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Film on an India pogrom boycotted

Theater owners cite fear of more violence. But the filmmaker says that wounds sometimes need to be reopened.

February 25, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

AHMADABAD, INDIA — Five years ago, this city was in flames. Mobs of Hindu extremists rampaged through Muslim neighborhoods, setting shops ablaze and pulling people out of their homes to butcher them in the streets in broad daylight.

When the bloodletting was over, more than 1,000 people -- possibly twice that number -- lay dead in one of the worst religious pogroms in India since it gained independence in 1947.

Many victims were listed as missing, including the young son of a friend of Los Angeles-based filmmaker Rahul Dholakia, who spent the next several years bringing the family's painful story to the screen.

The result, "Parzania," is being shown in theaters across India, but not here in Gujarat state, where the tragedy occurred. Cinema owners are refusing to show the film, saying it could spark more violence in a state still run by the Hindu nationalist party that was in power during the riots and that is widely accused of fomenting them.

The unofficial boycott of the movie has drawn outrage from Indian filmmakers and civil liberties groups. So far, their criticism has gone unheeded.

"We now have peace in Gujarat," said Manubhai Patel, who heads an association of Gujarat multiplex owners. "We don't want to remind the public of the riots episode all over again."

It may be too late for that. If nothing else, the controversy over "Parzania" has succeeded in refocusing attention on the events of Feb. 28, 2002, and the justice that has been disturbingly elusive since.

Caught on camera

Only a few convictions have been recorded in cases stemming from the massacre, despite manifold witness accounts of atrocities, some of which were caught on film by news cameras.

Entire families of Muslims were incinerated in their homes by crowds of cheering Hindu extremists armed with knives and clubs, witnesses said. Women were chased down and gang-raped, or had kerosene poured down their throats and set afire. Children were hacked to death in front of their parents, who then met the same fate.

Terrified survivors reported that police often stood idle or blocked victims from escaping. In some instances, residents who frantically telephoned for help said officers told them they were under orders not to intervene.

The blood-soaked frenzy was ostensibly in retaliation for the burning of a train in the nearby town of Godhra the day before, an attack that killed 59 Hindu passengers. Hindu activists blamed the fire on disgruntled Muslims, but a preliminary investigation raised serious doubts about that theory. A full judicial inquiry is expected to deliver a report this year.

Indians in the rest of the country, where people of different faiths live in tolerant peace if not unalloyed harmony, were shocked by the carnage. For Dholakia, who had moved to the United States in 1990, the dreadful headlines turned personal when he discovered that 13-year-old Azhar Mody, whose family he had known for several years, had vanished in the pandemonium. He remains missing.

"I felt somewhat responsible because I'm a Gujarati.... I felt it was my duty as a filmmaker to say something," said Dholakia, who is Hindu by upbringing and lives in Corona. "I had to tell this family's story."

"Parzania" was shot over three months in 2004, on a $700,000 budget, most of it financed by two of Dholakia's friends. The stars of the film, including well-known actor Naseeruddin Shah, worked for free. (In the movie, the family's names, the missing boy's age and other details have been changed.)

From the outset, Dholakia knew he had undertaken a controversial subject. He made an American character prominent in the story and wrote most of the dialogue in English, broadening the film's international marketability in case it couldn't get past India's censors.

Before it hit theaters in this country, "Parzania" was screened at film festivals in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and other venues around the world.

To Dholakia's surprise, his movie survived official Indian scissors with only three small cuts. The riot sequence remained intact, almost painfully so, given its graphic scenes of immolation and other acts of savagery. The sequence was filmed in the southern city of Hyderabad because, Dholakia said, it would have been politically impossible to shoot it in Ahmadabad.

It took nearly a year and a half to persuade Indian movie houses to screen the film. That cinema owners in Gujarat refused is not surprising. Such bans are not uncommon in India, where religious groups vociferously defend their faiths from perceived attack. Last year, "The Da Vinci Code" was not screened in several states because of protests from the nation's small Catholic community.

But Dholakia has no patience for those who allege that his movie could trigger renewed violence.

"Cinema never causes riots. Politicians do," he said.

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