Aarakshan: Shadow-Boxing With Caste

August 19, 2011 at 9:15 PMAug (Activism, Cinema, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

It would have been more apt if Prakash Jha had himself played Amitabh Bachan’s role (as Prabhakar Anand) in Arakshan. It would have been apt because Jha, like Prabhakar Anand in the film, has no stand personally about reservations but poses to be for it and, like Prabhakar Anand, who uses the talents of lower caste student Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan) for his own personal battle, Jha uses the name which suggests that the film speaks about reservation and caste oppression and tries to gain mileage.

Prabhakar Anand, when confronted by Deepak, in a personal space and personal conversation, demanding an answer on his position regarding reservation, gives an answer suggesting he doesn’t like to take any position. But while asked by the media he says he is for the reservation. Jha similarly poses before us like a pro-reservation man but is not, in his film.

Though the film begins quite promisingly with Deepak announcing “When we got a chance we wrote the constitution of this country,” as it progresses (the story line and nothing else) the audience are for a big disappointment and an agonizing treatment of the subject and a story which does not merely lose its focus but shifts its focus completely.

The film shifts from caste to class – from the battle of Deepak, a lower caste student in a casteist society, for equality – to the battle of the upper caste teacher against his personal enemy Mithiliesh Kumar (Manoj Bajpai) and his coaching centers, thus turning it into a film on the education mafia. With this shift in focus on class, the film completely wipes away the caste elements, except for some idealistic rhetoric with sweeping statements urging the conflation of caste with class, but emphasizing class more than caste. Following this shift in focus, the breaking up of Mithiliesh Kumar’s fortress becomes more important to the narrative, than the struggle of the dalit masses for equality, be it even in the form of struggles that result in producing one of the central characters, Deepak.

It is saddening and frustrating when the dalit boy, Deepak, is always made to stand under the umbrella of an upper caste teacher. This makes the upper caste character a hero and the lower caste character a beneficiary of the heroic and generous qualities of the upper caste hero. Why can’t we have a dalit character as a hero in Bollywood? (I say ‘hero’ in the real Bollywood sense and not as the central character of the story.) For this, one can’t blame the filmmaker alone. The audiences are equally responsible. Let alone being broad-minded, the audiences even lack the basic humanity to accept a lower caste person as a hero.

It is Prabhakar Anand who is the hero in the film. It is he who ‘uplifts’ the lower caste Deepak. When the dalit students try to come into the college campus they are stopped from entering. They do not break open the restricted space. Neither does Deepak succeed in letting them in. But it is the ‘generous’ upper caste teacher, the hero of the film, whoallows the dalit students to enter the campus. Why don’t the low caste students fight and win their rights and enter the public space? Why is it that they have to be allowed and uplifted by the upper caste? The film, unintentionally or intentionally, seems casteist at heart and in its subconscious.

It is more frustrating when Deepak is made to leave the opportunities he has got somewhere abroad to come back to India and toil as a soldier for the personal battle of his upper caste teacher. At this point Deepak forgets all the political speeches he once made to Mithiliesh Kumar and Sushanth Seth (Pratiek Babbar) about how all through history it is dalits who have labored and ploughed the fields with the upper castes merely enjoying it fruits, and dissolves into being a foot-soldier in the private battle between the upper caste Prabhakar Anand against another upper caste Mithilesh Kumar.

Prabhakar Anand coaching the students during late nights is just a passing reference in the film but it has extra background music to it with scenes of his shoulder being massaged by his daughter. Maybe the massaging scene is to establish Anand as an elderly person, but what about the screen space given to the efforts of Deepak compared to the screen space given to the efforts of Prabhakar Anand? The efforts of the lower castes certainly doesn’t get proper mention in history books, which Deepak points out in the film but the hard work of the lower castes do not get proper mention neither in this film.

What happened to Deepak’s struggle for equality? He (rather Jha) comfortably forgets it and brings the battle of Prabhakar Anand to the forefront, as if Deepak’s struggle was negligible and unimportant in comparison to the battle of the upper caste against the upper caste.

