Camera Obscura

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 group.

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 Singh.  

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 the "oppressors".

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.

The documentary film festival (Imaging Dalit Reality: Politics of Visual Representation) was held in Chennai from January 25-27, 2010. It was organised by the Madras Institute of Development Studies in association with Dalit Intellectual Collective, Vikas Adhyayan Kendra and Prakriti Foundation as part of the Institute's ongoing Malcolm Adiseshiah Centenary Celebration.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2010