Film director and media activist Amudhan R P discusses why he makes the kind of films he does, igniting a spark of social change to help people inch towards a world without borders, boundaries and divides.
To Amudhan, film maker and political activist, films are an instrument of social change. A tool that he deftly uses to encourage discussion and push boundaries. Film plays a large role in popular culture across India, and growing up in Tamil Nadu Amudhan was influenced by Tamil cinema in particular. As a boy he always wanted to make feature films when he was older, but it wasn’t until he was completing his MA in development communication that he was introduced to the documentary and quickly became hooked. “I realised I didn’t have to go to Chennai, work with a big team and spend loads of money,” he says. “I could fund my own films and be just as successful.” There is a tradition, he says, of documentaries in India, citing filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan, K.P Sasi, and Chalam Bennurkar. To this day Amudhan has created ten films, and is working on the next two, as well as organising various screenings and film festivals with works by other directors, on a wide variety of topics. His films are very much his creations alone; his office comprises just one computer and although his success has grown, Amudhan’s work remains true to its cause and his animation in discussing it shows his continuing enjoyment in its creation.
Among these are his first documentary, Leelavathy, released in 1997 and focusing on the murder, that same year, of a female member of a local civic body, and Shit (2003), a 25 -minute documentary which follows Mariammal, a sanitary worker who cleans a public toilet. The film earned a number of awards. Amudhan remembers people vomiting in the cinema – such is the impact of footage which shows a manual scavenger’s everyday routine. “It is right there in the face,” he says, so people have to take notice. Amudhan was pleased that the matter was really taken notice of by its audience, and has since been used in campaigns against manual scavenging. Amudhan puts ‘dirty’ topics onto the screen, to bring them into the public discourse.
Coming from an activist background, Amudhan saw that art could be used as a means of conveying a message. His father was a communist and political activist and Amudhan grew up with the concepts of social change and revolution. Coming from this environment, he realised that his interest in film would work as a vehicle with which to raise issues he felt strongly about – something that he says he was motivated to do due to a feeling of social responsibility.
And sure enough, sometimes the popular support this brings is all it takes for human rights groups, for example, to take notice and be able to act. All over India, too. These films are in fact being watched globally in seminars and conferences.
Amudhan knows his films are being pirated, but this information doesn’t bother him. “At least people are watching my films,” he says. It is all about getting the message out. He is modest about the effect that film can have on society; it is a “small voice” only. However, the wide reach it has, especially in a country where film is so popular, means there must be substantial potential to spark change, on whatever scale, when the right people are reached. If there is a reaction, even a negative one, it means the issue exists, and Amudhan feels “honoured” that he has provoked a response through something he has created. The strongest opposition seems to have be around the issue of national pride, which he offended in creating a spoof music video of a popular song by A.R Rahman. Originally glorifying India, the new ‘Shit Version’ of the song contrasted footage of toilets and sanitary workers over the same music.
Amudhan’s next film, his eleventh, will be about the Special Economic Zones policy. This is a reaction to conflict. He is also working with groups that are opposing the policy, and his film will bring their point across to many. Amudhan hopes to reach “as many [people] as possible,” with his films, he says, but “even if only one group understood, that too would be fine”. One group that the specifically targeted is students, and the films are screened in colleges across India. Perhaps this group has the most potential to create change, being the adults who will shape India’s immediate future. But the strength of film in India seems to be that everyone loves it and it has the power to spread across vast distances, whether it is film for film’s sake, or politically charged, and this has made it a very effective messenger here.
This is one of three articles I wrote while volunteering at the Times of Madurai (now the Madurai Messenger) in 2010. The website, and original articles, can be found here.