Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Dalit Film and Cultural Festival: Voices of Oppressed. And some disappointments. Dalit Hatred of Gandhi

I've lived in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu for nearly 20 years till 1998, before leaving for USA and during my last visit in August 2015 posters announcing an upcoming commemoration of Immanuel Sekaran who was brutally murdered in one of the worst caste riots in Tamil Nadu in 1957. This was new.  The town of Keezhvenmani saw the worst massacre of Dalits in 1968 when 28 women and 16 children were burned alive. It took decades and the freedom of internet to get a decent documentary, 'Ramiah's hut', published. While both of those atrocities were well known they remained as folk lore and anecdotes with no possibility of wider attention. In this backdrop the recent political assertion of Dalits and the opening up of spaces where Dalit topics find expression is a welcome and long overdue change. One such happening was the Dalit International Film Festival that was held in Columbia University in February.

Dalit Film and Cultural Festival (DALIFF), held on Feb 23rd and Feb 24th, in New York City at Ambedkar's alma mater Columbia University was organized by US Ambedkarites. The festival featured the following on Feb 23rd when I attended: Pariyerum Perumal, directed by Mari Selvaraj; Kaala, directed by Pa. Ranjith, Paavsacha Nibandhan, a short film by Nagraj Manjule. The event featured panel discussion led by Suraj Yengde with Manjule, Ranjith and Niharikha Singh on the panel.

'Pariyerum Perumal' is a gritty telling of the bloody saga of honor killings in a village where Dalits and OBC's (Other Backward Classes) live cheek by jowl. 'Kaala', starring Rajinikanth and Nana Patekar, is known better for loading the movie with Dalit symbolisms, unseen in a Tamil movie until then, than for its cinematic narrative.

Pa. Ranjith (Image Courtesy 62475313.jpg)
Pa. Ranjith redefined caste portrayals in Tamil movies and particularly with portraying Dalit centric themes. Ranjith's political activism has colored both his supporters who swear by him and his detractors who swear at him. While neighboring Kerala is known for artsy movies Tamil Nadu's filmdom has only thrown up mediocrities like K. Balachander and overrated filmmakers like Balu Mahendra. K. Balachander, awarded India's highest honor for a film maker, the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, for a long time thought that capturing a plastic maudlin stage drama on celluloid is all there is to cinema. The problem with criticizing Ranjith's film making talent is that there is quite a crowd who do it out of animosity towards his caste and most importantly his politics. Many who disliked Kaala did so out of being peeved at his portrayal of a much loved and revered deity of Hinduism and Hinduism itself.

It is not uncommon to find Ambedkar statues in Tamil Nadu and across India in an iron cage to prevent upper caste rowdies from vandalizing it. Madurai and its neighboring areas burst into a caste conflagration just because the then government decided to name a transport corporation after a lower caste chieftain. Journalist Vaasanthi recounted how a boy of 10 years old told her that he'd not step foot in a bus named after a lower caste person. Even now as alliances are being stitched to face oncoming polls one of the major parties is stepping gingerly around the fact that a key partner is a Dalit party. Having a Dalit party in the alliance has the potential to alienate other voters particularly from the OBCs. This is not just an open secret but a openly talked factor in analyzing who'd romp home and why. In this context one has to appreciate the commercial difficulties and daredevilry in making a movie that features Ambedkar portraits liberally in scenes. Ranjith also featured figurines of Buddha in the scenes while mercilessly skewering Hinduism. All of that colored audience reactions. Whether Ranjith's movies are artsy or not is beside the point but one has to concede that he or his movies cannot be ignored.

Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule shot to prominence when his debut short film Pistulya won the National Award for Best First Non-Feature Film of a Director (Sigh, really there's a category like that?) in 2010. Following that was his first feature film 'Fandry' which bagged the 'Indira Gandhi Award for Best Debut Film of a Director. 'Sairat', released in 2016, was selected for Berlin International Film Festival. With such acclaim Manjule's 'Pavsacha Nibandh', 2018, a short film that drew from the circumstances of his own life was an easy choice for the festival.

Pavsacha Nibandh narrates the story of a boy in an impoverished village studying in a government run school. One day the class is assigned to write an essay on rain and it so happens that heavens pour forth in torrential rain that day over the village. The boy and his sister try to get home but their father who has the keys is missing and later found in drunken stupor on a roadside. Then mother and children lift him up and drag him home. Once home the boy still has no time to write the essay and instead has some chores and next day the teacher administers corporal punishment to the erring boy for not completing the home work while his classmates did. There the movie ends. I wondered what was the movie's message on caste because the boy was studying a government run school where his classmates are equally impoverished and if anything it is the alcoholism of the boy's father that makes his already difficult life become unbearable.

