Two kg flour and 250 gram onions are all that Moola, the widowed mother of murdered former MP and dacoit Phoolan Devi, has in her kitchen. Phoolan’s sister Ramkali works as an NREGA labourer to feed her mother and her handicapped child. The family has not had dal and sabzi for months. Moola’s life of penury has been captured by a documentary made by Shah Alam, an independent activist and documentary filmmaker. Alam’s Awam ka cinema (folk cinema) initiative is dedicated to capture the travails of rural life.
Alam is currently touring the Chambal region in Uttar Pradesh, which is perhaps the most under-developed and administratively ignored region of the country.
“I have found that there are villages where no government officer has visited since Independence and villagers have not seen electricity. There are no public toilets and people are forced to defecate in the open,” he said, adding that acute poverty and the lack of administration have made this region the breeding-ground of dacoits. He said there has been the emergence of kidnapping gangs in this area, although lately this has been checked.
Talking about his passion to document the region, Alam said he started a group known as Awam ka cinema after his college. Under this group, some independent filmmakers would set out on rural journeys and they would shoot rural life to showcase them in the form of short movies in various places like schools and colleges in small cities. The films will be showcased in the presence of district authorities to make people aware of rural life in their surroundings.
“Formerly, I worked on freedom fighters who hailed from Chambal, such as Dr Gaindalal Dixit, Bhartendu Mukundilal, Ram Prasad Bismil, etc. They were the stalwarts of the freedom struggle but have been forgotten now. Their memorials remain unattended,” rued Alam.
Alam started his recent Chambal tour with a tribute paid to Dr Gaindalal Dixit in Auraiya district. “I took gthe bicycle of a friend, the mobile of my younger brother, and a few rupees donated by a well wisher to document lives in ravines,” said Alam. He said that he roamed in villages all day and spent the night wherever somebody provided him with shelter.
Alam’s Awam ka cinema runs on grants and support given by his friends and well wishers. Some of the well-known names of cinema and public life such as film director Anusha Rizwi, Suhasini Ali Sehgal, S.R. Darapuri, Vikas Narain Rai etc., have lent support to Alam.
“Former dacoit and now TV personality-turned-politician Seema Parihar first adorned a public platform in one of our film screening festivals. Then she was contacted by the Big Boss TV show and is now known throughout India,” said Alam.
Like his cinema, Alam’s domicile also generates curiosity. Originally from Basti district, Alam lives in Ram Janaki Temple in Ayodhya with Mahant Satyendra Das, who is the head priest at the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmbhoomi site makeshift temple.
Doesn’t it raise eyebrows that a Muslim lives with a priest at such a sensitive place in Ayodhya? “On the contrary, people in Ayodhya adore me. I can go anywhere. All doors seem open to me. Once, Mahant ji even organised an iftar for Muslims in Ramadan. It enraged some of his hardcore followers, but he remains committed to social harmony and I feel comfortable there with his blessings,” Alam said.
He said he would wind up his Chambal journey by June end and then return to Ayodhya to plan the next screening of his Awam ka cinema.