LAHORE: Kanak Mani Dixit, the Nepali journalist, activist and founder of the Travelling Film South Asia Festival, is all for close cultural linkages between countries of the region, especially between the border provinces and states of Pakistan and India for progress.
He was in Lahore where an edition of the documentary film festival happened from Sept 22 to 24. Dawn had an in-depth discussion with him at the Olomopolo Media in between the documentary shows.
Kanak, the founding editor of Himal South Asian, is basically a print journalist with deep interest in long-form journalism. This interest led him to launching a documentary festival.
“When I started my magazine I realised that documentary films are the closest genre to long-form journalism with the whole idea to inform and educate the audience to change behaviours. Opposed to the daily beat journalist, a long-form journalist packages everything just like a documentary film-maker. That’s how my interest developed in documentaries,” he says while replying to a question.
Kanak Mani Dixit says centralism, ultranationalism in Pakistan and India not helping people; vouches for ‘devolved’ border provinces
The Travelling Film South Asia was launched in 1997. Talking about the origin of the festival, Manak says, “I realised that there are very few festivals for documentaries and very few regional documentaries in South Asia that could build a connection between the arts of the region as our history is interlinked. We as print journalists decided to launch this festival and it has worked.”
To the question of the idea behind the travelling film festival, Kanak says the main festival happens every two years in Kathmandu and the film-makers from all over South Asia, including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, get together there.
“It has about 40 to 45 documentary films in every edition but we realised that’s not enough.” Following the slogan of having over 1,000 screens in the festivals wherever possible, not for the elite but small groups, we decided to let different organisers choose their own films and venues in different countries. That’s how Travelling Film South Asia Festival started.
About the documentaries being produced from Pakistan, he thinks the number of documentaries is not enough as there used to be many more documentaries from the country in the past. He hopes that in the coming years there would be a revival of interest in documentaries, not just about Pakistan but for Pakistanis.
“Our philosophy is that documentaries should be made for the target audience. For example, in Punjab, there should be a documentary for the people of Punjab and they should relate to it, learn from it and get excited or saddened by it. After being successful in Punjab, when the film is seen in Kathmandu, Bengal or Sri Lanka, then there is empathy.” He says if you make a film in Punjab but want to show it to a New Yorker or Bombay person, that film will never go deep into the lived experience.
About the impact of documentaries and other art forms in promotion of regionalism in South Asia in the face of politics of hatred, especially between India and Pakistan, Kanak says one has to keep trying with being cynical because cynicism means nothing would happen. “We know the reality that two large countries of South Asia are at daggers drawn. There is enmity inculcated in the societies by the ruling classes. We may not succeed in trying to build peace but we can still provide information to those who need an alternative version. One can’t be utopian to say that film festivals would suddenly bring about change as that would be too romantic but the seekers of alternative ways across the borders should be given material to mull over”.
When asked whether he has achieved success when he looks back at the journey of the festival, Kanak says the objective is to make the people watch good films. “There is no measure of success, if people watch them and get impacted, fair enough. All we say that if we have survived this far, that is success. Remember there is no money making in it but if you have survived for 25 years while constantly looking for funds, that is success in itself.”
Kanak is concerned at the strong centralism in the countries of South Asia which is not working for the people. “In Pakistan, there is military centralism and in India, there is strong centralism despite its vastness and military being not in the front. This centralism does not help the people within the countries or regions.” For social justice and economic rationalism, he suggests, provinces and states in Pakistan and India need to become autonomous through devolution of powers, which would also help the concept of South Asia. He points out that the federal centres are too far away from the people in India and Pakistan and they should devolve more powers to provinces for their own future.
“Delhi is away from poor peripheries so is Islamabad from the poor of Pakistan in corners of Punjab and Thar desert. The demand should come from the provinces and the people living near borders as the federal capitals may not gain much economically but the people of these provinces would,” he asserts, saying that If Sindhis have much more say in their decisions, Sindh won’t have to look towards Islamabad but only Karachi for solution to its issues. But no scholars speak about it because everybody wants to be seen as a nice guy in Islamabad and New Delhi.
Kanak suggests that the Punjabs in India and Pakistan should be on the forefront of strong South Asian regionalism because both of them are powerful provinces within their countries. He thinks that Pakistan and India are so big that they can’t manage the genius of their peoples.
“China is a large country but it has dictatorship with no room for democracy but people in Pakistan, India and the South Asia have strong desire for democracy that’s why there is so much conflict because the powers are not allowing democracies.”
He clarified a common misconception, saying people mistake South Asia as an attempt to form some kind of a new state. He defines South Asia in many ways but he would like to see it as a ‘devolved South Asia’. “The smaller countries in the region would remain the same size but the provinces in larger countries would become more powerful and more devolved.
Kanak is also concerned about rising ultranationalism in Pakistan and India, saying that nationalism as a cultural identity marker does not create ill-will but we now have ultranationalism and when it takes the support of religion, we reach a danger zone.
“Pakistan achieved it at its beginning with powers of extremist mullahs who set the tone for the Pakistani state and now India is also moving on the same lines as the BJP uses Hindutva.” He thinks regionalism is the practical way forward for South Asian peoples where the nation states exist but they allow much more economic, cultural and social interaction. However, he fears that’s difficult now due to ultranationalism, which exists even in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
For economic cooperation in South Asia, Kanak suggests that the atmosphere should be built first through cultural linkages before economic cooperation and for strong cultural linkages, festivals like Travelling Film South Asia Festival can be a good deal.
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2023