Meet Teenaa Kaur Pasricha, Whose Documentary On The 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots Won A National Award

Teenaa Kaur Pasricha is the award winning director of 1984: When The Sun Didn’t Rise, a documentary on the horrifying anti-Sikh riots of 1984. 

I see Teenaa’s film as a part of an emerging body of work by creative Indian women who are reflecting on the stories of their own families and communities that have so far been misrepresented or underrepresented. Artists like Teenaa are carrying out the crucial task of attaching historical value to women’s lived experiences; changing mainstream, two-dimensional historical accounts into a more complex and rich storytelling experience. Most importantly, they are initiating a much-needed dialogue about not just what happened, but also, what is happening, and what should never happen again.

1984, When the Sun didn’t Rise’ is a documentary film that journeys into the Widow’s Colony of New Delhi where 3,000 widows and their families were resettled after the Sikh massacre of 1984. It tells the story of three brave women who fight for justice while negotiating personal trauma and earning a livelihood for their families. The film is woven together through the director’s own voice and rare archival footage to explore the largest unrecorded massacre in the history of India.

I met Teenaa in January this year, at the 5th Kolkata People’s Film Festival, where we were both presenting our respective films. I found many parallels between our work, one of them being that our stories were told largely through women’s voices. At the time, Teenaa had done quite a few festival screenings but she was struggling to reach a wider audience. It is heartening to see how her struggle just got a lot easier this month as she received the National Award for Best Investigative Film.

When I spoke to her recently, she was extremely happy and surprised with this recent development. “It is definitely a great honour, but more importantly, it is a recognition for a subject and a community that has been denied justice. The survivors of the 1984 Sikh massacre were resettled and given monetary compensation, but the culprits were not punished. There have been no efforts made to reintegrate the displaced families into mainstream society. Their traumas have not been dealt with.”

Teenaa herself was no stranger to trauma. She found herself struggling to make ends meet in Mumbai after her four-year-old marriage ended in 2009. “I was at such a low point in my life that I began questioning my life’s purpose. I knew I wanted to do work that was meaningful. I wanted to do something to help others, to help the community. But the day-to-day struggles of surviving alone in a city like Bombay were too much”.

 

That is when she revisited the events of 1984, and began comparing her seemingly insurmountable challenges to the lives of the women who had survived. “I started thinking about how those women would have managed to make a living without being educated. How could they have dealt with their memories and continued to live after suffering so much? What must life be like for them now?” Thinking about the courage of these women gave her hope in her personal life, and also the impetus to investigate the aftermath of the violence on the lives of those who survived. She knew these stories needed to be told, but the journey ahead was going to be full of obstacles.

The surviving families, most of them with women breadwinners, had continued to live in the resettlement camp called Widow’s Colony in New Delhi – the name pointing directly at the identity which has come to define them. “It was very hard for me to gain their trust because people have just been using them. The only attention these residents get is from political workers at the time of elections and journalists looking to tell the same story once every year. So the women refused to cooperate with me”, recalls Teenaa. Understandably, she had to spend many a days and weeks patiently waiting for the women to come around.

When the women finally did speak up, Teenaa could not believe her ears. “After listening to their horrific stories, I was so numb. Then I began feeling depressed. I kept wondering about how humanity could stoop down to such a level, and how these women continue to live with such a traumatic past. They never received any sort of emotional counselling. Their focus has been on earning a livelihood and providing for their families.”

Even after getting the women to speak up, the journey was nowhere near smooth. Teenaa received threats from the local drug mafia, suspicious calls from local authorities, and intimidation tactics were used against her during a high-profile interview. “I persisted because I knew that I was right in my fight for truth and justice”, says Teenaa.

The film that came out of these experiences took five years to complete, and it is not an easy film to watch. The painful testimonies of the women and their continued fight for justice juxtaposed with a young man born in 1984 who is struggling with drug addiction and even an interview with one of the prime accused make for an uncomfortably powerful film. “I think of these women as my own family now”, says Teenaa. “I cannot bear to watch the film over and over. So whenever there is a screening, I just wait outside.”

Teenaa had recently traveled with her film to the UK. I ask her how the film was received in the universities and gurudwaras, where she did several screenings over a period of about two weeks. “It is difficult to travel abroad and show this face of your country to the world. People in the audience often got overwhelmed and angry towards India and the Indian judiciary. I had to tell them that not all Indians are like that. The average Indian has sympathy and respect for the Sikh community. It is the political leaders who continue to divide us and suppress this issue from public memory. I make sure that I talk about this, especially to the youth. The intention of the film is to promote peace and to show the consequences of violence. I want to stir the consciousness of the people, to remember the forgotten, to honour those who have fallen and those who live on, and to ensure that this never happens again.”

Images source Teena Kaur Pasricha and YouTube

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Surbhi Dewan is an independent filmmaker & creative producer at Painted Tree Pictures, a media communication

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