In the beginning...
As a journalist with an investigative organisation like Tehelka, I knew every door that could have offered some help was closed to me. The only way out before me was what every journalist in the pursuit of truth uses as a last resort. Go undercover.
I was all of 26, a girl, a Muslim girl at that. I have never been conscious of my identity, but when it came to a state polarised on religious lines, these considerations were to be considered judiciously. My family was to be told about it, who would I be? Would I be able to pull it off without help?
The fact that I had attended a well-known mass communications course came handy at this time. Among my classmates were aspiring actors who had carved a niche for themselves in the film industry. Actor Richa Chaddha, who was my classmate and now one of the finest heroines, recently mentioned in an interview that she chose my career graph and experiences as a journalist to prepare for a film that had her play the role of a reporter.
That “long time no see” call was made to another actor friend I considered myself closest to. With my friend’s help, I fixed an appointment with her make-up man. The next day I was sipping chai at a suburban Mumbai studio learning the technicalities of getting myself the right wig. The make-up artist, who turned out to be a veteran, helped me with some of the ones he had stocked. The wigs made me look different, but something felt cosmetic and out of place. The wig makeover had been a non-starter.
I thought a better idea would be to focus on changing my identity altogether. As luck would have it, I found an email on a group ID that I was a part of with my ex-classmates from a colleague who had joined the prestigious American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles. It felt like a Eureka moment. This was to be my identity. A filmmaker from America in Gujarat to make some sort of film. The idea was ambitious, but the possibility of it working was within the realm of possibility.
I spent the next few days studying the work of the conservatory, its alumni, the films it had made and doing research on the kind of films that had been made about Gujarat, and the subject they had most focused on. Finally, I decided to keep the subject of the film open-ended depending on the kind of reception I received from the characters I would meet in the story which had no script.
I had to have a name. One which was warm, conservative and yet strong in what it had to convey.
I must confess that being a film buff did help me immensely. I love watching Hindi films and one of the films that I remembered seeing at that point was Rajkumar Santoshi’s Lajja. I had managed to watch it on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai.
The strong female characters in the film were its USP, backed by powerpacked performances by its lead, including Madhuri Dixit and Manisha Koirala. In the film, Koirala played a character called Maithili, who explored the lives of Indian women and caste- and gender- based suppression. Maithili was also the name of Sita, wife of Lord Ram. The name had a resonance that had stayed with me.
When I found myself looking for a second name, which was common and without the snob value of some surnames, indicating neither Brahmin nor Dalit status, “Maithili Tyagi” was born. My visiting card read Maithili Tyagi, Independent Filmmaker, American Film Institute Conservatory.
But before I left for Gujarat again, I needed an able assistant who came along soon enough and whose presence would have a deep impact on my life. Mike (name changed) was a Science student in France who happened to be in India on a student exchange programme. Mike wanted to work in India with Indian journalists. I mailed him without giving him the precise details of the investigation that I would be conducting, yet trying to be as honest as possible.
I told him that I needed a non-Indian colleague who could pretend to be working with me on a film. This, I informed him, would be part of a larger, more sensitive investigation. Mike would not be privy to the intricate details, I warned him. He would just be a “firang, gora” face to authenticate my identity.
Armed with my visiting cards, a pair of ash-grey lenses, a hair straightener, colourful bandanas and some recording instruments, I landed in Ahmedabad. Mike was to arrive a couple of days later.
I immediately procured a SIM card in the name of Maithili Tyagi. I was surprised at the ease with which I managed one with the help of documents arranged by my alleged “guardian family” in Ahmedabad. The investigation was to take a long time. Neither I nor my organisation could afford the luxury of accommodating me in a plush hotel.
Also, I was playing the role of a struggling filmmaker who had limited financial support. Accommodation for someone like that could be arranged only by a local. This time help came from an artist friend who was well-connected in the literary and cultural circles in Ahmedabad. He was kind enough not to ask too many questions.