Nagraj Manjule (Image Courtesy _dada07d6-4966-11e8-b38d-ae9d3b5e5930.jpg
The audience probably had a heavy sprinkling of Tamils because of Ranjith and he was accorded a rousing reception when he took to the stage at the end of the screening of Pariyerum Perumal, a movie he produced. Suraj Yengde moderated a panel discussion. The panel honored P.K. Rosy, India's first Dalit actress.

Jayan Cherian, director of acclaimed movie ' Papilio Buddha', about Dalits of Western Ghats being displaced by the government, was critical of the caste environment of Kerala. Both Yengde and Cherian sought to completely discredit the notion that Kerala, being dominated by Left Wing politics and ruled by Communist party, was progressive and egalitarian. Cherian chided the casteism that's entrenched amongst Kerala's Christians. Y engde made a snide remark about Kerala 'supposedly' electing the World's first communist movement. That was uncalled for. Cherian and Yengde, echoing the resurgent Dalit movements today, spoke of Dalits embracing Buddhism. While Buddhism eschewed caste the lands where Buddhism reigns today are soaked in blood. I find this demonizing of Hinduism while ignoring the history of Buddhism as unfair to how religion, any religion, operates as an organization.

Nagraj Manjule spoke of the importance of Dalit voices adding a different perspective. While having a diverse demographics is supposed to bring diverse intellectual perspectives in any group the suggestion that reading Ramayan from Raavan's perspective will make Rama look like a villain is complete utter nonsense. Ram and Raavan are not interchangeable heroes like Hector and Achilles. It is this sort of chicanery that gets under the skin of even apolitical or progressive Hindus. Completely unnecessary provocation and it doesn't do justice to the idea of diversity.

Ranjith faced a softball query as to why the heroines in his movies were fair skinned. Ranjith defended the choices saying it is a stereotype to expect Dalit women to be dark skinned and that one of his own relatives was a fair skinned woman and was named 'Pappathiamma' (the word is a slang for a Brahmin woman). He also said that Easwari Rao, one of the lead women characters in Kaala, is of dark complexion and delivered a powerful performance. The answer is actually less than an answer. Why should a Dalit woman be named 'Pappathy'? Of course there's a stereotype that only a Brahmin lady can be fair skinned and that a Dalit being fair is exceptional and hence the name. Of course, this is my reasoning. As for Easwari Rao it appears Ranjith first approached Kasturi Shankar, a fair skinned actress and a Brahmin for the role. That Easwari gave a powerful performance and became spoken about is due credit to her but it is North Indian and very wheatish looking Huma Qureshi who plays the key role.

Asked about receiving financing for his ventures Ranjith said that he did face difficulties. It is possible his difficulties especially for his first few films were both because he was a newbie and due to the caste themes he wanted to portray.

Ranjith said he grew up reading novels and watching movies that depicted Dalits as artless and that irked him. His use of a hip-hop group in Kaala was highlighted by a fellow panelist. Hip-hop has achieved, in the US, a status of protest songs and that too was mentioned. This then begs the question of Ranjith's own portrayal of Dalits in his movies. A question was asked why his lead characters in Kabali and Kaala were negative portrayals, as dons. Ranjith demurred that in Kaala the character is not that of a don but a local powerful man protecting the interest of his people. This is hogwash. I too have wondered about the portrayal of Dalits in his movies. Even in the cultural center that he recently helped create only Parai, traditionally associated with Dalits, was featured and there was no space for, say, a Nadhaswaram, an instrument equally associated with other oppressed castes. And why not have an event featuring a Dalit carnatic musician?

Niharikha Singh, winner of some beauty contest and a Dalit, was the shocker for how much she was a misfit in the panel. Yengde framed a lengthy question for her literally putting words into her mouth by asking her supposed struggles as a woman in the beauty business and as Dalit woman at that. What a disappointment it must have been for him to hear her say that when she started out she did not speak of any identity and that she was just in it for her own survival. She also added, quite stupidly, "I look rich but I am not rich".

Suraj Yengde was the animating spirit of the festival exuding youthful cheer, the occasional irreverent  whistle and his unique hair style.

