I saw my second Malayalam movie in theaters! Thanks to moviemavengal’s review. And I gave up on pronouncing the title at all when I bought the tickets and just called it “the Malayalam movie at 7:30”. Thank goodness, the ticket guy was able to figure it out from there. (It’s not that Malayalam is such a hard language, it’s just that I’m terrible at languages. The handy Hindi movie abbreviations are my saving grace!)
Like I said, this film was disturbing! In 3 separate ways, that all kind of worked together to magnify each other. Which meant I got home around midnight, and had to eat 1/3 of a pie to calm myself down.
First, the violence in this film is really extreme. Not in a “spin-kick-to-the-head” way, but in a brutal sudden realistic way. It kind of makes you feel nauseated, like your body is rebelling against seeing such wrong things being done to the bodies of others. Which is good, violence should disgust us. Film has the power to turn fight scenes into glorious triumphs of the human spirit/body, and all it can do. But we also needed to be reminded sometimes that fight scenes aren’t just something to watch onscreen, they happen in the real world and result in real pain and real death.
(for an example of one of those beauty and triumph fight scenes, check out my discussion of Magadheera)
Second, the social effects and changes that this violence causes, and is a symptom of, are something it is really uncomfortable to be reminded of, but which we should think about. I don’t know much about the dalit community in Kerala, but I know being a dalit is sucky anywhere in India, despite decades and decades of efforts to change the system. And from this film, and I think some things I read somewhere, in Kerala at least the dalit community isn’t just the lowest caste, it is also has a distinctly different genetic heritage, which is visible in their appearance. Is that true? Or at least, assumed to be true? That there are remnants of the earliest inhabitants of south India in their genetic make-up, and it makes them appear more similar to the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, or to those of Africa, than the same dalit community members in the north? This film seems to show that, and to show how the attitudes of others and the way they are treated force members of the dalit community to act differently, and be different, from how the members of other communities are. And that even if they learned to act and be different, it wouldn’t matter, because their appearance still identifies them, no matter how their behavior changes.
In America, of course, the closest comparison is how we treat our African-American citizens. It’s not a one to one comparison, but it is similar, worse in some ways and better in others (for one thing, it’s better here because it is a prejudice in American society that goes back 400 years. Which normally would make it one of the oldest prejudices, but India’s caste system has our racism beat by at least 2 thousand years!). I saw a show years ago that interviewed kids at a high school in America. The white kids talked about how they didn’t “mind” the African-American kids, but they didn’t understand why they had to always be so loud and talk in groups that blocked the hallways and use such strong language. And then the African-American kids were interviewed, and talked about how they are always extra loud and take up a lot of space and use language that makes people SEE them, acknowledge they are there, make it look like they belong where they are. Which is what I was thinking of the whole time I was watching this movie, how the dalit characters were always a little “too much”. Their own little gang saw and appreciated why they were like that. But to others, they wanted them to be quieter, calmer, to demand less and be around less, to know their place.
Place is the real problem for this film. The same characters that wish the dalits would go away and stay within their limits, are the ones who are systematically removing the places where the dalits can be. They had their own place, their own community, their own traditions and strengths and knowledge. But then the elites, the ones who already have everything else, decide they want the little that the dalits have. So they take that too. And the community is forced to go out into the world, to try to make a new place for themselves, to fight and yell and struggle and die so that something of themselves can survive.
The third thing that is disturbing, which didn’t hit me until I was in the car on the way home, is that this story was so new to me. It shouldn’t be new. I have been watching Indian films for over ten years, and reading history books, social studies, ethnography, mythology, and all sorts of literary analysis from south asia at the same time. Why can I count on one hand the stories of the dalits that I know about? Ashok Kumar’s second film, Achhut Kannya, was about an intercaste love story. Bimal Roy made a movie about an adopted untouchable girl, Sujata, in 1959. There is a great short novel I read in an Indian history class, Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand, from 1935. And thanks to BR Ambedkar, the dalit community gets a mention and, if they are very lucky, a whole chapter to themselves in most general Indian history texts. But considering the scheduled castes make up 25% of the population of India, these are shockingly few times I have been forced to confront their issues in the past decade of watching movies, reading books, and having discussions.
(It’s a good book! But the point is, I should have been able to find more than one book)
What this film does, besides confronting us with their story, is showing us why their story matters, why this community is the ground on which India is built, and always has been. Their sacrifices and struggles are what allow the other 75% to flourish. It’s a good reminder, especially now when the schedules castes are most often in the news thanks to calls to reform the system that offers them privileges. And yes, the system should be reformed. It is no longer serving to bring up those who are struggling under oppression, it is often just rewarding the top .00001% of the oppressed and creating a new system of privileges. But, this film serves as an important reminder that while trying to solve the problem of that top .00001%, we need to remember that the rest of the community is still struggling, dying, and abused, and we (“we” meaning the citizens of India, and the citizens of the world) need to figure out a way to solve this problem that has gone on several thousand years too long.