In October 1992, Lalit Vachani and
the Wide Eye Film team were filming The Boy in the Branch. At
the time, Kali, the central character of the film,
was nine years old. He had joined the RSS branch because it was
a fun place where children could play games after school every
Sandeep, twenty-one years
old, spoke about his devotion to the Hindu nationalistcause, and
how he would spend his life serving the RSS.
Sripad, an RSS martial
arts expert (nineteen at the time) was passionate about building
his own body and building the Hindu nation.
And Lalit, age eighteen,
was a gentle, atypical volunteer who disliked the physical program
of the RSS, even though he was assigned to train the younger boys
We had entered RSS territory expecting
to confirm our received images of fascism. Instead, what we found
was far more ingenious and unsettling in its simplicity: the lure
of a playground where young boys played games and the hopes and
dreams, fears and anxieties of ordinary young people as the banal
face of fundamentalism.
On December 6th, 1992, 45 days after
the shoot when the film was near completion, members of the RSS
and its affiliates destroyed the Babri mosque at Ayodhya.
Where were Lalit, Kali, Sripad, and
Sandeep when the mosque was razed to the ground? What did they
think about the deaths of at least 1500 people (mostly Muslim)
in the riots that followed the demolition? What had happened to
them since that time, as the RSS and Hindu nationalism moved from
the margins to the center of Indian politics, from an oppositional
movement to the ideology of the government presently in power?
Eight years later, we returned to Nagpur
in search of Kali, Sandeep, Sripad and Lalit.
Combining the conventions of the political
documentary and the personal 'revisit', The Men in the Tree is
a documentary in four parts:
Part I, Memories (22
min.) is a personal reflection on the making of the earlier film,
The Boy in the Branch.
Part II, Buildings (24
min.) builds on the characters of The Boy in the Branch, in that
we meet Sandeep, Sripad and Kali in the present, after a gap of
eight years. However, it is primarily about the making and the
breaking of various buildings, the most prominent one being the
Babri mosque, destroyed in December 1992.
Part III, Stories (32
min.) is the talking heads/information section of the film. It
is about the kind of stories that circulate within the RSS branch
and broader RSS culture and the attempts by RSS ideologues to
rewrite and Hinduize a secular Indian history. Former RSS volunteers,
D.R. Goyal and Purshottam Agarwal provide an internal critique
and a framework to understand the ambivalence of the RSS to national
leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and contextualize the RSS hostility
towards Muslim and Christian minorities in India.
Part IV, Branches (20
min.) is about the state of RSS branches in contemporary India
in the form of a return to the branches that the team filmed in
The film ends with an epilogue concerning the events of March
2002. At the time, The Men in the Tree was almost complete.
The RSS affiliate, the VHP launched a new agitation to build the
Ram temple at Ayodhya. This resulted in the horrifying genocide
in Gujarat, where estimates suggest that over two thousand Muslims
were killed by members of the Hindu right.