Tag Archives: Patwardhan

Jai Bhaim comrade and Kabir Kala Manch

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By Sayalee Karkare
August 8th 2012

For those unfamiliar with the work of AnandPatwardhan, his latest film, a three and a half hour documentary on caste issues may strike as unappetizing fare. To be fair, their trepidations are not unfounded – far too many “non-fiction” films go on far too long, winding up as a maudlin ode to an issue the viewer never really cared about to begin with, and remains indifferent to, even as the film ends. Jai Bhim Comrade, made from over 300 hours of footage gathered over the course of 7 years, and a runtime of over 200 minutes, appears to run this risk. But in the skillful hands of Anand Patwardhan, the film emerges as engaging, moving and insightful right to the very end. At a time when commercial cinema is shrinking in duration to accommodate the purportedly reducing attention spans of its viewers, the extremely well-made film about caste struggle in Maharashtra through protest music and democratic activism, is proof that length does not matter, as long as a story is engaging and well-told.

 

The film opens with a massacre that took place in 1997 at Ramabai Nagar, Mumbai following the desecration of a statue ofAmbedkar, a Dalit hero, when police opened fire on the crowd of protesters. It focuses, in particular, on Vilas Ghogre, Dalit poet and singer who committed suicide upon witnessing the aftermath of the atrocities. In fact, the film is a tribute to Ghogre, who was a friend of Patwardhan. From this point on, the film moves seamlessly backwards and forwards, telling multiple interlinked stories, all anchored within the overall narrative of caste struggle in Maharashtra.

 

Given the complexity of the subject matter, the film is wide in scope. It touches upon various stories – the gruesomeKhairlanjimassacre in which a Dalit family was lynched to death and the women paraded naked before being raped and murdered, the dangerously unhygienic work done by Dalitgarbagecleaners for a measly Rs. 73 per day all the while standing ankle deep in waste for over 12 hours, the martyrdom of various young leaders while fighting for the Dalit cause – and through all these numerous narratives the film effectively drives home the point that caste and class in India remain practically synonymous. The massive wealth inequities in India continue to operate along caste lines, with the Dalits benefitting little or not at all from the country’s gains in growth. Lacking political and economic power, the Dalits have been sucked into a vicious cycle of poverty that seems hard to break out of. The documentary also highlights the fact that urban India remains largely ignorant about or unconcerned with these issues. Outside a well-known South Mumbai college, a feckless youth tells the camera, “Dalit issue frankly is definitely ameliorated over the past half a decade or so” but when asked how he knows this, admits that he doesn’t personally know anyone “like that”.

 

The film also sheds light on the less-explored rationalist discourse within the Dalit tradition. In an age in which the wide reach of the media has only served to deeply entrench superstition, blind faith and irrationality, it is heartening to see a clear stream of reason running determinedly through these dispossessed communities. The secular atheistic world-view, for all purposes non-existent in mainstream Indian public discourse, finds unlikely support in Dalit quarters where, forsaken by god, religion and without any hope of salvation in the afterlife, they are forced to look for truth and meaning in this life itself. In contrast, the leaders of mainstream political parties making pompous, public appearances dressed literally as gods, with Krishna’sSudarshanChakraand golden chariot in tow, come off as laughably anachronistic.

 

As the producer, director, cinematographer and editor of the film, Jai Bhim Comrade belongs solely to Patwardhan. He is the auteur of the film in every sense of the word. While this works for the story-telling aspect of the film, specifically in that, that it brings everything together, and “everything” here encompasses the entire history of caste struggle in independent India, right from Ambedkar’s contributions to present-day struggles, which is hands-down a fantastic achievement, it works somewhat against what could have been a more balanced narrative. That not a single moderate, secular person from the privileged strata appears in the film is a disservice to the many Indians who are sympathetic to the Dalit cause. Every upper-caste character shown in the film is either foaming at the mouth spouting racist slogans, making genocide-inciting speeches or appearing distressingly ignorant about caste issues. Suffice it to say, the only sympathetic and socially-conscious upper-caste voice that we hear in the film belongs to Patwardhan himself.

