2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013
Jai Bhim Comrade:
tales of oppression and songs of resistance
by Catherine Bernier
Anand Patwardhan, an internationally acclaimed documentary political filmmaker, released an epic documentary in 2012, Jai Bhim Comrade, on the Dalit (“untouchable”) struggles for freedom and equality. (also see background information on Dalit struggle) Covering the memory of decades of struggle, Patwardhan’s fourteen-year long project and resulting film provide a rich and dense study of a socio-economic-political movement fighting against caste system with its discriminatory beliefs and atrocities. The Dalits and their comrades must confront police corruption, degenerate politics and ongoing repression. Throughout the film, the main thread of political organizing depicted comes through popular poetry, song, music, and street theater. This film explores and valorizes one of the best examples of cultural and political struggle today.
The film opens with the tragic events of 1997 in the Ramabai colony of Mumbai. Overnight Bhimrao Ambedkar's (see Ambedkar bio) statue had been garlanded with shoes, an insult that gathered together a crowd in protest the following morning. Upon arrival the police opened fire on the Dalit community, killing ten people and injuring twenty-six. The incident was subsequently covered up by the police through accusations that the community had set a truck on fire and that the police were acting in selfdefense. Vilas Ghogre, a revolutionary poetsinger who was featured protesting the conditions of city workers in Patwardhan’s film Hamara Shahar [Bombay: Our City] (1985, 75 min.), went around the neighborhood in the following days and acknowledged what happened. Four days later he committed suicide. He died wearing the headband of the Dalits, having written a note on the wall earlier in the day, “Long live to Ambedkarite unity.” Was this an act of protest, a gesture of disgust, or simply the exhausted burden of too great a pain?
Jai Bhim Comrade opens with such events, which ultimately may never make any sense, to lead us to face the substantial issues that challenge the Dalit communities. Our heads are filled by the film with the tales and songs that echo and pay homage to this tragedy, inviting us to remember and rise up. “This barbaric torture, how can we watch this in silence?” sings Sheetal Sathe of the Kabir Kala Manch Cultural troupe. (See glossary for more background information on the troupe. Editors recommend that readers keep glossary open in new browser window while reading this essay.) Patwardhan's response seems clear: we cannot remain silent and we must fight against what threatens to silence them.
After completing Jang Aur Aman [War and Peace] (2002, 135 min.), a critically acclaimed documentary on nationalism and nuclear weapons, Patwardhan has now made a powerful documentary on the caste system's injustices. Researched and shot over a period of fourteen years in Maharashtra (see glossary), Jai Bhim Comrade is a veritable filmodyssey which gives voice to the Dalits by following some of their singing activists and resistance groups as well as their martyrs and families. It is not Patwardhan’s first cinematographic encounter with this community. Bombay Our City had previously dealt with issues of lodging and employment in the city. (see Patwardan bio for more information and filmography) While Jai Bhim Comrade starts with archival footage from the end of this earlier film, in particular of the only known filmed performance of Vilas, it doesn't so much act as a sequel to this earlier film but as a return to a thread that unexpectedly ended fifteen years later in the suicide of this Communist Dalit poet-singer. Inscribing his perspective within larger critiques of the socio-political landscape of India, Patwardhan engages a Dalit point of view in order to question Hindu visions of society and nation, visions his other films were also concerned about, especially when looked at through the prism of nationalism in Ram ke Naam [In the Name of God] (1992, 75 min.), and Pitra, Putra aur Dharmayuddha [Father, Son and Holy War] (1995, 120 min.). Rejecting religious bigotry, Jai Bhim Comrade accompanies its activists’ call for an order of life guided by secular and Buddhist principles of knowledge and equality among human beings.
A thousand year struggle shot in fourteen years
“It isn't a war between us and the government, it's a war of cultures.[...] Who gave officer Manohar Kadam the order to fire? Was it Chief Minister Manohar Joshi? Bal Thackeray? The order was neither from the government nor the police officer. This order came from the Manu Scriptures.[...] Our struggle is not for state power. It's not about wealth. 50 years after Independence all we ask is that you live and let us live.” —Bhai Sangare (see glossary)
Jai Bhim Comrade is an epic that tells the stories of a whole segment of Indian society by way of individual encounters and singular voices. The film starts with the tragic events of 1997, after which the filmmaker visits the Ramabai neighborhood to interview those who were present, to detail the police response to those who were injured, and to meet the families and comrades of the victims, who by then have become martyrs. Patwardhan begins a journey into the police and judicial system which will eventually result in a commission and fourteen years of court proceedings against the police officer who ordered the firing. The film documents and builds a defense, interviewing witnesses, recording testimony, and locating original footage of the events, all of which contradict the official police version. The police will eventually, seven years later, lay charges of attempted murder against those who were injured in order to claim that the officers had acted in self-defense. After a long process of court battles and appeals, the police officer is found guilty, but instead of being taken to jail, he is taken to the hospital. Police commissioner S.S. Virk explains this turn of events:
“His bad luck is that he alone has been a victim of a system. So I feel there is nothing wrong in his being admitted to the hospital.”
These events are not isolated. They seem to be a part of the innumerable atrocities committed against Dalits and Adivasis (see more information on Dalits), which the film brings to light and which are structured by socioreligious principles. As the film argues, these acts are inscribed in practices of untouchability that were outlawed in principle but not in actuality by the Constitution of India (1950), drafted by Dr. Ambedkar (see his bio). As Bhai Sangare declares in the quote introducing this section, neither these calamities nor their perpetrators are unique, nor are they exclusively contemporary. The scripted principles that underpin this culture of discrimination and its tradition seem endless. The film shows us the problems’ magnitude through exploring the systemic beliefs and principles animating caste discrimination, including the “female caste.” It does this both by filming plays put on by Dalit troupes, accruing critical commentary on sacred scriptures, and by showing political leaders’ speeches appealing to and dividing castes. Accessing people’s homes and work places, we glimpse in concrete terms the everyday practicalities and difficulties of being Dalit. The upper castes and classes are shown attending political rallies with immense pride, as well as interviewed on the fly in coffee shops, near colleges, and in the streets of well-to-do areas, sometimes speaking with unnerving overtones of race war. Their unguarded and often contradictory comments betray the systematic nature of outsiders’ perceptions of Dalits.