While the resignation and struggle of Prabhakar Anand is glorified as a great sacrifice and an exemplary act of heroism, not much is spoken about Deepak leaving behind his research in a reputed university, as though it was his duty to come back and serve his upper caste teacher. Worst, the upper caste teacher doesn’t even ask Deepak as to why he came back and, despite initial rejection, for personal reasons, accepts him as a teacher in his school to battle the mighty coaching classes run by Mithilesh. This makes it clear that Prabhakar Anand is more concerned about his battle than all the real struggle of dalit students who cannot lose on opportunities. Helping them out and speaking for them is a performance of generosity, a feel good factor for the self.

More disgusting is when the film gives space to the ‘damage’ caused to upper caste students as well as employees because of reservation but is almost silent about what has been the situation of the lower castes in the absence of reservation and the need for reservation, except for the political speech by Deepak in the canteen. This attempt by the filmmaker to act ‘balanced’ and ‘neutral’ is disgusting because only an apolitical artist can attempt to be neutral and not take a stand. An artist with political intent will show the other side but will surely know where he stands. More importantly as actor/director Utpal Dutt said, “Every fact is true and yet, unrelated to social conflict, it arrives at total falsehood… ‘Neutral’, ‘impartial’ reporting is ultimately a tissue of lies… Impartiality always serves the bourgeois.”

Jha, like Prabhakar Anand, only assumes a ‘progressive’ posture in his films without really being one himself. Not merely does he make a hero out of a pseudo low-caste-sympathizer, but ends up neglecting the dalit characters, once again reducing them to servants and pawns for the upper caste. It is astounding that he even manages to gain publicity for his film on the education mafia by making it appear like a film on reservations. Like Prabhakar Anand, he too uses the identity and story of a few to win his battle.

If Jha has any conscience, Deepak’s words spoken while being reminded of the generosity of Prabhakar Anand, “Iss sey tumhare mann ki gareebi hatt sakti hai, unki gareebi nahi,” should prick him.

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Singing About The Dark Times

August 18, 2011 at 9:15 PMAug (Activism, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Times Now asked one of our important poet, Meena Kandasamy, to comment on Anna Hazare and she said, “I don’t have the time to comment about comedy.” Bang on. But using the word farce would suit more than comedy, I thought.

What else can one comment when events well managed by PR agencies are portrayed by media as social movements? I guess to criticize this ‘movement’ we will have to put in more thoughts than what these people have put in- if any- for the ‘movement’.

First let us try and see the different threads that have got tangled here. Corruption, Lokpal bill, Mode of protest, Right to protest, Anna’s arrest- all these are different things and thanks to the national shame called media which has mixed all these things and are confusing the people to make them feel that the ‘second independence struggle’ has grounded on the soil of this nation.

Well, when I have no solid proof to say that this ‘movement’ is being managed by a PR agency I must start off by explaining why I think it is so. When Anna went on fast in the month of April a friend, who works for a PR agency, told me that she overheard in her office that Anna’s movement had hired a PR agency for the ‘movement’. It was hard to believe but when Anna advertised for Pepsi-Nimbooz while breaking his fast it was clear that it was a PR tactics. Then, in April, his fast began soon after India’s world cup victory and now it was supposed to begin the day after Independence Day. Anna’s fasting, as a part of the movement, has to begin when the nation is charged up with patriotic feelings! Great plans seem to be working behind the fasts and ‘movement’. Dates are well planned. This too appears like a PR strategy to my eyes. More the reason to believe, for me, that there is a PR agency working behind the so called movement is the kind of media publicity this farce is getting. On 17 August I saw CNN-IBN taking Shabnam Hashmi’s byte and I felt that she was cut short early for she was critical about Anna and his ‘movement’. Though the anchor said, “Well it is always good to know the other side…” it appeared like she had instructions not to let sane voices speak for long. These media have made a hero out of Anna through sms, missed call and other similar modes. Though these could be viewed as new methods of protest in the new media era it is also a method which has stemmed out of lack of imagination and also a business plan and tie-up between the media and mobile networks. Such unimaginative methods, as opposed to the solidarity expressed by people earlier during other social movements, makes me believe that these sms and missed call also a PR strategy. How to forget the guest appearance of Anna in the TV programme Sa Re Ga Ma Pa? What could it be other than PR strategy? When Anna praised murderers like Narendra Modi after his April fast it was mainly viewed as his leaning towards Hindu fundamentalism. But all you know it might be a PR strategy, if the same agency which has been hired by Modi, to cleanse blood stains from his kurta, has been hired by the Anna team. <Well I know that here I am just trying to join the dots and I am ready to be criticized and pointed out as wrong if I am wrong>

