Saturday, 28 January 2012

A Film With A Difference

(This article first appeared in The Hindu, dated January 28, 2012)
It took 14 years to make the 200-minute-long documentary “Jai Bhim Comrade” on Dalits. 
Director Anand Patwardhan explains why.
A still from the documentary. Photo: Special Arrangement
A still from the documentary.
On January 9, in the bylanes of Byculla's BIT Chawl, a documentary was premiered after sundown. A huge white screen ensured that people from the three-storeyed buildings nearby could also view the film. For over three hours Anand Patwardhan's “Jai Bhim Comrade” took us on a musical-historical journey. Beginning with the rousing voice of Vilas Ghogre, we move quickly to the police killings in Ramabai Nagar in 1997. Suddenly, the camera takes us inside Ghogre's home, where he scribbled his last words before committing suicide on the fifth day after the police firing. 

Why did the film take 14 years to make? “I wanted to continue filming till all the false cases against the people in the colony were removed, or until the police officers who had ordered the firing were sent to jail,” explains Patwardhan. The Ramabai Nagar case took its own natural course. Another thread was exploring the tension between caste and class. Patwardhan says, “Vilas was a Dalit who became a Marxist, but then chose to reassert his Dalit identity, by tying a blue scarf as he hung himself. I wanted to understand this seeming clash of identities. As Vilas was no more, I began filming others from his musical tradition. A few were Leftists like Vilas, others celebrated Dr. Ambedkar's life and message. I wanted to do justice to this whole spectrum.” 

A still from the documentary. Photo: Special Arrangement
A still from the documentary

The spectrum is broad indeed — from a proud song describing the Dalit who became a barrister, to those that recount the travails of migrant workers to the city; from lullabies based on the teachings of the Buddha, to naughty qawaalis that celebrated sexuality equally by men and women. Almost each song is juxtaposed with evocative visuals — claustrophobic slum-dwelling illustrated by a chicken coop; “My barrister husband is coming home” juxtaposed with visuals of men sweeping the streets. As Patwardhan points out, this is not an ethnographic film. “It is a record of the people and events I encountered. Many were not recognised as singers. Saraswati Bansode was a housewife. Shanta Bai Gadpaile's husband was a poet and she remembers his songs. The tradition is so strong that ordinary people just sang.” 

Many songs in the film narrate the game politicians have played with Dalits. In one instance, at an Ambedkar Jayanti function, small boys are dancing to the tune of “In the Mumbai... we are the Bhai..” from Bollywood's “Shootout At Lokhandwala”. Somehow the lyrics fit — Dalits have been used by the underworld, as well as political parties. 

Actual statistics higher
The mention of the Khairlanji incident was thus expected. “Official records show that two Dalits are raped and three killed daily. The actual statistics are higher. The film speaks of two other cases from Beed — a teacher murdered and a girl raped. So people cannot say that Khairlanji was a one-off incident which won't happen again. These incidents are part of our daily occurrence,” says Patwardhan. 

The fact that instead of addressing this, Dalit leaders are busy flirting with the Congress or with Hindutva, got the audience to acknowledge the movement's weak leadership today. Several of them, including Dr. Ambedkar's grandson Anandrao, felt that the documentary was a wake-up call. But what generated most outrage was the way in which Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) was forced by the police to go underground. 

Singers and poets
Patwardhan had met KKM in 2007 during a memorial meet at Ramabai Nagar. He followed these cultural activists and their families as they raised questions about the effects of a “development” that displaces the poor and Dalits alike. In June 2011, Sheetal Sathe and all the people from KKM had been pushed underground as they had been branded as Naxalites. “That's when I realised that I have to start showing this film. I want this country to understand who these singers and poets are so that people like Sheetal can come out in the open again and prove that they hadn't done anything wrong, anything more than speak up for the powerless,” says Patwardhan. 

The premiere on January 9 had its effect. Born out of the Dalit movement, the film was going back to the same people on the day when they remember Dalit Panther theatre activist Bhagwat Jadhav. A resident of BIT Chawl, Jadhav was killed during a rally in 1974, when Shiv Sena supporters dropped a grinding stone on his head. Since then, every year, his family conducts a memorial talk. There couldn't have been a better tribute this year than the premiere of “Jai Bhim Comrade”. 

A still from the documentary. Photo: Special Arrangement
A still from the documentary

“Basti screenings are a must. The intellectual class in India laps up and understands every political nuance of the developed world, but the reverse is not true. We like to be spoon-fed with over-simplified cliches, and that concession I have refused to make,” says Patwardhan, about his 200-minute-long documentary.
But tell him that this is his first documentary that has managed to get a Censor certificate without a major struggle, then he smiles, “Perhaps the democratic system is maturing? I think the upper castes know that they have been oppressing Dalits for thousands of years. If Dalits don't have a right to say ‘Gande Mataram', then who does?” 

Friday, 6 January 2012

Greeting 'Tashi Delek' in Mumbai

On November 12 last year, 25 people congregated in a Bandra flat to prepare and eat momo. This delicacy was the magnet that drew about 20 Tibetans living in Mumbai to come together and chatter in the language of their homeland – greeting each other with 'tashi delek'. The news of 11 monks immolating themselves in the Kirti Monastery in the Ngaba region of eastern Tibet seemed like a news from a distant land. Only, this was news about their own people.