But the real story this film tells is that of the Ambedkarite resistance movement for social justice. Patwardhan presents stirring encounters with Dalit and Marxist activists and intimate moments with their comrades, friends, and families. Performers and charismatic orators tell the legendary stories of Ambedkar and of Phule (see glossary on Phule) as well as honor martyrs. We slowly familiarize ourselves with the Ambedkarite movement’s mobilization efforts in agitating, educating and organizing—especially through protest, street chant and public theater. A notable delight in the last hour of the film is the breathtaking performance of singer-activists from the Kala Kabir Manch cultural troupe. They present a fabulous repertoire of songs, staged and street performances that dwell on such topics as the contemporary effects of liberal economic reform, gender inequality, and the fallacy of beauty that rests on skin color. The film ends with an interview with the mother of two of these performers, Sheetal Sathe and Sagar Gorkhe, who had recently gone underground along with Sathe's husband, Sachin Mali, and three other KKM members following threats from the police. Two of their comrades, Deepak Dengle and Siddarth Bhonsle (although the film doesn't mentioned the latest) had already been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. One of the effects of such an ending is to leave us questioning what kind of world would shut down their vision. I can offer an update as of now: Dengle and Bhonsle out on bail. After almost two years spent underground, Sathe and her husband comrade Mali came out in public and were arrested under various similar charges on April 2nd 2013. On May 7th, four KKM members voluntarily courted arrest, and among these Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor were arrested. A defense committee has been organized to accelerate their bail and prevent their mistreatment, a committee on which Patwardhan is an active member. On June 27th, Sathe, expecting a child in the next month, was granted bail on humanitarian grounds by the High Court but the three other members are still in jail.
Patwardhan’s long time doing research, inquiry, documentation and interviews has impressive results. We see certain participants grow up, like the little girls Samata (whose name signifies Equality) and Prajna (Knowledge), the young and already singing daughters of a militant family. We see others die in mysterious ways, like the fiery orator Bhai Sangare. We see people forget. They forget the political party who was in power during the 1997 Ramabai shooting, and now the same party a decade later is asking for their votes. We see people’s memories distort over time, reshaped by contradictory narratives of the ongoing political situation that seems to leave them powerless. Over fourteen years, from 1997 to 2011, we traverse national and state politics. During that time the Srikrishna Commission's report on the bloody riots of 1992-1993 (following the Ayodhya events: see glossary) is acknowledged. We pass the 1995 election of Shiv Sena (The Army of Shiva, see glossary), led by Bal Thackeray (see glossary), in coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP: see glossary), both rightwing Hindu parties. In fact, the documentary shoot started a year before the BJP national government was elected in 1998 (it stayed in power up until 2004). These parties are hardly small players in terms of reinforcing orthodox Hindu nationalism. In the documented 92-93 Bombay riots, the Shiv Sena leader was blamed for organizing Hindutva (see glossary) forces to launch attacks on Muslims, as the lawyer P.A. Sebastian states in the film.
The documentary provides us with footage of moments in some disturbing political rallies over this period. Scenes presenting the frenzy of some participants in political and caste-based rallies and their passionate slogans constitute a troubling aspect that shows the alarming force of fundamentalist discourse and its pragmatic hold on militants. It is frightening to see footage of Thackeray declaring to a crowd that the activists showing love to the circumcised should be shot with a stun gun. We are left abashed to see Narendra Modi, the so-called lion of Gujarat (see glossary), dressed as a god on stage introduced with words such as, “A lion never eats grass. He only eats meat,” while protesters outside claim he is a murderer and urge him to go back. Throughout the film, the intensification of Hindutva influence in Indian and Maharashtrian politics over these decades is tied with the Mumbai Dalits’ struggles for a secular social climate and equality.
Operating from within the movement, the documentary serves up criticism at several levels: against caste, religion, superstition, Hindu nationalism, the government, political parties, the police, and everyday perpetrators. An informative and combative assemblage, the film conveys moments of frustration and sustains indignation. While also enabling compassion, stirring hope of better days and strengthening solidarity, it acknowledges people’s struggles in a comprehensive manner. This film is not only an admirable work nurtured by compelling research. It is more significantly, a necessary film, a majestic piece of oral and poetic history revealing the disgraceful truths fought by this subaltern tradition of resistance. If some performances and vibrant moments are pure gems, the inspiring teachings of their resistance are stunning and these voices and melodies are haunting. In hope that revisiting certain episodes might provide some insights as to how the film succeeds in orchestrating such a journey, in the following sections I plan to engage in more depth some of the issues raised in the film, the enlightening words of its participants, and the art and labor of skilled storytelling.
"Educate, organize, agitate!"
“But those who got educated and organized finally compromised. ”—Sheetal Sathe of the KKM
Bhimrao Ambedkar’s presence is immanent throughout the film. How do we learn about him through the film? Newspaper headlines and captions provide basic biographical information. But really the songs and speeches tell the story of Ambedkar’s conviction and transmit more significant knowledge. The orators tell these fables with great passion. And while some opponents claim he’s become a “God” to the Dalits, these speakers prove the opposite: Ambedkar disagreed with blind devotion and sought the growth of resistance. He was a powerful example to follow, a man who resisted, a man questing for concrete social and political power for Dalits. The statue standing in the market could represent the immobility of a figure from the past invested by competing contemporary meanings. Everyone is trying to take advantage of its mobilizing power, its political capital. Yet now Ambedkar is a statue and cannot respond to the politicians mobilizing his mass appeal for their purposes. What the Kabir Kala Manch singers call for is a renewal of his message: a real acknowledgement of and resistance to caste discrimination. In their final performance, which closes the film, they call for an awakening that takes his example in the form of concrete actions—very far from ideas of devotion and passivity. They call for a return to the “essence” of Ambedkar in indignation leading to taking action.
