ENTERTAINMENT
12/06/2020 6:10 PM AEST

Nation Failed Migrants, Says Director Of Viral Short 'Pravaasi'

National-award-winning director Kireet Khurana on why he made the film and why he picked Taapsee Pannu to voice it.

Screenshot
A still from 'Pravaasi'

In less than 48 hours since it was uploaded, national-award-winning director Kireet Khurana’s animated short on the migrant crisis has nearly half a million views on Twitter and has been shared by multiple accounts on YouTube.

The nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic ended up creating a humanitarian crisis which historian Ramachandra Guha last month called the “greatest manmade tragedy in India since Partition”.

As millions of migrant workers, out of food and jobs, began walking thousands of kilometres to their villages, they had to go through assaults from the police, fight hunger and exhaustion and a number of indignities. Many never made it home.

Khurana’s 1.42 minute-long video, with animation done by Vivekananda Roy Ghatak, is filled with the harrowing images that made it impossible for many people to look away even as governments went out of their way to make life difficult for the travellers. There is the mother who drags her exhausted child along on a suitcase, the baby trying to wake his mother up, the dry rotis that were all that was left of 16 people who decided to rest on the railway tracks in Aurangabad.

Accompanying this is a haunting voiceover by actor Taapsee Pannu, who told HuffPost India’s Ankur Pathak that she spoke the words from her heart. Her Twitter timeline, however, is filled with people criticising her for participating in the video.

“I wonder who would say no to this. Kireet sir met me at a film festival where we interacted for a bit. I’m glad he thought I should lend my voice to it because there are many of us who felt the pain but maybe didn’t have the right words n platform to express. I got it and I made sure I spoke with my heart so it reached more hearts,” she said. 

Khurana spoke to HuffPost India over the phone about why he made the film, anticipating the criticism, and why Pannu was the right person to voice it.

How did you decide to make this short?

The idea was disturbing. When I was watching the news, there was a sense of helplessness at what was happening. The situation, it was something that I felt could have been avoided. They (migrants) were being called “foolish” and “idiots”. The divisive language that was being used online, it’s very disgusting and shameful what happened. Knowing that, I wanted to look at the plight and the desperation these guys had. Many of them walked for several hundred kilometres and were sent back or beaten up. Completely unmindful, totally unsympathetic and a complete loss of empathy, sympathy, humanity, whatever you may call it. Humanity was completely lost. And this crisis can bring out the worst or best in us. I know many people have gone above and beyond to help these people. And there were others who could have done more.

By and large, I think the administration and the nation has failed them. And all these images are etched indelibly in our memory. Given the transient nature of our existence, that we tend to move onto the next issue, it is important to collate all those defining moments and put it together in one video. And try to see if a large part of the nation can actually grow a heart. I saw a lot of privileged people talk and say ‘they are fools’, ‘they are idiots’, ‘they should be beaten up or locked up’, ‘they are going to spread the disease’ and so on. Very very insensitive. So it (the film) stems from there.

You’ve picked images that are very striking, that made an impact in a news cycle that can move on too quickly. How did you decide on them?

It was very simple. These were the images that we lived with for weeks during those 1.5-2months when this crisis was unfolding. The migrants also left in waves. But the police brutality, the way they were treated like cattle and persona non grata. It was all ridiculous and so inhuman the way it was done. Many of them actually said, ‘yaar hum ko jaane do, humare paas khaane ko nahi hai, agar nahi ho sake to humein maar do, khatam kar do, we can’t live like this’. Many said that because we don’t want to even give them the basic dignity of living a life, of being able to survive or eat.

What was it like to recreate these tragic images while animating them?

The animation is done by Vivekananda Roy Ghatak from NID. He was also very affected by this (crisis). He had been creating these 3-second or 5-second animations and sharing them on social media. They were fragmented, disconnected. And I felt that this needed to be chronicled so people understand that this also happened. Public memory can be short, but the film needs to be there for anybody to know how it was.

So I reached out to him and said why don’t we collaborate. I gave him the script and situations which were the most prominent— the one with child who is oblivious that the mother is no more or the one in which they are trying to snatch grains from each other or the one where rotis are lying on the tracks and the 14-year-old girl who took her father on the bicycle. These were images that were so powerful already, all I had to do was take the actual images and build around it. The idea is not to recreate it with your imagination but to take those actual photographs, like the boy sleeping on the suitcase, and trace it out and portray it for what it is. Because that is something that people recognise.

One of the things I noticed in the script is that while it reflects on what has happened, it also reads like an apology, even though it’s in the voice of the pravaasi.

Yes, of course. We owe them an apology, right? When it’s asked as a question ‘kya hum is desh ke vasi hain, hum to bas pravasi hain’ it’s asking you a question— if you consider them human. So it is a plea. None of them stood up, none of them hit back, none of them beat up the police, they could have overwhelmed them, they could have been on the streets and had a revolution. They understood the gravity of the situation, they respected that the lockdown had to happen. Yet they wanted to get back to their homes, they didn’t have money for food, the government were saying they were providing them food and shelter. That was all hogwash, we know that.

What has been the response to the film? I can see from Tapsee Pannu’s Twitter that she is getting a lot of flak and criticism for sharing it. We are in an environment where speaking the truth about what’s happening can be seen as anti-government and anti-national. What has been your experience and did you think about thhe potential criticism when you were making it?

There would be criticism of it, that was a known fact. Because if you’re asking questions that are uncomfortable, then nobody is going to like it. But should the question therefore not be asked, should everything be portrayed in a hunky dory manner? So we knew there would be (criticism), but if you go on YouTube where many people have uploaded the video since we shared it and I went to see what kind of response there is. People can troll you, they say ‘you are sitting at home and you sitting in the AC’, that is the expected response. But if you see on Youtube, for 100 likes, it’s got 3 or 4 dislikes. So it is getting a very strong positive response.

At the same time, it is questioning the powers that be, but it’s also staring at the the entire nation and asking ‘where were you when this happened’. (Ordinary) people didn’t go out and hold their hands and assuage them or help them and reassure them. 

How did you coordinate this during lockdown?

Once the basic animation was done, I knew we needed somebody with their heart in the right place and I knew Taapsee from before. I thought she can see the film for what it is and then it would easier for her to say yes, if she wants. So I sent it to her, she saw it and within 5 minutes said ‘I’m doing it’. She recorded on her phone and then she sent it to me and then sound design was done and we put it out. The idea is also to leverage her preeminence and influence within the society for a positive cause — to build empathy.