Friday, August 26, 2005

Shit

Now that the Indian government has enacted the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill (the bill was taken up in the Lok Sabha a little over a week ago), it's time to spare a thought (or perhaps even a museum) for...toilets. Not just for hygienic reasons, but also because the vast majority of those who clean latrines or remove excrement in rural India are Dalits or members of other "low" castes. The demeaning and dangerous nature of the work (commemorated occasionally in art, such as in this sculpture from the Banaras Hindu University museum) should be apparent enough, but it also serves to preserve and perpetuate a feudal mindset whereby one's status is fixed -- and in the case of the Dalit, fixed as "unclean" or "impure."

Installing (new or better or, depressingly, adjective-less) toilets won't solve the problem of caste-based discrimination (indeed one could argue that it might occlude the problem, signalling a societal willingness to remove an apparent marker of one's "low" status without addressing the problem of baseness in general), but it will remove a daily slight, a slight independent of the work involved because it proceeds from the fact that only certain sorts of people feel compelled to do such work. Such slights go a long way toward explaining the tone of India's various Dalit movements (more accurately of the texts emanating from the movements), both wounded and strident, shaming the reader by the urgency of a call that is impossible to resist. It is a tone that many find offputting and/or extreme (perhaps directly proportional to the extent to which it proves disquieting?), but it is a tone that must be heard and appreciated, and placed in the context of the material situation of 15% of India's population. Placed in that context, it isn't surprising that Chandrabhan Prasad finds it hard to be sanguine about the national budget.

On a somewhat related note, it was refreshing to see the issue of caste tackled squarely in Mangal Pandey: far too often the hero is depicted as being above the sort of prejudice that infects others (typically minor, uglier characters) around him -- indeed such was the case in Lagaan as well -- but not so in Mangal Pandey, where Pandey is depicted as pre-occupied with maintaining his caste purity typically in the face of sweeper Nainsukh's insolent taunts (yes, about those cartridges). It gets to the point where Pandey flinches when prostitute Rani Mukherjee first tries to touch his face; now that takes some serious willpower.... Sure, he sees the light by the end of the film, but his road to Damascus is memorialized by a haunting line: "We are all untouchables now, and in our own land..." (though not, and this should never be forgotten, in the same way as Nainsukh).

On the subject of cinema: quick trivia question: which was the last commercial Hindi film where the hero or the heroine played a Dalit character? Um, actually, a better question would be: have there been any? The only two I can think of are Achoot Kanya (1936) and the Big B's bhaiyya blockbuster Ganga ki Saugandh (1978) (both featured heroines playing Dalits, Rekha in the second film; heroes playing Dalits apparently need not apply). Contrast this absence with the plethora of Muslim characters in Hindi films (no, I won't provide links, there are simply too many to list), an indication, perhaps, of the fact that the liberal secularist's conscience is pricked by communal issues in a way it just isn't by caste-based disadvantage (conversely, of course, because "the Muslim" presents an ideological issue, this "other" may also be depicted as threatening or hostile; the point is that the Dalit is neither "good" nor "bad" in Hindi cinema-- (s)he typically isn't there at all).

The above notwithstanding, there have been some stupendous attempts to interrogate caste-based disadvantage in the context of commercial Hindi cinema. Sultan Ahmed's hokey-but-fun (and politically startlingly prescient) Ganga ki Saugandh is one such film; one of my all-time favorite's, J.P. Dutta's visionary Ghulami (1985), is another. Both films don't have much in common, except for a willingness (especially evident in Ganga ki Saugandh) to confront the issue with a directness that is beyond our contemporary filmmakers.

10 comments:

Satyam said...

A fine post. Ganga ki Saugandh though still absorbs in some ways the 'new' identities (castes in this case) it gives definition to into the Neruvian emporium of 70s masala cinema. This is not to take away anything from the effort, specially given the time at which this film appeared but to question 'political edge' (if you will) of the gesture. Having said that I share your affection for this film. I actually do not mean the 'adjective' Nehruvian in a negative sense either but simply to the extent where in a cinematic guise it could become (as it often did at the time) somewhat banal. I hasten to add that I would always such banality to latter day ugliness!

