Of men, women, caste and cinema: Rita Kothari

Guest post by RITA KOTHARI

 “Woh kam-jaat  ladka hai. Phir kaise uske saath bhag gayi?  Sochna tha na  pehle?”  (He is a low-caste boy, why did she elope with him then? Shouldn’t she have thought of this?”)

Vimala’s judgment was unequivocal. She was talking about Hansa, her neighbour  and my former ‘help.’  Hansa  is  a young girl , perhaps seventeen,  and she  recently eloped with a boy. I stopped myself from saying anything facile, as yet.

“Ab pyaar poochhke to hota nahin, “ I said to her.  Love seeks no permission.

To bhugatna bhi padta phir.”  Then be ready to suffer, Vimala quipped.

She went on to tell me about an incident she had witnessed in her village,  about 30 kilometers away from the big town of Dungarpur in Rajasthan. A Rajput girl and Sewak boy eloped. They settled down in some city, and ten years went by. Meanwhile the girl had a child and was carrying her second baby. Her family had managed to track her whereabouts and convinced that she would be welcome home. The couple returned to the village for a visit. One night the girl’s brother put out lights in the entire village. The young couple was killed.

Poore gaanv ki bijli band kar di, aur maar dala dono ko. Humne dekha apni aankhon se,” Vimala said.

I stood transfixed. What was more accurate here, fiction or life?  I had just returned from watching the  Marathi film, Sairat.

I had come away from the film shaken by the quiet brutality of the end.  How can something be so shocking and so inevitable at the same time?  With unhurried pace, the long film takes us  through the life of a boy and girl, the wooing, the denial, the blossoming of romance, the elopement, its attendant violence, threatening presence of law,  the move from village to city, filth-infested slums, the waning of romance as well its acceptance. Such detailing of a life, interacting with caste and patriarchy, of ever-present feudal men and never-present people at work is not exactly the stuff of entertainment. And yet, it could easily have been a consummation of romance, for it was not structured like a Benegal-made, parallel film in the 1970-80s.  Sairat could have ended at many places, but it didn’t.  With relentless repetition and mundane details, it chose to make the audience deal with the ordinariness of love and violence.

Caste lingers as a character in the film in both its rural and urban milieu.  It wears the garb of class quite often, and ever so often reveals itself in small and large ways.  It is present in the things Archie has and Parshya does not, in the leisure of her life and the labour of his, in the quiet assurance of her gait, the hesitant steps he takes, in her natural dismissal of impure water, and his ease at hawking and speaking in a local language in a new city. Archie is admittedly a strong woman character, however, her strength is inseparable from the capital that informs her defiance, teetering quite often on masculination. In that sense the deeper context animating Sairat is one of caste, of which gender is one of the sites on which it plays out most brutally. Like its predecessor Fandry, Sairat is one of the few departures from the norm. The norm (in Hindi cinema  at least) has been to make caste deliberately absent, or pretend that the upper-caste characters are casteless.

How then do I respond to a couple of articles that expose the misogyny in the director’s personal life? How should I be modifying, if at all, my response formed without the knowledge of this article, for instance?  The author  Deepika Sharma  asks an astute,  not altogether unfamiliar question  – why do we cut creative men slack? Why does the knowledge of misogyny among  acclaimed writers not disturb us enough? An illustrious galaxy of creative writers, sculptors, film-makers are  known to have done the doublespeak, to put it mildly.  Legends about husbands ‘sensitive’ to women, other than their wives, lie galore in memory.  A persuasive piece, and a question that requires response, especially of someone who takes cinema to the classroom frequently.

As a student of humanities, one has often encountered the conundrum about biographical context of a writer that supposedly enhances the experience of art on one hand, and also heard announcements of the death of the author.  Does knowledge of disturbing truths about a writer or artist vitiate the experience of art, and call upon us to take a moral-political position? I believe that it does, however, we also need to be aware of falling prey to an easy vigilantism and blanket policies.   A fictional representation is easier to separate from the origins of an author, than say ideological pronouncements and claims made by a social scientist who does not live up to his/her claims. A living author is more likely to evoke  ire than a dead one. Despite reservations about the complicit silence maintained by creative writers in times of siege in Gujarat, I have found it harder to accept the hollow polemics of ‘thinkers’ and columnists than writers and film-makers. This is not to say that their literary practices are absolved of politics, but that the fictional landscape begs for a different assessment.  Additionally ever case, theoretical or real, fictional or academic comes with its own combination of factors. As for Sairat, it  is an important document of our times,  even if it supposedly fails to bear testimony to the actions of its creator in a biographical context.

