'Prison Diaries': An intimate documentary on anti-Emergency activist Snehalatha Reddy

In times of anti-CAA and NRC protests, this documentary reveals how important women are in nation-building.
'Prison Diaries': An intimate documentary on anti-Emergency activist Snehalatha Reddy
'Prison Diaries': An intimate documentary on anti-Emergency activist Snehalatha Reddy
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The anti-CAA and NRC protests and reports of subsequent arrests and detentions of the last few days have reminded many of similar episodes during the 1970s Emergency period. Contrary to what we might assume, even then, like today, a large majority of people had supported the Emergency. The public transport facilities like the buses and trains were on time, prices of commodities were low, and an illusion of discipline and order was created.

Renowned filmmaker SNS Sastry documented this public sentiment in We have Promises to Keep – a documentary film he made in 1975. Similar to today, during the Emergency too, public intellectuals, media personnel, students, activists and politicians were out on the streets protesting along with the common people. The crackdown on these protests led to more than a lakh people being arrested and imprisoned. In the last few days, we have seen how young women across the country are at the forefront of anti-CAA protests. The Emergency saga too had its share of women heroes who stood up for what they believed was right.

One such brave woman was Bengaluru based Snehalatha Reddy. A staunch follower of Ram Manohar Lohia’s ideas, Snehalatha was a theatre and film artist. She co-founded the famous theatre group Madras Players and worked actively as an actor, director and writer in theatre. She became a household name when she played Chandri in the 1970 Kannada classic Samskara. George Fernandes, the recently deceased politician, was then a young trade union leader and was at the forefront of the ‘Underground’ movement during the Emergency. Also a follower of Lohia, Fernandes was close to Snehalatha and her husband Pattabhirama Reddy. In the state crackdown on the movement, Snehalatha was arrested in 1976 and jailed in Bengaluru under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. Asthmatic since childhood, Snehalatha’s health deteriorated in prison and she died a few days after her release on parole in early 1977.

Although much has been written about Snehalatha in the press, strangely, not many had tried to tell her story in cinema until now. Uma Chakravarthi, a feminist historian and filmmaker screened her new documentary film titled Prison Diaries on Snehalatha’s life recently at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements in Bengaluru.

While in jail, Snehalatha Reddy had maintained a diary which was published by the Karnataka Human Rights Committee in 1977 in a compilation titled A Prison Diary. This diary, along with interviews of family and friends of Snehalatha Reddy, form the anchor of Chakravarthi’s film. Attempting to conceive and construct an intimate portrait of a person no longer alive and whom you have never known personally, can be a daunting endeavor. Chakravarthi tries to overcome this by choosing only Snehalatha’s children - the musician Konarak Reddy and the human rights activist Nandana Reddy - and close associate Deepa Dhanraj (also a documentary filmmaker) as interviewees to reconstruct the events before, during and after Snehalatha’s arrest.

This intimacy lends a strong emotional appeal to the narrative. These interviews are interspersed with chosen excerpts from Snehalatha’s diary which give the audience a peek into her emotional and physical state in the prison. Her battle to come to terms with the isolation (she was the lone woman political prisoner in the jail), her attempts to improve the conditions of women prisoners, and her insecurities with respect to her family’s prison visits are evocatively brought out in the narrative. The visuals of the erstwhile central jail allow the audience to imagine the physical circumstances of the prisoners.

Small details like how she adopted her name (she was from a converted Christian family) and her childlike angst while describing the jail officials in her diary make her come alive for the audience. But the narrative falls short of constructing a comprehensive and intriguing portrait of Snehalatha’s life’s journey. Its intense focus on only the events of the Emergency and Snehalatha’s imprisonment, does not help the audience get a good understanding of her life before the Emergency.

One gets the feeling that there was potential to dig into more archival material and use it effectively. For instance, the footage from Snehalatha’s work in films, while being informative, did not add much to the audience’s understanding of her as an artist. Also, her husband Pattabhirama Reddy’s (a Telugu poet and film director) part of the story is missing in the film. It would have been interesting to know what he went through during this tumultuous period in their lives. Maybe, visuals of the spaces she frequented in the different cities she lived in and her personal spaces in her own home, interviews of some of her compatriots in the underground movement, other significant non-family people and maybe even an innovative choice of form to present the contents of the diary rather than using them as stills would have strengthened the narrative.

Nevertheless, it is an important documentary and has been made at the right moment. The struggle and sacrifice of women like Snehalatha Reddy are as relevant today as they were during the Emergency. The film definitely urges the audience to look beyond themselves and participate in the struggle to protect the idea of India as it was envisioned by our founding fathers. Also, it is one tiny but significant step in documenting the role of women in building our nation through the medium of documentary cinema.

The film is produced by PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust) which means it should be available on YouTube in due time. Hopefully, Chakravarthi will be organising more screenings of this important film across cities before it goes online. 

Watch the trailer here:

Basav Biradar is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in Bengaluru.

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