This momo party was the only time when Tenzin Choedhar (26) saw so many Tibetans in Mumbai come together, in the 5 years that she has been living and working in the city. “Tibetan students in Delhi have the time and space to raise the issue of Tibet. Moreover, they are mostly living together as a community in the refugee camp. But Mumbai is the launchpad for our careers. There is a feeling of helplessness about our identity. But we aren't able to do much and hence have no other option but to move on with our own lives,” says Choedhar, who grew up in Delhi, far from the Tibetan refugee camp. She works at a MNC that does business in China and Taiwan. “I never engage in any political discussions with my colleagues, because I am not too clear of what I have to say.”

The story is a little different for Tenzin Methok, who had been accompanying her father to Mumbai every winter, selling sweaters in Parel. Raised at a boarding in Ooty, Methok came to Mumbai for her graduate studies. “People assumed I was from Nepal or Manipur. When I would correct them, they would have many questions about I was not living in my own country. I did not have clear answers myself, until I met Kallianpur jii,” says the petite girl, who now works with a HR firm in Powai.

Fifty-eight-year old CA Kallianpur has kept alive Friends of Tibet (FoT) since 2003 from his home in Bandra – the site for the momo party. An avid reader of military history, he prepares packages of articles on understanding Tibet better. These are posted to people, whose addresses he might have come across through lay visiting cards. “Most Mumbaikars do not know where Tibet is. After explaining the Geography, I tell people that Tibet's case for independence is clear under international law,” says Kallianpur. His residence has become the arrival lounge for Tibetans who wish to shape their career in Mumbai.

Bhutanese Kelly Dorji came to Mumbai to further his studies, and became a ramp model and actor. In 2008, he was invited by his aunt to join her in praying for Tibetans at a rally in Mumbai, during the Beijing Olympics. Dorji's grandmother and several other relatives are from Tibet. "I felt honoured when I was asked to say a few words to the large gathering there, which comprised mostly exiled Tibetan monks. I stood in prayer on Indian soil as a guest, praying for the people of Tibet. But I think Mumbai had the same reaction as most of India – after a fleeting glimpse, the page was turned to the latest scores in cricket!"

But 'career' no more means becoming a waiter or hairdresser. “Today, you will find many Tibetans taking up significant roles in large companies. They are well-educated, and have developed the confidence of doing much more than making the traditional noodles,” says Tibetan writer and activist Tenzin Tsundue, who lived in Mumbai for five years. He was one of the founding members of FoT in Mumbai in 1998, which organised a seven-day cultural Festival of Tibet in March 2000, across several venues in the city. It was in Mumbai where Tsundue nurtured his talent as a writer and poet, under the guidance of several noted poets of the time.

The momo party was Tsundue's idea. He knew that the Tibetans in Mumbai ought to be woven into a community. That was also the week when the Bollywood film 'Rockstar' was to be released. The Tibetans were thankful to filmmaker Imtiaz Ali for talking about Tibet and freedom, through a song. However, the Indian Censor Board dashed their hopes when it asked the filmmaker to blur 'Tibet' during a scene that carried a banner of 'Free Tibet'. Tsundue met the Board but brought back no happy results. The previous week, on November 4, 25-year-old Sherab Tsedor had set himself on fire outside the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, in solidarity with the 11 monks who had immolated themselves. Alert cops managed to rush him to a hospital. Today, Tsedor updates his progress in healing on Facebook.

“Facebook is one of the best mediums for us in Mumbai to stay connected,” said Dolkar Tenzin. She created the 'Tibetan Mumbaikars' community page on Facebook, and updates it with news and events pertaining to Tibet. A few non-Tibetans are also part of this small online group of 72. Methok, on the other hand, says that she has become synonymous with being the contact person for any Tibetan who wants to step foot in Mumbai. “Some days, I have to bunk work to be at the programmes organised for Tibet. It was easier when I was a student at St Xavier's College,” she says.

The girls are joined by Pasang Tashi (25) who is hoping to take up a more active role in organising events and demonstrations. Pasang was separated from his parents at the age of three, when he was brought to live and study in Dharamsala. He completed his graduate studies in Bangalore and came to Mumbai in 2010. “I do not miss my family as I did not develop any bond with them. China did not allow me to know my family. Now, I can only try to get more people to know about us and stand by us in our freedom movement. We cannot lose committed people to self-immolations, which is a desperate step. The Kirti monastery has become an extreme prison, with no food or water being supplied to the devout monks inside,” Pasang explains.

Ask him if he remembers anything of his early years in Tibet, and he says, “My only memory of Tibet are the mountains, the grass all around, and our house which was a tent. All of that feels like a dream, as though I never lived it.” Much like the nomadic lifestyle of the resident Tibetans, and the ones in exile, Pasang lives in the office of the production house where he works.

Remembering those who self-immolated themselves for a free Tibet, for a better tomorrow -- at McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, November 2011.  © Nitesh Mohanty