Indian filmmaker Chaubey on Indian & American Gangs, Drugs and Government in the 70s-80s

ATM: In relation to your recent film Sonchiriya, as a child, what knowledge do you believe was lacking in understanding bandits in India like you do now?

AC: The stories were infamous, but the criminals are romanticized. There was a fascination with the outlaw and the bandit from a child’s perspective. We do not know who these people were or what drove them to do what they do. It became a huge thing in the 80s even with the governments and it even effected the state. It made national news. Some of them had the Robin Hood kind of image. They would do a lot of good to the villages in the way they operated. It was a mix of this. They were either superheroes or supervillains. It depended on which side of the fence you were on. During the 60s and 70s, there were many gangs operating. They were about a thousand gangs operating in the jungle. There was a huge law enforcement problem. Some of the gangs enjoyed a good reputation of the people living there. They had run ins with the law and the local government, but they never troubled the average citizen of the areas.

They would not martyr them. They were bias people and they treated people with respect. They would not abuse women or children. I learn that this area was very cut off. It is very easy to commit a crime in the village and escape into the ravines. It is almost like a timed maze. You never knew where they hid. The society of this was ruled by the ancient customs of society. Class was an important thing. This was society was deeply segregated and divided because of class. These gangs represent their class. They were protecting their class. They were doing revenge killings when they saw someone coming into their community.

ATM: During this time period, in some parts of America, specifically in California and New York. Gang life was popular. They categorized themselves by denim jackets and marking on their jackets. They were seen in the beginning as good and helped the community. They were a part of the social discrimination against civilians. This was during the time where the treatment toward women were very low.

AC: Yes. In many areas of the country, this is not just for India, but in many places, women are not considered equal citizens. Especially in this society back in the day. The society has very rooted systems and class. Women are a set place in the society. They did not have a voice equal to men. We had a huge and defined set of duties. They would get married during their adolescences. They probably have their first child at 16 or 17. To a certain point they were just producing machines. They had to take care of the household and many things. This area has a huge river and access to water is very difficult. They had to take care of the home. They were second class citizens to the men.

One of the characters in the film is a bandit who comes later in the film. This character based on a real person. There was a real bandit during the 80s named Phoolan Devi. She had a film done on her years ago called Bandit Queen. This was her biopic. She was a legend during this era back in the day. She was abused as a child. She was married off when she was very young. She was abused by her husband. She was kidnapped by a gang. She was abused by this gang until one day in the gang fell in love. He saved and helped her avenge the abused she faced in her life. She became a big bandit and started her own gang. She was a criminal but became a legend. She had the strength and courage to break through the system. She was one of the very few female bandits of her time. She was not from the upper class, but from the lower class. Otherwise, women had a very tough time. She sets the bar because something had happened in her life and she sees it happening to a little girl named Julia. She sees her father in law raping her and she kills him. She runs away with this little girl.

In my experience, I have seen women in society who are not equal. I have always been impressed by the enormous about of strength and courage that women have in the society. They take in so much from society and keep their heads up and carry on with life. This has always fascinated me.

ATM: During this era in America, this was in the years of the sexual revolution time. The controversies about the contraceptive pill had a huge discussion during this time. This was a strong era all over the world for the appreciation and the recognition for women. There are certain things today that are still taboo based on different customs in cultures.

AC: This is right. I completely agree with you. They do not have a voice. They are not allowed to live life on their own terms. In this case, when things become unbearable then they must take matters into their own hands. They have to start thinking about the consequence of their actions and take a stand in what they believe in. In the film at the end, they manage to get Julia into the hospital. What is she going to do with her life? This is a good question and the film does not answer it. The girl is saved, and they have to leave the hospital, but where are they going to go? The family has abandoned them. The consequences of what she has done are not going to be good. Life is only going to get worse from here. She at least has the satisfaction for standing up for what she thinks is right. She does not have to live by the rules of society. She has a change to make her world and does not have to live as a second-class citizen to women.

ATM: This is not an American thing but a global thing in preaching about not going against the social norms. They call this type of person rebellious or insubordinate. I am not condoning any disturbed or bad behavior. I am all for equality for everyone. Some films seem to romanticize criminals, in your case bandits, as though they are a famous person.

AC: This is true. We do this all the time. Movies and literature do this a lot. Even in America, we had movies like Bonnie & Clyde. This is totally loved as a criminal with a lot of fascination and almost admiration. In the movies and literature, I do not think we write the characters because they are good and nice people. We write them because they are interesting. You can have someone who is evil, but it is just a fascinating character study. This is what makes for good entertainment rather for someone who is good and does right for everyone. I have looked at the criminals for fascinated, but I have been careful not to glorify what they are doing. I do not think robbing them is something to be admired. Violence is not something we should celebrate.

