What does it mean to dissent in a world in which everyone claims to be a dissenter? What does it take to build a critical vantage-point, one that is not merely the easy pastime of fault-finding, when we all seem to already know what will be truly critical? Ever since the oppositional energy generated against Hindutva fascism in and through the Kiss of Love campaigns dissipated into the rival folds of the Human and the Anti-Human in Kerala, these questions have troubled me. The prospect of being sucked into one side of such a binary formation is terrifying enough to scare one away from engaging with either side; but worse is the pain that follows the realization that the unique moment of hope – the hope that the diverse groups that populate the anti-Hindutva civil society may well be able to form a bond of trust, however tentative and fragile, more than merely strategic connections – is well and truly in the past. Both sides have indulged in belligerent and damaging caricaturing of each other’s positions, as if the annihilation of the other was the very condition of the survival of the one.
I cannot help feeling that those who find this a distressing scenario must step back from the competition to be the most radical, the most dissenting, or the most critical. That alone permits the mental space to think beyond binaries and the breathing space to comprehend possibilities that are rendered invisible by the shrill and shallow protestations of either side. I realize now how easy itself it is – and how truly convenient – to take one side (or like it on FB!) and feel affirmed, comforted, at home. I also realize how easy it is to be sucked into the vortex of a certain kind of ill-thought, utterly simplistic, smugly moralistic and dismissive culture criticism that refuses to see beyond what it considers empirically possible, morally acceptable, and politically correct. In the interests of critique, then, one must surely step back. For critique surely calls for an un-homed stance; it is methodical and careful and not given to instant analysis and moralistic posturing.
The immediate trigger for such thoughts comes from activist responses to Jayan K Cherian’s new film, KaBodyscapes. The film, which pursues three young people through a small, turbulent slice of time in the Kerala of today, has been denied a Censor certificate. Which is a pity, because the film will now be forever judged by a small group of activists who have seen it for who it is either the very work of the devil, or the ultimately redeeming narrative- people who seem to have gone to the movie armed with incontestable ideas of what is representable, morally acceptable, and politically correct. Some of their responses border on hate, or less intensely, express frustration about the film-maker getting the match-the-following question all wrong. Part of the reason for this reaction is that KaBodyscapes was announced during the Kiss of Love, and as drawing on the energy of these protests. Many seem to have got the impression that the movie would be an ‘activist’ one. However, Jayan Cherian’s preferred genre has always been one which could perhaps be called ‘dream-realist’, which draws on recent and ongoing events but then scrambles and reassembles them into fiction – it would not match up to such expectations and so was perhaps doomed from the very start. I can understand the visceral responses of many to certain visual and verbal cues and ideas in this film or any other; I may well be able to see where they come from. All I am saying is that while these responses are not invalid, they must not constitute all of cultural criticism, if it is to be critique at all.
KaBodyscapes is set in the city of Calicut in Kerala of 2014. Misogyny and homophobia have touched new heights in an ageing, middle-class-dominated society where growing Hindu right-wing mobilization, and the rise of predatory capitalism now erodes civil liberties of the young, men and women of all communities, and workers’ rights. In this bleak socialscape, three young people — Haris, a free-spirited gay painter; Vishnu, a rural kabaddi player from an upper-caste, conservative Hindu family and Haris’ object of desire; and Sia, a Muslim woman who belongs to a traditional aristocratic family fast descending into penury and an activist who fights patriarchy in the family and the factory – struggle to find space and happiness. The film explores their quest for freedom and rebellion. The furious and ‘radical’ criticism from commentators has been directed at the character of Sia, who they claim, is completely at odds with the standard-politically-correct Muslim female figure, the Muslim woman who demands freedom within the terms of Islam and the community, and does not walk out of it. Sia is also shocking because she is even marked by sexual desire – she masturbates – and gets a high apparently from the books of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other ‘bad women’. Others have been piqued by the dark skin of the actor who plays Vishnu – and have read significance in that the darker character is the more passive one. Yet others felt that the depiction of Muslim patriarchy confirms the usual myths – Sia’s father is bigamous – and that the depiction of the factory-owner who Sia challenges as Muslim is evidence for Jayan’s intolerance of Muslim capitalists. Some find that in the climax, it is ‘dalit bodies’ who attack the gay painter, or that the woman supervisor who Sia confronts is dark-skinned … and so on.
Now, these are assertions made by people who are really, truly, convinced of the rightness of all that they think and do. And maybe there are reasons to think that holding on to such beliefs has political value to them. But I do think that there should be space for alternate views as well. For example, I am not convinced that the hint at Sia’s father’s bigamy and the helplessness of the women in the family constitutes a full-scale stereotyping of the community. To me, the particularity of Sia’s family – that it is marked by the absence of a male child – is equally important. That leads me to think that the generations of women who constitute Sia’s family stands for the Malabar Muslim community itself, which is today caught between the waning traditional elite that tries to exert control on it but does not care for the community’s wellbeing, and a new capitalist elite that is highly exploitative and oppressive. Muslim capital has a very long history in Kerala and Malabar, but here, a very specific form of Muslim capital – which feeds into and is fed by globalized capitalism – is being criticized. To me, this particularity is as important as the general reference to ‘Muslim capital’. Each generation in Sia’s family evokes a phase in the socio-economic history of the Malabar Muslim community from the early 20th century to now. Sia represents not Muslim women, but Muslim youth of the present, whose intellectual universe is now more expansive and diverse, but which finds itself marginalized and exploited in family and factory. In other words, the story of Sia’s family, if read figuratively, yields a different narrative. That it is told in gendered language does not mean that it should necessarily be reduced to a clash between men and women within the community. One may agree or disagree with this story, but to see nothing but stereotyping in it does injustice to the film and impoverishes public discourse.
