Monday, June 17, 2013

[Film Review] Songs of the Unequals

- Anupama Ramakrishnan
On the face of it, Jai Bhim Comrade is an intense introduction to the music and poetry of Dalit political resistance in Maharashtra. Songs of protest and hope, and injustice and inequality, filmed almost entirely during live performances, occur throughout the film, reminders of the spirit of subaltern protest. But the film is also as much about Dalit politics in contemporary Maharashtra.

Beginning with the unprovoked police firing that killed eleven people in Ramabai Nagar, Mumbai, in 1997 and the subsequent suicide of Dalit poet and singer Vilas Ghogre, Jai Bhim Comrade is a wonderfully layered film that strings together elements as diverse as the desperate factionalism of mainstream Dalit political parties and the utter incomprehension of a mother who waits for her daughter, driven underground by an intolerant state, to return home. The film has been feted in several festivals and in a rather surprising move, contrary to the fate of many of Patwardhan’s documentaries, has been passed by the censor board without any cuts. All the more reason to watch this film.

Shot over fourteen years, the 198 minutes of Jai Bhim Comrade takes viewers through, among other places, slums in Ghatkopar and Mulund, the primarily upper caste and very elite Shivaji Park, a hot, dusty village in Beed district and the streets of Pune. And everywhere, a most fascinating range of people appear. In Mulund, we meet Vilas Ghogre’s son trying to find normalcy. In Shivaji Park, we meet a perplexed jogger unable to quite place B.R. Ambedkar. In a garbage dump somewhere in Mumbai, we meet a contract worker who calls himself a ‘Jai Bhimwala’ and who tells us that he cannot understand why the municipal corporation can pay a lawyer to fight him and his co-workers in court, but can’t pay minimum wages or provide boots and gloves for them. In Beed, we meet an elderly lady whose fortitude and faith in a better future are only matched by the tragedy of her husband’s brutal murder. In a press conference, we see a senior police official justifying the transfer to a hospital, rather than to a jail, of Sub-Inspector Kadam, who was convicted in the Ramabai firing case … and these are just a few of the many people who appear in the film.

The film does not lay out any easy answers for the viewer by building up to a climactic finish. Rather, it meanders through people’s lives, and gives the viewer a sense of the complexity of the issue. Beginning with an enquiry into the protest-suicide of his friend, Vilas Ghogre, Patwardhan introduces us to the inter-related histories of the Dalit and left movements and their failure to form a coherent political force. As in most democratic coalitions, the Ambedkarites and Marxists have had a very contentious relationship.

Ghogre, a poet or shahir and former member of a radical left cultural group, committed suicide four days after the Ramabai firing. His suicide came at a time when he was already deeply disappointed by the left group that had expelled him. Anguished by the power of a violent state to kill innocents simply because they are not important enough, Ghogre ended his life. The poet paid tribute to the ‘Bhimputra[s]’ who had been killed at Ramabai Nagar in the suicide note he scrawled on the wall of his one-room shanty in Mulund, and in a final salute to his caste identity as a Dalit, he tied a blue ribbon around his head.

Taking off from this event, this film could have been a straightforward study of the multiple failures of the dalit and the left movements–– the most deeply felt peoples’ movements in post-1947 India. However, what makes this film interesting is its ability to muddy this understanding even further. Introducing a complexity of argument rarely seen in film, Jai Bhim Comrade places the failures of the left and the Dalit movements against the backdrop of a political system that actively quashes subaltern political mobilization.

We encounter the usual suspects of mainstream Maharashtra politics, the Marathas. The rabid, anti-dalit aggression of the Marathas is an area that Patwardhan visited in his earlier work on the Hindu right-wing. In this film, he does not dwell on them, except to give us a sense of the complex cocktail of endemic poverty and imagined caste pride that characterizes such movements.

The newer characters of Maharashtrian polity that this film introduces are the upper castes. The chilling racism of the Puneri Chitpavan Brahmins is set against the phenomenon of ‘fairness’ creams. Privileged young people speak of how some others ‘benefit’ from reservations but can name no SCs or STs amongst their friends. Residents of Shivaji Park do not see themselves partaking in the celebrations that mark the birth anniversaries of B.R. Ambedkar, which occur a stone’s throw away from their homes. To be fair, there is a problem with the simplistic caricaturing of upper caste or middle class people and the Hindu right-wing, something that Patwardhan’s films have been accused of doing in the past. Then again, the spectacle of a sudarshan chakra-wielding Modi emerging on a rath to the sound of Lata Mangeshkar singing Vande Mataram at a BJP rally is a sight to behold.

Jai Bhim Comrade, 2012, 198 minutes
Jai Bhim Comrade shows how Dalit movements that have steered too close to the left, especially the radical left, have been systematically quashed. All along, this is contrasted with the officially ‘acceptable’ forms of Dalit musical and poetic expression which includes bawdy songs and children dancing to Hindi film songs. The killing of Dalit Panther leader, Bhagwat Jadhav, by the Shiv Sena in 1974 is recounted. (Briefly, we see the fall from grace of other Dalit Panther stalwarts such as Namdeo Dhasal.) Closer to the present, Patwardhan explores the many, many voices of Dalit leaders, some more radical than others. Some say Ambedkar would have shunned the worship that many Ambedkarites shower on him, while others such as Bhai Sangare spoke eloquently on the need to gain pride in the Dalit identity. Sangare died under very suspicious circumstances in 1999, when he was burnt to death as he was setting fire to a copy of Manusmriti. Meanwhile, the mainstream Dalit party, the Republican Party of India, with its many factions, now allies with the right wing.

Patwardhan makes sure we realize that it is not Dalit leaders who face the deepest injustices of the caste system. Taking us deep into Maharastra and into the homes of non-Ambedkarite lower castes, he shows the quotidian nature of caste violence. Rapes and killings here are but an everyday aspect of the practice of caste.

All this finally leads to the story of the Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural troupe whose organic poetry of protest attempted to make sense of the shared misery of the poor, including Dalits, adivasis and other communities. Patwardhan devotes much time to the music and personalities of the troupe and its members, who are all from the Pune underclass. We hear the charismatic Sheetal Sathe singing, we meet her religious and loving mother, and then we are told of how two members of the group have been arrested for being ‘pro-Maoist’ and the others fearing arrest have been underground for over a year. Meanwhile, Sheetal’s mother has been thrown out of her job. The Kabir Kala Manch’s experience of repression is occurring even as we speak. With the strengthening of laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, democratic dissent––in this case, in the form of politically-conscious songs––is criminalized. And what better way to effectively crimininalize any anti-status quo Dalit expression than club it with the Indian state-labelled ‘biggest internal security threat’, the Maoists? (Following the film’s screenings, Patwardhan and several Mumbai civil rights activists have been campaigning for Kabir Kala Manch’s cause. See this link)

Though the film does not take any obvious sides, Jai Bhim Comrade’s staunch pro-people position is never in doubt. It is full of music and poetry, and is detailed and insightful enough to warrant repeated viewings despite its long running time. The film’s complexity is attested to by the fact that the experience of watching it is a bit like reading a book by Eduardo Galeano––each individual viewing the film needs to go through the many stories that comprise it before making any sense of the issue for themselves. Watch Jai Bhim Comrade for the beauty of Dalit songs of protest. Watch it to see the many people who make up our society. And watch it to know why the Indian state is afraid of subaltern political consciousness.

Anupama Ramakrishnan is a Research Scholar at Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics.


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