Kya Hua Is Sheher Ko?  (What Has Happened To This City?) is about a specific riot in one South Indian city. But it is to the documentary’s credit – and India’s shame – that the account of communal tensions in Hyderabad in 1984 could easily be about Mumbai in 1992-'93, Gujarat in 2002 or East Delhi last month.

There’s another reason Deepa Dhanraj’s classic, which captures first-hand the Hindu-Muslim riots that tore through Hyderabad between July and September 30 years ago, resonates today. Among the people interviewed in the film is Sultan Salahauddin Owaisi, whose party, the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, has long had a following among Muslim voters in Hyderabad. However, after being restricted to the southern city for several decades, the party broadened its sphere of influence last month and pulled off a surprise by winning two seats in the recent Maharashtra assembly election.

In the documentary, Owaisi presents his case that Hyderabad’s Muslims have been systematically humiliated over the years, that ascendant Hindu ultra-nationalism poses a serious threat, and that “every community needs a political centre to succeed”. Owaisi died in 2008, and the party that is now headed by his sons has gained the support of some Muslim voters worried about the unabashedly majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party and the comatose Congress party.

Political parties stir the communal pot

In 1984 in Hyderabad, though, the film shows the Congress party alive and kicking away at old political formations to create new and disturbing ones. The riots unfold against a power struggle between the recently elected Telugu Desam Party and the opposition Congress at the Centre. Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? reveals how backroom alliances – the Congress and the MiM versus TDP and the BJP – stir a pot that has been bubbling away ever since the princely state was integrated into the Indian union in 1948.

The formula is depressingly familiar. Political parties manipulate suspicion between Hindus and Muslims to often-horrific ends. The immediate provocation is the religious festival for Ganpati. Bharatiya Janata Party leader T Narendra provides an early indication of the Hindutva agenda that rewrote Indian history in the nineties when he declares that “where Muslims are in large members, they establish their power by beating and harassing people”.

The worst-hit are the poor and the labouring class, forced to scrabble for work and a few rupees even during a curfew, in the process exposing themselves to looters, rapists, killers and insensitive police officials.

The 95-minute documentary was made in the days when Dhanraj and cinematographer Navroze Contractor were involved with the inter-faith harmony group, Hyderabad Ekta, which had been formed after an earlier riot in 1978. The violence unfolded before the eyes of group members. “The shoot lasted the length of the riot,” said Dhanraj, who has several acclaimed documentaries to her name, including Something Like A War (on reproductive rights and the government’s family planning programme) and Invoking Justice (about an all-women Muslim personal law court in Tamil Nadu).

Kya Hua is Sheher Ko! has elements of both a television news story and a fact-finding commission report. Contractor’s sensitive and fleet camerawork gives the sense of being on the ground, while interviews by Dhanraj and Hyderabad Ekta founder member Keshav Rao Jadhav with victims, police officials and politicians on both sides of the religious right provide a ringside view of the riots as they progress.

Censorship problems

Despite its immense value as an eye-witness account, the documentary came out only in 1986. It took a year to edit and another year to be approved. “The Central Board of Film Certification seems to have objected to the suggestion that the Congress played a role in the riots, and we were refused a certificate,” Dharanj said. The documentary was finally cleared in 1986, and several screenings were held by Hyderabad Ekta in the Old City quarter.

The film’s intended audience dictates its anatomical and analytical nature. Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? reaches for fair-mindedness and allows all the groups involved to present their viewpoints, however bigoted or expedient. By letting Owaisi spout his victimisation rhetoric and Narendra air his anti-Muslim prejudice, the documentary identifies the perpetrators as calculating and unethical leaders rather than anonymous and unthinking mobs. “The film remains relevant because it shows how communal politics is practised by every political party,” Dhanraj said.

Kya Hua is Shahar Ko? got a new lease of life after it was restored by the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art’s Living Archive Project and shown at the Berlin Film Festival last year. Arsenal, an archive in Berlin, also issued a DVD that includes a booklet and interviews with Dhanraj, Contractor, Jadhav, and other collaborators on the documentary. An essay from the booklet asserts that such films “can be pioneering and prophetic in capturing a particular political vocabulary of supremacist politics”. What has changed between 1984 and 2014? So much, and so little.