From Vilas' story to comrades, martyrs and family homes
“My husband paid a terrible price for the martyrs. People pay homage with words. My husband didn't fear to pay with his life.” —Asha Ghogre (Vilas’s wife)
Patwardhan’s film enters the Maharashtra Ambedkarite movement following the death of his friend Vilas and the Ramabai killings which provoked it. This leads him to the stories of the movement’s martyrs, of their families and to their public speeches and concerts of resistance. The judicial development of the Ramabai case is perhaps the thread the film follows the closest, as its journey through the system of courts punctuates the progression of the narrative. The thread's pace frames the contradictory function of the justice system itself. Patwardhan does not intend to map all of the Dalit factions and sub-castes or their active struggles, but he still manages to present an overview of the means by which contemporary Dalit communities transmit knowledge, struggle and legacy. By means of ethnographic techniques and activist strategies, we are constantly confronted with the political subjectivity of the Dalits through which everyday affairs are revealed as intrinsically connected to larger socio-political contexts. Not only does the film put together some tales of Dalit struggles but more importantly, we visit individuals in their homes, relating their memories.
“Look at the politician setting off to Delhi, he'll forget the slum in the alley.” – chorus of a song
Difficulties in maintaining unity, Vilas’ last wish, and the meaning of his choice to wear a band on his head are discussed by his friends and comrades. We meet young and old activists who tell the stories and principles of their organizations: formations, collapses, renewals. For example, the story told by Bhagwat Jadhav's brother, about the Dalit Panther stoned to death in a march during the 1970s, is complemented by archival images and contemporary shots of the locations where it took place. It bears witness to the violence which radical groups have faced from political parties and their militants. This story helps us understand the tensions between radical organizations and political parties, including the tensions between the Dalit party and activist groups such as the Aavhan cultural troupe, of which Vilas was a member. Some comrades explain the discordances, indicating ways that fissures within and between groups structure the struggle’s history. For instance, we witness several critiques of the political party that claims to defend Dalits’ rights but that remained silent on atrocities, triggering new mobilizations elsewhere. We hear mistrust of parliamentary politics from activists but also from victims, noting the absence of political leaders in court, for example. The danger of being “recuperated” by opportunistic political parties seems to be a persistent theme in the comrades' stories and perhaps also in Patwardhan's treatment of this topic. The filmmaker takes us to meet Vilas’ friends, who make allusions to his being ejected from the communist Aavhan cultural troupe after he was seen singing at a Dalit political function, and the challenge of maintaining a double identity as both Marxist and Dalit while also taking care of family obligations. Vilas’ unresolved dilemma adds another layer of complexity and pathos to his death. The sensitive interviews with his comrades and family speak to the contradiction between participating in a political movement struggling for society as a whole and simultaneously fulfilling one's family duties.
Castes and class struggle
“ [...] Communist parties until recently argued that this was not a problem of the “Base” but of the “Superstructure”. If the economic “Base” changes, the rest will follow. But things don't happen that way. That's why a cultural revolution is required. So it is with caste, it persists! You can't wish it away.” —Gadar (see glossary)
Vilas attempted to bridge the gap between labor and caste struggles. The Dalit situation binds together the social discrimination of the caste system with the economic disenfranchisement of the worker as inherited states. Castes and classes are intertwined, whereby the transmission of the father’s profession to his family under a caste system, in addition to the gendered division of labor, has served to reproduce the working class for capital. Asking someone their “jati,” which refers to caste, is often answered by invocations of work or the profession a person’s family has cultivated.
At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to the stories of the martyrs of the Ramabai killing and the lives of their families and colleagues. One of them has been working at a garbage disposal site. Both the worker’s story and the visuals exemplify the harsh conditions of Dalit labor. With the melody of Raghu, a migrant worker's story, as the soundtrack, we explore the landscapes of labor in the mounds of trash and waste. These dramatic images of the physically arduous and unsafe working conditions, as well as the difficult stories people tell about their struggles to fulfill basic needs and protections, show the intertwined relations between caste and class.
We meet these young men, almost naked, explaining they are working twelve hours a day for Rs73 (approximatively $1.50 US). They bare their injuries and wounds and show us how they work without protection. Even though the Supreme Court ordered the garbage company’s owners to provide them with rubber boots, the company hired more lawyers to appeal the decision. One indignant man states that before they created a union, two years prior to the interview, they didn't even have water on site and were rejected from restaurants because of the smell they carried from the disposal site. Even though drinking water is now an international human right, it has been an object of struggle for the Dalits throughout much of their history since they were traditionally thought to pollute water by contact. The conjunction between long-lasting socio-religious discrimination and the film’s particular illustration of present working conditions makes the image track even more compelling and disturbing. Because caste discrimination structures labor and educational opportunities, the Dalit are more likely to stay in particularly dehumanizing conditions of exploitation. The fact that they overwhelmingly make up the body of municipal “cleaners” or domestic servants, jobs associated with the perceived dirtiness of their caste, only reinforces social reasons for restricting their access.
Atrocities and the film as a document of parallel investigations
“The girl was found dead naked and there was no investigation on rape?” asks Patwardhan.
“That is poor investigation,” replies the Officer.
The film makes reference to several atrocities that took place in Maharashtra, notably the Khairlanji killings, where a family of Dalit Buddhists were tortured, murdered, and possibly raped by members of another caste from the middle of the caste hierarchy. By way of a Dalit human-rights activist organization, we get introduced to a Mahar village and victims’ family members. Among them is a woman dressed in a red saree, who “can't afford to lose,” as she states it. Her husband died in a senseless act of violence: he was cut by swords while defending a young villager under attack, and then the police left him to bleed to death in the station. Afterwards, his widow fought this injustice in court. The perpetrators tried to buy her silence, to which she replied: “I don't want their money, I want them to be punished. Otherwise, what are they going to do next, crush us? When they got out of jail, they were celebrating with fire crackers.”
