A Tale of Two Films


Alisa Lebow

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And Quiet Flows the Kopili


Manash Bhattacharjee, 24th September, Guernica and The Wire

“To memorise the victims of history—the sufferers, the humiliated, the forgotten—should be a task for all” -Paul Ricœur, “Memory and Forgetting”

The human body is a place, and hence, an archive of memory. It records and tells the past, its own past, but with a difference—unlike record books, the body bears the real marks of memory. It becomes a site of recall, a source par excellence, where the recording of memory is indistinguishable from the intensity of feelings that lie within it. When the body speaks, it carries the effect of the voice, which contains the text of memory as it remembers the unforgettable. If forced to enter an unbearable landscape, the body often ends up a stuttering parrot of memory, falteringly repeating the event of loss. Watching a documentary which recalls more than two thousand Muslims being killed within six hours in Nellie, Assam in 1983, I felt that the victims’ and survivors’ bodies are denied any relationship with either the sacred or the profane—they have been simply cut off from all civilized life. When people recollect events of mass mutilation, bodies become insignificant objects of violence and breakage. The individual names that belong to these bodies, their social and cultural registers, are of no importance to the state. Even the family remembers and relates to these (dead) bodies differently, as if they no longer belong to a world of shared meanings.

Subasri Krishnan’s What the Fields Remember, about the Nellie massacre of February 18, 1983, is a haunting tale calmly told. It is rare to find a film documenting political violence that stays so calm. This restraint doesn’t simply come from the passage of time—more than thirty years have passed since the day of mass mutilation—but out of a conscious effort by the filmmaker to preserve the somber calmness that confronts her in Nellie and adjoining villages. Subasri’s camera pauses on the landscape before focusing on the survivors.

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They remember so we don’t forget


Baradwaj Rangan, The Hindu, 13th September 2015

Abdul Khayer is an angry man, and to get to the root of his anger, we have to revisit the events of February 18, 1983. This is how he remembers the day: “I saw our people leaving their homes and running… I tied one of my sons to my back and held the other one… I ran… I was thirsty… I made my sons sit down… The older one walked towards the river and drank the murky water… Then they started to fire at us… I ran… An Assamese person struck my back with his sickle… The head of the son on my back was split into two… I still have the scars from that strike.” Khayer is one of the survivors of the Nellie massacre interviewed in the documentary What the Fields Remember, and throughout his narration, there’s no background music, nothing to heighten the moment. “What the survivors went through happened 32 years ago,” says the director Subasri Krishnan, “and with the passage of time, there is a certain resignation (among other things) to what has happened. The formal choices we made reflect that.” In other words, the anger is in Abdul Khayer, in his words, in the fact that he cannot sleep even today — but not in the film. “This is how he spoke — not calmly, but he didn’t break down either.”

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The Forgotten Riot


Priyanka Kotamraju, The Hindu Businessline, 12the September 2015

For the first 10 minutes of What the Fields Remember, it’s all quiet on the eastern front. The camera rests on the green fields, the brown river, and the men clad in white in the villages around Nellie. The rice crop sways gently. Logs of wood float down the Kopili river, while boats rest on its banks. Children ride bicycles on a kuchcha road; a man sings hymns to the martyrs of February 18, 1983. Sixty-five-year-old Sirajuddin Ahmed sits on the river bank, his back to the camera. In Beluguri village, 74-year-old Abdul Khayer arranges his documents on a cot — case files against the state of Assam in the Gauhati High Court, prints of the Wikipedia page on the Nellie massacre, and a list of people who died 32 years ago.

Subasri Krishnan’s 51-minute documentary on the Nellie massacre, which was shot over one-and-a-half years, is not a reconstruction of the mass killing. It is, rather, a quiet reminder of what has become a bloody footnote in history, a forgotten riot.

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32 Years Ago 2000 Muslims Were Massacred: This Film Recalls What The Public Forgot

By Kartik Shankar, Youth Ki Awaaz, 4th August 2015

In the early morning of February 18, 1983, mobs armed with sticks and scythes ascended on Muslim families in villages. The frenzied mob had a vendetta against families that migrated from former East Bengal in the early 20th century; a fallout of Indira Gandhi’s controversial decision, to give more than four million people who had migrated to India after Bangladesh’s formation, the right to vote. Lush green fields along the banks of the river Kopili became the site of mass bloodshed, which involved women and small children. Official figures put the toll at more than 2000. Some say the actual number may be closer to 6000. Yet, this incident remains almost forgotten in our nation’s history. When Rajiv Gandhi signed the Assam Accord, to end the agitation that led to the pogrom, there was an unspoken agreement that the brutal murders were to be swept under the rug. Not a single person has been convicted in the thirty years and all the victims received, were pitiful compensations. With barely any media coverage and even official government documents like the Tiwari Commission report being kept away from the public, all that remained were the victim’s painful and fragmented memories. Reputed documentarian Subasri Krishnan’s latest What The Fields Remember aims to bring those memories back into the nation’s consciousness. The documentary begins with shots of verdure pastures, as if to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, as on the day of the massacre. What The Fields Remember, which mostly divides its time between two fathers, both of whom lost children in the pogrom, is a moving paean to the people who have never given up the fight in their hearts. It’s the story about people who constantly have to prove their citizenship in a nation that considers one group of people natural citizens and another group outsiders. It’s also a shocking wake-up call for the callous manner in which our government and justice system has dealt with this ethnic cleansing. Youth Ki Awaaz interviewed Subasri Krishnan on her searing documentary. Read the interview here

The Killing Fields

by Debesh Banerjee, The Indian Express, 27th July 2015

On February 18, 1983, the fields surrounding the cluster of villages around Nellie in central Assam became a gory site. Around 14 villages of Bengali-speaking Muslims in Nellie were surrounded, thousand hacked to death and their homes set on fire. Abdul Khayer still recalls vividly how he managed to save his life by running into the fields while his friends and family members got trapped. In Subasri Krishnan’s documentary, What the Fields Remember, the filmmaker traces the tragic series of events in which over 3,000 people lost their lives (the official count is 1,800) and no one has been held accountable still.
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32 years after Nellie, a documentary finds sorrow, indifference, and a refusal to forget


Nandini Ramnath, Scroll, Jul 16, 2015

Before Mumbai and Gujarat, there was Nellie. On February 18, 1983, at least 2,000 Muslim residents of villages near Nellie in Assam were killed in one of post-independent India’s worst sectarian attacks. None of the perpetrators were punished. The victims received inadequate compensation, and remarkably continue to live alongside their attackers and till the same land that briefly held the corpses of their family members, points out Makiko Kumira in her 2013 academic study The Nellie Massacre of 1983.

Subasri Krishnan’s documentary on the subject, What The Fields Remember, is concerned less with the back story of Nellie and more with the act of remembering. Through interviews with survivors and observational camerawork of the actual sites of the violence, the 52-minute Public Service Broadcasting Trust production is a reminder of the ways in which memories of past traumas survive despite conscious and unconscious attempts to blank them out. “Why do some things get memorialised and others don’t,” Krishnan asked rhetorically during an interview. “Because of the complex political situation that existed in Assam at the time and continues today in a different way, this incident got buried.”

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