Suraj Yengde (Image Courtesy dscf3117eugenie_baccot_photography_c_2018.jpg)
India has, for a long time, had a wealth of literature portraying Dalit lives and concerns and an occasional movie here and there has done justice, perhaps, to such topics. It is a credit to Cherian, Ranjith, Selavaraj and Manjule that their movies are now mainstream and are presenting Dalit lives in an unvarnished manner. It is a testament to the Dalit movements that there is interest in Ambedkar's writings now beyond just passing familiarity of him as "their icon". The festival had displays of many books about and by Ambedkar. Sadly, they were only for display. The books included Government of India produced books.

So, what were my disappointments?

An earlier mini-session had my head spinning hearing comments like "can I speak in English? Will that be Brahminical?" and "oh sorry I started off in Hindi instead of Marathi, that was Brahminical". What nonsense is this?

First, Suraj Yengde. Yengde, Harvard's website says, is an "inaugural post doctoral fellow at the Initiative for Institutional anti-racism" as part of the Shoresenstein center. He is also referred to as "academic activist". Maybe Harvard doesn't realize that that's an oxymoron. Academics loose academic objectivity when they become activists and become less than academic. They become polemicists. Classic examples are Paul Krugman, a shill for the Democratic party now, and Cornel West, who has crossed from even polemics to being sheer agitprop. At least they have a body of work when they used to be just academics. Yengde is yet to produce any seminal work of note. I did wonder if he's helping Dalits or helping himself or being symbiotic in organizing festivals like these in Columbia and Harvard universities.

An interview by Ambedkar in 1955, is cited by Yengde as one in which he "debunks", Gandhi's, "faux admonition of hierarchy" and that "Gandhi wrote about egalitarianism in English while promoting the suppression of oppressed caste groups in Gujarati". This was Ambedkar at his venomous best, if one were to discount what he wrote when Gandhi was assassinated. Even Churchill was kinder to Gandhi. What Ambedkar was plainly false and venomous. He did not cite any evidence. Only social media warriors cite such quotes and smugly ask "so can you prove it is not so". When an academician cites such slip shod claims in an oped he's not just being an activist but a mischievous propagandist.

Gandhi did not lack critics in his own day. Many were bilingual and if he was a Janus faced hypocrite he'd have been mercilessly called out. The charge about Gandhi's support for Varnshrama is never, ever made, by citing him fully. But then Dalits, very unfortunately, have decided that to propagate Ambedkar they'd have to throw the kitchen sink at Gandhi.

I found Yengde's essay on Ambedkar's foreign policy, in a book he co-edited with Anand Teltumbde, to be abjectly shoddy work that was more interested in promoting conspiracy theories about Brahminical cabal controlling India's foreign policy than in outlining any coherent foreign policy articulated by Ambedkar, assuming there was one. Ambedkar, Yengde says, chided India's "colossal expenditure on building defense capabilities" as being at the behest of the "elite Brahminical class". This is laughably stupid. Gandhi was capable of stupidities and Ambedkar was equally capable. Only, in the case of Ambedkar, it is coupled with venomous hatred. Of Malcolm X an American documentary said, 'the hate that hate begets'.

Though I did not get to watch 'Papilio Buddha' at the Festival I watched it in Youtube.  The movie takes a genuine issue of land possession and freights it with unremitting hatred of Gandhi. Churn was being intellectually dishonest in using Joseph Lelyveld's book to allege Gandhi had homosexual relationships with Kallenbach. A character crudely says "I love Gandhi because...he can fuck a man too". Then towards the end Gandhi's effigy garlanded with slippers is burned. Gandhi cap wearing politicians come chanting and unleash a police lathe charge and in the melee a statue of Buddha is kicked around. Maybe Cherian can get the opinion of Rohingyas about Buddhists. Lelyveld titled his biography of Gandhi, "Great Soul" and delves in great depth into Gandhi's battles against untouchability. If Cherian had, in the movie, taken an unflinching look at casteism in Kerala churches he may have faced greater opposition.

Like Cherian, Ranjith is equally ignorant of history and has only consumed Ambedkar's propaganda. A chance 10-15 minute chat with Ranjith, with three others around, was interesting. Ranjith is truly animated about the topic of land owning privileges and how Dalits have defrauded of their privileges. That was the central theme of Kaala, too.