When showing violence in the movies, we should show they it is not good. So many movies make violence look so good. I do not try to do this and try to stay away from it. I try to show in the battle that we try to save ourselves and not wanting to die. Violence can be brutal, and it is not a sexy or cool thing. As a filmmaker, one has to be careful when making movies about characters who are of the mafia or gangsters. It is a bit of a walk. It is alright to humanize them, so they do not come across as psychopathic killers. When kids look at them, we should not feel this is someone we want to be. They should feel that the man or woman is a criminal for such and such reasons. If you look at the lives of the bandits, then you realize they have awful lives. It is not a life you want to live. You have the bandits laying down with their friends. They are talking about life in jail is far better than the life we live. This makes it clear to the people watching this life is not the life we should glorify or romanticize.

ATM: I also think it is the freedom. They are going against the norm and people want to see what this life is like. These type of people like living on the edge. A lot of people are afraid of this. It is fascinating on the opposition side, which is the normal side because this is what we are not doing.

AC: You are also right. This is true. At the same time, when you show them this is not the life to live, it all seems find at a distance or on the cinema screen. But when looking at it it is not the life you should hope for yourself. Not that everything is right in the society we live in. There is a right way to go about it than picking up a gun and shooting people. 

ATM: How did drugs during this time influence the social behavior in this region?

AC: Not so much. We are talking about the backwaters. This is in the country where resources are limited. The world is developing in the urban cities at a rapid pace. This area does not even feel like it is the 70s. It could be the 1800s. All the problems of the modern citizens some were untouched by it. I do not think during the 70s you would have modern drugs coming in. Alcohol abuse and marijuana was there. It is very ancient in India. The gang was not indulging in any of this. I do not think drugs had any major roles in affecting much social behavior. But alcohol, yes. Especially when the men would drink and go home to raise hell. This has been a problem in societies everywhere and this one.

My previous film Udta Punjab was about drug abuse. There has been a huge problem of opioid based drugs in this state but in New Delhi. This includes heroine. It is a border state. Afghanistan is the largest producers of opioid and a lot of heroin smuggling has happened.

ATM: In America, this was during the time of war on drugs that was associated with Nixon. There was a lot of illegalness and corruption with people who were supposed to have our support and trust. This brought the justice system for minorities, but mostly blacks up more. There was the three strikes rule that continued to ruin our justice system. In America during this time, political leaders were dropping drugs into the inner cities. This continued the bad representations and stereotypes for blacks that have heightened today because of it.

AC: Yes. This is place that is frozen. It can be the 19th century in the American West. The period in this film is 1975. Right in the beginning of the film you will here a sound. The gang is walking in the area where they start to do a robbery. The voice comes in and the voice says,” The president has declared an emergency. There is nothing to panic about.” This was the voice of Indira Gandhi. He was the prime minister of India. Between 1975-1977, the India state something called The Period of Emergency. The government and democracy were suspended for almost two years. The fundamental rights of people were taken away. The Indians did not have rights. They could not stage any protest. The journalists could not write against the government or speak about corruption about the government. Films could not be made or criticize the government in any way.

It was one of the darkest chapters in modern history. This period is happening during the period of emergency in the entire country. I have a bit of sense of irony. There is this emergency and we have made a lot of films on it. We all look back on it with sadness. In this part while the world is frozen in time, the emergency we are talking about is permanent. In other parts, they have not taken a horrific measure of taking away the fundamental rights of people or given the opportunity to live their right. But in this part, the state of emergency existed all the time regardless of what the government did and did not do. The society is so broken. The low-class women cannot live the life they should be living. There is so much oppression and sadness in the city. Thousands of politics were thrown into jail. A lot of them had to go in the ground so they were not marked by the government. It was a terrible time to be in India. The emergency got lifted in 1977. There were general elections and for the first time Indira Gandhi lost the election backing. The first ever in India a new government came, which was not the government by a leading government party. It was a time of healing and the society was going through a lot of change. It was serious economic problems because this country was changing.

ATM: Why was government corruption a taboo for journalists if it was their purpose to document it?

AC: Indira Gandhi’s father was Jawaharlal Nehru. She came to power during the mid-60s. She was a prime minster who centralized power in her own hands. She naturalized all banks in this country. She become one of the most powerful prime ministers in this country. She had a lot of power on her own. She was like a one band women government. She ruled with an iron hand. We were ruled by a democracy. There were journalist and political leaders on the opposition. There were filmmakers and artists who started raising a voice. They started to talk about her doing something seriously wrong. There was no one to question her. There was so much corruption in the government. Her own son had so many corruption charges against him. It was like one family ruled the country. It was not one person ruling the democracy.

When people started talking about it, the threat was that she was going to be thrown out of power. There was a case out against her in high court. She was accused of election malpractices. He won the case. An impeachment process started. Then she forced the president to declare an emergency because she could not take the power being taken away from her. She did it in the name of national security. Things became bad for the country. This is what happened. I was born during the emergency happening. We as a generation are extremely paranoid of something like this happening again. India has many social and economic problems.