A PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE
Minnie Vaid's documentary on Dr. Binayak Sen, A Doctor To Defend, is a moving and inspiring portrait of a well-educated, middle-class man who followed his conscience all the way to the poorest districts of the country and has lived and worked amongst the people for nearly four decades. Indefatigably. Intelligent, articulate, soft-spoken and sensitive, Dr. Sen's interview is at the core of the film, which chronicles his journey from the Christian Medical College, Vellore, to the miners of Dalli Rajhara for and with whom he co-founded the Shaheed Hospital, the Bagrumnala clinic in Chhattisgarh from where he worked, all the way to his incarceration, first in 2007, and again in December 2010, on charges of 'sedition' and 'conspiracy' against the Indian state.
He has been sentenced to life imprisonment.
Ms. Vaid, a journalist covering rural issues for the last 25 years, says Dr. Sen inspired her so much, she wanted to tell the story of his life to the widest audience possible. "He's a simple man who wears the label of 'hero' very uneasily," she says. In her book (by the same name) which chronicles Dr. Sen's life in greater detail, she describes how he insists on not being singled out for the work he's done in Chhattisgarh and directs her to numerous people of different strata -- doctors, lawyers, health workers and villagers -- he has been associated with for several years to understand the issues at the centre of the crisis in the state, rather than document his individual journey.
In the film, he rattles off his facts, not with the arrogance of someone who knows it all, but the heart of an emotional man who couldn't turn away from things that disturbed him. "I never started out with the intention of working in human rights. But health work needs a political dimension. The people whose very existence comes into question have no choice but to resist," he says.
The 47-minute film cuts back and forth in time to piece together Dr. Sen's incredible journey. It also features rare (and now, by Ms. Vaid's admission, impossible to get) footage of a Salwa Judum camp, one of many set up by the State to counter the Naxalite movement in Chhattisgarh. Dr. Sen is forthright in his assessment -- Chhattisgarh has the richest mineral reserves in the country. But he doesn't endorse violence of any kind, "The violence of the state and of resistance must both be stopped."
Rivetting as Dr. Sen's own words are, the film also features interviews with two remarkable women -- first, his wife Illina Sen, who heads the Department of Women's Studies at the Mahatma Gandhi University in Wardha, Maharashtra. Even when she speaks of the hardships of living in the shadow of her husband's incarceration, harassment and death threats to the family and social ostracisation, she does so with a smile, and is as unsentimental in her choice of words as her husband. Sudha Bharadwaj, an activist lawyer in the Chhattisgarh High Court who too chucked the temptation of a good life to represent the oppressed speaks highly of Dr. Sen's work and describes him as a sensitive man who must have had no choice but to follow his heart "all the way to Dantewada".
When asked whether getting a 'balanced' view of the situation and hence incorporating the State version of Dr. Sen's story was important to the film, Ms. Vaid dismisses the idea saying the film isn't about the Naxalite problem in the state. It's about one man's life and his struggles. "Ninety nine percent of rural health centres in India don't even have a doctor! In the light of this fact, the work Dr. Sen has done is tremendous."
A Doctor To Defend is fairly rudimentary in terms of its filmic qualities. Some of it had to do with the fact that the scope of the film kept changing over the course of the project. "We faced more and more difficulties shooting in places we wanted to, getting interviews with the people we wanted and in accompanying Dr. Sen on his journey. In the end, this is the footage we got and I made my film from it," explains Vaid.
In spite of its limitations, the subject itself is powerful enough to command your attention. Question is, will there be a television channel (of the hundreds that free India so proudly boasts of) willing to air Dr. Sen's story as Ms. Vaid has written it?