 

While this paints an extremely gloomy and dour picture of liberal India, fortunately it also makes for some unexpectedly comedic moments in the film. For instance, when a Dalit woman sings that a woman is nothing without her husband and celebrates him as “pati parmeshwar” (an incarnation of god), Patwardhan drolly points out that her husband is, in fact, a drunkard. Similarly, when a well-off woman complains of the large amounts of human waste left behind at ShivajiPark, Mumbai during the annual rally held in honour of Dr. Ambedkar, Patwardhan asks her, if she thinks rich people go to the toilet less often and “piss perfume” unlike the Dalits. Admittedly a bit crude, these jabs in a counter-intuitive way expose the stark gap between the positions of leftist intellectuals like Patwardhan and the liberal right. While the rest of the film seems to imply the complicity of the urban elite in various caste crimes, in these little scenes they come off as mostly naive, uninformed and confused. Theirs is a crime of omission, their befuddled expressions seem to suggest, rather than a crime of malicious intent.

 

Ultimately, where the film makes the deepest connect is not in its relentless tirade against Hindutva and upper-caste dominance, but in the intimate family portraits that it paints of life in shanties and villages across the state. It is these vignettes of their day-to-day struggle for existence that the humanity of the poor and the wretched truly shines through. For instance, one of the most heart rending songs in the film, sung by Sheetal Sathe of the KabirKalaManch, a cultural outfit for the protesters, is a moving ode to motherhood in all its manifestations. In another poignant scene, an illiterate mother discusses the merits of educating daughters, pointing out that every generation can only walk a certain mile and it is for the next generation to go a step further. Seen from this context of complex human bonds and chains, Vilas Ghogre’s suicide as a reaction to the death of his friends in a random, godless act takes on a meaning beyond the simply political and strikes at the very universality of human experience. Sorrow, grief, love and attach me.

see her blog here- http://www.thesamosa.co.uk/

 

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Jai Bhim Comrade-Songs That Won’t Be Silenced

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Kavita Krishnan

Anand Patwardhan’s new documentary Jai Bhim Comrade is an epic that tells the tale of dalit oppression, resistance, politics, and cultural expression;a tale of great ugliness, and also of great beauty and power. 


Patwardhan took 14 years to make this film: beginning with the July 1997 police firing on the Ramabai Colony that claimed the lives of 10 dalits who were among those protesting the desecration of an Ambedkar statue. He followed the protracted struggle for justice, through the enquiry commission and the trial, right up to the conviction of the police officer responsiblewho is whisked away to hospital, does not spend a day in jail, instead gets bail within a week, followed by a subsequent promotion. 
Soon after the film’s release, came the news of the BathaniTola acquittal, reminding us that the process of ‘justice’ for the poor and oppressed remains as fraught with bias and injustice as ever.
One aspect of the Ramabai Colony massacre story is the political betrayal and opportunism by the RPI leadership. The Shiv Sena-BJP was in power at the time of the massacre. But gradually the Dalit movement’s leaders sell-out. Towering figures of the Dalit Panthers movement like Namdeo Dhasal are shown sharing a platform with Bal Thackeray as he spews the worst communal venom against minorities and advocates extermination: “They say these encounters are fake… This species must be exterminated …the courts can keep investigating after that, they have plenty of time.” Ten years after the firing, the RPI leadership eventually joins hands with Shiv Sena whose government presided over the massacre, touting the formula of ‘Bhimshakti uniting with Shivshakti.’ And even the present generation of Ramabai Colony’s residents begins to undergo a modification of memory. 


There are those inimitable moments, typical of Patwardhan’s films, where his disarmingly gentle questions to English-speaking elites – and the answers they evoke – devastatingly expose the irrationality and arrogance of the privileged, who like to believe they are educated and advanced. For instance, there is the young leader of a rally and conference of Chitpavan Brahmans, who claims his caste is superior because its members “inherit Parashuram’s genes.”


The film also establishes how caste prejudice is flourishing amongst young, well-off professionals – a section which likes to claim that caste consciousness is something they have shed, and which it blames quotas for perpetuating. You have evening walkers deriding the huge annual Ambedkar Jayanti rally in Mumbai, because “those people are dirty.” Asked if he knew the reason for the celebration, one English-speaking man says he hasn’t read anything Ambedkar wrote; reminded that Ambedkar authored the Indian Constitution, he says, “Yeah, ‘we the people’ and all that.”A young student at a Barista outlet airily claims that the “Dalit issue” has been “ameliorated” and no longer needs quotas; asked for real-life instances of this, he replies that he has no friends “like that.” 


