Like everyone else, I watched Kabali too. After long I was looking forward to a Rajnikant film and its associated frenzy.  I was expecting a typical masala movie (I had NO prior idea of Pa Ranjith’s filmography). But then Kabali was something different. It is a film about a Malaysian Tamil man, a labourer, who rises  to become a leader of the Tamil community and eventually becomes a don.

When I was watching the film, I thought that it was very interesting that the film had Ambedkar references throughout. To have Rajnikant’s character talk about the importance of dressing up well in suits was powerful but so were the subtle references to people living in an Ambedkar colony in Chennai. But post-interval, I was bored and restless. Moreover, the gory violence put me off.  I also felt that the character of Tony Lee (villain) was no match to the persona of Kabali. Meanwhile, I remember coming out of the theatre a tad bored wondering how the film would have turned out if it was tightly edited. I promptly came back and posted my opinion on FB too. I felt my opinion being validated since many people on social media echoed my views about it being a poor film.

However, I was curious to know about Dalit community’s reaction to the film. So, I started looking up the profiles of members of Dalit community that I regularly follow on social media. Everybody seemed to be going gaga over the film. They spoke praises about how Rajnikant’s powerful dialogues about Ambedkar. Nobody spoke about the fact that the film was slow; that it gets boring after a point of time. They also vented their anger against the mainstream media and people from savarna communities for dissing the film. It was puzzling for me as I wondered why they weren’t seeing what I was. Turns out it was I, who couldn’t see.

To explain my point, I am taking the liberty to share a Facebook post of Gaurav Somwanshi, whose public posts I follow.

“I won’t stop talking about ‘Kabali’, get used to it or unfollow/unfriend. I felt the full power of a metaphor, a symbol, an icon, all of that I felt it while sitting in the houseful theatre of Aurangabad watching a Tamil movie in theatre for the first time and witnessing the moment when all the theatre fell dead silent on hearing Rajnikant speak of Babasahebs name. Assertions are common all over the country but one may not be necessarily aware of the ones from other places, like many of us are still pleasantly surprised over Gujarat’s fight back.

So was Tamil cinema for many of those present in the theatre in Aurangabad. And symbolism had recently been introduced to the Marathi audience via ‘Fandry’ and ‘Sairat’ and had caused immense churning of repressed minds with their arrival on the theatre, mine included, but ‘Kabali’ was something else altogether. The comparison isn’t just because both movies have shown caste realities and is made by Dalit/bahujans but because of their timing too.

In ‘Fandry’ and ‘Sairat’ you would see the icons of Babasaheb and Phule couple at the backdrop of a scene where something is happening, and you were supposed to make out the contrast. This was in itself something new to the audience. Because what we see on our home walls and our colony streets rarely ever makes to the theatre or the TV screen, if ever. And now it did.

But still. I wrote in my marathi review of Sairat then that art can be a mirror but also a hammer, and the ‘entry’ of caste realities into the movie world need not always be the victim route, but also the heroic route, the struggling route, the conquering route. I felt that absence strongly.

Until, ‘Kabali’.

When Rajnikant says that dialogue about the politics of wearing Dhoti and Suit by Gandhi and Babasaheb respectively and the rebellion contained in the act of wearing the suit, oh my god. Yes, just oh. my. god. The theatre was so overwhelmed that there was pin drop silence and then exchange of smiles to strangers to my right and left and back (shocked faces made my smile even broader).

The analogy of crabs not wanting others to succeed, the dialogues on claims to equality hurting them, the indefatigable spirit carried in Thalaivar’s suit, Babasaheb’s portrait in a reformative school and Buddha in the classroom, and so many more, all of them made me come out of the theatre a more positive person, with more faith in the movement than before, and also the desire to get my suit ironed.

Jai Bhim to Pa. Ranjith.”

I don’t know of any film (with an exception of Fandry and Sairat) that talks about caste and Dalit assertion in a way that Kabali does. I should confess that I have a poor knowledge of Indian language cinema in general. So I might be wrong in this regard. But then it’s hard to ignore the dominance of privileged caste and class narrative that surrounds Indian cinema overall.

It hit me that while I kept cribbing that the film was slow, boring etc. the people from the Dalit community were seeing something different. As I read more, I learnt more. Scores of people were seeing themselves on the big screen, in a heroic way, maybe, for the first time. They saw a massively popular star mouthing lines that were not merely dialogues alone. They saw symbols that they grew up with on screen with a huge star legitimising it. They saw their lives and values being echoed by a film- something that others saw as well. Maybe for them, it was not a mere Rajnikant film. It was a film that held a mirror to their values, their struggles, which was being legitimised by a popular star. It CANNOT be a mere film for them, no? Also, most importantly, this film was made by members of their own community. This was a story being told by one of them.

What happens when one sees oneself being depicted on the big screen? What happens when we know the way we’re being represented is being seen by others as well? What happens when we know others are ‘seeing’ us the same way we’re seeing ourselves? The reactions of the Dalit community answer these questions. To see and to be seen on such a large scale can be exhilarating. To have one’s experience validated through mass media can also be cathartic. Especially when it has been systematically ignored and stymied by our popular films.

