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The Indian Witch Hunt

[LARGE][LINK=/film-forum/documentary/the-indian-witch-hunt.html]The Indian Witch Hunt[/LINK] [/LARGE]
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Filmmaker Rakhi Varma’s documentary on witch hunting was declared Best Film at the ShowReal Asia 2 Awards, and has premiered on the National Geographic channel. A report on the film, and an interview with the filmmaker

[B][IMG]/images/stories/Indian-Witch-Hunt.jpg[/IMG][/B]It’s the middle of the night. A practitioner of black magic and his three women accomplices chant a heady mantra. They are all witches, initiated into the art of using their powers to save or to destroy through the benevolence of the one they worship — the [I]dain [/I]. As the chanting reaches a crescendo, Baba Ramashankar, the tantrik, begins to dance around the fire with a live goat kid hanging by his teeth. Moments later, he has a chicken in his mouth, the neck of which he snaps with his teeth. The rituals go on for a long time. Everyone appears to be suspended in a psychological state that is far beyond the ordinary. Then comes a sexual orgy…

All this and more form the captivating visuals of US-based documentary filmmaker Rakhi Varma’s film titled [I]The Indian Witch Hunt [/I]which was declared Best Film at the ShowReal Asia 2 Awards held in Singapore on April 29, 2005. The film premiered on the National Geographic channel.

Varma’s film is a smooth and constant switch between two aspects: one, the practice of black magic and an exploration of whether there is any truth in what those with a scientific bent of mind would dismiss as mere mumbo-jumbo; and two, an investigation into the gruesome murder of Mania Mardi in the state of Jharkhand, who was beheaded by her nephew Gurudeo because he believed she was a witch who had brought on the death of his father and brother.

In the early part of the narrative, Varma interviews so-called witches who have been tortured by villagers and even forced to eat human excreta. She focuses on the activities of Baba Ramashankar who claims to have supernatural powers that can bring about the death and destruction of anyone he should choose to cast his fury upon. For the murder trial, Varma uses journalist and author Sohaila Kapoor to conduct an on-camera inquiry of sorts that questions Gurudeo’s real motives and arrives at the conclusion that he had wrongly assumed that his relatives had died as a result of a spell. Medical records showed they had contracted tuberculosis.

Witch hunting is a huge issue in many Indian states. Varma chose Jharkhand because of the 500 or more cases of witch hunting reported there in the ’90s. “It is a disturbing trend and we wanted to find out what really led to the killing of women after branding them witches,” she says. In most cases, the brutal acts were the fallout of property disputes or were instigated by witch doctors. Yet, for all the logical explanations, Varma remains a little dazed by what she saw and experienced. “It’s been a few months since we completed our project and I am still trying to answer a single troubling question that I was asked repeatedly on the shoot: Now that you are making this film…have you found evidence that these powers really exist? I was troubled by the question…mainly because I had no answer. Black magic, like miracles, falls in the realm of what cannot be proved…it’s a matter of faith,” she concludes.

A graduate of Stella Maris College in Chennai, Varma got her diploma in mass communications from the Sophia Polytechnic before studying for a Master’s degree in film and television at the American University in Washington DC . So far she has produced and directed several 15- and 30-minute films and segments for the National Geographic channel, for the series [I]Crocodile Chronicles [/I]and [I]Taboo [/I]. She has also worked on various shows for the award-winning [I]Ultimate Explorer [/I]series that airs in the US . [I]The Indian Witch Hunt [/I]is her first one-hour documentary.

In terms of logistics, the film turned out to be one of those demanding the highest levels of physical and mental tolerance. “We were shooting during peak summer when the temperature in the shade would be around 45 degrees. Further, since the subject of witch hunts was a sticky issue, most people we met did not want to talk about it. Many times, witnesses disappeared on the day they were supposed to show up. It was a tough job lugging around heavy cameras and tripods for several hours, waiting for something to come our way. And when we shot Baba Ramashankar’s rituals, it was the scariest experience because we never knew what he would do. He would dance, rip off a chicken’s neck and leave the body on the ground for its headless run, claim to invoke unbelievable powers and all this in the isolation of an island,” Varma recalls.

But the best part of the film is a tree that turns into a statement of sorts. When Baba Ramashankar tries his black magic on a healthy tree and says that it will die within a few days, Varma and her team return to the spot after the proclaimed period to find it still living. Does black magic exist? Maybe, maybe not. But witch hunting does and that disturbs Varma a lot.

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