Saying all these I must express my solidarity with Anna and his fellows at certain levels. We need to fight corruption. Yes, agree. We should have the right to protest. Yes, agree. It was wrong to arrest Anna. Yes, agree and condemn the arrest too. But do I support Anna’s movement? No.

The demand for an ombudsman who would be selected and not elected is highly undemocratic. Plus this undemocratically elected ombudsman should be, according to Anna and team, more powerful than the democratically elected ones (It is a totally different debate altogether as to how good or bad efficient or inefficient they are but what needs to be noted is that they are democratically elected) I wonder how such an ombudsman is acceptable to the larger mass of this nation! The people seem to be supporting this demand of Anna blindly failing to see its consequences while they are carried away by the anti-corruption wave which is the banner under which Anna is operating holding an undemocratic demand. The people are seeing only the banner and not the demand. Rather the cameras of the media are focusing only on the banner and not on the demand file that Anna is holding in his hand.

To know how unthinkingly people are marching under this banner one should listen to what a lady in Udupi said. This unknown lady from Nagarika Samithi was leading the students of MGM in the protest march and when asked for a byte from media she started off saying, “I support Annappa Swamy because…” She had not even got the name properly. At this point one can argue that though she did not know the name she felt for the cause and the fact that she thought about the issue and got down to the streets is a positive thing and Anna’s success lies in that. But to me the failure of Anna is in the same. If a movement cannot wake up people but manages to make them walk and run in their sleep, it is no movement to me and will not result in anything good.

The students of Sanskrit College in Udupi read some mantras in order to fight against corruption!!! Only farce can outsmart farce. If they knew the mantra already, why on earth did they wait till the Anna show began? Do they really think corruption can be fought with some mantras? But this idea of being able to fight corruption through mantras is no different from what the larger mass believes that corruption can be actually fought with the mantra of lokpal bill.

The definition of corruption, as per the dictionary of Anna and team seem to be limited. Anna, I am told, is a core member of the Vande Matharam foundation which openly declares its anti-reservation stand which is quite castist in nature. Isn’t caste and caste oppression a form of corruption, in the broad sense and humane sense of it? The so called movement seems to have hired a PR agency for their so called movement. Isn’t PR a form of corruption? We have moved on to discuss cultural capital and not just capital and our idea of corruption should take into account cultural capital too, it appears to me. But the Anna team seems to ignore all these and demand for one undemocratic ombudsman.

Media has failed to focus on the bill drafted by Anna and team, discuss it and show its limitations and mistakes to the people. Instead it is making a hero out of Anna because the government gave them a chance to do so by exposing its ‘bankruptcy of political ideas’ while it should have had the moral to criticize the arrest of Anna but at once and at the same time critically discuss the Lokpal bill the poverty of imagination on the part of the so called movement, the leaning of the so called movement towards Hindu fundamentalism, the middle-class nature of the so called movement and debate them. But media has been mixed anti-corruption, lokpal, anna’s arrest and people agitation and has been creating confusion for the people and pushing people to more agitation in order to feed their 24×7 hunger for footage and news.

In this tangling of different threads it has become difficult to say where one stands. Is Medha Pathkar opposing the arrest of Anna or is she also for the Lokpal bill? Are the leftist parties voicing for the right to protest or are they in support of the bill and Anna’s ‘movement’ too? We have mixed things for ourselves too and that is exactly what is dangerous. We may want to fight corruption but standing under the same umbrella with Anna and team will make us strengthen the voice for the demand of an undemocratic ombudsman and also strengthen right wing politics.

We are living in difficult times where issues are so tangled that taking a stand is difficult and being indifferent, silent and apolitical is also difficult. We are living in weird times too where corporate powers run the government and PR agencies script not just media but also ‘movements’.

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