This year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam Freedom Talk speaker Pallavi Paul claims that her mid-length film “The Blind Rabbit,” which examines police violence and systemic abuse of power, is unlikely to be seen by an Indian audience because the level of censorship applied by the government is “so intense.”
The New Delhi-based filmmaker’s 43-minute essay, running in the festival’s short and mid-length section, moves across moments like India’s national emergency of 1975-77 (which suspended civil liberties under the guise of maintaining law and order) as well as the anti-Sikh massacre of 1984.
However, Paul draws parallels to the present day, by recalling the recent police brutality across university campuses, which include images of CCTV cameras being smashed in the library of Jawaharlal Nehru University, where Paul studied film.
According to Paul, the film was inspired by last year’s events in the U.S. following the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, which got her thinking about events that had occurred in her own country’s young democracy over the decades.
The video artist and director added that she wanted to make a film that focused on police brutality from the point of view of the perpetrators.
“We really don’t have any works that inhabit the inner life of this kind of power – as artists we always produce a narrative around this type of brutality from the outside – but that only scratches the surface,” she says.
“I wanted to engage with people who have been involved in these actions and to assess the contours of this beast, not from a self-righteous vantage point, but to engage in the messiness of memory and the chaos of what happens inside you when you violate somebody,” she adds.
As no official archive existed, Paul tracked down and interviewed 25 former police officers that had worked in the Indian subcontinent throughout the 70s and 80s, and several powerful stories emerged.
Former female police officers recall their assignment of becoming former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s body doubles, weeks before her assassination, which Paul says she used to illustrate the fragility of power.
“This all-powerful figure of the prime minister producing her own copies, these low res copies. The scope of power during the emergency should have increased things – but sometimes a doubling is actually a cutting into half,” says Paul.
The film also unearths tales of children from poorer districts being kidnapped by police while playing on streets during the emergency, and placed in jails and institutions on trumped up charges.
The same officers were later forced to repatriate these children – an impossible task when many were too young to recall their addresses.
The only detail one small boy in an officer’s care can remember about his home is that “there was a blind rabbit,” which becomes both the film’s title and an allegory within it.
Paul also renders the audience blind for some sections of the film: images of torture and police brutality are redacted with only the sounds and text on display.
She says: “When you sense something, when you hear the cane being hit, you feel as if you’re being hit. To give you an image of that violence you would just consume it like any other image. And I didn’t want that. I wanted the violence to be so unsettling that you can sense it all around you.”
Paul constantly anchors the film’s messages to the present day, alluding to the Hindu majority Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempts at trying to control the public narrative, despite artists and student censorship protests.
More recently, the government has been criticized by censorship watchdogs for the removal of social media posts critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In February, it was also reported that Twitter had blocked more than 500 accounts linked to the ongoing farmer protests against agricultural reforms after the government issued a legal notice.
“I don’t know whether anyone will show my film in India right now, the censorship is so intense – but I also hope that the film’s message offers hope,” says Paul.
“The more powerful governments become, the more vulnerable they are. Right now we could feel pummelled by this regime but inventive, sharper ways of thinking can lead to new routes of protesting,” she says.