BR Ambedkar Now and Then: An Interview with Filmmaker Jyoti Nisha

Jyoti Nisha is one of the most compassionate and driven creators on our radar right now. When we speak to her on the phone, it’s her earnest thoughtfulness and drive for life that resonates the most. This thirty seven year old filmmaker is bringing a feature length documentary on BR Ambedkar to us in early 2020.

BR Ambedkar Now and Then is a dialogue with the majority of our country, one that travels across states to ask people who Ambedkar was for them and how his life and values exist with them today. We are excited to share this edition of Write Leela Write’s Engage. Support. Be Curious. series! 

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You travelled 8 states while shooting your documentary BR Ambedkar Now and Then. What was the most surprising perspective you engaged with while you were researching and travelling for this film?

JN: The most important thing about making this film across states and cities was that people wanted to tell their stories. I was fortunately there with a team. A lot was not told from their perspective and the camera, mic, space, medium, platform became a tool to tell their stories. That’s how the story became significantly intense and pure every other day. I am driven by the simple math, if we want to call ourselves fair individuals, then let’s acknowledge that 85 percent of this country barely has  access to fundamental things like quality education, healthcare and opportunities for work, self-care, and ambition. Bahujan inclusion in pop culture is diminished and when it is present, it’s from a lens of victimisation. That’s why I wanted to engage with their experience and words from their location. It is their politics and I was just aligned in the medium and thought process.

In a first post interview you said reading Ambedkar (as an adolescent)  was like finding answers to questions that you didn’t know how to ask. Can we talk about the institutionalised whitewashing of Ambedkar in mainstream education? What are the repercussions of this benign, candied flavour of Ambedkar we are taught in schools? 

JN: Yes. In fact,  I was raised in a very progressive household, my father and brothers had been involved in bahujan activism for decades.  I grew up in a Buddhist home where I was taught to be independent both in body and mind. Even then, I didn't take it all very seriously, it was just the norm back then. It was only later, in my adulthood, that I had my journey with Ambedkar when I first read Buddha and his Dhamma. Babasaheb is much bigger than what he’s been credited for. His caste location, incisive, pragmatic and spiritual approach to freedom and human rights of marginalised breaks the Brahmin hegemony because he sets you free. He compels you to question. There are various questions he answered by setting astounding examples through his work, his politics and character, which isn’t only insightful but ahead of his time. The rest of the existential, spiritual, socioeconomic and mystical questions are answered in Buddha and his Dhamma. I think Babasaheb was spiritually political. That’s what India’s caste hegemony can’t beat. So they appropriate. 

Do you think any attempt of understanding systematic oppression in any form with diligence  is defined as a radical stance? What does radical mean to you?

 JN: I think when we start to question the perspective we’ve been taught as a universal truth, we will always get friction. I was in film school when I realised how clearly certain privileged lenses was being employed in storytelling, especially mainstream storytelling. There is a certain lethargy in allowing people from marginalised communities to be political beings, it’s much easier to keep them as victims. So when you break it down like that, you are starting to provoke the influential  minority, and anything that does that will be called radical. In general, the question is : how do you treat your people? Your women? If asking for fairness is radical then let it be called radical. Some people say this is an agenda, I am just working from a place of this question, and if you still think it’s an agenda, then I think at the very least it is a good and needed agenda. 

Lastly, we want to know what you love about your hometown Lucknow

 JN: You mean apart from the food? Because that’s the best here. I can tell you about my best memories there. Most of it revolves around my cycle gang of friends, we’d ride through railway colony, it was this lovely lush area full of trees. We’d stop and eat chocolate rolls for 8 rupees each. I remember I always wore shorts and my brother’s loose t-shirt. A lot of girls weren’t allowed to wear shorts then, and people would raise eyebrows. But my family never had any notions of what I should and should not wear as long as I was comfortable. Back then, I loved Salman Khan and my obsession was Maine Pyar Kiya. 

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