Frenetic Marathas at a rally praise Shivaji, a famous Maharashtra ruler. Political rallies are shot mainly through close-ups of the speakers...
.... interspersed with long shots of the crowds.
“If you can open the mouth of a lion to count his teeth, you know you are a true Maratha.” That’s the concept behind this symbolic drawing from the group Chhava, an extremist section of the Marathas, according to a Dalit Human Rights Activists organization.
A scene of the Bhagavad Gita played outdoors.
A scene of street theatre:“I am the creator of the Earth and creator of the human race.” “Says who?” “It's written in the book.” “I think you haven't read them.” “Illiterate!”
Prabhakar Pokrikar, a poet-singer.
Shantabai Gadpaile, remembering the verses of her deceased husband,...
... a dedicated Ambedkarite singer who promised Ambedkar himself he would sing for the movement until he died. The two men’s photographs and exchange of letters are hanging on the wall as a relic marking this promise.
Recently jailed and bailed-out activist singer Sheetal Sathe and her mother at home.
The tambourine is a symbol of the activist poet-singers. In the Sheetal Sathe family home, a tambourine is suspended over the goddesses’ statues.
Despite her upbringing in a religious family, music and singing were the entry point for Sheetal into the Kabir Kala Manch, through which she turned into a political and cultural activist.
Statements that people make unguardedly in the comfort of their own milieu act as evidence of the implied worlds that legitimate the thoughts expressed. A multiplicity of perspectives are implied by these worlds, and as the film explores worlds hostile to Dalits, it makes explicit how certain prejudiced statements derive from particular political and social contexts. The political and caste rallies are probably the strongest episodes showing these worlds in the film. For example, at the rallies and celebrations of the Chitpavan, a Brahmin caste, discourses about the strength of this group’s genes and other castes’ implied weakness abound. In a rally of Marathas proudly chanting slogans about their historical power, a man proclaims that he is ready for a blood bath, ready to fight for reserved "seats" or places “stolen” by the Dalits. Such well-documented hostility also frighteningly may portend what might come.
Another discriminatory stigma operates through the affirmative policy of reservation, which seeks Dalit integration into the education system and the professional world, similar to the U.S. historical model of “affirmative action.” However, if the policy’s goal was the eradicate castes and notions of untouchability, the reservation system comes with its own double bind. As a compromise between Dr. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, the policy of reserving seats for Scheduled Castes and Tribes means that for many the same vector used to discriminate against them now serves to secure their education and public sector jobs. Many who are not of the lower castes consider this a form of unfair treatment equivalent to “stealing” places in school and places at work. Similar discomfort emerges when it comes to proposing women's quotas or ethnic quotas, where quotas are perceived as a temporary “positive” discrimination that doesn't solve the real problems. This effort at redress goes against a meritocratic sensibility according to which excellence should be the ultimate vector for distributing positions; but the meritocratic sensibility also does not take into considerations the conditions that might allow one to perform with merit. Quotas are supposed to be a temporary crutch to integrate vulnerable segments of the population by guaranteeing them a certain number of jobs with better conditions, better education, and new possibilities for participation in the social sphere.
The unfortunate result is that Dalits often end up being known as “the reservation people.” As one young girl puts it: “we actually hate some of the reservation people and we don't feel like talking to them also.” While these policies ameliorate the conditions of large swaths of the population, it can also foster agitation insofar as interpersonal relations between the castes remain isolated and traditional—except for when it comes time to hire servants. Thus, without shame, a young man sitting at a coffee bar raises doubts as to the Dalits’ intellectual capacities, as does a Chitpavan learned warrior, a “respected” individual, who earlier in the film expressed the notion that the genes perpetuated in a caste determine their capacities for particular tasks. Through its spiral of interviews the film approaches the problem from different angles and different “worlds,” showing how religious beliefs are translated into social roles and positions to occupy in society. It is here that we comprehend the intransigence of the problem and the scale of the battles left to fight.
Singing, sharing, remembering:
When Anand Patwardhan came to Montréal to present his film at Concordia University in November 2012, he stated that Jai Bhim Comrade is probably the most accessible film he has made and has drawn his largest crowds. When he took the film into communities, including the different areas where the film was shot, he said the reception was such that people were reminded of the movement at its peak. Through the transmission of the music the movement created, the film reaffirms its grassroots dynamism. It transmits a diverse body of poetry, songs recorded in the past and present, political slogans, and speeches set to music. The soundtrack traverses the epic distance between singing and discussing. In the same ways that epics do, songs function here as mnemonic devices allowing for easier memorization and transmission of these tales. In addition, the vibrant and spirited poetry of these songs, along with the deeply resonant voices of their singers, allow for privileged access to the celebration of martyrs and emancipatory figures.
