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Kaya Taran: A look at anti-Sikh riots

Sashi Kumar's first feature film opens with a dramatic shot. A stone shatters a stainglass painting of Jesus Christ, perhaps suggesting the dilemma of a nation grappling with a crisis of identity. The first scene of Sashi Kumar's Hindi movie, "Kaya Taran", (Chrysalis) leads to a Delhi Press Club debate on multiculturalism, particularly the struggle among minorities to preserve own's individual distinctiveness. A young Sikh man walks out of the discussion in disgust, paving the flow of frames to narrate the rest of the story.

A touching scene from "Kaya Taran"

Which is based on the famous Malayalam writer, N.S. Madhavan's short story, "When Big Trees Fall", a title which forms part of Rajiv Gandhi's quote, "when big tress fall, the earth shakes".

The earth shook all right, when India saw anti-Sikh riots in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi: thousands of Sikhs were killed, and many forced to cut their hair, nay their very identity, to escape death.

Sashi Kumar captures the essence of this in a poignant scene. A seven-year-old Sikh boy and his mother, chased by a mob of fanatics, take refuge in a Meerut convent for aged nuns. The woman and her son find that they have to shed their identity to flee to freedom and safety. The shot of the child's hair being clipped, and its mother's agony imply the trauma of a race, and the high point of Madhavan's literary work.

Sashi takes his film beyond this, and connects it to the Gujarat  massacre of 2002 to make his picture contemporary and relevant. "When a multi cultural society gets volatile, as we have seen it  happen in India for several years now, the crisis of identity  deepens", Sashi Kumar told me recently.And when a Gujarat(riots in 2002) or a Mumbai(riots in 1993) happens, this dilemma comes under sharper focus. The little Sikh lad in the movie returns as a grown-up journalist to the Meerut convent after the Gujarat riots, and one can see "some kind of convergence between these two disasters (1984 and 2002)".

Sashi Kumar notices a common thread between the anti-Sikh riots and what happened in Gujarat, "although there is a difference of degree. But, they are not of the same kind. One was a communal riot, and the other, strictly speaking, not. The symptoms are the same, though. The attitude, the undercurrents that make these tragedies possible seem to be constant," Sashi Kumar averred.

"Kaya Taran" ends on a positive note. After his return from Meerut, the journalist goes back to his Press Club friends sporting a turban, something he had not done in a long time, ever  since the disturbing day at the convent. Has he found his bearings ? Has he come to terms with his inner conflict, and his humiliation of having to shed an intrinsic part of himself ? Sashi Kumar's creation attempts to answer these in cinematic idiom, even while it takes artistic liberties at some places in the narrative.

(Posted on this website on July 14 2004)

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