Some of the atrocities Dalits regularly face include murder, kidnapping, sexual and physical assault, parading naked women, torching dwellings, and tainting water wells with feces. As the film states in captions, “According to official government figures, on an average two Dalits are killed and three raped every day across India.” The 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act was meant to punish acts of violence, intimidations and public humiliations committed against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The act also includes a clause against the fabrication of false evidence. The problem is that the case needs to go before a court by means of a police investigation. Through this process, very few of the cases have resulted in convictions. To inquire more into this, Patwardhan goes to the police chief whose task it is to monitor the Atrocities Act and who states, caught on film, that it’s the result of money, that the rich can bribe the police and judiciary.
By leading its own parallel “investigations” and documenting incomplete cases, the film shows how the Act’s non-implementation serves to create another set of injustices. Public reaction to this Act has itself been subject to political maneuvering, which has created the space for caste-based rallies to stir up resentment and claims of “reverse discrimination.” Indignation is used as a political tool to sway political masses, while individual perpetrators and systemic factors continue to operate. The failure of the justice system occurs at many levels and in many forms: poverty and social vulnerability meet corruption and a slow judiciary.
The Ramabai shooting, the main court case we follow throughout the film, gives us the opportunity to take a closer look at the intricacies of a particular case. The film presents strong evidence of a police cover-up and details incongruities, such as charges for attempted murder the police levied against those injured seven years after the events. An alternative inquiry provided by a documentary film can act as a weapon by relating truths rarely seen or spoken about in public. Needless to say, Patwardhan is reclaiming justice by leading these parallel investigations, and he operates like a public defender. This is a militant documentary committed to presenting the social struggle of the Dalits from their perspective. He explores in an “insider” manner the Dalit communities he sympathizes with before he questions and turns the camera to film the “outsiders” and their perceptions.
Different faces of oppression
“If they themselves say that they want to clean sewage pipes, I can't do anything about it. They should improve and rise up.” —An unnamed young man sitting in a café
Statements that people make unguardedly in the comfort of their own milieu act as evidence of the implied worlds that legitimate the thoughts expressed. A multiplicity of perspectives are implied by these worlds, and as the film explores worlds hostile to Dalits, it makes explicit how certain prejudiced statements derive from particular political and social contexts. The political and caste rallies are probably the strongest episodes showing these worlds in the film. For example, at the rallies and celebrations of the Chitpavan, a Brahmin caste, discourses about the strength of this group’s genes and other castes’ implied weakness abound. In a rally of Marathas proudly chanting slogans about their historical power, a man proclaims that he is ready for a blood bath, ready to fight for reserved places “stolen” by the Dalits. Such well-documented hostility also frighteningly may portend what might come.
“Today the upper castes rebel against the idea of reserved seats for Dalits and they talk about merit and how everything should be according to merit... and why should Dalits with less marks get into to college and why should they have reserved seats in government jobs without understanding that for thousands of years, Dalits have had reserved seats to be sweepers and clean the toilets.” —Anand Patwardhan, BFI interview
Another discriminatory stigma operates through the affirmative policy of reservation, which seeks Dalit integration into the education system and the professional world, similar to the U.S. historical model of “affirmative action”. However, if the policy’s goal was the eradicate castes and notions of untouchability, the reservation system comes with its own double bind. As a compromise between Dr. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, the policy of reserving seats for Scheduled Castes and Tribes means that for many the same vector used to discriminate against them now serves to secure their education and public sector jobs. Many who are not of the lower castes consider this a form of unfair treatment equivalent to “stealing” places in school and places at work. Similar discomfort emerges when it comes to proposing women's quotas or ethnic quotas, where quotas are perceived as a temporary “positive” discrimination that doesn't solve the real problems. This effort at redress goes against a meritocratic sensibility according to which excellence should be the ultimate vector for distributing positions; but the meritocratic sensibility also does not take into considerations the conditions that might allow one to perform with merit. Quotas are supposed to be a temporary crutch to integrate vulnerable segments of the population by guaranteeing them a certain number of jobs with better conditions, better education, and new possibilities for participation in the social sphere.
The unfortunate result is that Dalits often end up being known as “the reservation people.” As one young girl puts it: “we actually hate some of the reservation people and we don't feel like talking to them also.” While these policies ameliorate the conditions of large swaths of the population, it can also foster agitation insofar as interpersonal relations between the castes remain isolated and traditional—except for when it comes time to hire servants. Thus, without shame, a young man sitting at a coffee bar raises doubts as to the Dalits’ intellectual capacities, as does a Chitpavan learned warrior, a “respected” individual, who earlier in the film expressed the notion that the genes perpetuated in a caste determine their capacities for particular tasks. Through its spiral of interviews the film approaches the problem from different angles and different “worlds,” showing how religious beliefs are translated into social roles and positions to occupy in society. It is here that we comprehend the intransigence of the problem and the scale of the battles left to fight.
Singing, sharing, remembering: performing activism
“Recognize what happened, fight to overcome it.” —Vilas Ghogre, in a song about Marathwada events
When Anand Patwardhan came to Montréal to present his film at Concordia University in November 2012, he stated that Jai Bhim Comrade is probably the most accessible film he has made and has drawn his largest crowds. When he took the film into communities, including the different areas where the film was shot, he said the reception was such that people were reminded of the movement at its peak. Through the transmission of the music the movement created, the film reaffirms its grassroots dynamism. It transmits a diverse body of poetry, songs recorded in the past and present, political slogans, and speeches set to music. The soundtrack traverses the epic distance between singing and discussing. In the same ways that epics do, songs function here as mnemonic devices allowing for easier memorization and transmission of these tales. In addition, the vibrant and spirited poetry of these songs, along with the deeply resonant voices of their singers, allow for privileged access to the celebration of martyrs and emancipatory figures.
