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Bridging gaps

Rao Narender Yadav wants to be a catalyst to bring about positive change in society. A festival of documentary films is just one of the tools he has chosen

The Woodpecker International Film Festival (WIFF) showcases issue-based cinema from all over the world, mostly by youth. The genesis of this idea is interesting. In 2013, when India was celebrating 100 years of cinema, Rao Narender Yadav was not particularly happy that the celebrations were only about feature films. What about other genres of filmmaking? What about films and documentaries on social issues? Serious cinema? That’s how the WIFF was conceptualised.

In the last seven years, it has become one of the biggest platforms in the country that celebrates alternative cinema on socially relevant topics by young filmmakers not just in India, but also across the globe.

In 2015, cinema from Nigeria was showcased in WIFF. Nigerian films are “totally inspired” by Bollywood, and they have a sobriquet for their indigenous film industry on similar lines —Nollywood. Yadav believes that the kind of suspicion Indians have of Africans because of their dark skin is laced with racism but also stems from the fact that there’s a huge information deficit about them in India.  And all sorts of rumours are spread to demonise them, one of them being that they are necessarily drug peddlers.

Cinema, Yadav realised, was an important tool to bridge this deep trench of misperception and misinformation. These profound ideas are surprising for a man who looks like the guy next door, much younger than his 38 years. He grew up in Delhi — father a cop, mother a homemaker, younger sister a diplomat – and does freelance projects, which he calls positive interventions in society. And he has no one way of doing it, has a multipronged approach.

About his upcoming India-Africa initiative, a sort of Track II diplomacy, he says it will be spearheaded by a group of people, local and African, also diplomats, to work on creating strong commonalities by organising events, film shows and food festivals.

“Look at the positive side of the story,” he says earnestly. There’s a long common history between India and Africa. During the Mughal regime, some of the “Habshi” (a local distortion of Abyssinians) were in influential positions. The Nizam of Hyderabad had a group of “Habshis” as private bodyguards and confidantes – the people we call Siddhis. Not forgetting that Mahatma Gandhi’s years in South Africa were crucial for shaping his freedom movement in India. The support for African countries in the Non-Aligned Movement was of vital importance.

The India-Africa Today wants to focus on ‘complementarities’ and not on ‘negativities’ as it recognises growing interest of the African people in India as a destination for health tourism, education and jobs. Yadav seeks greater engagement by way of art, cinema, food, to mention a few. There are many eateries that serve African food in Delhi and their numbers are growing.

The initiative, he hopes, will pave the way to greater understanding instead of suspicion and mistrust. African communities have a big presence in India— particularly Delhi—with some 25,000 young men—officially studying in India. The colour of the skin is a barrier. Yadav feels that there are so many reasons to work together with African people, particularly in filmmaking.

Yadav did his senior secondary in science but didn’t opt to be an engineer or a doctor. He joined Kirori Mal College enrolled in History (Hons). Historical perspective is a must to understand things better, he feels. With changing times, infusion of technology, globally and locally, there has been a ‘historical transition’ that is important to appreciate the larger picture.

“You can’t understand Delhi, for instance, if you’re not familiar with the history of the city,” he asserts. He has witnessed so much change in his lifetime, particularly since the liberalisation in the early 1990s. He describes it as a “culture shock” for many of his generation.  Curious to understand the undercurrents of transition, which is brisk, he did another Master’s in sociology.

The change was fast and overwhelming, no strata of society was untouched. Even  cinema underwent a transformation — masala movies now have an element of realism, and there’s an infusion of technology and professionalism.

He grew up in this era of change, susceptible to these changes. And by the time he finished his studies, had already made up his mind: He would do his own thing, direct intervention, by way of projects in the social sector. But before that he had a stint as a journalist. In 2006, he started contributing to The Times of India as a freelancer on social issues. Within a few months, was offered a full-time job. For the next three years, he functioned as a journalist, was exposed to local issues by doing some “grounded reports” in Delhi. “It was good training,” he says in retrospect.

But he wasn’t satisfied by just writing about issues, he wanted to be part of the action. So he took up an assignment with the Centre for Media Studies, working in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to popularise telemedicine in the rural sector. He headed the communication division in Bihar. He got to travel extensively and was face to face with the dynamics of rural Bihar. A great experience —  but Yadav, all this while, was gearing up to implement his own set of ideas.  He had already experienced the transformational power of direct action and the power of the potent tools of research and communication.

Father of a two-year-old daughter, married to a working woman, Yadav has to use his time judiciously. His plate is always full. A one-man institution, he never shuns projects. While he’s busy organising the next edition of WIFF to be held next month, and creating necessary networks to expedite the Track II diplomacy with African countries via India-Africa Today, he’s also carrying out a project in Naxal-affected areas.

With the help of Unicef, Yadav endeavours to sensitise rural journalists on issues pertaining to child rights and their welfare. “It has been a successful project, a unique intervention in the conflict-ridden region. We have formed a media collective for child rights with some 400 local reporters being part of the initiative.”