While the word 'Brahminical' is freely bandied on stage here, away from the podium, Ranjith was narrating about Dalit problems with OBCs in village after village. He bemoaned how one OBC caste controls the entire mom and pop retail shops in many cities. He listed several instances for several minutes about many castes that oppress Dalits. Hearing all that I interjected and asked him, "there is one caste you've not mentioned in this ten minutes, the Brahmins". My point was that the real problem for Dalits, in Tamil Nadu, is with OBCs and not with Brahmins. Then the bystanders, completely sympathetic to anything Ranjith would say and having been fed on Tamil Nadu's staple diet of anti-brahmanism, sparred with me.

Ranjith and the bystanders argued that they are only scolding 'Brahminism'. This is a shopworn lame excuse that the Dravidian party hate merchants use to slither their way out of them being spineless to criticize other castes, notably the Thevar or Vanniyar communities with which Dalits have the most problems in Tamil Nadu today. It is easy to scold Gandhi and Rajaji from a stage than to even murmur a word against Muthuramalinga Thevar or Dr. S. Ramadoss.

The group and Ranjith insisted that 'Brahminism' is only a label for a casteist attitude and that it applies to anyone who exhibits those. Let's not fool ourselves. The word 'Brahminism' is immediately associated with Brahmins as a community and no one, mentally, associates it, readily, with other communities like a community neutral word like "communism' or 'capitalism'. This intellectual dishonesty has to stop. Ranjith is either making an honest mistake or he's being mischievous.

Then I asked about Gandhi. Immediately the group let out a sarcastic chuckle to mean "are you even serious". Ranjith mentioned that Gandhi was unsympathetic to Dalits who were striking work at the Binny Mills. This is unmitigated nonsense. First of all, Dalits were not striking work but were 'strike breakers', meaning, they broke ranks with the striking workmen and went to work. This created a tension along the fault lines of caste. The strikers were trying to intimidate Dalits to join them. This is not very different from how african-american workers once excluded from unions were employer friendly. In that tense situation Gandhi was touring Tamil Nadu extensively. Here's Gandhi addressing a labor meeting on Sep 16th 1921:
I would ask you not even to go to them to wean them from their service. Believe me when they find that you exercise no pressure against them, they will of their own free choice and accord come to you. Nor will you consider that they are low caste and you are high caste.
It was the time of Khilafat agitation and prior to this the relationship between Dalits and Muslims had been poisoned leading to the Puliyanthope riots that resulted in loss of life. D. Veeraraghavan's well documented, "The Making of the Madras working class' also stresses how Gandhi sought to protect the Dalits from the strikers.

Remembering the short film 'Paavsacha Nibandhan' I asked whether Rajaji's championing of prohibition would be a good idea. Now, I was being mischievous knowing what emotions the name Rajaji would evoke. Immediately the phrase "ah. hereditary education guy" ( குலக் கல்வி) was pronounced. Of course that too was the result of a Goebbelsian propaganda by the Dravidian parties. Was Rajaji a devout Brahmin? That he was. But was he a casteist? Not at all. Absolutely no. Rajaji was deeply involved with the labor unions during the Binny strike. It was Rajaji who set animation the temple entry bills, starting of a bit cautiously, thus antagonizing Dalit leader M.C. Rajah, and then widening the scope during his first Chief Ministership of Madras Presidency.

Gandhi and Rajaji, any honest biographer or student of history would readily concede had their biases and blind spots. So does Ambedkar. Ranjith rounded off the discussion by asking me to read Ambedkar's "what have congress and Gandhi done for the untouchables". I've read it. Does it have justifiable criticisms, yes. Is it unsympathetic to what maybe good intentions that were not carried out well? Yes. Does it lob unfair accusations at Gandhi and Congress? That too, yes.

Pa. Ranjith bows to the political pressure in Tamil Nadu to acknowledge the patron saint E.V. Ramaswamy. Whether it is in the imagery of his cultural center or at this festival which Gandhi is freely lampooned E.V.R is revered. If Dalit intellectuals were honest they'd not do this. Immanuel Sekaran was murdered during the caste conflagration at Muthukulathur. Anyone who studies, honestly,  E.V.R's conduct during those riots and studies Gandhi's efforts at Naokhali and Calcutta will know the difference between a rabble rouser and a Mahatma.

