Technically outlawed in 1950, India’s caste system still pervades the country’s social and political life. The lowest caste, the Dalit or “untouchables,” is explored in Anand Patwardhan’s documentary Jai Bhim Comrade, screening this Saturday, Nov. 24 at Concordia’s Cinema Politica series, with Patwardhan in attendance.
The film’s story is as complex as its subject and themes. In 1997, a Dalit protest erupted in a Mumbai slum after a statue of B.R. Ambedkar was desecrated. Ambedkar (1891-1956) was a reformist who agitated to end the caste system, helped Gandhi write the Indian constitution and amassed a large following among the Dalit. At the protest, 10 unarmed people were killed when police opened fire. Singer, poet and activist Vilas Ghogre later committed suicide to protest the killings.
Over a decade in the making, Jai Bhim Comrade is long (three hours), sprawling and jam-packed with information, covering the biographies of both Ghogre and Ambedkar as well as Indian politics and the day-to-day lives of the Dalit. If it was a Western film, I’d be tempted to say that the structure barely held together. But the film is so tied in with particularly Indian forms of storytelling that I have to give it the benefit of the doubt and presume that it might just reflect a narrative form unfamiliar to Western eyes.
The film is also hard to watch at times, both in the indignities the Dalit have to suffer (some are shown doing hard labour in garbage dumps with no protective equipment, working 12-hour days for pennies — and that’s with a labour union) and in the casually racist and classist remarks that upper-caste Indians toss around in reference to them. The mutual religious prejudice on display is also depressing — in a media environment full of Jews and Muslims saying horrible things about each other, it’s a bittersweet relief to see Buddhists and Hindus doing the same thing.
One of the doc’s pleasant surprises is its abundance of music — a great deal of Dalit storytelling is done in song form, the lyrics mixing straight biography with political agitation and striking poetic imagery and the music performed with passion. If you have the patience and mental energy to learn a lot about Indian culture, history and politics in one sitting, the music and storytelling make it an engaging lesson. ■
Jai Bhim Comrade screens Saturday, Nov. 24 at 1455 Maisonneuve W., room H-110, 7 p.m., free. Director Anand Patwardhan will be present.