Varun Chopra directs ‘Holy Cowboys’.
In small-town India, where cows are considered sacred, a teenaged boy and his group of friends set off on a quest to become saviors of the holy cow.
Words from Varun below.
Varun, what was your entry into this project, and how did you become connected with the community you follow in the film?
Growing up in India, I did have a prior knowledge of “cow vigilante” movements but they were relegated to the fringes. Until around 2014, when these fringe nationalist organizations became emboldened in an atmosphere of growing intolerance and political shielding. A wave of violence against minorities saw a massive uptick and given weak law enforcement, many perpetrators were seen as heroes in their community. Some even started posting their nightly raids and brutal lynchings on Youtube and Facebook – which was where I first connected with them.
YouTube gave a cow vigilante leader, a silver play button for his viral lynching videos. He is currently wanted in multiple murder cases.
How was it like sharing your daily life with the subjects of your documentary, and how did you choose what to include from their lives?
We spent the most amount of time with the boys in the documentary. Gopal and his group of friends were a really fun bunch to hang out with. Playing cricket with homemade rules, bantering over crushes, sneaking cigarettes and fooling around on the terrace – they reminded me of my own childhood friends. Tragically, there was a remarkable shift when adults surrounded them. Under the guise of promoting civic duty, the radicalization was actively robbing their innocence, making them hateful in their speech and actions.
Including this gradual shift in speech and behavior is what became the focal point for the character’s journey in this film.
(…) this gradual shift in speech and behavior is what became the focal point for the character’s journey…
Can you explain what you mean by taking a “hybrid” approach to telling the story, what were the different features, and how did you bring those methods together?
Sure! I wanted this film to never become a reportage piece. I am not a journalist. I wanted to approach the politics of this film through a human lens and probe where the personal intersects with the political. The ‘hybrid’ nature of this film was not just to experiment with the form but also to ensure safety and ethical documentary filmmaking.
I wanted to approach the politics of this film through a human lens and probe where the personal intersects with the political.
The raid scene for instance was an unprompted recreation by the members of the cow vigilante group ( inspired by Joshua Oppenheimer’s incredible film ‘The Act of Killing’ ). We found it necessary to structure it this way to understand their MO without risking violence because of the presence of a camera.
Either way, I enjoy the malleability of the non-fiction form, blurring the lines and all that. Look at how wonderfully Kiarostami did it!
I enjoy the malleability of the non-fiction form.
Throughout the making of the film, was there anything that unraveled that particularly surprised you, or that was unexpected, that changed the direction you took ‘Holy Cowboys’?
Oh so many things! One major thing being that the cause of animal welfare is shallow for these self proclaimed “cow protectors”. It’s the hatred of minorities that drives engagement and radicalization.
Cows are just a tool for politicizing compassion. If they cared, cows wouldn’t be eating garbage on the streets of the same community that considers it sacred.
What are you reading at the moment?
‘Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands’ by Kate Beaton.
- Anna Hashmi
- Executive Producer
- Director of Photography
- The Corner Shop
- Production Company