I also do not see how casting the capitalist as Muslim is tantamount to hostility to Muslim capitalists. Sia’s story, as I read it, refers to very specific account of the Muslim community in Malabar: in the backdrop of a crumbling traditional elite (Sia’s family), a new generation of capitalists who supply global markets and engage in highly exploitative labour practices has emerged. Educated Muslim youth whose intellectual excursions often stray beyond the community may indeed end up confronting both. For the life of me I cannot understand how activists who walk, talk, breath, intersectionality every second of their public lives refuse to undertake some serious and empirically-grounded intersectional analysis on the shaping of the present in Malabar! High moralism seems to exempt its practitioners from such courtesies and, most strikingly, seems to allow them to shelve self-critique totally – like in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s case, when many of her critics who were quite right in criticizing her, however, lost an opportunity for self-criticism, when they ignored her black African origin and the possibility of racist practices in the Saudi-centred part of the Islamic world.
Contrary to many who were shocked by the passivity of the dark-skinned Vishnu, as an upper caste Hindu born woman, having puked on too many aggressive fair skinned male upper caste macho asshole heroes in mainstream Malayalam movies, I was quite happy to see an upper caste male character who is both dark-skinned and passive. And the way in which the upper caste Hindu family is identified as the refurbished site of micro-fascism, and where traditional forms of power, such as that of the uncle, have been recast as weapons of power for Hindutva. It is important for me that the history of the Hindu community too is conveyed through the kabbadi game with which the movie opens – rival teams whose members enter ‘enemy territory’ alone to capture – or rather, fell – members of the rival team – which reminds one of the fraternal wars between rival Hindu camps of BJP and RSS in north Malabar. It is from such a game that Haris, the painter takes Vishnu away to the apparently-more cosmopolitan city, which, sadly, proves to be only superficially so.
Haris, in contrast, seems to have no family – or roots in Malabar, or community for that matter, but going by his name, he could be Christian or Muslim-born. In a final act of defiance, he throws away his clothes and seeks refuge in the sea – renders himself vulnerable, discarding social trappings, and walks away from the mainland into the border through the liminal space of the beach. Haris may not be a character that those who seek to affirm the community against state secularism may like, but he does represent a really-present social group in Kerala, namely, those of us who do not want to live by community and religious faith, or in terms of just one. That this group would seek to initiate a specially-intimate relation with the (upper caste) Hindu youth is hardly wrong, and so also the film’s conclusion that such an effort is only bound to fail in the present. Sia is, in contrast, fiercely independent of both these men, and never forgets to remind them, even in their moments of friendly jesting, of the power equations that structure even their friendship.
Jayan Cherian’s status as ‘outsider’ is raised often by his critics as the reason why he should have been more faithful to dominant activist views of the Muslim woman and the dark-skinned person. I don’t see why this should be so, since it is a story that is being told here, not the truth about the Muslim community or other identities. The movie seeks to tell a story about a certain moment, a slice of time in the contemporary history of Kerala, and charts the pasts and present of the Hindu and the Muslim community that frames their youthful generations. Indeed, it is only the third kind of youth – who seek to live outside community – who seem to have no past, and can only flee the borders when threatened with annihilation. It is proper to either agree or disagree with the account on the basis of evidence and experience, but to suggest that outsiders should merely side with the politically correct view sounds odd to me.
Yet I did not read the film as a ‘gay film’, like many others who found resonance in it. That too, I’d think, is a reductive reading, equally selective as the damning readings. I have a more literal reading of the film too, which finds it to be a tribute to, the testimony of, and indeed, mourning for, a very brief moment during the Kiss of Love protests during which it was possible for some of us to reclaim what Audre Lorde has eloquently called ‘the erotic as power’. In the illuminating essay titled ‘The Uses of the Erotic’, she refused to reduce it to the sexual and called it a lifeforce, the very ability to feel, share, and connect via visceral joy and creative energy that is much, much vaster than the merely sexual. Lorde called in women’s lifeforce but we do acknowledge now that the erotic as power is a possibility for all those who are victimized by patriarchy. The very title of the film gives a clue to this: Ka-Body-Bodyscapes. Ka, which refers to the ancient Egyptian notion of life-force that animates the human body, stands by the Body, which however leads us on to a landscape. It could have been the lost continent of Atlantis that Kerala’s greatest voice for the (Audre Lordian) erotic, Madhavikkutty, kept dreaming of. But no, as we watch the three youngsters struggle to free their bodies drained by the many social and economic axes of power, and fight to restore the body’s unity with desire and life-force, it is the bleak cityscape of Calicut colonized by capital and police and community surveillance that rises to the fore. Indeed, for those of us who have loved Calicut as a vibrant and happy place, this defamiliarization is shocking indeed, but a sad reminder of the passing of a moment of hope. The mood of the film, even in its lighter or tender moments, is decidedly one of sadness and the tragedy that besets the friends in the end almost seems foretold by the listless, uncaring, mechanical bustle of the city. Increasingly then, the friends move away from the mainland and into that strip of land that separates mainland from sea to where outcasts were once banished: the seashore, the beach. I can’t help recalling Dover Beach:
Ah, Love, let us be true
To one another! For the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here, as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, the magnificent last lines bring me back to the Humanist vs. Anti-Humanist battles in Kerala’s oppositional civil social world. From the ongoing election campaign it is clear that neither LDF nor UDF cares anymore, unlike in the past, to heed the calls of the oppositional civil society. They do not promise social justice beyond a bare minimum of neoliberalized welfare; they do not care for women’s representation; there is no sign of justice to the most disadvantaged or even of unequivocal resistance to the Hindutvavaadis. Yet here we are, like the ignorant armies in that ancient battle Arnold speaks of, fighting in the dark and butchering our own.