Chharanagar Doc Update

Chharanagar, documentary, Films, Kerim, Latest News, Shashwati

Here is what we sent out to all the people who have been so supportive and kind over the course of making this film. You can sign up for our quarterly updates on our website.


Over the summer we returned to Chharanagar to record the film sound track, Shashwati edited the 200 hours of footage down to a 3 hour rough cut, together with Henry Schwarz we started a 501(c)3 non-profit to help support India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, and Kerim wrote an academic paper about the documentary films of Dakxin Chhara. More recently we have been working on the final 90 min cut of the film which we hope to have done by the end of March. If all goes well, postproduction should be done by the end of the year.


Each time we return to Chharanagar it feels more and more like home. Yet, at the same time, we are made acutely conscious of how rapidly the world we have captured on film has changed while we were away. Some changes were heartbreaking, others were heartening, even inspiring. Because of our focus on audio recording, this trip was a bit different from previous ones. In the past we’ve spent almost all of our time there talking to the actors and their families. This time, however, we wanted to capture the local sounds and extensive musical talent within the community to make a sound track that gives a sense of place. One of our inspirations is this video for M.I.A.’s song, Bird Flu, which we feel captures something important about what it is like to be in such an urban space. (Just saw Slumdog Millionaire and they use M.I.A’s music for a similar effect.)

Since neither of us are particularly talented musically, we looked for some help. We were very lucky to find an excellent musician who not only has experience working on film scores (he’s worked together with Shashwati on other film projects), but who also has experience traveling and working in India. John Plenge doesn’t speak Hindi, but he does speak music,” and having him there allowed us to explore Chharanagar in a whole new way.

Working with John, we met wedding bands, a dubbing artist who sings vocals for the Gujarati film industry, and heard folk songs sung by women at weddings. I’m not trained in ethnomusicology, but I was struck by how this musical project transformed our experience of the community. Music is always a part of life there, being blasted out of rooftop speakers every day for some wedding, festival, or just because. But not being particularly knowledgeable about music I never would have explored this aspect of life there if it hadn’t been for John.

Another world opened up for us through the participation of John’s assistant, his teenage son John Adam. John Adam was a big hit with the younger members of the community who immediately befriended him. Usually shy and reserved when talking to us, all that disappeared when they were with John Adam. Our last day in Chharangar was friendship day” but because John and John Adam had to leave early, Shashwati and I had to accept all the friendship bracelets the children had made for John Adam. We were happy to accept, even though we knew it wasn’t really meant for us.

Sadly, our good feelings about being back in Ahmedabad were shattered by the explosion of 21 terrorist bombs around the city while we were there. Although we were safely on the outskirts of the city, we were worried by the possibility of communal violence in retribution for the attacks. Luckily, that did not happen (just as it did not happen after the recent violence in Bombay). Instead, people simply went on with their lives, determined not to be cowed by terror. After a day off to see if it was safe or not, we too returned to work. For anyone who wants to better understand the history of communal violence in Gujarat, I highly recommend Martha Nussbaum’s book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future.”

You can also download a podcast of her lecture on the topic at the University of Chicago’s website.


Over the past five years we shot over two hundred hours of tape, all of which Shashwati transcribed, color coded, and cataloged. It may seem like a lot, but unlike a fiction film, where you know the story before you shoot, documentary filmmakers can only have an inkling of where the real drama will lie. Shashwati began by cutting together dozens of individual scenes, each of which holds together on its own, but doesn’t necessarily have a place in the larger story we want to tell. We then reviewed these scenes together and discussed how they would work to tell a story. This was the initial three hour cut we brought with us to Chharanagar. We deliberately kept as much in this version as possible because we wanted to make sure that the film subjects had a chance to respond to each of the scenes in case there were any they felt strongly about, one way or another. In fact, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and the only request was that we have more about the effect of the theater on the lives of the actors, something we asked about in our followup interviews while we were there.

Now the biggest task is to take what is now a three and a half hour film and carve out of it a story which is both dramatically engaging, informative, and easy for the audience to follow. The last task is especially difficult considering the large number of characters in the film. Our solution has been to adopt a somewhat traditional three-act structure in which Budhan Theatre itself is the main protagonist - actualized in the lives and struggles of its various members and their families. I don’t want to give too much away, but Shashwati and I are very excited about this structure and hope to have a new cut of the film soon.


In addition to collaborating closely with the community during the production and editing of the film, we also wanted to make sure that once the film is out there is a way for audience members touched by the story to become involved in the community. With help from our co-producer, Henry Schwarz, we founded a 501(c)3 non-profit whose goal is to help India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes. Because we are new to the non-profit world we decided to start small. We have limited our current activities to supporting the Chharanagar library run by Budhan Theatre. This library is much more than a library; its a community center and an informal school as well. But its first and foremost a library - and a very good one at that! It houses a large collection of (mostly donated) books in three languages: English, Hindi, and Gujarati. Each book has been carefully cataloged and given a call number! It costs about US$1000 per year to maintain and we have already successfully raised enough money to keep it running through the end of 2009. Our goal now is to create a more long term solution for funding the library by getting 5 to 20 people to pledge between $50 and $200 a year on an ongoing basis. If you’d like to become a library sponsor, please sign up here:

More information about the library (including pictures and video) on the Vimukta website:

Once we have the library funding secured we hope to expand our program to do other things. Our first priority is to set up a scholarship program for girls. If anyone has experience working with girl’s education in the developing world or underprivileged communities, please contact us.


We have a lot in store for the next year. We hope to completely redesign our website, choose a new name for the film, upload trailers to the internet, finish work on a book of portraits Kerim shot while in Chharanagar, and begin marketing our film to potential distributors. List members will be the first to know of these developments.

Best wishes for the new year!

Kerim & Shashwati