These performances can be linked to the traditions of folk theatre. Street theatre is an artistic, pedagogical, and political practice that has been used in subversive ways by activists combatting oppression, as well as by political parties for promoting their platforms in rural areas. Staged in a cinematic context as in this film, these representations are depicted in dynamic ways. Early in the documentary there is a dramatic enactment of the Bhagavad Gita episode in which Arjun questions Lord Krishna on his duties as a warrior and a prince. This short episode points to the divine scriptures as one of the roots that explain the caste system. The mise-en-scène transmits this connection between caste and religion with the liveliness of mythical representation. In contrast to this kind of reverent display, in a moment of street theatre a group of boys mimic the god Brahma. They are standing in the crowd, simply dressed and hooked arm in arm, pretending to be the multiheaded god in irreverent mockery. Their explanation of the caste system to their amused audience constitutes such an efficient tactic with their critical narrative embedded in their performance.
Street theatre brings together such ritual with scenes enacting exemplary figures from the social struggle. The most salient example is the re-enactment of Ambedkar burning the Manusmriti (the Hindu book of laws) on March 20th 1927. Since the Manusmriti contained the principles enslaving both Dalits and women, Ambedkar burned it in symbolic defiance. This re-enactment, notably performed by a group of women, is a gesture of stating once more the necessity of eradicating its principles. The symbolic act of mourning the death of Indian democracy performed by Bhai Sangare and his comrades is significant as well. In a sign of bereavement, the protesters shaved their heads on the street in front of the High Court housing the Gundewar Commission, responsible for inquiring into the Ramabai massacre (see glossary). These performances of protest convey layered meanings as they transmit their message, beyond an exclusively literal discursive regime. The performances’ sacrificial aspect gives them a spirit beyond utility, while inviting collective action or participation.
Poetics and politics of storytelling
When selecting songs, artists, contexts and topics treated, the filmmaker structures a narrative. When a film soundtrack has interviews and discussions at home and on the street, political speeches and slogans from a diversity of factions, caste rallies and those of political parties, the resulting narrative takes on a polyvocality. This orchestration functions in tandem with the visual track, creating a succinct mosaic of sounds and shots. In the case of the various campaigning and rallying posters of the political parties that show images of the politicians, the soundtrack supplements those official images with socially and politically suggestive songs. This narrative strategy articulates the film’s critical function. The cinematic storytelling in these cases—story-singing— recreates a political context for these songs by animating their signification in a certain “now,” visually materializing their critique. The visual counterpoint of this narrative treatment also creates particular life for these songs, as refashioned by the filmmaker. Street theatre and songs of resistance meet, bridging the fortified powers of the specific with the tacit problems of the real. Critical propositions remain unsaid but are shown.
The songs create spaces for “showing,” while the lyrics act as commentary on the moving images.
These lyrics from a song by Vilas are juxtaposed against the state of slums, of people sleeping on hard ground. Beside them is a shopping mall, that emblematic sign of a “reformed” neo-liberal India, with advertisements showing people smiling and dressed in western clothes over the slogan, “Shop, Eat, Celebrate.” Injustice finds expression in the contrast of “lifestyles,” and it is rendered explicit by the succession of images laid over songs with critical lyrics. These short sequences provide intervals where contrast of image and sound animates a momentary crystallization.
The film presents songs in segments, with only sections of lyrics and music occurring at any given moment. This creates an ongoing sound track that unifies scenes as tableaux as well as serves as a transition between different episodes, locations, interviews. The narration of events is interspersed with the song choruses, but we are not always sure if the same song continues from before. Such confusion suggests the idea of an encompassing hymn that belongs to everyone from the different milieus. The diversity of songs binds daily life to resistance. Protest marching songs are played over scenes of everyday labor. Songs celebrating martyrs are mixed with the obscene double entendre of qawali. (see glossary) Songs serve to bring a collective dimension to individual testimonies. Their performance puts forward “shared and collective” realities through which people are being called to recognize themselves. In protest songs of justice, protesters embrace shared words, thoughts, and political projects, singing them out loud. As Gadar the poetsinger points out, music is a tool: we are using God's methodology to reach out to people.
