November 7, 2013

Jai Bhim Comrade Screening

Next in the n+1 film series is Jai Bhim Comrade, directed by Anand Patwardhan and presented by Nikil Saval and Anand Vaidya. The screening will take place at 6:30 PM on Thursday, November 7 at the n+1 office, at 68 Jay St., Ste. 405 in Dumbo.

Please RSVP to subs@nplusonemag.com. There is a $5 recommended donation.

Here’s Nikil’s introduction to the film:

What does it mean when a documentarian opens a film with a citation from one of his previous films? Jai Bhim Comrade starts with a protest march from director Anand Patwardhan’s earlier work, Bombay Our City (1985), with poet Vilas Ghogre singing revolutionary songs at the head of a Dalit labor parade. Patwardhan cuts from this happy, nostalgic image to a grisly newspaper headline from 1997—the year that India’s Hindutva wave began to peak—announcing the poet’s suicide. Six days earlier, in a city newly christened “Mumbai,” police had opened fire on a Dalit protest in Ramabai Colony (a Dalit neighborhood), killing ten. The tragedy had been too much for Ghogre to take, and his despair over the curdled, reactionary mood of the country proved insurmountable.

Patwardhan—widely seen one the greatest documentary filmmakers from the subcontinent, and easily one of its most radical—had followed the poet over the years, tracking the fortunes of Ghogre’s attempts to forge a left-wing alliance of Dalits and Communists. The atrocity that precipitated Ghogre’s suicide seems to have prompted an inward turn for Patwardhan, a desire to look back at the peculiar fate of India’s left, and the country’s blandly smug face in the era of economic liberalization and Hindu nationalism. Since the start of his career in the 1970s, when India was assailed by authoritarianism and left-wing insurgencies, he had followed social movements that few other writers and filmmakers took an interest in. Towards the end of the millennium, the movements he had followed were faltering, or imploding; right-wing politics had seized cities and states, and what ten years earlier had been a small, and virulently small-minded, Hindu political party came to take control of Delhi. After the Ramabai massacre, Patwardhan spent fourteen years immersing himself in the politics of the truly disadvantaged in Mumbai and the surrounding state of Maharashtra, tirelessly interviewing subjects, showing up at mass meetings, and, above all, recording songs—the movement’s heart and its passion. Jai Bhim Comrade is a summation of this effort, a portrait of a community that is also a scan of a nation’s soul, in the midst of a massive and unpredictable transformation.

The “Bhim” of the title is Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar—a British-educated lawyer, leader of the independence movement, framer of India’s constitution, and Dalit. His cherubic, besuited, professional image appears everywhere in the film—statues in public squares, bright prints affixed to the walls of poor homes. “Comrade,” though, comes from the other side of the still unsolved equation: the language of India’s socialist movements, which more often than not argued that caste was less important than class. This internecine debate had tremendous consequences, splitting Ambedkar and his followers from the Indian left. Patwardhan’s title seems to be asking whether the two might ever be united, whether a search for a strong, justice-oriented left could emerge to redeem the country from its decades of working-class oppression, and centuries—millennia—of caste domination. Mercifully, Patwardhan’s film avoids the arcana of intellectual arguments about the overlapping nature of caste and class, preferring to let his subjects show it. In an early moment in the film, Patwardhan brings us to a garbage dump, where he finds a Dalit worker whose job is to load the garbage on to trucks. He carries the waste on his head in a basket that often leaks. The smell that dogs him all day means that can’t board public transportation, not without provoking protests. He walks everywhere. Having worked ten years for ten to twelve hours a day, he still has a paltry take home daily wage of 73 rupees—about $1.50.

Patwardhan overlays the scene with a socialist song about the oppression of the bosses, one of the many songs that he threads through the film, linking disparate people and places with the underlying story of the massacre, and its fallout. In his typically meandering but never less than arresting style, he intersperses these with surreal images of Hindutva rallies, capturing in short interviews or frames the grotesque sentiments of an incipient fascism. But he doesn’t shy away from showing the fracturing of Dalit politics as well, evincing a leftwing sobriety as admirable as it is rare. Few films are as searching, few filmmakers are as indefatigable. As dispiriting as its images and stories can be, Jai Bhim Comrade is still a hopeful plea for justice for the wretched of the earth, which once seen is not soon forgotten.