Amudhan RP: A rebel, an activist & a filmmaker

There is no luxury of middle path in the war against injustice, says Tamil documentary filmmaker Amudhan RP.
 
This is a war. People vs State. There is no middle path here. One has to pick a side and fight. That is what Amudhan RP has been doing since 1997, when he made his first documentary film Leelavathi, about an activist who fought against the water mafia in Madurai, and was killed. He has made over 20 documentaries since then, the overriding theme being injustice and the fight against it.
 
“I am an activist. I like to intervene. I am sensitive to social issues, and so can’t help reacting to injustice through my films,” he says. “Who am I? What is my politics? Where do I stand? My films answer these questions for me.”
 
Subjects no one else will touch
Amudhan’s father was a communist leader, who was involved in people’s causes. He instilled the same fighting spirit in his son, who was a film buff. Amudhan realised that films could be a powerful tool for people’s movements. “This understanding and a communist upbringing helped me evolve into an activist filmmaker,” he says.
 
Amudhan studied Development Communication, a combination of subjects, including politics, economics, sociology and media studies, at the Madurai University, and worked with the Centre for Development of Instructional Technology in New Delhi. After learning  documentary filmmaking there, he moved back to Madurai, where he started a media activism group, Marupakkam, in 1997, to tackle social issues.
 
The criterion Amudhan follows while picking the subjects for his films is simple: that nobody else have ever made a film on it, nor is anyone likely to make a film on it in the next ten years. “Periyar, the famous leader of the Dravidian movement, was once asked, ‘why are you fighting for this cause?’ He answered, ‘Because nobody else is doing it. Show me one other person who is fighting for this with my vigour, then I can rest easy and do other things.’ My philosophy of filmmaking is the same,” Amudhan says.
 
Going beyond awards
This philosophy can be seen in the films he has made. After Leelavathi, Amudhan made one on the lives of the peasants of Gundupatti near Kodaikanal, who are repatriates from southern Sri Lanka, brought back to India under the Srimavo-Shastri accord. The film called Theeviravaghigal (Terrorists) is about the brutalities they faced from police and politicians when they decided to boycott a parliament election in response to lack of basic facilities.
 
His next film,  Thodarum Thisavazhi was on the students of two government-run colleges in Madurai who went on a state-wide protest against the privatisation of higher education. 
By now, he had experimented with different styles such as guerrilla filmmaking and direct cinema. But he switched to cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking, which uses the camera to unveil hidden painful realities.
 
“In 1999, I watched Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing. It was an eye-opener for me. Works of Australian filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke and Chilean director Patricio Guzmán also influenced me. And among Indians, I admire Anand Patwardhan’s documentaries and Chalam Bennurkar’s Kutty Japanin Kuzhandaigal (Children Of Mini Japan),” says Amudhan.
 
In 2003, he made Pee (Shit) on manual scavenging, his first film to win awards. It bagged the best film award at the One Billion Eyes film festival and the Jury Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival. Buoyed by the reception to the film, he decided to make two more films on Dalits.
 
But the rebel inside Amudhan, well, rebelled. “Until 2007, I used to send my films to festivals in India and abroad (which require the film not to be screened elsewhere). But I realised that those aren’t my audience. So now, I show them in screens across India, and at university campuses.”
Amudhan believes that his films aren’t complete until they are screened, and people discuss and debate the subject. “Films, or any art for that matter, cannot change anything by itself. They can only be one of the tools in the fight against injustice.” With his latest film on the ongoing Koodankulam protests, he toured six Indian states. But the film hasn’t been allowed to screen in Tamil Nadu. In fact, he has come under the intelligence scanner ever since he began working on the film. “My phone is being tapped, and they have been intimidating my family and friends because of my involvement with the anti-nuclear protests,” he says. So he keeps a low profile, and continues to push the film to as many places as possible.
 
Intervention and resistance are very important to me, says Amudhan. He is on the victim’s side, always. He never wavers from that position. “The trend among documentary filmmakers is not to take sides — the post-modern mindset that everything has many sides to it, many truths. I don’t follow it. There is no confusion in my head, I am with the victim.”
 
Malavika Velayanikal
DNA, Mumbai
16 December 2012
 
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