Watching Kabali has been a humbling experience. It’s a reminder that my Savarna Brahmin background permeates into my unconscious and that there are some things I will never understand. While I still think that the film was stretched in many places, and that it was boring, it doesn’t matter. Especially when I see that the film is doing something bigger for a lot of people. That’s a hallmark of a good film too. And we all need to acknowledge that.

Some other pieces I’d recommend reading: Dhrubo Jyoti’s response


Can one be proud Brahmin?

I wrote this short note three years ago. However, I think the issue stays the same, my dilemmas stay the same. Increasingly, I have come across many discussions on Twitter about sexual violence against Dalit women. While there has been anger and outrage against the issue (and rightfully so!), the issue of caste implication in the violence against Dalit women seem to make many people (read Savarnas) extremely uncomfortable. In this backdrop, I see many of us talking about how Brahmins are ‘unfairly’ targetted. I am compelled to reshare an already old post because I feel strongly about this. Disclosure: I happen to belong to the Tamil Brahmin caste. And my blog post is a small attempt at deconstructing my own privilege. Read on:

This post made me revisit a dilemma I have had for quite some time now. I will revisit my dilemma later on. First of all, I want to respond to this post. In this post Rahul Pandita, a journalist, talks about his Brahmin-ness and wonders why he should not feel proud about his Brahmin roots and culture.

It is important to understand the caste hierarchy. Brahmins, as we all know, occupy the topmost position in the hierarchy. Their position that they enjoy and have enjoyed over a period of years is also based on severe oppression of lower castes. Simply put, one is not a Brahmin just like that. The position of that of a Brahmin cannot be without oppression of others. To put it very simply, Brahmins became possessors of knowledge purely on the basis of exclusion. Because of the position they enjoyed, they could conveniently exclude people who were non-Brahmins and their power also could be sustained by centuries of exclusion. It still continues. I haven’t seen many non-Brahmin priests. It is still the domain of Brahmins. So what are we saying, when one says, “I am proud of Brahmin culture.” Can we be proud of a culture that has evolved under conditions of having oppressed such a large majority? I definitely don’t think so. Culture cannot be devoid of politics. Culture that evolved then was also an outcome of political economy of that given period. Thus, it cannot be viewed in isolation of this historic background. It is important to know and understand under what conditions the cultural practices originated from.

Rahul Pandita is a Kashmiri Pandit. Their history of displacement has been very painful to say the least. It just appears to me that he has taken recourse to his culture as a response to being a victim of displacement. Taking recourse to one’s culture is a very common way of connecting to one’s roots especially in the face of physical displacement. The history of caste oppression of Dalits has been happening across centuries and cannot even be compared to the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits. Their history of oppression existed long before the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits. That is why I think Kashmiri Brahmin culture cannot be contextualised without taking into account the centuries’ old oppression of the Dalits.  Feeling sorry for the Dalits is futile if one doesn’t take into account that their condition is very deeply connected to the Brahmin culture.

Recently, there has been a website that has been famously frequented by many Tamil Brahmins. It is called the TamBrahm Rage. It is a site where Tamil Brahmins collectively make fun of all things Tam Brahm. When I checked out TamBrahm Rage, I experienced mixed reactions. When I go through Tam Brahm rage, I feel an acute discomfort when I see people laughing at all the jokes and the rituals. That is because I often wonder if they are just mocking or actually being critical of the entire thing. But even as I say this, I also laugh at the same jokes that that I am being critical of right now. That is because I think there are some things I have no control over. For instance, my upbringing. And it does have a major influence on things I do relate to. All my life, I have seen all these practices happening all around me. It has been an inevitable part of my growing up and my reality. I have never bothered to join the innumerable Tam Brahm groups on various social networking sites as I find it absolutely ridiculous to talk at a platform where the main reason of association is that of being a Brahmin. But then, I do frequent Tam Brahm rage sometimes because it does consist of some (of the many) questions I asked in my childhood which were left unanswered. Many of which are also ultimately responsible for my disregard to Brahminism as a whole.

The issue of personal identity is a very complex one. While I don’t consider myself as a Brahmin per se, I am one by default, in terms of my upbringing; in terms of certain privileges I have enjoyed being one. While I consciously do not associate myself with the identity of being a Brahmin and its associated rituals, I wonder if I can be away from it at all? Ideally I would want the destruction of the entire caste system and the annihilation of caste identity.  But then, I also wearily sometimes wonder, is it possible?

Can one really separate culture from the oppressive conditions it thrived in? Carnatic classical music has been a preserve of only Brahmins till now. This clearly means that Brahmins would have isolated everyone outside of their community in the spread of the art. No wonder we only have Brahmin performers ruling the roost. But then, I love Carnatic music very much. I often wonder where I stand. I often wonder if I can ever enjoy it without these confusions in my head.

