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Film on an India pogrom boycotted

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“Cinema never causes riots. Politicians do,” he said.

His riposte was a thinly veiled reference to the government of Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s top official and a senior member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Many in India believe that Modi bears direct responsibility for fanning the sectarian strife that exploded in 2002.

After the Godhra train fire, statements from Modi -- such as, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction” -- were seen as giving license to the armed fanatics who raged through Ahmadabad’s crowded streets and across Gujarat.

Evidence also has surfaced that the attacks may not have been as spontaneous and uncontrolled as officials say. Critics have noted that the mobs were able to pinpoint Muslim shops and warehouses that were outwardly indistinguishable from their Hindu-owned counterparts.

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Cases dismissed

In the aftermath, survivors filed thousands of complaints and cases with police, who in some instances also were the accused. But the path to justice for most victims has been thwarted. In the year and a half after the riots, more than 2,000 cases were summarily dismissed by local courts, often on grounds of insufficient evidence, despite abundant witness accounts.

Recently, human rights activists scored a victory when the Supreme Court ordered the tossed-out cases to be reopened.

But persuading victims to resume their legal fight has been difficult. Survivors say they have been harassed by authorities or even arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges when they tried to file charges against police.

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“The police hold the power here, and they abuse it,” said Johanna Lokhande of the group Nyayagraha, which works on behalf of the survivors.

The group has asked 930 people in Ahmadabad to press on with their reinstated cases; fewer than 200 have agreed. Many of those who declined are afraid of official reprisals or ostracism and intimidation by neighbors.

“The chances get bleaker by the day, because incidents of violence, incidents of harassment, keep happening,” Lokhande said.

Five years ago, Noor Jehan Shekh watched attackers pour chemicals on her husband, then set him afire. Today, she and more than a dozen other riot widows and their children live a poverty-stricken existence in an encampment built to house those who lost their homes.

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“We are still dealing with the shock. We can’t forget those gory images,” she said. “We should receive justice.”

Although Shekh’s ordeal continues, many others in India have forgotten about the convulsive violence that killed so many so brutally.

Dholakia said making “Parzania” was part of the struggle to ensure that what happened is not forgotten -- and not repeated.

“Sometimes it’s necessary to reopen wounds, because the solution to hate is to have a healthy debate and open debate about it,” Dholakia said. “It’s better to have it out in the open and discuss it.

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“You cannot just avoid it.”

henry.chu@latimes.com

Times staff writer Shankhadeep Choudhury contributed to this report.


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