These performances can be linked to the traditions of folk theatre. Street theatre is an artistic, pedagogical, and political practice that has been used in subversive ways by activists combatting oppression, as well as by political parties for promoting their platforms in rural areas. Staged in a cinematic context as in this film, these representations are depicted in dynamic ways. Early in the documentary there is a dramatic enactment of the Bhagavad Gita episode in which Arjun questions Lord Krishna on his duties as a warrior and a prince. This short episode points to the divine scriptures as one of the roots that explain the caste system. The mise-en-scène transmits this connection between caste and religion with the liveliness of mythical representation. In contrast to this kind of reverent display, in a moment of street theatre a group of boys mimic the god Brahma. They are standing in the crowd, simply dressed and hooked arm in arm, pretending to be the multiheaded god in irreverent mockery. Their explanation of the caste system to their amused audience constitutes such an efficient tactic with their critical narrative embedded in their performance.
Street theatre brings together such ritual with scenes enacting exemplary figures from the social struggle. The most salient example is the re-enactment of Ambedkar burning the Manusmriti (the Hindu book of laws) on March 20th 1927. Since the Manusmriti contained the principles enslaving both Dalits and women, Ambedkar burned it in symbolic defiance. This re-enactment, notably performed by a group of women, is a gesture of stating once more the necessity of eradicating its principles. The symbolic act of mourning the death of Indian democracy performed by Bhai Sangare and his comrades is significant as well. In a sign of bereavement, the protesters shaved their heads on the street in front of the High Court housing the Gundewar Commission, responsible for inquiring into the Ramabai massacre (see glossary). These performances of protest convey layered meanings as they transmit their message, beyond an exclusively literal discursive regime. The performances’ sacrificial aspect gives them a spirit beyond utility, while inviting collective action or participation.
Poetics and politics of storytelling
“The best speakers and writers come from us
As for poets and singers there is a virtual flood
A poet in every lane and a singer in every hovel.”
—Prabhakar Pokrikar, poet-singer
When selecting songs, artists, contexts and topics treated, the filmmaker structures a narrative. When a film soundtrack has interviews and discussions at home and on the street, political speeches and slogans from a diversity of factions, caste rallies and those of political parties, the resulting narrative takes on a polyvocality. This orchestration functions in tandem with the visual track, creating a succinct mosaic of sounds and shots. In the case of the various campaigning and rallying posters of the political parties that show images of the politicians, the soundtrack supplements those official images with socially and politically suggestive songs. This narrative strategy articulates the film’s critical function. The cinematic storytelling in these cases—story-singing— recreates a political context for these songs by animating their signification in a certain “now,” visually materializing their critique. The visual counterpoint of this narrative treatment also creates particular life for these songs, as refashioned by the filmmaker. Street theatre and songs of resistance meet, bridging the fortified powers of the specific with the tacit problems of the real. Critical propositions remain unsaid but are shown.
The songs create spaces for “showing,” while the lyrics act as commentary on the moving images. “Listen to the tale of Mother India, people are hungry and depressed.” These lyrics from a song by Vilas are juxtaposed against the state of slums, of people sleeping on hard ground. Beside them is a shopping mall, that emblematic sign of a “reformed” neo-liberal India, with advertisements showing people smiling and dressed in western clothes over the slogan, “Shop, Eat, Celebrate.” Injustice finds expression in the contrast of “lifestyles,” and it is rendered explicit by the succession of images laid over songs with critical lyrics. These short sequences provide intervals where contrast of image and sound animates a momentary crystallization.
The film presents songs in segments, with only sections of lyrics and music occurring at any given moment. This creates an ongoing sound track that unifies scenes as tableaux as well as serves as a transition between different episodes, locations, interviews. The narration of events is interspersed with the song choruses, but we are not always sure if the same song continues from before. Such confusion suggests the idea of an encompassing hymn that belongs to everyone from the different milieus. The diversity of songs binds daily life to resistance. Protest marching songs are played over scenes of everyday labor. Songs celebrating martyrs are mixed with the obscene double entendre of qawali. (see glossary) Songs serve to bring a collective dimension to individual testimonies. Their performance puts forward “shared and collective” realities through which people are being called to recognize themselves. In protest songs of justice, protesters embrace shared words, thoughts, and political projects, singing them out loud. As Gadar the poetsinger points out, music is a tool: we are using God's methodology to reach out to people.
If songs performed on stage with musicians and in front of crowds may seem more flamboyant and attractive, I found the women singing in their homes strikingly affective. “Can I sing now?” asks Saraswati Bandose while she and Patwardhan are talking. We are in people’s homes, their huts, with their family members and photographs. “Away from” the organized movement lies everyday life, the force tranquille of ordinary necessity, having work, feeding children, facing adversity, within the comfort of the community one has built. With charming confidence, sitting in her kitchen, Shantabai Gadpaile delivers these poetic lines:
“Why should I join any faction
I'm happy in my Bhim's hut
Why should I pay obeisance
We are people of self-respect
Why should I seek your leftover crumbs
I'm happy in my Bhim's hut”
“A culture that defames its own mother cannot be the culture of this nation, cannot be the culture of humans.” —Bhai Sangare
Sitting in her hut, wishing to sing and sometimes hiding her face with her saree, Saraswati Bandose speaks of having served her husband even though he was an alcoholic since her parents had chosen him. Discussing the “women's caste,” Patwardhan then asks what would have happened if the Dalits had not risen up? She replies that her situation is no longer the case for young women, since they are educated and who would not tolerate it. The status acquired by birth through which you are meant to accomplish particular tasks and not deserve education connects with a world with feminist struggles. As far as women are concerned in the prescribed Hindu culture, the Manusmriti states that their status is even lower than the then “Untouchables.” The film thus touches upon feminist issues, although they are not central. Sheetal Shate sheds light on the gap between the official position, that women’s liberation is a good thing, and the complexity of implementing it in concrete ways as she sings,
“The child and the mother's stomach burning with hunger while husband is drunk. Mother goes and pick up wood for fire to feed her child.”
These verses bring to life a scene of injustice we sadly recognize in Saraswati’s story. Furthermore, they bring forward the need to break the intergenerational transmission of patriarchy, a call for liberated women and feminist husbands. A prominent model here could be the coupling of 19th century feminist and anti-casteist militants Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule. Today Sheetal Sathe and her husband mirror this exemplary couple, as the troupe highlights this fact while they are inviting their audience to greet the two. How did Sathe become the woman she is? In concrete ways, she shares with us how she got involved in activism, got married and developed her new body of socio-cultural principles while her family members were opposed. As Patwardhan takes us to meet her mother, we have a privileged access to the revealing intimacy of the mother-daughter relationship, including their respectful divergent paths. After she explains how activism entered their family life, the mother's fears emerge. No mother can bear any harm done to their children, but she says her daughter lives for the world.