That I was a journalist who had sent the HM of Gujarat behind bars on account of her investigation was reason enough for him to use his in influence to help me get accommodation at an educational institute, the Nehru Foundation.
I was introduced as a filmmaker to the warden of the hostel at the Foundation who barely glanced at me and had an animated chat with the friend who was helping me. I had successfully secured myself a 250-sq-ft-room with an adjoining washroom for 250 rupees a day. As it happens, the fellow occupants at the hostel played important roles in my investigation. They were students from different parts of Europe – Germany, Greenland and London.
Manik bhai (name changed), the dean or the manager of the hostel, was my first acquaintance. “Madam is here to make a film on Gujarat” is how my friend introduced me to him. “Oh nice,” remarked Manik bhai, “Please say good things about my city and our CM. It’s a beautiful city, this Ahmedabad,” he said, offering to show me around the city in the same breath.
My room had space enough for a single bed, a writing table and a book stand. But the location of the hostel made up for the lack of space. Situated in one of the most plush and central areas of Gujarat, this place became my home away from home over the next six months.
Mike arrived the following morning, a bright tall French boy, all of 19, with messy hair. I met him at my friend’s place where I briefed him about his role before he accompanied me to the hostel.
Manik bhai was kind enough to give Mike a room adjacent to mine for the next one month. That Mike impressed him with his “Kem chho” obviously played a role in this. Mike was a learner, and loved exploring and learning about cultures, but his particular favourite was food.
Our first dinner that evening was at the popular thali joint in Ahmedabad called Pakwaan. As Mike and I now fondly remember, he must have finished off at least two dozen pooris and six bowls of halwa that night, much to my puzzled amusement.
As we walked up the stairs of the hostel after dinner, he asked, “So can I call you Rana, when we are by ourselves?” “No, I will be Maithili for you till you leave this country.”
Mike kept his promise. The goodbye card that he left for me a day before leaving for Paris had a note scribbled in Hindi, “Pyaari Maithili, apna khayal rakhna – Mike."
We spent the first few days at the Nehru Foundation getting accustomed to our new lives. Mike would sit in his room with his French-Hindi translation book while asking me questions and simultaneously reading a book by Mark Tully. For his age, Mark was very well-read, opinionated and had an incisive, analytical mind. He was quick to grasp details.
We had a canteen at the Foundation which served lunch for Rs 25. It overlooked a carved staircase and the institute terrace beyond which lay a picturesque forest. Every afternoon Mike and I would carry our laptops to the terrace eating our lunch and working simultaneously.
He would ask me, “So Maithili, what’s the plan, who are we going to meet?” And I would repeat myself, “I will tell you when the time is right.”
In the evening Mike and I would take our cameras out and go to the old city to shoot. Both of us shared an interest in photography and both had similar SLR cameras. The exercise had nothing to do with our love for photography however. It was an exercise in strengthening the authenticity of our roles for ourselves, and anyone who might have been watching us.
If we had to approach top-ranking officials, there would most certainly be a background check, especially at the place where we were staying. We needed to have a social circle in Ahmedabad which could vouch for our assumed identities.
Amdavad ni Gufa, the historic art museum set up by the famous artist MF Hussain, turned out to be of great help for us. The museum surrounded by a huge park and a café had youngsters, mostly artists and photographers lounging around. Some played the guitar, some promoted their work. Others included aspiring filmmakers, photographers and theatre actors. During our evenings at this place, I would thoroughly enjoy my life as Maithili and so would Mike.
Mike loved the Lal Darwaza, a prominent part of Old Gujarat. Every Thursday there would be an open market there. Then there were the kite makers and the potters. He would come back in the evening with some spectacular shots and then pop his favourite question, “Where are we eating tonight?” He was a foodie and Gujarat was just the right place for him.
Excerpted with permission from Gujarat Files: Anatomy Of A Cover Up, Rana Ayyub.