Ruzbeh, the honest witness
Jauymini Barkataky, New Delhi

Two years ago, Ruzbeh N Bharucha, a documentary film-maker from Mumbai, was all set to make a film about leprosy victims. He'd completed a film called "Shadows in Cages" about women and children locked in prison and he was pleased with its outcome. It had received critical acclaim and improved the lives of some prisoners.

Kiran Bedi, India's celebrated woman cop, happens to be his mother-in-law. She advised Ruzbeh to take a look at Yamuna Pushta in Delhi, a chain of 22 slums along the banks of the Yamuna where her NGO Navjyoti was working. Leprosy affects the poor and it was possible he would find people he'd like to talk to.

So Ruzbeh took a look, went back to Mumbai, slept over the idea and returned with his team. Yes, he was going to make a film on leprosy in Yamuna Pushta.

But the hand of fate deemed otherwise. No sooner had Ruzbeh begun filming, the Supreme Court order that Yamuna Pushta be demolished and its residents relocated arrived.

The demolition squads turned up. Ruzbeh saw scenes he would never forget. All around him were wailing children, smashed homes and ruined lives. Ruzbeh stood there, angry and emotionally devastated. So, he decided, his film would now be about the destruction of Yamuna Pushta. He got almost 40 hours of footage before the bulldozers rolled up, he says.

He has now made a film and authored a book called "Yamuna Gently Weeps", straight from his heart. The book is full of pictures to accompany the text.

"I had not intended to write a book," explains Ruzbeh. "When I was looking at the raw footage I realised that a film and a book appeal differently to different people. I wanted to attract both. So I went through the film carefully and whenever I found an eye catching scene, I picked it up for the book."

The book and film are an eyewitness account of what happened at Yamuna Pushta. These 22 slums, along a 3 km stretch of the river, housed 150,000 poor people. Between February and March 2004 all the slums were smashed. Only 20 per cent of slum-dwellers were given land by the state government in Bawana, a barren expanse with no services, on the outskirts of the city. The rest were left to fend for themselves on the streets.

In the film, residents of Yamuna Pushta speak about their situation. The camera captures their sense of deep loss, hurt, anger and alienation. Ruzbeh follows the slum-dwellers to their new place in Bawana. With no jobs, homes or even water, they grapple to build their lives again. Ruzbeh does not mince words. He too conveys his anger at this blatant violation of human rights.

He also examines why the demolition took place. The slum-dwellers were accused of polluting the river and being encroachers. Ruzbeh shows how this was far from true. He has interviewed experts on toxic waste, architecture and town planning, and human rights activists. He also got to talk to Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, former Prime Minister and human rights activist VP Singh, Congress MP from Delhi Kapil Sibal and the original demolition man, Jagmohan.

Making the film was not a cakewalk. Ruzbeh had to overcome many obstacles. And, no, having a famous mother-in-law did not help. Slum-dwellers were chary of him, the cops eyed him with suspicion, the NGOs led him a dance and he had to chase important people for interviews. The film also burnt a hole in his pocket.

He was denied permission to shoot once the demolition started. "The cops were wary of us," he says. "We used to drive around in a car with tinted window panes. We would shoot at 6 am when no one was around. It took us five months to edit 
the film."

The slum-dwellers, facing the demolition squads, did not want to talk. His driver Shakeel, a resident of Sanjay Amar colony, a slum that was demolished, helped out.

"Apart from the authorities, the NGOs gave me the most grief," says Ruzbeh.

"I wanted to feature them in my film. I wanted to point out that what happened at Yamuna Pushta could happen to the slums they worked in. The NGOs kept my offer hanging for months with endless enquiries and finally never picked up my calls."

The suspicious NGOs thought Ruzbeh was making a film to glorify Kiran Bedi's NGO, Navjyoti. For nearly 15 years Navjyoti worked in Yamuna Pushta. Their galli schools were enormously popular with children. The NGOs wouldn't believe he just wanted to make a film on Yamuna Pushta.

Then, for almost two years Jagmohan refused to give an interview to Ruzbeh. He didn't want to talk about Yamuna Pushta, either.

"Finally, I changed my tactics and said I only wanted to talk about Delhi. I had to ask him about slums and specifically Yamuna Pushta, very tactfully."

Since Yamuna Pushta does not exist anymore what difference will Ruzbeh's film make? Well, his film is going to be screened in many international human rights conventions. He is taking it to schools, colleges, law and media institutes. More people are logging into his website yamunagentlyweeps.com "I want to make people aware about slums and human rights," he says.

Maybe Ruzbeh's book is not a literary masterpiece. It was not meant to be either. His work has a certain reality and passion. When he started, he just wanted to make a documentary on leprosy. But now 38-year-old Ruzbeh is a journalist, author and film-maker all rolled in one. He is the ultimate honest witness.

Copyright 2014 Ruzbeh N. Bharucha.