The first official documentary on Rohith Vemula is slated for release on 17 January. Director Srikanth Chintala speaks to Srija Naskar about his experiences during the making of the film.
Chintala, founder and director of an NGO called 'Public Interest' is a Hyderabad based writer and documentary filmmaker. He is currently the national general secretary of BAMCEF and as part of his organisation had conducted an international conference on 'Equality and Human Rights' at the London School of Economics in 2016 to mark 100 years of Babasaheb Ambedkar's first visit to LSE.
Is this the first documentary on Rohith Vemula?
Officially, it is the first documentary. There have been short online videos of people who were part of the agitation after Vemula’s death, but not a proper documentary so far.
Besides releasing on YouTube, have you thought of making its circulation wider?
Yes, we are also planning to screen this in the University of Hyderabad on 17 January. Hopefully, we will screen in DU, JNU and other central and state universities, which are currently inviting me.
How long did it take to work on the documentary?
I had decided on this documentary when those five Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) students were suspended, that is before the sad demise of Rohith Vemula. Rohith’s decision came to me as a shock. Ever since then, I began to research on Rohith’s story. Though the video footage was collected in 2-3 months, I’ve been patiently waiting for reports on his death, political situations, reactions of governments etc., So, you can say it took about 10 months to make this documentary.
How did you go about it? What did the research work include?
The research work included case studies of caste-based atrocities on students outside HCU, data on students who were driven to commit suicide due to these atrocities, the number of cases filed against colleges and their staff etc. According to my research team’s findings, about nine people (including Rohith) have committed suicide in the last 5 years in HCU. As part of the research I met several students and faculty of HCU, Rohith’s friends and family. Of course, there were a few who had refused to face the camera, hence had to only record their views with a condition of anonymity. I visited Rohith’s village (Guntur), college (Hindu college in Guntur), his best friend from college (Syed Riyaz), etc. It was in Riyaz’s house that Rohith’s family had gone underground when they were facing threats after Rohith’s death. Riyaz knew things about Rohith which even his family did not know. You will find it out from the documentary.
Riyaz was closest to Rohith. I also tried to contact some of the owners of rented housing in Guntur who after discovering that their tenants belonged to the family of Rohith had asked them to vacate immediately. Some of them refused to give any statement. They said, “Big people are involved. We don’t want to talk.”
An incident worth remembering during the making of the film. Something that deeply moved you.
I broke down so many times during the shoot as Rohith’s family recounted his childhood days. After Rohith’s father left them to fend for themselves, they initially started living with Anjani Devi (Rohith’s foster grandmother) and I was told how Rohith’s family would never be allowed to eat until Anjani Devi’s family had finished eating. When Rohith would come back from school, hungry, asking for food, the little one was deliberately kept waiting. On a number of occasions, Radhika Vemula (his mother) would secretly arrange for lunch and ask Rohith to hide inside a bathroom and eat. Even in his school, Kanna English medium school, there were a few teachers who would specifically ask Rohith to not sit beside upper caste classmates.
We tried but could not get some of those teachers to speak to us. All this despite Rohith being a brilliant student. He had scored the highest in his district in Class X board examinations. He got a free education. The school administration had waived off his fees for his academic brilliance. The worst part is the fact that Rohith continues to remain humiliated even after his death! Rohith’s is the worst caste atrocity I’ve ever seen.
What challenges did you face during the making of the documentary?
The major challenge I faced was regarding the attitude of people. Everyone had their own versions. While interacting with the students at HCU, some said that they had proofs of it being a case of institutional murder, some others called it a case of depression. I was not in a position to judge. After all, I’m making a documentary and I feel it is my responsibility to project things as they are; without any bias.
The second biggest challenge was the unavailability of data about similar cases. There is absolutely no official documentation. I looked out for data that governments have acquired to address caste discrimination, students’ suicides and their causes, actions of governments/institutions after such suicides. Nothing is available... We filed RTIs to HCU, MHRD, seeking certified copies of Rohith’s educational credentials, caste certificates, on what basis the probe panel of MHRD initiated “caste inquiry”. We didn’t get responses to any.
When I spoke to ministers and police officials, they said “we have already spoken what we had to”. I will share an incident with you. While we were recording statements of various people in HCU, one of the permanent faculty of the School of Science threatened my cameraperson. I was not there during the incident. Apparently, he had threatened with the words, “Stop making an intellectual out of Rohith. I am a professor of Science and I know what intellectualism is all about. Stop all this nonsense or else you will face similar consequences as Rohith did.” Rohith’s transgender friend, Karthik Bittu (who was dismissed from the position of Guest Faculty of Science department after he held solidarity protests) had been forewarned by Appa Rao to not speak with any member from our team who were working on the documentary.
Did you know Rohith Vemula personally? If yes, how would you describe him from your personal acquaintance with him?
Yes I did. During our conversation at Velivada after suspension, he said “You BAMCEF people will be termed as anti-national if you work with Muslims and Backward classes, but as you are a big nation-wide organisation, you are not the immediate target” It reflected what he was going through. After all, the suspension had happened in the wake of a letter written by Bandaru Dattatreya to the HRD Ministry describing the ASA students as “anti-national, casteist” elements on campus.
Rohith was clear in what he spoke, clear about his thoughts. The Dharna Chowk which you may call the Jantar Mantar of Hyderabad is where you would see Rohith on most days. Every Class IV employee in HCU, from the sweeper to the watchman, knew Rohith so well. He was always contributing to their work. During the course of this documentary I got to know how on a Labour Day, while the other students were distributing old clothes and money, Rohith who had no money to offer, had spent the rest of the day by cooking a special meal for all the labourers of the university. On being asked by one of his party members to take a break from work, this is what he had said, “I know what is the continuous work of labour. I have suffered the pain so I can’t afford to take any break.” I think I got to know him more while making this documentary, which you will hopefully discover in my narration.
Trailer of the documentary
If you could also let us know what is the current state of ASA like without Rohith’s leadership?
Rohith is an irreversible loss to not just society but ASA as well. The way I see it, Rohith is more ASA now than before. Every work of ASA has Rohith now, every event of ASA has his picture now. However, leaders like Dontha Prashanth, Vijay Kumar, are also doing a great job. When he was alive, Rohith was part of ASA. After he died, ASA has become a part of Rohith.
Srija Naskar is a Journalist based in Delhi.