One of the poignant threads probed by the film is the suicide of Patwardhan’s friend, cultural activist Vilas Ghoghre, whose song on the workers’ story – Katha Suno Re Logon – many of us have heard in Patwardhan’s Hamara Shahar. Four days after the Ramabai Colony firing, Ghoghre committed suicide. The film tries to find answers for the question – why did Ghoghre, who had been a Marxist rather than an Ambedkarite, and whose poems and songs reflected his Left ideology and activism, wrap a blue scarf (the colour of the Ambedkarite movement), around his head when he ended his life?
Ghoghre’s expulsion from his cultural organization – Ahwan, belonging to the same political tradition as Gadar – left him embittered and hurt. He was expelled because he sang at RPI functions to earn money to sustain his family. Was this a case of a Left cultural group’s insensitivity to a Dalit activist? For many Left performers, the question of survival and sustenance has often been asource of dilemma and discomfort, irrespective of caste. The phenomenon of Left cultural activists who address pressing needs of family survival by turning to funded NGOs or non-Left parties or commercial performance is a common one – and in most cases, this leads eventually to a rift with the group. But possibly there were other factors at work: Anand Teltumbde, in his discussion of the film, cites “undercurrents of castes and sub-castes” and discomfort with Ghoghre’s Ambedkarite past within the organisation.  


But the film does raise deeper problems with how caste is treated in Left theory and practice. Gadar speaks of how class/caste is understood in terms of the base/superstructure metaphor, as ‘economic base’ being accorded primacy as compared to the ‘political superstructure.’ Is this really a correct representation of how Marxism understands struggles that fall outside the strictly ‘economic’ realm?
In What Is To Be Done, Lenin’s seminal early work in which he articulated the ideological-political direction of the communist movement in polemics with ‘economists’ who privileged economic struggle as the sole basis of political struggle, Lenin had clearly treated class struggle first and foremost as political struggle, and broadened the horizon of political struggle from various segments of the economy to diverse layers of the society and its given political form. For Lenin “the class struggle of the proletariat” comprised “the economic struggle (struggle against individual capitalists or against individual groups of capitalists for the improvement of the workers’ condition) and the political struggle (struggle against the government for the broadening of the people’s rights, i.e., for democracy, and for the broadening of the political power of the proletariat).”(Our Programme)
Caste in India inhabits both the economic (in terms of struggles with landlords and employers for wages, housing, land) and political (in terms of struggles which press the State to act against discrimination and atrocities, for representation, for quotas in education and employment, and so on) realms of struggle. As Jai Bhim Comrade shows, the identity of ‘dalit’ and ‘worker’ is inextricably interwoven, with dalits forming the bulk of those employed in jobs like garbage disposal, cleaning and sanitation, and rural landless workers. There simply can’t be a wall between ‘class struggle’ and the struggles for dignity, equality, and political assertion of dalits. 


The idea that class struggles must mean economic struggles alone is a social democratic distortion of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. But, unfortunately, the social democratic notion that class struggles are primarily ‘economic,’ and that gender, caste, and even issues like corruption are somehow set apart from ‘class’ struggle is a very tenacious one, both on the Left, and among the Left’s critics.
One of the most remarkable things about the film, as about most of Patwardhan’s films, is that it takes no shortcuts, and in fact makes several seeming detours – to address gender and communalism, for instance – without ever appearing contrived or effortful.


The film that begins with Ghoghre’s song, introduces you to the Kabir Kala Manch towards the end. The KKM is a troupe of young artists of a radical Ambedkarite and Left tradition, and their performances, filmed by Patwardhan, electrify. It is appalling that the KKM has been banned as a ‘Maoist’ outfit, and that Sheetal Sathe, the KKM’s young poet and lead singer, has been forced underground.
While addressing all the weighty issues of dalit politics, dalit atrocities, and the quest for justice, the film also finds time to explore the relationship of a daughter (Sheetal Sathe) to her mother. The daughter is an atheist and has married against her parents’ will, leading to conflict with the mother, who is a devout believer, her tiny slum-dwelling housing a shrine to several deities. 


But this is no conventional ‘ma’ of the Hindi films. Mother and daughter are forthright about their differences, but their deep mutual affection can be felt. One of Sheetal’s most moving and beautifully rendered songs is about mothers. Sheetal precedes the song with a comment on how “Women are there in large numbers in our movement, but few in leadership. Men say – women’s liberation is fine, but my wife mustn’t be part of it!” And at the end, Sheetal’s mother appears in all her quiet and dignified anger, asking why the KKM has been banned and why her daughter has been forced underground?   

The many questions – disturbing, but also exhilarating in the radical political possibilities they suggest – stay with you long after the film is over, much like the haunting melodies of Vilas Ghoghre and Sheetal Sathe.