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Jai Bhim Comrade: Documentary film review

By Sayalee Karkare
August 8th 2012





For those unfamiliar with the work of AnandPatwardhan, his latest film, a three and a half hour documentary on caste issues may strike as unappetizing fare. To be fair, their trepidations are not unfounded – far too many “non-fiction” films go on far too long, winding up as a maudlin ode to an issue the viewer never really cared about to begin with, and remains indifferent to, even as the film ends. Jai Bhim Comrade, made from over 300 hours of footage gathered over the course of 7 years, and a runtime of over 200 minutes, appears to run this risk. But in the skillful hands of Anand Patwardhan, the film emerges as engaging, moving and insightful right to the very end. At a time when commercial cinema is shrinking in duration to accommodate the purportedly reducing attention spans of its viewers, the extremely well-made film about caste struggle in Maharashtra through protest music and democratic activism, is proof that length does not matter, as long as a story is engaging and well-told.


The film opens with a massacre that took place in 1997 at Ramabai Nagar, Mumbai following the desecration of a statue of Ambedkar, a Dalit hero, when police opened fire on the crowd of protesters. It focuses, in particular, on Vilas Ghogre, Dalit poet and singer who committed suicide upon witnessing the aftermath of the atrocities. In fact, the film is a tribute to Ghogre, who was a friend of Patwardhan. From this point on, the film moves seamlessly backwards and forwards, telling multiple interlinked stories, all anchored within the overall narrative of caste struggle in Maharashtra.


Given the complexity of the subject matter, the film is wide in scope. It touches upon various stories – the gruesome Khairlanjimassacre in which a Dalit family was lynched to death and the women paraded naked before being raped and murdered, the dangerously unhygienic work done by Dalitgarbagecleaners for a measly Rs. 73 per day all the while standing ankle deep in waste for over 12 hours, the martyrdom of various young leaders while fighting for the Dalit cause – and through all these numerous narratives the film effectively drives home the point that caste and class in India remain practically synonymous. The massive wealth inequities in India continue to operate along caste lines, with the Dalits benefitting little or not at all from the country’s gains in growth. Lacking political and economic power, the Dalits have been sucked into a vicious cycle of poverty that seems hard to break out of. The documentary also highlights the fact that urban India remains largely ignorant about or unconcerned with these issues. Outside a well-known South Mumbai college, a feckless youth tells the camera, “Dalit issue frankly is definitely ameliorated over the past half a decade or so” but when asked how he knows this, admits that he doesn’t personally know anyone “like that”.


The film also sheds light on the less-explored rationalist discourse within the Dalit tradition. In an age in which the wide reach of the media has only served to deeply entrench superstition, blind faith and irrationality, it is heartening to see a clear stream of reason running determinedly through these dispossessed communities. The secular atheistic world-view, for all purposes non-existent in mainstream Indian public discourse, finds unlikely support in Dalit quarters where, forsaken by god, religion and without any hope of salvation in the afterlife, they are forced to look for truth and meaning in this life itself. In contrast, the leaders of mainstream political parties making pompous, public appearances dressed literally as gods, with Krishna’sSudarshanChakraand golden chariot in tow, come off as laughably anachronistic.


As the producer, director, cinematographer and editor of the film, Jai Bhim Comrade belongs solely to Patwardhan. He is the auteur of the film in every sense of the word. While this works for the story-telling aspect of the film, specifically in that, that it brings everything together, and “everything” here encompasses the entire history of caste struggle in independent India, right from Ambedkar’s contributions to present-day struggles, which is hands-down a fantastic achievement, it works somewhat against what could have been a more balanced narrative. That not a single moderate, secular person from the privileged strata appears in the film is a disservice to the many Indians who are sympathetic to the Dalit cause. Every upper-caste character shown in the film is either foaming at the mouth spouting racist slogans, making genocide-inciting speeches or appearing distressingly ignorant about caste issues. Suffice it to say, the only sympathetic and socially-conscious upper-caste voice that we hear in the film belongs to Patwardhan himself.


While this paints an extremely gloomy and dour picture of liberal India, fortunately it also makes for some unexpectedly comedic moments in the film. For instance, when a Dalit woman sings that a woman is nothing without her husband and celebrates him as “pati parmeshwar” (an incarnation of god), Patwardhan drolly points out that her husband is, in fact, a drunkard. Similarly, when a well-off woman complains of the large amounts of human waste left behind at ShivajiPark, Mumbai during the annual rally held in honour of Dr. Ambedkar, Patwardhan asks her, if she thinks rich people go to the toilet less often and “piss perfume” unlike the Dalits. Admittedly a bit crude, these jabs in a counter-intuitive way expose the stark gap between the positions of leftist intellectuals like Patwardhan and the liberal right. While the rest of the film seems to imply the complicity of the urban elite in various caste crimes, in these little scenes they come off as mostly naive, uninformed and confused. Theirs is a crime of omission, their befuddled expressions seem to suggest, rather than a crime of malicious intent.


Ultimately, where the film makes the deepest connect is not in its relentless tirade against Hindutva and upper-caste dominance, but in the intimate family portraits that it paints of life in shanties and villages across the state. It is these vignettes of their day-to-day struggle for existence that the humanity of the poor and the wretched truly shines through. For instance, one of the most heart rending songs in the film, sung by Sheetal Sathe of the KabirKalaManch, a cultural outfit for the protesters, is a moving odetomotherhood in all its manifestations. In another poignant scene, an illiterate mother discusses the merits of educating daughters, pointing out that every generation can only walk a certain mile and it is for the next generation to go a step further. Seen from this context of complex human bonds and chains, Vilas Ghogre’s suicide as a reaction to the death of his friends in a random, godless act takes on a meaning beyond the simply political and strikes at the very universality of human experience. Sorrow, grief, love and attachment are the same for everyone, the film seems to say, irrespective of caste, and this is where it makes its strongest point.


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