“At every performance my kids are saying they will not take up arms, that they will change the world with songs and drums.” —Sheetal Sathe's mother
Political action: the urgent cinema of the battlefield now?
“Should he ask us for a cinema of denunciation? Yes and no. No, if the denunciation is directed toward the others, if it is conceived that those who are not struggling might sympathize with us and increase their awareness. Yes, if the denunciation acts as information, as testimony, as another combat weapon for those engaged in the struggle. Why denounce imperialism to show one more time that it is evil?
What's the use if those now fighting are fighting primarily against imperialism? We can denounce imperialism but should strive to do it as a way of proposing concrete battles.” —Julio Garcia Espinosa, “For an Imperfect Cinema” (1971/1979)
Jai Bhim Comrade was shot over the period of the court cases following the Ramabai massacre: fourteen years later, the court decided on a guilty verdict for the police officer accused of giving the order to fire. Patwardhan said in an interview with the British Film Institute that he thought this would constitute some kind of closure. A couple of days later, he learned that the officer was out on bail and that further proceedings were pending. “What is the point in taking pictures if you can't do anything? It is trouble for you and for us,” says the mother of a young rickshaw driver, a man who had gone to see what was happening and died in the Ramabai firing, after she received news that the condemned officer was not going to prison, but to the hospital.
The story is still to be pursued, to be continued. In fact, the events that forced Patwardhan to finish this film were the arrests of two members of the Kabir Kala Manch group under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Others had gone underground as they had been accused of being Naxalites (see glossary). For Patwardhan, it was a dangerous moment for the activists. The reality of their repression needed to be voiced; people needed to be informed of their struggle and what they were fighting for. The film is thus a communicative weapon in their fight for freedom since it documents a counterversion to the State’s accusation.
Patwardhan has been engaged with the principles of imperfect cinema since the very beginning of his career. The majority of his films have followed a social movement (whether centrally or peripherally) through its protests, leaders’ speeches, encounters with oppressors, and organizing assemblies. In other words, the films have documented a “community” united by their struggle and fighting for change. Yet times have changed since films like Waves of Revolution and Prisoners of Conscience, when guerrilla cinema was still in full bloom. Screenings back then were clandestine and attendance illegal. The very act of watching a film thus became a political act. As Patwardhan indicates in his 1981 essay, the way to identify a “guerrilla film” was through its function in repressive society. By its very nature, filmmaking had become a weapon and all the strategies necessary to fight and evade the enemy had to be considered. Filming with hidden cameras, saving prints, spreading revolutionary messages through clandestine channels were all guerrilla cinema practices. The aesthetics of the film would be subordinated to a political goal as cinema was considered a weapon in a greater struggle. As Patwardhan states, when there is no space to express dissent, activists transform into revolutionaries.
The situation around freedom of speech in India, with democratic spaces to screen these films and discuss these issues, is very different now from what it was then. In fact, even though there are now spaces to screen and discuss these films (albeit with censorship issues), the forms of oppression and the strategies of power have changed. The guerrilla filmmaker works at which level? How do you conceive of battle when the enemy lies with the people itself? It’s a war of cultures, as Bhai Sangare said, needing a cultural revolution, as Gadar claimed. The culture to be fought positions targets in a multitude of battles, as we see in Jai Bhim Comrade. More concretely, most of these many social movements and specific militant organizations are shown to be fighting similar cultural beliefs and practices. Patwardhan seems committed to documenting these concrete struggles in their singular commonality, to document particular contexts, persons, and events whose resistance points to larger communal problems.
This film records a perspective that very rarely has a voice. Within India, screenings are being organized inside the movement and/or in the Dalit communities in order to disseminate knowledge of particular injustices, and perhaps even participate in the production of shared subjectivity. Relaying the speeches and the songs of these activists while they attest to the weight of their struggles, pointing to the battles left to fight, as well as hoping for better days to come, is one of the impulses driving this film. On many levels, the film attempts to construct an oral history of the Dalit movement through song and speech. The participants themselves act as relays of the past by conveying stories and songs to explain what happened. The film itself proceeds as an expansion of the act of performance inscribed in yet another layer of memory and transmission.
1. I would like to thank Thomas Waugh and Valdis Silins for their committed and remarkable work in editing this piece. [return to text]
Espinosa, Julio Garcia. “For an Imperfect Cinema.” Jump Cut, 20 (1979): 24-26.
Patwardhan, Anand. “Anand Patwardhan in Conversation.” Interview by Linton Kwesi Johnson. 20 minutes. British Film Institute, 2013. Web. 23 February 2013. http://explore.bfi.org.uk/4ce2b9ee5fbd3
Patwardhan, Anand. “Questions and Answers.” Cinema Politica screening of Jai Bhim Comrade, Concordia University. 24 November 2012.
Patwardhan, Anand. “The Guerilla Film, Underground and in Exile: A Critique and a Case Study of Waves of Revolution."“Show Us Life,” Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary. Ed. Waugh, Thomas, Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press Inc. 1984. 444-464.
Waugh, Thomas. “Words of Command: Cultural and Political Inflections of Direct Cinema in Indian Independent Documentary,” The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back on Documentary Film. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2011: 239-266.
Glossary and cast of characters
Adivasis: heterogeneous tribes and aboriginal communities of India.
Ayodhya: City in the Southern part of Uttar Pradesh state in North India, notorious for the destruction by Hindutva factions in 1992 of the Babri Masjid mosque which was built on the foundations of a Hindu temple built on the claimed birthplace of Rama. This was followed by a wave of bloody riots across the country, including Mumbai.
