‘I was held at gunpoint by a man trembling with fear himself’

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Pankaj Butalia
Pankaj Butalia, 63, Documentary Filmmaker

How does an economics professor become a documentary filmmaker?
I was part of the 1960s movement of film clubs and screenings that swept India. I ran the Delhi chapter of Federation of Film Societies, founded by the likes of Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta. For 25 years, I would buy films from abroad, store them in my refrigerator and screen them. When you show films for such a long time, you feel like making one.

Your films largely chronicle the northeast. Why?
When I was in Shillong for the first time in 1987, to coach Meghalaya’s table tennis team, it was under curfew. I was stuck at a friend’s place for four days with many others. There, a Mizo woman told me of Mizoram’s fascination with Shakespeare. Mizos were reciting Shakespearean sonnets as folklore and wearing them on T-shirts. This became When Hamlet went to Mizoram. I’ve seen that Manipur is collateral damage for Delhi’s civilized society. There are sub-nationalist and anti-nationalist sentiments in Assam too. But, unlike Manipur, there are also thousand small wars between factions, none large enough to garner Delhi’s notice.

Yet Moksha, your most acclaimed film is on the Vrindavan widows.
In every household is a woman on the margins of the family. My grandmother, a widow, kept going back to Haridwar, in spite of having a large family. Moksha was an attempt to scrutinise this attitude towards widows and their sexuality; the idea that if you let them loose it’ll lead to promiscuity beyond control. In Vrindavan, the women have internalised a kind of policing system and learned to suppress their sexual desires.

What has been your greatest moment of fear as a filmmaker?
In 2010, while filming Assamblog I was in Haflong meeting militants. One day, there was a loud banging at my hotel room door. I opened it to find a man in camouflage pointing a gun at me, finger ready to press the trigger. He was a BSF jawan who had come to my door looking for militants. Those 10 minutes were my greatest moments of fear as I was held at gunpoint by a man trembling with fear and uncertainty himself.

What is the life of a documentary filmmaker like?
Here’s a popular joke I tell my friends — what is the difference between a pizza and a documentary filmmaker? A pizza can feed four, while the latter can’t.

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