IN THE TREE
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.
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
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.