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Balancing reel and reforms

Despite their popularity on screen, sensitivity towards prisoners is limited and demands immediate accentuation.

Balancing reel and reforms

Prisons are de rigueur. Or at least this is what seems to be the trending fashion in India, as of now. With the release of films such as Daddy, Lucknow Central and Haseena Parkar towards the year-end, it is clear that Bollywood has consciously kept prisons in mind; it is quite evident that prisons sell, and how.

This is not an unusual or even unexpected incident that has occurred. Since the advent of cinema, a number of films have been made across the globe, dealing with various aspects of the intricate matrix of human rights and prison reforms.
One of the most outstanding films in this genre has been Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957), directed by the legendary V Shantaram. The film was about a progressive reform-minded young warden who gets permission to take six murderers from a prison environment to a dilapidated country farm in order to rehabilitate it and subsequently to reform the inmates.
There are ample such examples from Bollywood and parallel experiments from international cinema too. One cannot deny that films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Miracle in Cell No. 7 (2013) have been able to evoke sensitivity among the masses on the subject, yet a large section of such films revolved around the dark, pungent face of crime and retribution, pointedly resulting in more profits.
With a freshness in its script, Lucknow Central revolves around the concept of the miscarriage of justice (till the last reels anyway), role stereotypes within jails, and the whole issue of prison reforms that we avoid even talking about. At one point, when the protagonist says that the inmates are not pieces of exhibition and they cannot be put out to be displayed, she highlights a very crucial point. With my experience as a prison reformer and my background in crime reporting for over two decades now, this whole idea of exhibiting the inmates to outsiders has always troubled me.
Recently Tihar jail organised its Tihar Utsav and subsequently opened the Hunar Haat at the Pragati Maidan Mela so that the outside world is sensitised towards the world inside jails. However, one cannot deny that at times, the officials themselves are not sensitive enough to deal with such delicate issues. Frequently, the bigger and better-known jails start working towards gathering media hype for themselves, rather than evoking serious discussions per se. When jails organise fashion shows and expect inmates to walk the ramp in front of the headline-thirsty media, it creates a chaos of priorities and brings a bitter taste in the mouth of the silenced inmates who get an immediate feeling of being used and exploited for a widely televised or reported event, without benefiting from it.
Undoubtedly, it is a welcome idea to showcase the hidden talents of the inmates and providing them with some limelight; but asking them to walk the ramp as clothes horses, devoid of a literary basis from their viewpoint at all, is like inviting all and sundry to ogle at them–those whose wings have been clipped– and expect them to exhibit their vulnerability and emotional nakedness in full view.
Prisons grow, moss-like, in solitude. They bring loneliness but often turn into petri dishes of introspection and aloneness, resulting in various creative forms. This period of silence and rumination is often translated into creative writing. This is one of the reasons that jails have also gained the reputation for literary pursuits. However, the unfortunate fact remains that there are officials of different hues. As one can see in Lucknow Central too, there is a perpetual undercurrent of conflict of interests among the jail staff, IPS officers and the ruling ministers, highlighted in the film quite realistically and this happens everywhere in India. One can see officers who have an abiding interest and passion towards prison reforms, whereas there are others who neither understand the need for it, nor the others' passion to contribute to it.
In this juxtapose, one can see a different world of NGOs emerging and quite often with their own agenda of interests, being run by the spouses of the bureaucrats or police officers as adjuncts, or even directly by the politicians themselves. In major conferences, seminars and symposiums, there are a select few who are asked to represent or present their point of view. It is ironical when people are invited because of their political, bureaucratic or page three credentials, but generally not because of their work and passion for the subject.
There ought to be a word of caution here. When Bollywood deals with such not-so-common and sensitive subjects, the audience gets enticed. It is not surprising to see the halls almost full of people keen to watch films related to crime, the underworld or prisoners. It is very difficult to pacify oneself by believing that the Indian audience has matured; the protests on sundry issues relating to film releases and assumed offence to their sensibilities or religious sentiments jolts one out of the comfort zone of that belief. At the end of the day, people do watch cinema for entertainment, period. And prisons are not a piece of entertainment, period. When a film revolves around a subject with sketchy research, a weak script, or is interwoven with weak lyrics, it sends a different message. The masala which goes into such films may get them good reviews (deserved or otherwise) but that does not solve the crucial larger issue which loses itself in the labyrinth of debates.
Similarly, there are political figures too, who never fully understand the essence of the subject and yet, they are enjoined with this responsibility. By holding the portfolio of prisons, they contribute immensely to add chaos to the already amorphous status. On many occasions, unless and until the ministers themselves land inside the prison (hopefully as a visitor), they never understand what the fuss is all about. The moment that situation arises, they take every possible step to improve the situation in the closest periphery of the low-hanging fruits, treating the symptoms, if at all, rather than the disease. Their concern tends to revolve more around populist measures such as addressing inmates' demand to get an air-conditioner or a fan installed, comfortable beds, facilities to use their mobile phones and thereby to exercise some power inside, as an extension of their standing outside.
Though prisons are now being 'showcased' on both big and small screens, they have not been able to evoke focused, serious discussions. One must appreciate that every jail has inmates of various types–some who have committed crimes and some who have not, some habitual offenders and some first-timers. One cannot treat each one of them with the same yardstick. With the prevalent overcrowding in jails and several other issues, jails need a pucca road to reformation, subsequently heading towards a holistic transformation.
(The author is a prison reforms activist. She is the founder of TINKA TINKA, a unique initiative for prison reforms & was given Stri Shakti Award by the President of India in 2014. Her name has been included in Limca Book of Records twice for her work on prisons. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

Dr. Vartika Nanda

Dr. Vartika Nanda

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