Recommended readings

  1. A primer on caste privilege: http://writingcaste.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/a-primer-on-caste-privilege/
  2. http://kufr.blogspot.in/2011/06/why-bant-singh-cant-go-to-rahul-pandita.html
  3. https://twitter.com/AmbaAzaad/status/476246879944982528

Ganesha Multimedia

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The same old tune for Lord Ganesha

Mumbai: In February 2011, the Aurangabad bench of Bombay High Court passed an order directing the state government and the local self-government bodies to ban Plaster of Paris idols in favour of environmentally friendly clay ones. Narendra Dabholkar, the president of Maharashhtra Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Maharashtra’s anti-superstition group) was a happy man. The order was given against the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) he had filed. There were still seven months for Ganesh Chaturthi. Government has time to act upon the order he hoped. And then it was September. Ganesh Chaturthi came and went. Most people celebrated by bringing PoP idols of Lord Ganesha and also bid him adieu with loads of fanfare. Dabholkar was dismayed.

“Seven months is sufficient amount of time for the Government to act up. Why wasn’t anything done?” asks Dabholkar. The government did take up some measures. It did construct artificial ponds for immersion. “The government hasn’t done much. Despite the court order, the immersion of the idols painted with toxic paints went ahead all over the state. We are now planning to file a report to the Supreme Court. Let’s see what happens,” says Dabholkar.

High Court order

The High Court in its order clearly mentioned that the idol makers should be directed to make idols of clay and that PoP idols should be banned. Besides, the court also observed that only herbal colours be used to paint the Ganesh idols in order to prevent water pollution. The High Court also directed the state government and all the local self government bodies including Municipal Corporations, Zilla Parishads and Gram Panchayats to make sure water pollution does not take place.

Shiv Sena unhappy

Immediately after the issuance of the order, Uddhav Thackeray, president of Shiv Sena lashed out against it. He had said that there is no question of PoP idols affecting water sources since they are not immersed inside potable water sources. Clarifying Shiv Sena’s stand, MLA Subhash Desai said, “It is not that we are against the interventions that safeguard the environment. However penal actions would not serve the purpose. The ban cannot be implemented immediately. There are many livelihoods at stake here.  The idol makers have made moulds of many sizes over a period of time which they use regularly. If a change in forced upon them, it won’t work. There has to be awareness and personal initiative. The change can happen only gradually. The change has to happen voluntarily through mass awareness programmes.”

However, there are mixed reactions among the idol makers. Some opine that only huge clay idols are expensive and that the ban will affect the mandal more than the common man. Ram Khembulkar, a professional idol maker from Kumbharwada in Kalyan says, “I would welcome the ban on PoP idols. People are not going to stop buying idols if they are not of PoP. We will have to start working early if the idols are made of clay. But we will also get paid more for it.”  Ashok Chavan, president of Lalbaughcha Raja, the most popular Ganesh Mandal in Mumbai says, “Clay idols are very delicate. That is why we prefer large PoP idols.”

The polluting effects of PoP idols and the toxic paints have been well documented. In early 2007, Shyam Asolekar, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai conducted a study where idols of different materials—PoP, clay, newspaper pulp—were immersed in aquarium-like glass tanks to observe the affect-effects of water and the disintegration process of the idols. The findings revealed that PoP idols remained intact even after several months. The idols made of newspaper pulp disintegrated within couple of hours of it being in the water. The idols made of clay disintegrated within 45 minutes.

‘There is no eco-friendly idol’

Asolekar says that despite ‘shadoo clay’ being the most environment friendly of all the materials, it is still a foreign element to a water body and that aquatic life does get affected by its presence. Also because paper mash is an organic substance resulting into disintegration taking place inside the water bodies, it also results into lowering the levels of oxygen since disintegration requires consumption of oxygen. This results in to the death of fish, he says.

Asolekar says that the main problem lies not with the usage of plaster of paris idols painted with toxic paints, but with the immersion process. “The main problem lies in immersion. The sheer number of idols that get immersed is harmful for the water bodies,” he says. In his paper he argues that since the water bodies are already filled with silt and sediment owing to rapid urbanisation and other development processes, we cannot afford to deposit anything more inside our water bodies.

That is why he proposes a radical solution and says that people should avoid immersion of idols inside the water bodies. “The immersion need not be every year. It can be once in two years, five years or there can be no immersions at all. In my family, we have the same idol for the last 11 years. It is as good as new. A slight change in the way we celebrate our festival will definitely go ahead in saving our water bodies.”

Apart from the petition filed by Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, Janhit Manch, an NGO in Mumbai had also filed a PIL in 2007 against the polluting activities pertaining to Ganesh Chaturthi. In response to the PIL, the High Court in 2009 had asked the Central Pollution Control Board to draft guidelines for idol immersion to prevent pollution during these festivals. The report clearly states that idols and paints should be made of natural materials.

Bhagwanji Raiyani, who filed a Public Interest Litigation in 2007 says, “The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) did take measures like creating artificial ponds for immersion thereby dissuading people form immersing in other water bodies. But the water has to be deposited somewhere. They will put it inside the sea which will affect the fish. A large number of us eat fish. The toxic materials will be back in our system”

The fight for environment friendly Ganesh festival continues. Both Rayani and Dabholkar plan to continue their fight to prevent pollution during the festival. Interestingly, there is a common thread that binds the duo— both are atheists!