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"blending activism and filmmaking"





A new documentary
film by Lalit Vachani

2002 Digital Video; 98 min.
Hindi/English/Marathi/Sanskrit with English subtitles.

In early 1993, Lalit Vachani and the Wide Eye Film team completed a documentary film, The Boy in the Branch, for Channel 4 Television, U.K. Set at the headquarters of the RSS in Nagpur, the film was about the indoctrination of young Hindu boys by a branch of the RSS, the foremost Hindu fundamentalist organization in India. Eight years later, Vachani returned to Nagpur to meet the characters from his earlier film.

At one level, this is a film about memory. It is a documentary in the form of a personal revisit where a filmmaker returns to the issues, the locations and the subjects of an earlier film. At another level, The Men in the Tree is a political documentary on the RSS and Hindu fundamentalism. It is about some of the individuals, the stories and the myths, the buildings and the branches that enable the growth of the RSS and its Hindutva ideology.

In October 1992, Lalit Vachani and the Wide Eye Film team were filming The Boy in the Branch. At the time, Kali, the central character of the film, was nine years old. He had joined the RSS branch because it was a fun place where children could play games after school every day. Sandeep, twenty-one years old, spoke about his devotion to the Hindu nationalist cause, and how he would spend his life serving the RSS. Sripad, an RSS martial arts expert (nineteen at the time) was passionate about building his own body and building the Hindu nation. And Lalit, age eighteen, was a gentle, atypical volunteer who disliked the physical program of the RSS, even though he was assigned to train the younger boys in Karate.

We had entered RSS territory expecting to confirm our received images of fascism. Instead, what we found was far more ingenious and unsettling in its simplicity: the lure of a playground where young boys played games and the hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties of ordinary young people as the banal face of fundamentalism.

On December 6th, 1992, 45 days after the shoot when the film was near completion, members of the RSS and its affiliates destroyed the Babri mosque at Ayodhya.

Where were Lalit, Kali, Sripad, and Sandeep when the mosque was razed to the ground? What did they think about the deaths of at least 1500 people (mostly Muslim) in the riots that followed the demolition? What had happened to them since that time, as the RSS and Hindu nationalism moved from the margins to the center of Indian politics, from an oppositional movement to the ideology of the government presently in power? Eight years later, we returned to Nagpur in search of Kali, Sandeep, Sripad and Lalit.

Combining the conventions of the political documentary and the personal 'revisit', The Men in the Tree is a documentary in four parts:

Part I, Memories (22 min.) is a personal reflection on the making of the earlier film, The Boy in the Branch.

Part II, Buildings (24 min.) builds on the characters of The Boy in the Branch, in that we meet Sandeep, Sripad and Kali in the present, after a gap of eight years. However, it is primarily about the making and the breaking of various buildings, the most prominent one being the Babri mosque, destroyed in December 1992.

Part III, Stories (32 min.) is the talking heads/information section of the film. It is about the kind of stories that circulate within the RSS branch and broader RSS culture and the attempts by RSS ideologues to rewrite and Hinduize a secular Indian history. Former RSS volunteers, D.R. Goyal and Purshottam Agarwal provide an internal critique and a framework to understand the ambivalence of the RSS to national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and contextualize the RSS hostility towards Muslim and Christian minorities in India.

Part IV, Branches (20 min.) is about the state of RSS branches in contemporary India in the form of a return to the branches that the team filmed in 1992.

The film ends with an epilogue concerning the events of March 2002. At the time, The Men in the Tree was almost complete. The RSS affiliate, the VHP launched a new agitation to build the Ram temple at Ayodhya. This resulted in the horrifying genocide in Gujarat, where estimates suggest that over two thousand Muslims were killed by members of the Hindu right.

Camera : Ranjan Palit

Sound : P.M. Satheesh

Editing, additional camera, script and narration : Lalit Vachani

Post-production: Shikha Sen

Sound consultant : Asheesh Pandya

Researched, produced and directed by Lalit Vachani

A Wide Eye film, 2002

Screening and Discussion
with filmaker
Lalit Vachani

Friday, December 6th
7:30 - 9:30 PM

University of California, Berkeley
Graduate School of Journalism
105 North Gate Hall



Co-sponsored by

UCB Center for South Asian Studies
Dept. of Cultural & Social Anthropology; California Institute of Integral Studies; Coalition Against Communalism (CAC); and Friends of South Asia (FOSA).

Saturday, December 7th
6 - 8:00 PM

Stanford University
Room 002, Bldg 200;
History Corner, 450 Serra Mall


Co-sponsored by the
Dept. of Cultural & Social Anthropology and Dept. of Religious Studies, Stanford U.;
Dept. of Cultural & Social Anthropology, California Institute of Integral Studies; and Friends of South Asia (FOSA).

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