Rab da Vaasta… (For God’s Sake…), Directed by Devulapalli Chakravarty
Devulapalli Chakravarty’s 2013 film Rab da Vaasta… (For God’s Sake…), set in East Delhi, India between 1984 and 1987 and based on the Colombian short story ‘Espuma y nada más’ (‘Just Lather, That’s All’) by Hernando Téllez, tackles the aftermath of the 1984 Indian anti-Sikh riots that exploded after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
In violent response to Gandhi’s assassination on 31 October 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards, more than 8,000 Indian Sikhs were slaughtered, including 3,000 in the capital territory of Delhi. The rioting and mass killings lasted for four days, beginning from the date of the assassination on 31 October, 1984 and largely coming to an end on 3 November, 1984. International organisations and investigations have sharply condemned the Indian government for its role in the rioting, and Amnesty International says that even today ‘the country’s government has failed to bring to justice those responsible’. Indeed, the riot (now sometimes called the Massacre or Genocide) emerged from an historical context already rife with anti-Sikh sentiment and friction between the Indian Sikhs and India’s political leadership — including Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
It was from this milieu of discrimination and violence that the succeeding prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, son of the recently-assassinated Indira, infamously declared shortly after the riots that ‘when a mighty tree falls, it is natural that the earth around it does shake a little’. The killings, in other words, were justified by the circumstances. It is by juxtaposing this infamous quotation with the words of Sikh religious leader and political revolutionary Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale — ‘Physical death is not death; death of the conscience is a sure death! A Sikh dies when he puts his conscience under…’ — that Rab da Vaasta… opens its account of the violence of 1984 and its political aftermath.
We find ourselves in a barber shop in East Delhi in 1987, three years after the Sikh Massacre, where a young man named Manjeet Singh Sandhu (played by Ankit Varshneya), an employee of the small shop, hesitantly greets a patron. His hair is cut short and his clothing is conservative: a button-down shirt and dark pants. He indicates that his ‘master’ is not yet in but that he will be arriving later in the morning. ‘Are you new?’ the patron asks, to which the young man responds, ‘no sir, it’s been over three years’. ‘Well then, you give me a shave’.
It is unclear why Sandhu seems so hesitant, even nervous. Perhaps he is not used to the authority of working without his ‘master’, though his over-three-year period at the shop makes this unlikely. In his preparations for shaving the customer we are given historical clues to his strange behaviour. Accompanying the lathering of shaving soap on the patron’s face materialises an auditory flashback of the disembodied voice of Indira Gandhi speaking over a television broadcast — it is ‘World News Tonight with Peter Jennings’, with Jennings declaring that ‘the age of Indira Gandhi is over’, along with Indira Gandhi herself: ‘when I die, I can say that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it’.
The flashback powerfully translates its reality to the present when, with a sharp auditory slice of a blade followed by piercing screams, Sandhu accidentally slices his hand with his shaving blade, immediately transporting him back more than three years ago, to the horrors of Trilokpuri, East Delhi, on 31 October, 1984.
A young Sandhu with a long beard and wearing a traditional Sikh turban sprints toward a nonchalant police officer sitting in his jeep. Sandhu is apparently running for his life: he beseeches the officer to ‘please save me, sir’. Instead, the official grabs him by the collar and curses him as a mob arrives from the direction from which Sandhu has just emerged in flight. ‘What took you so long?’ barks the officer at the angry mob. ‘All Sardars [turban-wearing Sikhs] must be taught a lesson’. At the officer’s order, the mob turns on the shrieking Sandhu. He just narrowly manages to escape.
The interaction years later in the barbershop is no ordinary interaction, and after the flashback it becomes, in an instant, weighted with the violence of history, relived in a distinctly significant moment of reconciliation: the patron is no ordinary customer, but the very officer that had ordered the angry mob to murder Sandhu just a few years ago.
Chakravarty’s use of culturally-specific historical symbols like the burning tyre of the Sikh’s murderers and the dynamic use of diverse camera angles to form multiple perspectives bestow upon the film added layers of meaning and dynamism: while accessible to those unfamiliar with its historical subject matter through its narrative form and various cinematic viewpoints, the depth of the historical symbology layers the film with significant cultural and historical meaning.
Inspired by Colombian author Hernando Téllez’s narrative framework, Rab da Vaasta… utilises the present as a means to access the horrors of the past, to interrogate the persistence of memory and the massive weight of historical violence, and to question the possibility for reconciliation and forgiveness — despite that weight. Chakravarty brings the unavoidable and necessary historical question of reconciliation to the fore with the innovative and brilliantly executed metamorphosis of this powerful Colombian short story into a novel historical and cultural context, raising questions of guilt, murder, hierarchical power, ethnic and religious oppression, survival, and the weight of shared history in an evolving nation. The film’s tag line, ‘Every drop matters!’ serves to further emphasise the work’s commitment to accentuating the significance of each wrongdoing and every drop of blood spilt, such that the film would, in the director’s own words, ‘be allowed to breathe with a contemporary immediacy’. The film succeeds in this respect, bringing history to life. ■
Runtime: 11 minutes
Genres: Historical Drama, Short
Find out more
Learn more about this film and Indian writer, director, and actor Devulapalli Chakravarty by visiting the pages for Rab da Vaasta… and Devulapalli Chakravarty in the Internet Movie Database. More information can also be found at Short Film Central and Facebook. Rab da Vaasta… is the recipient of numerous international awards, including the Gold Remi Award from WorldFest Houston and the FiLUM Award at the Lums International Film Festival. The trailer is available below:
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘Rab da Vaasta…’ (‘For God’s Sake…). Rab da Vaasta…