Cinema of Resistanceby Reema Moudgil June 1 2020, 6:44 pm Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 33 secs
Reema Moudgil walks us through some compelling cinema over the last seventy years of India’s independence, which has chronicled resistance of the oppressed against their oppressors in recent Indian History.
Decades before Article 15, a certain film delivered a stunning cinematic punch line against oppression. A woman of privilege who lives in the “upper” regions of a fictional city, appears in front of men who have gathered to decide whether a nullah (watercourse) running through the “lower” parts of the city is dirty or not.
The woman’s father is an all-powerful man named “Sarkar” who diverted the noxious nullah towards the basti (slum) of the poor to further his real estate dreams. He has bought supporters in the media and in the municipal body to discredit protestors who think the nullah is a health hazard.
Everyone is on the verge of agreeing that the nullah does not exist, that it is in fact a clean stream and that the nullah has nothing to do with the poor people dying of disease. A rebel who has been fronting the civil movement against the injustice is about to be blamed and persecuted because he is questioning the unequal power dynamic between the upper and the lower cities.
Sarkar’s daughter, once the beloved of the rebel, is torn between conscience and conditioning, and finally chooses a side. She appears in front of her father and his cronies, covered in the filth of the nullah where she dunked herself from head to toe to prove the point that the water is indeed filthy. The truth wins finally because it is inarguable.
As far back as in 1947, this final scene from the film Neecha Nagar, painted a cautionary picture of the divide that would continue to expand in independent India. Writer Khwaja Ahmed Abbas and director Chetan Anand based the film on a story by Hayatullah Ansari, and arguably gave Indian cinema its first shot at wrenching realism.
This was the first Indian film to earn applause at Cannes, and shared the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (Best Film) award at the festival. The film predicted and rightly so that even in the absence of divisive colonialism, Indians who reside in a metaphorical Neecha Nagar, in the lower social and economic regions of the country, will continue to suffer.
Lines like “Jo dar ke bhaag gaya use phir kahin jagah nahin milti.. darein woh jo zulm karte hain,” (he who fears and runs away will not get place in society.. let those fear who inflict injustice) spoke of an unequal milieu where fear is the weapon of mass subjugation but is blunted when faced by mass protest and the courage of someone willing to step in the filth in order to prove that it exists.
In Article 15, it is a Dalit who steps into a sewer in search of the truth, not a man or woman of privilege but still, the film is a certain version of protest cinema much needed today to counter popular narratives of those who have the most privilege but feign victimhood.
Article 15 despite its flaws gets one thing right; it uses the word “caste” to address the issues related with caste.
For those looking for a Dalit who had the autonomy and punch lines of a mainstream hero can refer to JP Dutta’s Ghulami (1985). Here a peasant’s son (Dharmendra) fights an entrenched feudal system and is scarred irrevocably in his childhood when his mother is made to carry her footwear on her head only because she made the mistake of appearing before a Zamindar while wearing her mojris.
The young son watches this and points out the irony of a milieu where goddesses are worshipped and women like his mother are humiliated. He rebels against separate pots of water for lower and higher caste children in the school and is often punished for his temerity. He is not referred to as a Dalit but as someone whose “chhoti jaat” (lower status) strips him of privilege in every sense.
Years later when he returns to his village as an educated man who thinks books can save “apne log” (our people) from persecution, he realizes that not much has changed. His father, an impoverished farmer has died in debt, land grabbing is rampant, lower caste women like his school master’s daughter (Anita Raj) are soft targets for violation, a teenaged groom from a lower caste can be shot if he dares to ride a horse in his baraat and the war over water continues.
In the end, he along with a retired policeman and a falsely accused army jawan forms a little army of resistance to challenge the status quo. They become “baaghi” and in the climax, gather all the bahi khatas containing the misery of hundreds of farmers and set the pile on fire. Till the end, his self-respect remains inviolable and one of the most memorable scenes is when he stops someone in mid sentence to assert his full name and identity and says, “Ranjeet Singh Chaudhari kaho thakur.”
Ghulami when released was a resounding hit because it did something unusual. It presented the ugliness of the caste system in a commercial format and so it did not make the audience too uncomfortable. It was beautifully shot by Ishwar Bidri, had rousing dialogue by OP Dutta, glorious music by Laxmikant Pyarelal and cashed on the star power of a charismatic ensemble cast while poignantly showing us that even a hero who reads Maxim Gorky’s Mother and wants to be a non-violent change maker has no place in a system determined to “keep him in his place.”
Protests here had an air of self-determination that similar films often seem to lack. Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog with emphatic dialogues by Jainendra Jain questioned the hypocrisy of the caste system where exploitation of underprivileged women is rampant but upper caste women are not allowed to even marry outside their own caste. The film is about a young widow who has been raped in her marital home but is forbidden to seek love.
Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985) is among the few films that have unflinchingly explored caste politics and the problem of bonded labor. One of the reasons why such films are not made often is that writers like Shaiwal who wrote the story on which Damul was based and who also wrote Mrityudand do not get a seat often at the table that is the Hindi film industry.
Socially aware cinema like Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen was the offshoot of writing that was connected to grass root issues. Do Bigha Zameen for instance was based on a short story about a debt ridden farmer and was written by composer Salil Chowdhury who himself had been involved in the peasant movement and was an active member of the Indian People’s Theatre Movement.
Not many writers today can boast that close a connection with Indians that struggle on the fringes of our consciousness, waiting to be acknowledged.
Voices like that of Nagraj Manjule, a Dalit film maker who made Sairat in Marathi about the horrific fallout of love across caste lines and Neeraj Ghaywan who explored both moral policing and inter-caste love in the heartbreakingly poignant Masaan, are few and far between.
Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, the writer of Neecha Nagar made his directorial debut in 1945 with a film based on the Bengal famine of 1943. It was called Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth) and he too was associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). He also directed Shehar Aur Sapna (1963) to discuss the disenfranchisement, oppression and cruelty that poverty brings along with it.
The film shows how a young couple unable to find a home in a growing metropolis is forced to live in a discarded drainpipe. On a metaphorical note, the last scene shows a coming together of the urban poor as they form a human chain to stop a bulldozer while the heroine delivers a baby. Underscoring once again the growing chasm between dreams and reality.
The alternative cinema movement in the seventies bravely tried to break away from commercial formats to question feudal and caste based oppression. Sadgati (1981), a tele film by Satyajit Ray narrated Premchand’s devastating story of a lower caste man who even in death is denied the dignity of final rites.
A few films also gave a fleeting cathartic triumph to its victims.
Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala is the best example of this. Set in the 1940’s, the film’s final scene when a bunch of isolated and traumatized women choose to teach a lesson to the subedar who breaks in the spice factory where they are hiding, is both a feminist statement and an assertion of humanity in the face of power and entitlement.
In Benegal’s debut film Ankur (1974), a young landlord who has seduced and abandoned a Dalit house help (Shabana Azmi in her national award winning debut), is forced to confront his own cowardice when the woman, now pregnant with his child, screams at him and shames him for beating her mute husband.
Mass uprising as a form of protest was used in many films and also in Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975). The film depicted how feudal structures sexually exploit underprivileged women. The uprising in the end however takes with it not just the perpetrators of systemic oppression but those who opposed it.
In both Nishant and in Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980), what is repeatedly underscored is that when a crime is committed by powerful men, the machinery of justice and law often chooses to grind the victims further.
In Aakrosh, Lahanya Bhiku (Om Puri) is accused of the murder of his wife Nagi even though those who can and do rig the system raped her. Vijay Tendulkar who further explored corrupt politicians in Nihalani’s cop drama Ardh Satya, defanging the rot in the way of policing wrote both films.
The engagement with corruption and protest continued in another Nihalani film Sanshodhan (1996) that though not as powerful as his earlier work, addresses how powerful men misuse the Constitutional Amendment allowing reservation of women’s seats in Panchayats.
In the film, a young, educated woman decides to look closely at issues of land grabbing and bonded labor and inspires others to come together to fight for a school building about to be appropriated by the sarpanch.
However, one of the most powerful films about protest and urban apathy is Govind Nihalani’s ensemble film Party (1984) - based on a play by Mahesh Elkunchwar. The film opens with these lines, Khatarnak yatra ke apne aakarshan hain, aakarshan yatra ke apne khatre” - The perilous journey has its charm but the seemingly charming journey has its perils.
The poem in a way sums up the danger and the freedom that the road less taken offers in life and in art. The film was like a clenched warning against apathy that could be individual, artistic or political. The poem has lines cautioning us against disconnection with the pain and the persecution of those whose rebellion is considered “dangerous” while the circumstances that cause their anger remain unchanged.
The film is set in a powerfully connected socialite’s drawing room. Here writers, social climbers and jaded party hoppers discuss a poet who has left a promising literary career to now join a tribal rebellion over land rights in a forested region. They wonder whether art should be political or not.
It is left to one irate journalist to finally point out that while they are discussing the pros and cons of protest art, a poet’s tongue has been cut off because he protested too much against the oppression of the tribal community. The film still is relevant because it shows that in times of a crisis, there are two kinds of people, two kinds of artists; those who play it safe and take the side of the power and those who speak truth to power no matter what the cost.
It is very easy to see both kinds among and around us today.
In the end though, it would be important to not forget that while cinema and films like Article 15 can only talk about “unsafe” topics, the real change must come from people who are willing to stand up for one another.