In Nitin Neera Chandra’s 30-min fictional film The Suspect, Abdul (Durgesh Kumar) gets branded as a terrorist within 24 hours of landing in Mumbai from Bihar. On his first day on the job as a trainee in one of Mumbai’s many film units, a terror attack rattles the city, and he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. His name, of course, does not help.

Chandra has previously made the critically acclaimed Bhojpuri crime drama Deswa (2011) and Mithila Makhaan (2015), which won the award for the Best Maithili Film at the 63rd National Film Awards. The Suspect was a crowd-funded endeavour that was premiered in Mumbai earlier this year and recently had its second Indian screening in Kolkata. Chandra spoke to about The Suspect, the state of Bihari cinema and the need to make films in local languages.

What inspired ‘The Suspect’?
I read about Nisar-ud-din Ahmad who was in jail for 23 years for a crime he did not commit. That devastated me. I felt responsible. My inspiration to make this film was to start a dialogue about wrongful convictions. I wanted to change a line of thinking according to which if there’s an explosion, there must be a Muslim behind it.

Recently, a man in Agra was caught wearing a burqa because he wanted to escape being lynched. This mirrors a crucial scene in ‘The Suspect’. Is your film more topical today than ever?
Today, the country is very polarised. A few people who saw the film told me that my topic is favouring Muslims, that people should not sympathise with them. People asked me that being a Hindu guy, why am I making a film that will benefit Muslims.

There is a process right now in place to divide Hindus and Muslims. So, it’s imperative to ask the right questions and show the truth to both sides.

I am from Bihar and since the 1989 Bhagalpur riots, when I was in class two, I did not see or hear about any riots in Bihar up till now. These days, tensions flare up quite often in Bihar. Earlier we had problems regarding caste or livelihood. But now we are having Hindu-Muslim issues.

The Suspect.

Does fiction give you an advantage in exploring such issues as opposed to non-fiction, which can run the risk of turning into propaganda?
Unlike non-fiction, where you need access to certain people to make your film look objective, you can simply create your characters in fiction and make them say what you want. For instance, in my film, the Muslim hero escapes and runs into another Muslim who asks him if he is Shia or Sunni. When he says he is Sunni, he is asked, “Deobandi or Barelvi?” At this point, I don’t let him answer. But a Muslim guy, in reality, would have. I didn’t let my hero answer because I did not want any more division than there already was.

Did your National Award win for Mithila Makhaan change things for independent cinema in your state?
I got Bihar its first National Award for cinema in 65 years. Till date, the Bihar government has not sent me a single token of appreciation, not even a letter or a note. I told up to 30 Maithili associations in Kolkata that I would be coming to the city and hence, it would be a great moment to screen Mithila Makhaan. Nobody came forward to arrange it.

Mithila Makhaan.

Why is it that raunchy and regressive Bhojpuri action musicals get nationwide traction as the major type of cinema produced by Bihar?
Bhojpuri and Maithili are Bihar’s native languages. During the struggle for independence, a chunk of the elite, as well as the revolutionaries, warmed up to Hindi after Mahatma Gandhi proposed that Hindi should be the national language as a unifying bond for all Indians to fight the British.

After independence, Hindi got imposed on schools, colleges, and universities all over Bihar and our native languages were pushed to the sidelines. Now, years later, neither can Biharis speak in Hindi properly nor do they have any sense of ownership or sensitivity towards their native languages. As Bhojpuri and Maithili language began to rot so did its literature, and if the language itself is dead, how can its cinema survive?

Bengali and Marathi cinema, for example, are respected because there is a strong sense of linguistic pride in Bengal and Maharashtra thanks to their literature.

Today, Lollypop Lagelu has become Bihar’s trademark song. It is a matter of shame for every Bihari. Once, Hindi became mandatory for jobs, why would anyone want to learn Bhojpuri or Maithili? Upper castes and urban Biharis don’t know their mother tongue. In that case, only the underprivileged stick to native languages and thus Bhojpuri cinema caters to them – quick-fix, cheap entertainment.

The real people responsible for bad Bhojpuri films are not its makers but the ones who can make it better but don’t. For me, Prakash Jha is one of the biggest culprits. He has the resources to improve Bhojpuri films but he won’t. Today, Bhojpuri cinema doesn’t have an audience. It has victims like opium has victims and not consumers.

Moreover, how will our indigenous cinema survive if our leaders treat Patna like a pitstop on the way to Delhi where they will try to be PM? Biharis have a terrible migrant-like mentality.

Bring Back Bihar.

You say Biharis have a migrant-like mentality but you yourself work from Mumbai.
In Patna, I didn’t find investors. The city doesn’t have an environment where you can discuss cinema, and, as an artist, I couldn’t live in isolation. So, I moved to Mumbai out of compulsion. I travelled the world, from New York to Toronto to Singapore to UAE, to find Bihari investors. I didn’t find any so I have to convince Gujaratis and Sindhis in Mumbai to fund my films.

And yet, you continue to make films, from Mumbai and that too in Bhojpuri and Maithili. What keeps you going?
Hindi is neither my mother tongue nor is it our national language. I want to keep making films in Bhojpuri and Maithili because there has to be good cultural work done in Bihar’s indigenous languages for Bihar to progress. These languages have to be made compulsory in schools.

Cinema can create a good picture of the state, its language, and its people. It is a tool to bring pride. Today, a million Biharis hide their identities. They will say anything about their place of origin but they won’t say “Bihar”. You won’t find Bihari food in restaurants. It’s distressful.

So, my aim is to facilitate the growth of a strong cultural identity for Bihar which, in turn, can help bring economic growth in Bihar. I make the films I make because 50 years later, a Bihari can look back and say with pride that there were my films alongside Lollypop Lagelu.

Nitin Neera Chandra.