In an informal discussion, following the screening of the film Gulaabi Talkies, in Manipal, a friend, when asked how he liked the film, said, “Everywhere it is the same, around us and even on the screen.” Though it was difficult to decipher his take on the film, whether he liked the film for its representation or whether he disliked the film, what came out neatly, from his words, is that he felt that the gap between the world around and the world depicted within the film had almost collapsed.
This was in the last week of 2008 September, few days after the inhumane attacks on Christian prayer halls. Fear had gripped all of us in coastal Karnataka, which is known for its communal tension. In such a fearful environment Girish Kasaravalli had come to screen his fiction film Gulaabi Talkies. But due to the kind of times in which the film was screened, most of us, felt the film was close to reality and because it was very close to our reality we related ourselves very much to the film. A closer look at the film, with the given experience of coastal Karnataka, makes one realize that Gulaabi Talkies is more like a documentary film, for it documents, through metaphors, the history of communal divide, communal tension, communal mindset and communal attacks in coastal Karnataka.
The film Gulaabi Talkies is located in the fishing community of coastal Karnataka and there among the fishing communities is the protagonist who is known as Gulaabi to everyone. The story of Gulaabi and the story of communal tension unfold in this community, as film progresses.
The history of communal violence and communal divide, in coastal Karnataka, is traced, by many, to the economics of fishing. The deep sea fishing by Muslim fishermen, with the help of machine boats, thanks to the economical power earned from the middle-east, triggered a friction between the Muslim fishermen and the Hindu fishermen who could not afford machine boats and go for deep sea fishing. This conflict between deep sea fishing and small boat fishing, it is said, took communal colours making way for greater communal divide and communal tension in coastal Karnataka.
In the film Gulaabi Talkies in its narrative showcases the conflict between deep sea fishing and small boat fishing mainly between Suleiman Saheb and Vasanna. The anger and frustration which has economics at its heart later takes communal colour, in the film. At once and at the same time there are other factors too which are building a communal divide, in the film, which again documents the real forces which strengthens the communal tension in reality and weakens social harmony.
One of the major happenings in the film, which broadens the divide between the two communities is the missing of Netru and the conclusion drawn by the villagers that she has run away with Moosa Saheb. One of the major issues the vigilante groups have been picking up in coastal Karnataka is the issue of mixing of boys and girls from different communities. Attacks have centered on the issue of a Hindu girl being spotted with a Muslim boy, even when they have been just exchanging notes or travelling together to the school or college. This moral policing by vigilante groups have objections to the mixing of two communities and mainly the objection is when the girl of their community is mixing with a boy of a different community. This mixing is mainly viewed, by the vigilante groups, as a trap by the other community with the intention of spoiling the life of the girl or conversion. In such cases the vigilante groups are seen to attack the boy from the other community and ‘rescue’ the girl of their own community and sent back ‘safely’ to their respective families.
In the film Gulaabi Talkies we see a self appointed moral policing team takes up the responsibility to ‘rescue’ Netru and bringing her back to her family. We can hear to the conversation between the men, while playing cards, at the fishing association office, where a man says “Why inform police about the issue. Lets inform Daamu and he will take care of the matter, with his team.” Though the vigilante group led by Daamu do not find Moosa, they take an oath to find him and teach him a lesson. At the same time an imaginary tale of him ‘escaping’ on finding out that the Hindu boys are in search of him, is narrated. Here the main objection of the group is to the coming together of a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, no matter whether it is false or true. The slightest doubt that there is a mixing of two communities is enough to trigger anger and attacks. This action of the vigilante group creates such a fear psychosis in the village that the first wife of Moosa is taken away from the village by her father and even Gulaabi is advised to leave the village, which is a reflection of the building up of communal tension in the village.
This divide doesn’t erupt all of a sudden. There is a silent existence of a slight gap between the two communities. The Hindu women, initially refuse to come inside Gulaabi’s house to watch television and them standing at the door and watching television is also not tolerated by the old women and their men. But slowly these women enter the house of Gulaabi to watch television.
Television, in its earlier days, not just in coastal Karnataka but everywhere, did create a public space. Though with passing time watching television became a private affair in its earlier days it was viewed publicly and mainly at the house where there was a television set. In that sense, television to an extent did break social structures to a certain extent, though not completely. But the same media, with its strength, brought the distant events close and thus brought in a relationship between the idea of a nation and the community.
The broadcasting of the war footage on television intensifies the divide between the two communities in the film. “Ever since the war has begun suspicion on our community people has become more,” says the father in law of Moosa Saheb. This, happens, mostly because of war coming into the house, through its visuals. This role played by media in intensifying the tension between the communities, in the film, is hinting at the role played by media in coastal Karnataka to widen the gap between the two communities and sow the seeds of hatred between the two communities. The media, in coastal Karnataka, has played a role no less than the vigilante groups in moral policing and making an ‘other’ out of the Muslim community. The reports have been referring to the Muslim community as ‘Anya’ to mean outsider and when this poisonous reference is consumed by the readers on a daily basis the idea of Muslims as outsiders seep into the subconscious and intensifies the communal tension. Apart from this often quoted example, one can also look at the rhetoric and politics of reporting to understand the contribution of media to the communal tension and communal trouble in coastal Karnataka.
A recurring motif in the film Gulaabi Talkies is that of a frame with four corners through which something is viewed. The frame of the television screen through which films, serials, the war is viewed, the window frame through which Sheena beating his wife is viewed, the window frame through which television is viewed when the Hindu women are hesitant to enter the house of Gulaabi etc. Here it is not much of a voyeuristic side of the human psyche which come across but the taking on onself the role of a spectator. One of the things that television has done is that it has turned human beings to observers and audience but not actors or participants. This taking of an audience role expands itself to viewing of Sheena beating his wife and also of villagers being mere spectators, not just spectators but silent spectators, when Gulaabi is being dragged out of the village.
When Haajabba and Hasanabba were stripped naked, not in dark but a bright late noon, and chased, not in any remote place but at the town centre, in Udupi, there were hundreds of spectators viewing the action as though it was a show. This phenomenon of viewing communal attacks and issue as mere spectators is a common thing in coastal Karnataka, be it the Haajabba and Hasanabba case or the case of numerous attacks on Muslim boys for either sharing notes or travelling along with a Hindu classmate or be it the attack on women, in broad day light in and out of a pub in Mangalore.
The film Naayi Neralu by the same Director made prior to Gulaabi Talkies examined the multiplicity of reality and the impossibility to arrive at one accepted reality. In that sense Gulaabi Talkies appears like a logical continuation of Girish Kasaravalli’s auteurship as he looks at the real through metaphors to arrive at truth, which is beyond reality. Though not a documentary by its very genre Gulaabi Talkies through its fictional narrative has documented the actual happenings of coastal Karnataka. There is a documentary element in this fictional film and so reality of coastal Karnataka can be seen by decoding the metaphoric representation of reality in Gulaabi Talkies woven with creative memory.
The film is not just documenting the happenings but also, from within, commenting on the happenings, which brings it closer to the idea of documentary films i.e. documentation with a commentary. But the film is fictional only because the characters of the film are not real and though the incidents are not actual happenings, are representatives of many such happenings in real. So the film, which shows the widening gap between two communities, has bridged the gap between two genres of films i.e. documentary and fiction, making the film a false documentary which is a metaphoric history of the present.
Saying all of this I must say that the film doesn’t capture something crucial in its flesh and blood. The horror of communalism.
(Article originally written for the book- collection of articles- on the film Gulaabi Talkies published by Abhinava Prakashana, Bangalore)