Utpal Borpujari speaks to filmmaker Ali Kazimi about his enthralling documentary on Komagata Maru, the ship that sent shock waves throughout the Subcontinent, and then, somehow, got obliterated from the pages of popular history.
It is one of the turning points of both India and Canada’s modern history, but surprisingly no one seemed to remember it. Till Ali Kazimi decided to bring it to cinematic focus. Through Continuous Journey, a gripping documentary on the Komagata Maru incident.
What’s Komagata Maru, one might well ask. It was the name of a Japanese ship, for one. But as one delves into the fascinating story behind this name, and its significance to India’s Freedom Struggle and Canada’s immigration laws, it becomes much more than just a name. In 1914, a Singapore-based Sikh entrepreneur, Gurdit Singh, chartered the ship to carry Indian immigrants, most of them Sikhs, to Canada where they aimed at settling down with the simple belief that as denizens of the British Empire, they could go and live in another part of the empire.
As it turned out, their belief was misplaced. The ship, carrying 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus, a number of them veterans of the British Indian Army, reached the Vancouver harbour on May 23. Its passengers were not allowed to come ashore, and the ship was forced to anchor a kilometre off the coast, without any access to food and water. After two months of protracted efforts, the ship, with its passengers on the brink of starvation, was forced to leave Vancouver. As it finally came near the Bengal coast near Kolkata, British Army did not allow the passengers to alight either, thinking they were activists of the Gaddar Party movement. Finally, they were all killed by the British Army, sending shock waves throughout the Subcontinent. And then, somehow, the event got obliterated from the pages of popular history.
A Herculean feat
Kazimi, settled in Canada since 1983, has always been interested in subjects that link India and Canada in some way or the other. So, the story of Komagata Maru was only a natural choice of subject for him. But it turned out to be an arduous task for the filmmaker to both find finances and do the research, which resulted in an eight-year gestation period before it could hit the screens at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Since then, it has been screened in several film festivals across the world, and has won the top awards at this year’s Mumbai International Film Festival for short films and documentaries (MIFF) and the Film South Asia festival in Kathmandu last year.
The applaud is quite deserving, as Continuous Journey unfolds as a fascinating story built up with the basis of documents collected through painful efforts by Kazimi. Naseeruddin Shah’s voice as that of Gurdit Singh — in fact, of the film itself — lends a subtle richness to the unfolding of the forgotten and painful saga that exposes the racist tones of the Canadian immigration laws of those times. In fact, the subject made it even more difficult for the director to get finance, with many unwilling to lend help to a subject that runs counter to the present-day multi-cultural Canadian society. Even television channels in Canada agreed to show only an abridged version of the film, obviously leaving out the uncomfortable portions. Luckily enough for Kazimi, the film had a theatrical release in Toronto too, albeit a limited one, making people take strong notice of the subject.
For Kazimi, once he stumbled onto the subject, it was like a mission to make a film out of it. “It’s a forgotten chapter, and I am interested in the way such forgotten chapters are constructed, how nations treat their history — what is chosen to be retained in national memory and what is not. For me, my films are in many ways not objective in that sense — they are highly subjective, and I very clearly say they are my points of view, and you can agree or disagree because you clearly know where I stand, rather than hiding behind the cloud of the objective truth. By doing that, filmmakers shed the responsibility of creating a document and presenting a point of view that they have,” says the director, who recently screened the film at the India International Centre in Delhi.
A class apart
The film, he says, falls in the category of what Canadians call PoV (point of view) documentaries. “My films have increasingly become personal and more subjective. When I went to Canada, I was fascinated by how immigration officers have the absolute power to turn people away. I also tried to figure out why Canada looks the way it does. It has a predominantly European population, but now it’s a country that is moving towards an ideal, multicultural, inclusive society. It’s something that I celebrate, but at the same time I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there were things that were very different,” says the director, who is currently developing his first feature film project.
“Continuous Journey is not a film that points fingers, because I don’t think to blame people and to evoke guilt is particularly useful or constructive. But I want people to definitely reflect on history. Today, we live in a new Imperial age, and there is a new empire.
“There was a different empire when this events shown in the film happened, which had global consequences. I wanted to locate this history in the global context of that time and also of this time. There is a saying that history is a dialogue with the past, I completely agree with that. I did not want to completely restrict this film to the past. I wanted to draw contemporary references to that. So there are many subtle and not so subtle references to the present day situation,” Kazimi, who grew up in Delhi, says.
That people in India and Canada had not heard about the Komagata Maru incident made it even more fascinating a subject for Kazimi. “For me, it was a turning point in both Indian and Canadian histories. It is a point when Canadian immigration laws become more restrictive, and immigration from India to Canada completely dropped till 1948 when laws were changed. The racist laws of Canada were deeply entrenched after this event for the next three decades,” he elaborates.
The film is also a personal homage to those who fought for equal rights in Canada. “I felt I had to honour people from India who had come 100 years before me and paved the way for people like me and others to be there now. Because they really fought for equality at a time when it was tremendously hard and the odds were huge.
“They were not just fighting in the national context, they were fighting a global empire, although the stated goal of that empire was equality for all British subjects. And this is a story that blows the cover off the myth of equality. I also found this story very relevant as it was one of the incidents from which the idea of secular India arose.”
The impact of the film has been tremendous in Canada, with people reflecting on a forgotten past through it. Kazimi says it is being used widely in the educational system, and the mayor of the city of Vancouver issued a declaration making May 23, the day the ship arrived, as the Komagata Maru day officially. Now Kazimi is dubbing the film to Hindi and Punjabi, and is also approaching Doordarshan for possible telecast of the film on national television.
Inspiration in itself
Ask Kazimi about reports that his film has led Deepa Mehta to plan a feature film on the subject, and he says, “This film has opened up the possibility for others to think about making a film on it. Some people in the United States are also trying to do it. It would be interesting to see, because a lot of resistance from the financial decision makers comes around the issue of race. This is a story about racism. How
do you market a film in a commercial way that talks honestly about racism?”
Kazimi has made another film after Continuous Journey called Runaway Grooms, but has no plans to bring it to India, “The reason being the two women who are featured in the film do not feel comfortable about the idea of screening the film here, and I gave them the word I would not”. It is the documentation of how NRIs from Canada marry women for dowry and then abandon them in India.