New Delhi: For almost two decades, the memories of one of the worst communal flare ups witnessed by India have overshadowed the true culture and spirit of the ancient city of Ayodhya.
   
But for six years now, a group of locals who take pride in their shared heritage and what they call as their 'Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb' are trying to reinvent the city's image through a film festival that talks about the people and relates the untold stories of common Indians.
   
The people behind the festival are residents of Ayodhya and Faizabad who love the medium of cinema and practice it to give a voice to the people whose stories and struggles go unheard or are deliberately ignored.
   
Beginning every year from December 19, the day when revolutionary Ashfaquallah Khan was hanged in a jail in Faizabad and his comrade-in-arms Ram Prasad Bismil was executed elsewhere in 1927, the three-day festival in a way also marks the close friendship of the two freedom fighters.
   
"The mandir-masjid episode of the 90's pushed many issues to the margins -- the issues that find greater resonance among the common people, the smaller movements that are going on in the country," says Shah Alam, one of the brains behind the Ayodhya Film Society that holds the festival every winter.
   
"Through our film and dramatics gathering that is accompanied by detailed discussions with the audience, we try to bring the less talked issues to the forefront of public consciousness," he says.
   
The concept of what they call the 'Awam ka cinema' emerged in 2004 when Alam, then a student, got together with a bunch of like-minded people to start the screenings of documentaries and films on social issues in the twin cities of Ayodhya and Faizabad.
   
In 2006, the group formed their society, which has so far held similar film festivals in Delhi, Mau, Jaipur, Auriya and Kashmir. Ayodhya and Faizabad, however, remain the centre of their activities. "We hold screenings on different spots in the two cities as there is no big enough auditorium. We also do not take sponsorships -- neither from any corporate group nor from the government but run our programme purely on the basis of contributions from people," Alam says.
   
Since 2006, every year the festival has showcased works of smaller filmmakers on obscure subjects like poor state of development in hinterland at a time of a double digit growth rate or stories of struggles of individuals against the streams of society.
   
A documentary by Alam and his friends on Mohammad Sharif, popularly known in Ayodhya as 'Sharif Chacha', who has taken it upon himself to give respectful last rites to unidentified bodies, was received warmly by public.
   
"Sharif Chacha has cremated as many as 1,600 bodies in the last 18 years according to the rites of their religion. All unidentified bodies found in the city are directed to him. His is a remarkable story which needs to be told and there are many such stories in our country," Alam says.
   
The group, which has among it doctors, lawyers, students and others, screens as many as 30 films each year. The festival also provides a platform to new and lesser known filmmakers as their films are screened and appreciated. Besides, the festival has also screened Hindi feature films in the past.
   
Last year, 'Necropolis', a play by playwright Pranav Mukherjee was also staged in Ayodhya as part of the festival.    

The experiment that started with a group of 20 to 21 dedicated people has now grown into a strong city-wide network. The pioneers of the movement hope it would grow further in the future.
   
"I have lived in an Ayodhya where the main pujari of the Ram temple shared a fatherly relationship with a Muslim like me. We hold our meetings in temples, we work and eat in the temples and we want to erase all the negative memories we have of the unrest that many a time were because of outsiders and political situations," Alam says.

Agencies