Dr B R Ambedkar, fondly called as Babasaheb by his millions of followers, converted to Buddhism in a public ceremony on October 14, 1956. This day is celebrated as Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din at Deeksha Bhoomi in Nagpur every year. Awakening: History and Memories of Historic Deekshabhoomi Conversion, a documentary film on Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din, chronicles some of the interesting histories and memories that the people of Nagpur have preserved over the years. We spoke to the conceptualizer and narrator of the film Tejaswini Tabhane, and the director, Aniket Thul, over email. (The two other members of their team are Sumedh Ashwekar and Dipankar Kamble.) Below are the edited excerpts.
What inspired you to make this documentary film?
Tejaswini: I was born and brought up in Nagpur and have been a part of the Ambedkarite Buddhist community here. I have been visiting Deeksha Bhoomi since childhood and listening to all the inspiring stories that people have to tell about their conversion to Buddhism along with Babasaheb [Ambedkar]. These stories are rarely documented in the mainstream but we know that they are an important part of our history and our assertion. Documenting them was the primary reason why I thought of this idea to make the documentary.
Aniket: My brother Dipankar Kamble and my esteemed friend Tejaswini inspired me to make this documentary. Also, since my childhood I have seen my father Sanjay Thul working tirelessly for the betterment of the community. He motivates me to do such work for the community. At first my family was hesitant about me filming this documentary as we had to shoot when coronavirus cases were at the peak. But when I came back home and showed my family the first interview of Gitabai Taksande, their reaction was of joy and happiness. The words of aajibai directly touched everyone’s heart. The aajibai also inspired me to put all my efforts into filming and completing this documentary.
I assume this is your first film. What were the challenges that you faced in making this film?
Tejaswini: I had no prior experience in film-making. I am really grateful to Dipankar, Sumedh and Aniket who readily agreed to be a part of this experiment and we learnt together. I would especially like to mention Somnath Waghmare who is an amazing anti-caste filmmaker. When I approached him with the idea, he encouraged us and helped us figure out things.
It wasn’t an easy process. We faced a lot of constraints due to the Covid-19 pandemic because of which we couldn’t shoot inside Deeksha Bhoomi and also had to miss on interviewing a few people we had planned to. The editing process was tedious as we were doing it for the first time but we enjoyed making this documentary.
Aniket: I had never worked on such a project before. I learnt to film and edit via YouTube and improved my skills. I always had an interest in film-making and I thank my friends for giving me this opportunity to work on such an incredible project.
What did you learn in the making of this film?
Tejaswini: Apart from the technical aspects of film-making that I got to learn, I would say the things that I learnt from interacting with people during the process of making this documentary are more important. I could understand how conversion [to Buddhism] has made a significant impact on people’s lives by giving them a dignified life and a rational way of thinking. Taksande aaji, whom we have interviewed in our documentary, is a beautiful example of this.
Aniket: I learnt a lot of things while making this documentary, such as how to interact with people and how to coordinate with your team.
Why do you feel the story of Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din needs to be told?
Tejaswini: We end our documentary with these lines of Wamandada [Kardak]:
उद्धरली नऊ कोटी जनता रूढी मोडुनी जुनी,
दीक्षा आम्हा दिली भिमाने मंगल दिन तो जणी.
[Breaking the old shackles of tradition have progressed 9 crore people
It was an auspicious day the day Bhim gave us deeksha]
This very accurately summarises the importance of conversion to the people who were dehumanised by the caste Hindu society. Conversion was an event for them to “reclaim their human personality” as Babasaheb has said. The mainstream academia and the society in general have failed to recognise the revolutionary potential of 1956 conversion which has built a community that believes in the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity as taught by Buddha. And this revolution is a continuous process as people revisit it every year by visiting Deeksha Bhoomi. Not just this particular place, but many of the Ambedkarite localities of Nagpur have preserved the memories of conversion with them: In the film we mention a small anecdote of Babasaheb’s stick. These are the legacies that Babasaheb has left behind for his community and they should definitely be told to the larger community which believes in the principles of anti-caste and social justice.
Aniket: The story of Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din needs to be told to everyone. It is a saga which inspires not just people of our community but communities all over the world who have been oppressed for centuries. There are a lot of people behind this movement whom we don’t recognise. We must bring forward stories of such people who would inspire millions and become a role model for our community.
What do you think about the documentary film-making scene in India? Does caste play a role in what topics are chosen as subject matters?
Tejaswini: Caste definitely has a huge role to play when it comes to documentary film-making in particular and film-making in general. That is the reason we don’t see our stories being documented in the mainstream so far. But there are many film-makers from the community who are tirelessly working to bring our narratives to the forefront. Somnath Waghmare, who also guided us during the making of this documentary, is one such brilliant filmmaker.
Are you working on any more projects?
Tejaswini: As of now, we are not. But we would like to work on such things more. I would really like to document the narratives of people from Nagpur who converted along with Babasaheb. It will be very interesting to listen to their stories. It has been 64 years since the conversion already. In the next 20 years, there will be no one to tell these beautiful and inspiring stories of conversion to the new generation. So I think this is an important work and I would like to request the filmmakers from the community to take up this work of documentation.
Aniket: No, currently I’m not working on any projects but we have a plan to cover the Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din which happened in Chandrapur. We could not add it in this documentary as we were hesitant to travel in the middle of the pandemic.