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Question that drove film on 1984 anti-Sikh riots: ‘If we don’t talk about our history, who will?’

Teenaa Kaur Pasricha’s ‘1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise’ revisits the aftermath of the Delhi riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

When Teenaa Kaur Pasricha first read about the anti-Sikh violence that followed the death of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, she was struck by the lack of awareness about its aftermath.

“I was devastated when I read about 1984, and the biggest question to me was: Why has there been no film on this subject?” Pasricha told Scroll.in. “If we don’t talk about our history or culture, then who else will?”

Pasricha was particularly moved by the thought of the women who lost their husbands and homes in the violence. “I wondered how they came out of their trauma and started healing and negotiating with daily life,” she said.

Pasricha decided to address this paucity of narratives with her documentary 1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise. The 57-minute documentary chronicles the lives of women who live in Delhi’s Widow Colony, which houses the widows of the Sikh men who were killed in the violence which continued for four days after Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

The documentary took five years to produce, and was partially funded by Busan International Film Festival’s Asian Network and Documentary Fund, and Leipzig International Festival for Documentary and Animated Films’s fellowship titled Doc Wok. It will be screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala on June 18.

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1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise.

1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise includes first-person accounts of women who lost their husbands in 1984, and are attempting to come to terms with their loss in different ways. While one widow revisits the locality where her husband was killed, another makes peace with the idea that her missing husband could, in fact, be dead. Although the documentary incorporates other voices in the form of a legal expert and a politician accused of abetting the violence, the conversations with the women – with their paradoxical blend of vulnerability and resilience – remain the focus of the narrative.

Pasricha allows the widows to switch nimbly between Hindi and Punjabi while narrating their experiences, demonstrating that their grief is immune to boundaries of language. As we see the women engaged in their daily chores, it becomes evident that their linguistic flexibility is just one manifestation of the many adjustments they have made in order to fit into to a new milieu. But while women have adapted to make peace with the tragedy of their past, men have succumbed to drug addiction.

The documentary also includes the story of an abuser to demonstrate how institutionalised drug addiction has eroded the emotional, mental and financial health of the entire community, specifically its women. “The challenge was finding someone who was a drug addict, and still open and honest enough to speak with me,” Pasricha said. “There was one person who was a drug addict, but he didn’t like my idea of coming to him, because the peddlers stopped giving him drugs. He just came up to me and said: you are not going to film me anymore. So I couldn’t do anything.”

1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise. Image credit: Teenaa Kaur Pasricha.
1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise. Image credit: Teenaa Kaur Pasricha.

Pasricha’s research process is reminiscent of ethnography, because she waited to be accepted by the community before capturing their everyday lives on camera. “Every October 31, journalists come to interview these people and move on,” she observed. “And here I was, going to them again and again, listening to them. They were a bit surprised, because they hadn’t seen anyone coming to them so many times. The idea was to be a compassionate companion to them.” She had to wait for 18 months to talk to one widow. “I had to sit outside her home, day after day, till she could actually trust me to tell her story.”

Since she continued to interact with the women for several years, Pasricha became emotionally invested in their stories. “I was just some girl listening to these stories and my heart used to cry,” she said. Consequently, the documentary is unable to sketch a completely non-partisan political picture. However, it paints vividly painful portraits of trauma and grief, skillfully highlighting how personal tragedies affect political alliances.

1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise. Image credit: Teenaa Kaur Pasricha.
1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise. Image credit: Teenaa Kaur Pasricha.

Although 1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise occasionally valourises the voices of the widows, it highlights their trauma with unrelenting compassion and empathy. In one of the most poignant sequences, a group of widows is knitting together while they speak of the gruesome violence that surrounds the death of their husbands. As the camera focuses on a little boy listening to their conversation, it gently illustrates how the violence that has marred the life of his predecessors is still as much a part of the boy’s everyday life as the toy in his hand.

Pasricha hopes that her work will shed new light on a neglected chapter of history and provide victims with a measure of peace. “I know that there will be no justice for these women,” she said. “My research revealed that to me. The only atonement is for the government to recognise that this was a state-planned massacre that took place for four days, not riots.”

1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise was made with the intention to encourage people of different communities to become more tolerant of each other. “When I was making the film, I felt terribly sad, because there is still discrimination happening,” Pasricha said. “Negros, dalits are still tortured in our country. We really need to know and accommodate each other, in the name of humanity.”

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Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images
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