As Muthukulathur teetered on the edge of bloody riots E.V.R pompously declared, "why would I send my black shirt army to Muthukulathur? Do I want them to die? Let these caste fight amongst themselves". Gandhi threw himself into the caldron of hatred at Calcutta and only two possible outcomes were acceptable to him, either peace returns to the city or he dies in the attempt to bring peace. Ranjiths, Yengdes and Cherians will never understand Gandhi. After the carnage at Keezhvenmani E.V.R released a stinging statement scolding, wait, hold on, not the real perpetrators, the Naidus, but Brahmins. This is who E.V.R really was.

Dalits, with justification, criticize Gandhi for prioritizing temple entry over access to education. Gandhi probably thought that if temple entry happens then the rest will be relatively easy. That aside there's merit in that criticism. But what was E.V.R's contribution? This was a man who never understood education or its value. Citing rising unemployment E.V.R nonchalantly tells an interviewer that he'd rather close down the colleges. Does this man have any moral right to scold C.Rajagopalachari?

The common entrance exam for Medical colleges, NEET, caused a furor in Tamil Nadu because of the death of Anita, a Dalit girl, who had scored good marks in the +2 exam but did not score enough in NEET exam. She committed suicide. Ranjith and many Dalits were angry at the test and government for implementing it. The exam was characterized as a conspiracy against Dalits. Of course there's absolutely no merit in that argument since other Dalits in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere had qualified. What no one thought of questioning was the pathetic state of education in Tamil Nadu (see my blog on NEET https://contrarianworld.blogspot.com/2017/10/neet-exposes-tamil-nadus-shoddy.html ). Tamil Nadu leads the nation in education loans because the successive state governments, in E.V.R land, had completely abandoned educational sector to rapacious profiteers in private sector. It is easy to make a movie like 'Pavsacha Nibandh' but it requires honest discussion of issues and more ground level efforts to address real issues.

Can India do better for Dalits? Of course it can. Do Dalits experience unique oppressions? Yes they do. But is India a desolate Nazi state of oppression? Not at all. It is dishonesty to characterize India that way. That Cherian can make a movie mocking Gandhi as homosexual and portray an effigy of Gandhi being burned and have India's censor permit it, shows that Dalits have their spaces and freedoms too. Likewise for Ranjith's Kaala that demonizes a religion and a much revered God and yet becomes a block buster. Yengde gushed that Manjule only has to make a movie or a short film and the awards come calling.

It is time hateful rhetoric is eschewed. If one does not know how to criticize without being hateful then it is tragic. Criticize Brahmins all you want when it is they who are oppressing or instituting exclusionary practices, as in Carnatic music but to simply weasel out of criticizing other communities by using a convenient label, 'Brahminical', is dishonesty that'll only serves to protect the true oppressors. The words 'Brahminism' and 'Brahminical' have a place in academic discourse but it should used with care and academic precision. That 'Brahminical patriarchy' placard is, again, laughably stupid. Patriarchy exists in every culture and society. Brahmins did not invent it. Don't credit them with everything and bemoan later that they think they invented the world.

A much needed attention to Dalit issues and forums to express their issues are now being available. Let there be no whitewashing. Be unsparing about the iniquities and the oppressions but spare a thought for real issues and real solutions.


References:

1. Panel Discussion Recording https://youtu.be/MAyOBcE1rKU
2. Immanuel Sekaran https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanuvel_Devendrar
3. Keezhvenmani https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilvenmani_massacre
4. Suraj Yengde's Harvard profile https://scholar.harvard.edu/surajyengde/about
5. Suraj Yengde's column ' Perils of Gandhiplomacy' https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/perils-of-gandhiplomacy-mahatma-gandhi-statue-india-independence-3058820/
6. Pa. Ranjith's Anti-Brahminism (Tamil blog) https://contrarianworld.blogspot.com/2017/10/blog-post.html
7. My blog on why i reject E.V.R (Tamil blog) https://contrarianworld.blogspot.com/2017/11/blog-post.html
8. My blog on E.V.R (Tamil blog) https://contrarianworld.blogspot.com/2017/09/blog-post.html
9. Papilio Buddha movie (with English sub-titles) https://youtu.be/EHm1v0vrOWU
10. Pistulya https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovimYnrk07o
11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nagraj_Manjule
12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._K._Rosy
13. Pa. Ranjith https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pa._Ranjith
14. http://icls.columbia.edu/events/dalit-film-and-cultural-festival-daliff/
15. Pavsacha NIbandh https://youtu.be/SV9NPeAybN0












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