Bhagavad Gita (Song of God): Section of the Mahabharata, a major Hindu epic telling the birth of the world and gods. The Gita scripture contains a conversation between prince Arjuna and his guide Lord Krishna on a variety of theological and philosophical issues.
Bhai Sangare: Former Republican Party of India leader and founder of the Dalit Panthers, the fiery speaker died in 1999 of his burns (still unresolved) that occurred when he was reenacting the immolation of the Manusmriti.
Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party): (Bharatiya comes from Bharat, referring to the mythological Hindu “India”.) Major political party at the national level, the BJP is a right-wing Hindu nationalist and socially conservative party. This party was in power from 1998 to 2004.
Bihar Movement : Started in the early 1970s as a student movement in the state of Bihar, led by the Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan, it called for nonviolent total revolution against the central government of Indira Gandhi.
Bombay (see Mumbai).
Brahma: The great Creator, he is a Hindu god and first member of the trinity with Visnu and Shiva and often represented having four heads. According to the Brahma Purana, he is the father of Manu, the ancestor of the humans.
Central Board of Film Certification: State body for classifying films and approving their exhibition in India.
Chitpavan: A brahmin sub-caste.
Dalits: see box
Doordarshan: Nationwide state-controlled public service broadcaster.
Emergency: The 21-month long (26 June 1975 – 21 March 1977) suspension of civil liberties and rule by decree, imposed by Indira Gandhi in the face of alleged threats to national security and the economy, in the context of a social climate of protest. At that time, the ruling Congress Party had lost the confidence of parliament and was accused of electoral fraud. Furthermore, the socialist movement in Bihar led by Jayaprakash Narayan was becoming more prominent. During this period of emergency, thousands of protesters and strikers were imprisoned in preventive detention and Patwardhan went into exile in North America.
Gadar: a Telegu-language poet-singer appearing in makeup on stage in the film, a friend of Vilas.
Gandhi, Indira (1917-1984): Nehru's daughter, the third Prime Minister of India (1966-1977, 1980-1984), and central figure in the Congress Party. She was assassinated in 1984 by her bodyguards.
Gandhi, Mohandas (Mahatma) (1869 – 1948): Famous protector of untouchables known for his non-violence and civil disobedience, he played a pivotal role in the independence movement of India. He was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a high-caste Hindu nationalist and member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (a right-wing Hindu national volunteer organization).
Ghogre, Vilas: Revolutionary poet-singer, featured in Bombay Our City, who hanged himself after the tragic Ramabai events.
Gundewar Commission: The commission set up by the Government of Maharashtra, pressured by human rights activists to investigate the Special Reserve Police Force who shot into a crowd of unarmed Dalits protesting against vandalism of the statue of Dr. Ambedkar. These events are commonly referred to as the Ramabai firing, event through which ten people died and twenty-six were injured.
Hindutva: Literally meaning 'Hindu-ness,' Hindutva is a socio-political ideology forged by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar which promotes the Hindu cultural identity in India. This ideology is often used as a platform for right-wing Hindu nationalism.
Kabir Kala Manch: Based in Pune, Maharashtra, and founded in 2002, KKM is a Dalit activist cultural troupe whose song and music performances raise awareness on caste discrimination and women’s liberation, mobilizing around equal social rights.
Mahar: a Maharashtrian community historically identified as Dalit.
Maharashtra: Prominently Marathi-speaking western state of India, historically ruled by Marathas, warrior caste of the state.
Manusmriti: see Dalit box
Modi, Narendra (1950- ): Chief Minister of Gujarat since 2001, known for the economic growth of the state under his ruling, is member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (a right-wing Hindu national volunteer organization) and a key strategist of the BJP national party. He is a controversial political figure, notably due to widespread accusations of his involvement in the 2002 anti-muslim pogroms that killed thousands of people under his regime.
Mumbai: the entertainment capital and financial center of India, Bombay was renamed Mumbai after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi in 1995 by the newly elected Shiv Sena government, getting rid of the name inherited from British colonial rule and promoting Maharastrian Hindu identity.
Naxalites: Far-left Maoists who have been declared a terrorist organization under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The term comes from Naxalbari, the West Bengal village from which the movement originated end of the 1960s.
Phule, Jyotirao (1827 – 1890) and Savitribai (1831 – 1897): married inter-caste couple, these 19th century pro-Dalit activists were major figures of the Social Reform Movement and pioneers of women’s education, opening one of the first schools for girls in India.
Qawali: Rooted in Persian tradition and often in the Urdu language, devotional sufi music that uses poetic structures and is usually performed by a group of men.
Shiv Sena (Literally meaning “army of Shiva”): Founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966, Shiv Sena is a Marathi-oriented right-wing Hindu nationalist political party in Maharashtra state that won the 1995 elections in alliance with the BJP. The name alludes to the 17th-century Maratha ruler, Shivaji.
Thackeray, Bal (1926-2012): Former cartoonist for The Free Press Journal in Mumbai, the founder of Shiv Sena and a politician advocating a separate Marathi state. The Srikrishna Commission, whose mission was to inquire into the post-Ayodhya Bombay riots of 1992-1993, blamed him for inciting violence against Muslims.
Patwardhan’s is an impressive career of filmmaking and activism based on the denunciation of injustice, always closely following movements of resistance. His documentary ethics, strategies and motives emerged in tandem with the guerilla cinema movement of the global South around the time of Espinosa's notion of “imperfect cinema” was first developed. Patwardhan thus paved the way for committed documentary in India since the 1970s. Known originally for his work on the J.P. Bihar Movement, a student-led movement from the mid-70s that advocated a variety of radical social demands, his films included Waves of a Revolution / Kranti Ki Tarangein (1974, 30 min.), shot in secret and smuggled abroad, and Prisoners of Conscience / Zameer ke bandi (1978, 45 min.), which gathered testimonies of the Bihar movement prisoners. This latter film emerged in the aftermath of The Emergency (see glossary). The dangerous work of revealing the reality of repression hiding under official rhetoric has driven Patwardhan’s ethical determination and filmmaking practice for four decades.
