see any change within yourself?
Actually, I had never thought of forgiveness at all. I had never made a connection between forgiveness and peace. I had not made that connection in my head, but in the process of working for the film, I have definitely learnt to be a more forgiving human being. I recognise how much unforgiveness was there within me and how it was hurting me. 

Was there a personal trigger for choosing to make this movie? 
I had finished working on Satyamev Jayate and I was in deep contemplation about what to do next, which was meaningful and also contributed something to society. Also, like many people in the world, I was disturbed by all the violence around us. Violence meets with counter-violence, counter-violence meets with further counter-violence. The cycle of violence continues for thousands of years, and we fight until we forget the reason why we chose to fight in the first place.
I read a newspaper article of Avantika Maken in mid-2015, and I thought, ‘My God! If something like this is true, then I want to know more about it’. The process of thinking started then. In my personal life at time, I was extremely revengeful about someone. I had been feeling terrible, I had been feeling angry. I can’t say that it’s a direct relation, but things happen for a reason. I think this process of making a film came into my life, for a reason. I changed my way of thinking. 

Was it just three stories that made it to the final storyboard? Are you planning to make a sequel? 
I have no plans to make a sequel. But there are other stories that I found during my research and which I partially shot for. I don’t know what I would do with them. I haven’t made up my mind yet. I am still allowing the whole Rubaru Roshni to sink in. I am still getting calls from people, getting the feedback and so on. 

What did the subjects feel about the film?
I spoke with all of them after the film released and we had multiple conversations. In fact, Avantika and Kukiji came with their families to Mumbai and watched the film together. Samundar bhaiya also came alongwith his brother’s family. When everyone came together and watched the film, it was very miraculous. Avantika and Kukiji shook hands, spoke to each other. I think they have made a fantastic contribution to the world. It’s not easy. Hats off to Samundar and Kukiji for having bared their souls so much. I think it’s brave, courageous and generous of them. 

Any plans to send it to film festivals? 
Not really. Quite a few journalists have asked me and that has got me thinking. Maybe I should make a list of festivals, but the truth is that I have lived with Rubaru... since August 2015, and now it’s February 2019. I think it’s time to say goodbye to Rubaru Roshni and leave it for the world to make it their own. I, for one, don’t want to continue pushing the agenda of the film. The film has to find its own destiny. As a maker, I have done my bit. I don’t want to fall in the trap of demanding for my film. 

Is it so easy to be detached? 
Actually, the biggest moment for me was when Avantika and Kukiji and others could make it for the screening. That was the moment, when the journey of the  film got completed for me. I am delighted with the accolades that have come our way. But I feel that detachment is something that one needs to practise in life. Otherwise you can be trapped. 

Do you need to be of a certain mindset to work in films like these? 
I learnt a lot while making the film. I don’t really know what happened to my state of mind. But I felt very open and I was able to receive so many things, which was not necessarily my nature. As a journalist, you tend to have a critical mindset. It has changed me in many small and big ways.
My work needs to be meaningful. I will be 55 this year. I feel that whatever years I have left, I should do something meaningful, and spread positivity and goodness. That’s all that I want. Journalist, filmmaker, writer — all these labels make us feel very trapped.

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