Dalit films are inward-directed expressions of dissent, a chronicling
of marginal lives with a searing sense of humiliation
Neerja Dasani Chennai
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi is obviously playing the Dalit
card to save the scam-tainted Union Telecom Minister A Raja. In
February, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar played the 'mahadalit'
card at a 'mahadalit ekta' rally in Patna. Also in February, Nitin
Gadkari, leader of the Hindutva-toting upper-caste BJP, played the
Dalit card in Indore to counter the Dalit-Brahmin card that Rahul
Gandhi played in UP. Meanwhile, elite analysts believe Mayawati has
overplayed the Dalit card by placing all the bets on herself. Isn't it
time to shuffle this pack of canards?
Dalit politics as conducted in the mainstream media (now
interchangeable with PR, post paid-news) is all symbolism and no
substance. This might explain the lack of outrage at the government's
opposition to the inclusion of caste in the UN's 2009 draft principles
and guidelines for the effective elimination of discrimination based
on work and descent. The comprehensive framework - the first of its
kind - could have led to the establishment of an international
monitoring mechanism on caste discrimination.
Some might question the need for global guidelines, believing that we
live in a peaceful post-caste world with the occasional cacophony of
vote-bank politics. But a three-day documentary film festival in
Chennai recently, Imaging Dalit Reality: Politics of Visual
Representation, challenged such notions.
In his inaugural address M Madhava Prasad, professor of cultural
studies at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad,
pointed out that in their current nascent form, Dalit films are
primarily inward-directed expressions of dissent, a chronicling of
marginal lives with a searing sense of humiliation. What is needed
now, according to him, is for a critical language of film-making to be
developed - a Dalit perspective through which "everything in the world
can be discussed". Perhaps a reason for the insulation is that to be
outward-looking today means seeing either miles of empty rhetoric or
row upon row of silent stone walls. For instance, not one of the
English papers carried a single report on the festival, which,
ironically, coincided with Republic Day.
At the festival, the ruthlessness of this power structure was the
sinister background score to each film.
Of Inhuman Bondage, Gopal Menon's 2005 film on manual scavenging,
showed women and children cleaning up the shit of 'Shining India',
determined to salvage their soiled prides. After 17 years of the
Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines
(Prohibition) Act, there are still officially 6,76,000 people
(unofficially around 13 lakh) engaged in this work.
Nadantha Kathai, Pon Sudha's short film in Tamil, portrays the anguish
of a child unable to understand the upper castes' 'ban' on footwear.
Why is it that those who make the shoes are prohibited from wearing
them? The question enrages him to the point of rebellion. In real life
such assertions can lead to horrific consequences as the recent case
of a young boy in Tamil Nadu, who was beaten up and forced to eat
human excreta by the upper castes, clearly shows. The police took one
week to file an FIR claiming that the boy had incited the upper-caste
Such impunity is the result of the institutionalisation of caste
prejudice - the Melavalavu massacre in Tamil Nadu being one of the
cruelest examples of this. In 1997, six Dalits, including the
panchayat president and vice president, were hacked to death in broad
daylight for daring to assert their political rights. Santha and
Balan's film, Melavalavu, shows how the government's half-hearted
attempts at 'reform' facilitate this violence. The 73rd and 74th
constitutional amendments in 1992 provide reservation for scheduled
castes and scheduled tribes in every panchayat and municipality. The
panchayat offices, though, continue to remain in upper-caste areas.
The constant threat of violence results in many being forced to
forfeit this mirage of a right.
Since these cases do not lead to candlelight vigils and television
news campaigns, justice, if delivered, is usually an impostor. The
police avoid registering them under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled
Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which although rife with
contradictions, attempts to hold accountable police and enforcement
authorities who fail to cooperate with the victims. Not that
registration under the Act ensures justice either. The less than 30
per cent conviction rate has reportedly 'shocked' even Dr Manmohan
Hence the reality of Dukhi in Munshi Premchand's Sadgati, depicted
with such intensity and nuance by Satyajit Ray, is a narrative which
is as invisible as it is endless - relentless, driven by the passion
of upper-caste oppression across time and space, beyond and inside
feudalism and modernity. For this short story and this short film (not
shown in the festival, but a memory hanging like prejudice and angst,
anyway), the big picture remains the same. As static as suffering.
The very act of participating in films depicting this injustice is
fraught with danger. French anthropologist Nicolas Jaoul in his
article, The 'Righteous Anger' of the Powerless: Investigating Dalit
Anger over Caste Violence, notes that any public display of anger
involves expressing a conflictual emotion, one that the powerless are
inclined to avoid in order to facilitate social integration and
prevent repression and further hardships. For the oppressed people,
therefore, this is not merely cinema, but a tool for social assertion.
Festivals such as these serve as sites for reviewing and creating
movements in this direction. The post-film discussions revealed the
complexity of identity politics. One discussant suggested the next
edition of the festival be called Imaging Heterogeneity, to debunk the
mainstream myth of a 'united Indian civilisation'.
But is Dalit politics itself being appropriated into the mainstream
even while it celebrates its significant successes? "What is Dalit
politics if all one wants is a slightly larger share in an oppressive
political State?" asked cultural critic Sadanand Menon. In his
valedictory address he urged that film festivals should be directed at
For that we need to break out of the comfortable festival format where
a group of largely like-minded and privileged people deliberate on
'Dalit liberation'. These issues are not 'Dalit issues'. The images of
exploitation lay bare the hollowness of a representative democracy
that greases its palms with the sweat and tears of its own people.
That these images haven't percolated into national consciousness
proves that the much-touted 'trickle-down effect' is mere trickery.
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