Censorship issues, sensibilities and Patwardhan's ethics
Patwardhan's films have a long history of censorship disputes in India as well as of considerable success in international and national film festivals. Since his films have received festival awards and state honors thanks to independent juries, the national television network Doordarshan is mandated to screen nationally awarded films, even if it tries not to. This is the first obstacle he regularly faces in order to ensure his films are screened in India. The other obstacle Patwardhan routinely faces is the Central Board of Film Certification (see glossary). He has always resisted their demands for cuts in his films and has regularly fought through the courts. Yet even beyond this, Patwardhan’s films face opposition from a variety of political interests and groups. All of these difficulties are documented on his website (http://www.patwardhan.com), which is part of his project to detail the expansive nature of struggles for free speech as well as these struggles’ difficult and often irritating relationship to the public sphere. The website is thus a necessary extension of these groups’ struggles for visibility. Further, the resistance he faces includes more than just institutional power. Teachers, for example, sometimes censor his films because they perceive them as hostile to Hinduism. It is thus also a fight against the ingrained sensibilities of certain people in India, their fear of dissenting voices and the discomfort that might be created.
• Waves of Revolution / Kranti Ki Tarangein (1974, 30 min.)
• Prisoners of Conscience / Zameer ke bandi (1978, 45 min.)
• A Time to Rise / Uthan da Vela (Canada, 1981, 40 mins)
• Bombay our City / Hamara Shahar (1985, 75 minutes)
• In Memory of Friends / Una Mitran Di Yaad Pyaari (1990, 60 mins)
• In the Name of God / Ram Ke Naam (1992, 75 minutes)
• We are not your Monkeys (1993, 5 minutes)
• Occupation: Mill Worker (1996, 22 minutes)
• Ribbons for Peace (1998, 5 mins)
• Father, Son and Holy War / Pitra, Putra aur Dharmayuddha (1995, 120 minutes)
• A Narmada Diary (1995, 57 minutes)
• Fishing: In the Sea of Greed (1998, 45 minutes)
• War and Peace / Jang aur Aman (2002, 135 mins)
• images you didn't see (2006, 5 mins)
• Children of Mandala (2009, 5 mins)
• Jai Bhim Comrade (2012, 180 mins)
From the Sanskrit root dal-, Dalits means “broken” or “the oppressed.” It is the Dalits themselves who adopted this term after having been identified as “untouchables” for centuries. Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule, iconic activists from the 19th century, were troubled by their situation and began using the term Dalit instead. Others have used the term coined by Mahatma Gandhi, “harijans” (children of God), which is sometimes considered to be patronizing. Dalits include outcastes and lower castes of the Hindu social hierarchy. There are four principal varna in Hinduism, classes which organize the castes hierarchy: the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaisya (merchants), and the Shudras (workers). According to mythological texts, the Brahmins came from the mouth of Brahma (a god), while the warriors came from his arms, the merchants from his legs, and the workers from his feet. The Brahma Purana state that Brahma is the father of Manu, the progenitor of humankind. Manu’s discourses are recorded in the Manusmriti (The Laws of Manu), which sets out the different “ways of living” for the various classes, including prohibitions on education for the now called Dalits and women. Castes are social groups reproduced through a filial endogamous structure, accompanied by sets of practices and occupations. Literally, caste or jati means “birth,” whereas colloquially it signifies the occupation that is traditionally transmitted from the father to the son along with the family name indicating your community. In Hindu epics such as the Ramayana, one’s place in society is fixed at birth. Thus, the order of life is reproduced as long as one follows one’s role. These beliefs are based on a complex system of purity wherein Brahmins are the purest and in constant danger of being polluted by lower castes. Dalits, being the lowest, are thus allocated the dirtiest jobs. This code has enforced several layers of segregation, including the status of non-physical contact (untouchability), and the social impossibility of sharing water or entering temples.
After 150 years of British rule, 1947 marked the year of India’s independence. Through its struggle against colonial rule, certain values and principles were developed, including those of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, for which this newly liberated India would be the beacon. Its constitution was drafted by Dr. Bhim Ambedkar, a Dalit himself. In it, many aspects of social discrimination were to be changed: practicing untouchability, for example, became illegal, while the “affirmative action” policy of reservation seats were put in place for Scheduled Castes (constitutional term for Dalits and whose declination of castes is listed and available at the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis). Some reservations policies had already been in place for what was known as the Depressed Castes under British rule, notably the result of demands made by Jyotirao Phule. Varying at the state and regional levels, this quota-based system consists of reserving a number of seats in educational institutions as well as employment in public sector jobs for under-represented castes. According to the 2011 census of India, 16,2% of the Indian population is from Scheduled Castes and 8,2% from Scheduled tribes. Together, they are numbered at more than 250 millions out of total population of approximately 1, 3 billions.
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar
Dr. Ambedkar (1891-1956) was a Dalit (Mahar) Barrister-at-Law and Doctor in Philosophy from Columbia University and Doctor in Science from the London School of Economics. After completing his BA studies at the Elphinstone College of the University of Bombay in Economics and Political Science, he did his Master at Columbia University, majoring in Economics with Sociology, Anthropology, History, Politics and Philosophy. His works include his doctoral thesis on the Problem of the Rupee, historical work on Indian economy, several essays on untouchability and Indian castes system and his most famous work, Who were the Shudras?, on the formation of the fourth varna of the Indo-Aryan society. When he returned to India, he decided to fight for the conditions of his peers and actively participated in the emancipation of Dalit communities. The architect of the Indian Constitution, he promoted values of equality and justice. In opposition to Mahatma Gandhi, who was seeking to erase untouchability while maintaining Hindu varna divisions, Ambedkar believed the problem to be the very nature of caste dynamics themselves. To escape this system of social discrimination and gain equality for his people, Ambedkar announced at the 1936 Yeola Conference that he would not die Hindu and called for a massive conversion to Buddhism. Along with hundreds of his followers, he and his wife converted to Buddhism in 1956. Among his reasons for turning towards Buddhism were the absence of hierarchy and castes, the absence of God, and the promotion of equality and knowledge.
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