Ghulami on the other hand presents all the 'contestations' within that frame of reference very effectively. You are quite right to call the film visionary (of all the great Bombay filmmakers perhaps Raj Kapoor was the only one who exhibited this quality at times). The other fine thing about this film is that Dutta represents the 'anarchic' without ever descending into the smug 'heart of darkness' stance that so many current filmmakers indulge in (happily!) when presenting to the audience abstractions like Bihar and UP. In general the range of political opinion represented in Ghulami makes it a rather subtle work. I am often prone to thinking that this is perhaps the finest commercial Hindi film of the last twenty five years or so. Ghulami negotiates the gap between the political provocative and the commercially acceptable most usefully.

Qalandar said...

I do not disagree with your skepticism of the "political edge" of Ganga ki Saugandh; it's political prescience, though, grounded as the film is in a mode of Muslim-"lower" caste solidarity, stands. To put it another way, the political era that U.P. entered into with the 1993 state assembly elections is already pre-figured to a certain extent in Ganga ki Saugandh. The film of course retains the modernist liberal view of group identities as being inherently stable (so, alas, does the Samajwadi Party, particularly when it comes to Muslims), and I think this not coincidentally deprives it of much of its "edge": because the film has no vocabulary to address the problem beyond the neo-Gandhian (recall Pran's character in the film) and the Nehruvian. To put it another way (on the subject of Pran's character), it is instructive the film's principal Dalit protagonist is not an Ambedkarite but a Gandhian...

On a different note, another film that deserves a mention here is Suhashini Maniratnam's Indira...

On this subject

Satyam said...

Your point is certainly a good one. Consider me revised in this sense!

Al Mujahid for debauchery said...

Umair Muhajir,
Not to hijack this thread, but you were curious about the source for my 0.5 figure for the Muslim population in East Punjab.
I was wrong in quoting 0.5% (by memory). I checked the 2001 Census and the Muslim population in East Punjab is 1.6%.
As to Stanley Wolpert's figure of 15%, I am not sure where he got these numbers from as they are obviously wrong.
Here is the link:
http://www.censusindia.net/religiondata/Summary%20Muslims.pdf

Qalandar said...

Al Mujahid,
You are free to hijack this (or any other) thread on Qalandar-- I am hungry for hits as you can see!
:-)

Thanks for the clarification, your 0.5% figure was obviously much much closer than Wolpert's 15%; and the wider point (that we can't just use declines in minority % to illustrate anything without further analysis) I obviously agree with (I might add that Sanghis often use such declines to insinuate that a Nazi-style extermination was at work; so obvious is the flaw in the logic underlying such reasoning that one can only assume that bad faith is at work).

For those who aren't sure what this discussion is about, check out: http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/002113.html#comment22724

Qalandar said...

On the subject of the main post:

http://www.indianexpress.com/full_story.php?content_id=78345&spf=true

Star said...

You asked if there was any other Hindi commercial movie where the hero or heroine was a dalit. Abhishek Bachchan played a "low" caste hero in 'Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost'.

Qalandar said...

Star: fair enough, although I think there is some disconfort with the "particularity" associated with the Dalit character; thus many films have featured GENERAL comments about "low castes" or have featured characters of vaguely "lower" caste/status than (the proverbial) thakurs, zamindars, etc. But, particularly in an era of increasing violence between BC/OBCs and Dalits, I think a general assertion of "low" status is susceptible to being interpreted in ways that are not keyed to the particular experience(s) of the Dalit community(-ies). For instance, note that the quintessential "lower caste" person in films set in rural india is the small farmer or peasant (e.g. Dharmendra in "Ghulami"; even Abhishek in "Mumbai se aaya...").

star said...

Hmm... you're right. The 2 movies, Lagaan and The Rising, with Dalit characters, are both period films. It's as if untouchability has been abolished by law so it doesn't exist now.

I don't remember exactly if the hero is clearly specified as an untouchable in this movie 'Jaag Utha Insaan' - {Mithun, Sridevi}.
will have to watch it and Ganga Ki Saugandh again as an adult :)

Ghulami is one of my favs too.

I've heard that Bhojpuri movies are doing well commercially in cities like Delhi and Mumbai too [migrant population]. Maybe they'll be more representative of social realities.

Sorry abt. turning this thread into a movie zone.

Qalandar said...

Yeah, I'm actually somewhat pleased to see the relative success of Bhojpuri films...unfortunately haven't seen one yet...

No apologies needed, as I'm a movie addict myself (as the number of movie-centric posts on this blog will tell you)...