Last year in August, the Sikh community across the world got a blow when a white man opened fire and mercilessly slaughtered six Sikhs at a Gurudwara in Wisconsin, US. The tragedy triggered 22-year-old Shubhashish Bhutiani, a New York based film institute Indian student, to tell more about Sikhs and their sufferings in history.
Bhutiani made a short film Kush. The film was India`s lone entry at the 70th Venice International Film Festival and was awarded under Orizzonti section which showcases new trends in world cinema.
Kush is based on the true account of a school teacher`s struggle to protect a Sikh student from the murderous mob during 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The film is set in the backdrop of assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Bhutiani came across this story when he was in grade 11. “I went to Woodstock school, an Indian boarding school in Mussoorie, where our teacher actually saved a Sikh child from the mob on the way back from a field trip. She told us the story, and I knew it should be a film. I didn’t know I would make it at that point.”
It was after the Wisconsin Gurudwara shooting, Bhutiani was truly inspired to make the film. The Wisconsin shooting was part of the hate crime where since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Sikhs in America have been targeted by revenge-seekers who apparently have mistaken them for Muslims, perhaps due to the traditional turbans they wear and their dark skin.
Bhutiani wanted to tell more about the Sikh community and the wrongs they have faced. “I had already made it in my mind when she told the story. But actually came down to it when two things happened in the space of a month in the US, where people were shot in a Gurudwara in Wisconsin and the second incident was the Connecticut shooting of children in school. I stayed up all night when that happened because suddenly violence against children felt like a real thing. So while I was having thoughts about making the film, these reinforced me into thinking that this film would be relevant today,” he said.
Bhutiani belongs to a non-Sikh background, but he really got attached to the subject during his research about the riots. “I read a lot of newspapers, magazines, and looked at a lot of photographs before making the film. But the research that helped me most was talking to people who lived through those days. They were extremely powerful, and some people had an extremely tough time talking about it. That made the film more real, and many details were added through the course of the film from other people’s experiences as well,” he said.
While the film is about Sikhs, according to Bhutiani it’s a very universal story. This is a film about a community facing violence and adversity. It is something that has happened many times in History. “I was even more connected to it because we are watching the film transpire through the eyes of the children in a situation that we’ve all been through, a field trip. It was also about my teacher who was in the bus, and the obstacles she faced along the way, which just made the situation more real to me. And finally it was during the research period I got even more attached as I got more horrified when I heard the first-hand account of that period,” he said.
Bhutiani feels that what happened during the riots was a real tragedy. “There is nothing that can be said about this. It’s quite simple I think: things like this shouldn’t happen, and I’m extremely sorry for all the families that have suffered through this. I admire the Sikh community for its strength, and can’t imagine what it has been through. Again I say this: it should not have happened.”
By Surbhi Bhatia