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Desi director takes on New York city

By Tony Tharakan in New Delhi
February 08, 2006 12:16 IST
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When Rakesh Sharma left his New York hotel to capture some street shots on his palmcorder, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. For over two hours on May 13, 2005, the documentary filmmaker was detained, physically and verbally assaulted by city police detectives.

According to Sharma, the detectives damaged his camera while searching his. He was let off only after his credentials as an award-winning filmmaker were verified on the Internet and the footage shot by him was seen by the sleuths.

The incident will be forever etched in Sharma's memory. However, the 41-year-old Indian filmmaker decided not to take the humiliation lying down. He filed a lawsuit against New York on January 10 this year.

"We now await a hearing as well as the city's response," said Sharma in an email interview to PTI. Best known for his film Final Solution, which is based on the 2002 Gujarat riots, Sharma is no stranger to controversy.

His film was banned in India by the Censor Board for several months. The ban was only lifted in October 2004 after a sustained campaign. His film won several prestigious awards abroad, including a Special Jury Award at the Berlin film festival.

The suit, filed on his behalf by the New York Civil Liberties Union, challenges the constitutional validity of the city's film permit policies that, in the wake of the September 11, 2001 tragedy, puts filmmakers at risk of being arrested for documenting public places.

"During my detention, the detective repeatedly told me that I needed a permit to shoot on the streets. We applied for a permit the next time I was in New York in November 2005 but the city declined me one. We have now challenged the permit policy itself," he said.

"My lawyers and I believe we have a very strong case. We hope punitive action will be taken against the detectives concerned and modifications will be introduced in the city's permit policy," Sharma added.

In fact, Sharma filed his first complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board immediately after the incident in May. However, when CCRB's investigations did not yield any result for over six months, the filmmaker got tired of waiting.

"We filed the lawsuit since the CCRB enquiry took quite long and also because it has very limited punitive powers. The lawsuit also brings up an important issue within the realm of the US Constitution - the right to free speech," he said.

"For nearly two hours, I was made to stand on the sidewalk, with my camera and passport in the detective's possession, not even allowing me to move or make a phone call," Sharma recalled.

With his now-famous lawsuit against New York city, Sharma believes he is taking up cudgels on behalf of the entire filmmaking fraternity.

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Tony Tharakan in New Delhi
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