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Mrs Gandhi’s double and other stories

  • Pallavi Paul, a Delhi-based video artist is working on a documentary film that explores the experiences of policewomen during the Emergency
  • She chose the topic because she wanted to initiate a dialogue about the power of the police and “their role as psycho-geographers”

Artist Pallavi Paul at her residence in Delhi
Artist Pallavi Paul at her residence in Delhi (Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

It’s the late 1970s, post-Emergency Delhi. The police are trying to help a lost child. But the only thing she is able to tell them is that the family’s pet is a blind rabbit.

Delhi-based contemporary video artist Pallavi Paul got the working title for her second documentary on the Emergency, The Blind Rabbit, from this tale narrated by a retired policewoman. The documentary is based on the life of Delhi’s policewomen during that period.

Paul has been showing as an artist working with visuals and the moving image since 2014. Her works have been exhibited at Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Films Division, Delhi, and at the Mumbai International Film Festival.

Her latest documentary is being made with the help of a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts. She says she chose the topic because she wanted to initiate a dialogue about the power of the police and “their role as psycho-geographers". “We have always heard and understood these stories from the outside, never from the inside. I want to think about the inner life of power," says the 31-year-old. The documentary will look at the intersection of power, gender, and narrativization of memory. “It is challenging to look at under-documented moments that do not have archived traces," says Paul. Through the film, she wants to examine “how power can be thought of outside the binaries of repression or rebellion". One of her earlier films—Long Hair, Short Ideas (2017)—dealt with the idea of the Emergency through the life of the revolutionary poet Vidrohi’s wife.

At present, Paul is busy talking to over 50 former policewomen, aged 60-80, who now live in different parts of the country, such as Saharanpur, Lucknow, Ghaziabad, Goa and Dehradun. The film will use a range of material—Paul is still working towards a visual language for the kind of material she is accessing.

Paul felt drawn to the theme because of the relationship these women had with the city and the absence of a record of the instructions given to them. According to one anecdote, for instance, when then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s security staff was told about a threat to her life, they started using body doubles from the police force. In essence, says Paul, “the leader was made visible and invisible at the same time".

With the 50-minute film, Paul hopes to create space for interaction, conversation and exchange on the idea of “power" within the audience. An admirer of German film-maker and author Harun Farocki, she says she explores the themes of fantasy, resistance, politics and history through her work. Some of Paul’s independent video works, like Nayi Kheti and Shabdkosh, were shown at the Tate Modern Gallery, London, in 2013.

With The Blind Rabbit, Paul hopes to reach the heart of the question of collective violence. “It is imperative that we ask the correct questions. Especially in the current climate, we need to understand the idea of violence not in the form of one person from here and there, but as a collective," says Paul, who is working on a film-related project based on similar ideas as part of a fellowship at 5 Million Incidents, Max Mueller Bhavan, Delhi. 5 Million Incidents, on till December, is a project co-curated by Max Mueller Bhavan and the Raqs Media Collective to bring together Indian artists and create engagement.

When asked how this film will be different from films that have dealt with police stories in the past, Paul says, “While these films are more about the idea of the individual juxtaposed against power, my film will take the conversation forward by trying to open the idea and expose its intricacies to the audience."

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