Deepika Sharma’s question has triggered off  memories  of texts I have refused to  appreciate for precisely the doublespeak that characterized  the lives of writers – both men and women. Simultaneously I have also allowed texts to speak for themselves, and on occasions lived with the knowledge of bricolage, and un/knowing gaps between real  life and fictional representation. Perhaps on those occasions I have veered towards a view that the author is incidental, if not dead,  while some other occasions have left me too cold to separate artistic representation from the men and women who create it.  The responses, I am afraid, are personal and instinctive, made along a spectrum than a fixed position. To come back to the case at hand, I have chosen to trust my instincts in both things  – Sairat is a staggeringly close experience of the relentless nature of caste (particularly) and patriarchy. And secondly, the allegations made by Manjulkar’s  ex-wife Sunita  have a ring of truth to them.   If we believe that this is a contradiction or fence-sitting,  and allegiance must be  an either/or in  nature,  I probably fail the test.  Meanwhile, I hold back words of wisdom and do not tell Vimala that caste is archaic, and she ought to embrace modernity.  The choice is not hers to make.

Rita Kothari is Professor, Translation Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar.  She wishes to thank Sarvar Sherry Chand for valuable feedback on this piece.

4 thoughts on “Of men, women, caste and cinema: Rita Kothari”

  1. There are many writers and artists who created exquisite works of socio-economic political works with a strong Marxian philosophy but their personal lives mired in controversies. To express thoughts in an effective way is easy as it is a subjective t abstract exercise. But, when the same ‘ ideas’ are compared to personal lives of the ‘ creator’ of the work of art, the concrete reality rarely matches with the expressed thought. That is why we find those who portray strong anti-patriarchal views are guilty of following strict patriarchy in real lives. Those who expose anti- Establishment’ views are stooges of establishment. Revolutionary ideas expressed in writings are seldom followed by the same writers.
    Marxism is an ‘ideal’ way of life while it’s implementation on ground becomes difficult with human element in contradiction to the principles. The best one can do is to applaud the work created and oppose deviations of the creator from his set principles. Mao has contributed a lot to China and world in his theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism but he was guilty of ‘the ‘ personality cult’ in his later tenure. He committed excess in implementing cultural revolution’. His personality flaws should be despised but his contribution should be praised. Only if we realise to demarcate between the person life and the work, we can move forward in closing gap between concrete reality in life and abstract works of art.
    Human beings commit mistakes. Human beings create ‘ imaginative’ world’ which do not have mistakes committed in ordinary lives. The problem is to move from ‘ concrete’ world to ‘ abstract’ perfect world. The ‘ movement’ is progress. The rectification is the method. The gap , the wider it persists, the more controversies it creates.

  2. Marx famously says in the preface to Capital that he does not paint the capitalist in rosy picture, but in so far as he has been painted the capitalist at all, the reader should not forget that the capitalist is at best n embodiment of capitalism’s relations of production.
    Elsewhere he also speaks about how capitalism dehumanises the labourer and at the same time also dehumanises the capitalist…the former dehumanisation being manifest in her abjectness and the latter in the hubris of power. At the risk of sounding ridiculous (as Che puts it in other context) what we see here is a compassionate Marx…who understands that the exploiter is as much a victim of his circumstances as the exploited…only in a different way…(& yes therein lies the crux…some might say!)..Be that as it may, the lesson in the context of this article is that one needs to understand the misogyny of artists/thinkers/writers (who through their work have been great votaries of feminism) not as necessarily being only a form of hypocrisy but also as a result of social conditioning such people may have gone through and which they may not have completely succeeded in transcending..

  3. A person is who or she is in relation to the people around him/her. Hence, no man being a hero to his valet and so on. I prefer a flawed human being to a perfect ideologue. Which is why (because of his hatchet face?) I have no soft spot for PM Modi because I always remember Jasodaben. And actually given how hard Jenny Marx’s life was, I feel little love for Marx either.

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