Published: 12th June 2021
Anatomy of a witch-hunt in modern India: Why you need to watch Sachin Mudigonda's docu Testimony of Ana
The film has taught him the importance of faith, Sachin Mudigonda tells Prajanma Das. But it has also made him a different man. Here's how
Anaben Pawar, a tribal woman from the southern parts of Gujarat, was assaulted and branded a witch in 2017 because she inherited land from her father. In 2019, Sachin Dheeraj Mudigonda, an engineer-turned-filmmaker, decided to tell her story through his documentary. But it also took him on a journey that changed the way this young, urban filmmaker looked at the world. Sachin is a student of Master of Fine Arts in Film and Media Production at The University of Texas at Austin. The film is called Testimony of Ana and has caught the attention of the world since it premiered at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in April 2021.
A scene that stays with you
It was his intention all along to have a bunch of still shots at the beginning of the film, said Sachin. Apart from it being still, the imagery was very important to him. "The shot of a well signified a mother's womb for me. The moss gets disrupted but it also comes back to where it was — almost. A gap still remains. That was very significant — the moss tries to get back to the previous state but it can't because there is void due to the disruption. That void is there and it's never going to go away completely. I treat the opening sequence almost like a prologue. It's the entire film in a nutshell. You get to know what the film is about — it's about a woman's life which has been disrupted by assault and its never going to come back to normal. There is a profound void. It's like coming from darkness to light but in an upside-down world," said the young filmmaker.
Where it all started
Sachin, who is from Hyderabad, went to Gujarat for the first time for his BTech in Information and Communication Technology from the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar in 2009. "I spent four years in the state and was familiar with the region. During my bachelors, I heard of such attacks happening (witch-hunt). I always wanted to find out more about why such a thing was still happening in the 21st century but never got the opportunity. Years later, when I was in the USA pursuing filmmaking, I revisited the issue and researched vigorously. Through the journalists, I got in touch with social workers and then some NGOs working on the ground who connected me to the survivors," said Sachin.
Retelling the horror
But Anaben was not the first couple he was supposed to meet. "I was going to meet a couple who were victims of a much more recent witch-hunt. But before I could reach them they breathed their last and this hit me hard," said Sachin. "But only when I met her, did I really fathom the gravity of the situation. This is what forced me to capture her story in images and sound. Her story was covered by many big newspapers but I felt words wouldn't do her justice," he added.
Sachin said he was aware of the privilege that he comes from and the urban setting that he belonged to. "I knew I was an outsider. The film has made me realise my privilege even more. You enter into a totally different reality when you go to these parts of India even when it is not that far away from what we consider urban. They are like two different worlds. It shook me on many levels. When we met her for the first time, Ana thought we are these city people — for her city people meant people in power and people who dominate. She initially thought that we have come there to manipulate her so that the two attackers who were still in jail went free. It took us a lot of time to convince her that we were there to just document her story," he added.
The film has taught him the importance of faith, said Sachin. Before making this film, he was asking the same things a liberal young individual asks in the 21st century — why are we still clinging to religion or what is the need for a god. "After meeting Ana, I realised how important a role religion can play in one's life. Especially, when a person is broken without a hope to cling to. I think faith gives them hope. If she never had faith or a god, I don't know how she would have coped. In the city you have the privilege of a therapist or a councillor, but who is going to pay for therapy in rural India? Faith, in a way, is their way of bouncing back," he said.
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The film is rightly called Testimony of Ana — you hear her story and only her story. There is no other voice. "I think if any other voice would have come in it would have diluted the testimony. It's just Ana telling her story. Which she could have said in a court, in front of a judge in India, but because of the lack of resources she hasn't been able to do it yet," Sachin said. If the film wins any award money, Sachin said he would give it all to Ana. That might help her fight her case.
Ana and her family still live detached from her village. While shooting the film, Sachin and his small crew had to be very careful to not let the villagers know why they were there. But they couldn't avoid drawing attention on the last day. "We had shot almost the entire film during the day when the men are at the fields. Women don't step out. So no one saw us. But we had to stay back to shoot a few shots at night on the last day. And the men came back. We had to tell them that we were tourists from America and were just looking around. To convince them we also asked them about sights to visit or if there's a temple nearby. The situation was tense but it did not come to blows," Sachin said.