If songs performed on stage with musicians and in front of crowds may seem more flamboyant and attractive, I found the women singing in their homes strikingly affective. “Can I sing now?” asks Saraswati Bandose while she and Patwardhan are talking. We are in people’s homes, their huts, with their family members and photographs. “Away from” the organized movement lies everyday life, the force tranquille of ordinary necessity, having work, feeding children, facing adversity, within the comfort of the community one has built. With charming confidence, sitting in her kitchen, Shantabai Gadpaile delivers these poetic lines:
Sitting in her hut, wishing to sing and sometimes hiding her face with her saree, Saraswati Bandose speaks of having served her husband even though he was an alcoholic since her parents had chosen him. Discussing the “women's caste,” Patwardhan then asks what would have happened if the Dalits had not risen up? She replies that her situation is no longer the case for young women, since they are educated and who would not tolerate it. The status acquired by birth through which you are meant to accomplish particular tasks and not deserve education connects with a world with feminist struggles. As far as women are concerned in the prescribed Hindu culture, the Manusmriti states that their status is even lower than the then “Untouchables.” The film thus touches upon feminist issues, although they are not central. Sheetal Shate sheds light on the gap between the official position, that women’s liberation is a good thing, and the complexity of implementing it in concrete ways as she sings,
These verses bring to life a scene of injustice we sadly recognize in Saraswati’s story. Furthermore, they bring forward the need to break the intergenerational transmission of patriarchy, a call for liberated women and feminist husbands. A prominent model here could be the coupling of 19th century feminist and anti-casteist militants Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule. Today Sheetal Sathe and her husband mirror this exemplary couple, as the troupe highlights this fact while they are inviting their audience to greet the two. How did Sathe become the woman she is? In concrete ways, she shares with us how she got involved in activism, got married and developed her new body of socio-cultural principles while her family members were opposed.
As Patwardhan takes us to meet Sheetal's mother, we have a privileged access to the revealing intimacy of the mother-daughter relationship, including their respectful divergent paths. After she explains how activism entered their family life, the mother's fears emerge. No mother can bear any harm done to their children, but she says her daughter lives for the world.
Political action: the urgent
Jai Bhim Comrade was shot over the period of the court cases following the Ramabai massacre: fourteen years later, the court decided on a guilty verdict for the police officer accused of giving the order to fire. Patwardhan said in an interview with the British Film Institute that he thought this would constitute some kind of closure. A couple of days later, he learned that the officer was out on bail and that further proceedings were pending. “What is the point in taking pictures if you can't do anything? It is trouble for you and for us,” says the mother of a young rickshaw driver, a man who had gone to see what was happening and died in the Ramabai firing, after she received news that the condemned officer was not going to prison, but to the hospital.
The story is still to be pursued, to be continued. In fact, the events that forced Patwardhan to finish this film were the arrests of two members of the Kabir Kala Manch group under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Others had gone underground as they had been accused of being Naxalites (see glossary). For Patwardhan, it was a dangerous moment for the activists. The reality of their repression needed to be voiced; people needed to be informed of their struggle and what they were fighting for. The film is thus a communicative weapon in their fight for freedom since it documents a counterversion to the State’s accusation.
Patwardhan has been engaged with the principles of imperfect cinema since the very beginning of his career. The majority of his films have followed a social movement (whether centrally or peripherally) through its protests, leaders’ speeches, encounters with oppressors, and organizing assemblies. In other words, the films have documented a “community” united by their struggle and fighting for change. Yet times have changed since films like Waves of Revolution and Prisoners of Conscience, when guerrilla cinema was still in full bloom. Screenings back then were clandestine and attendance illegal. The very act of watching a film thus became a political act. As Patwardhan indicates in his 1981 essay, the way to identify a “guerrilla film” was through its function in repressive society. By its very nature, filmmaking had become a weapon and all the strategies necessary to fight and evade the enemy had to be considered. Filming with hidden cameras, saving prints, spreading revolutionary messages through clandestine channels were all guerrilla cinema practices. The aesthetics of the film would be subordinated to a political goal as cinema was considered a weapon in a greater struggle. As Patwardhan states, when there is no space to express dissent, activists transform into revolutionaries.
The situation around freedom of speech in India, with democratic spaces to screen these films and discuss these issues, is very different now from what it was then. In fact, even though there are now spaces to screen and discuss these films (albeit with censorship issues), the forms of oppression and the strategies of power have changed. The guerrilla filmmaker works at which level? How do you conceive of battle when the enemy lies with the people itself? It’s a war of cultures, as Bhai Sangare said, needing a cultural revolution, as Gadar claimed. The culture to be fought positions targets in a multitude of battles, as we see in Jai Bhim Comrade. More concretely, most of these many social movements and specific militant organizations are shown to be fighting similar cultural beliefs and practices. Patwardhan seems committed to documenting these concrete struggles in their singular commonality, to document particular contexts, persons, and events whose resistance points to larger communal problems.
This film records a perspective that very rarely has a voice. Within India, screenings are being organized inside the movement and/or in the Dalit communities in order to disseminate knowledge of particular injustices, and perhaps even participate in the production of shared subjectivity. Relaying the speeches and the songs of these activists while they attest to the weight of their struggles, pointing to the battles left to fight, as well as hoping for better days to come, is one of the impulses driving this film. On many levels, the film attempts to construct an oral history of the Dalit movement through song and speech. The participants themselves act as relays of the past by conveying stories and songs to explain what happened. The film itself proceeds as an expansion of the act of performance inscribed in yet another layer of memory and transmission.