How to see in the dark? An open letter to the women in cinema collective

Dear friends in the WCC

I am writing to you at a time so dark that unless we hold hands and feel the warmth of each others’ palms, we may even lose our sense of reality. This is my way of holding your hand and gaining strength from your presence.

In India today it is as if we are caught in a never-ending loop of getting knocked down, picking ourselves up, and then getting knocked down again. Just when we thought we were picking ourselves up, for example, from the sordid saga of perverts slandering us and then selling the slander online even as those who talk endlessly of protecting women watched indifferently or looked away, the unspeakable violence against a young Dalit woman in the heart of the emergent Aryavartha hit us. Just when we think that we have built bonds of friendship, we find them felled, betrayed. Finding the strength, mental and emotional to survive this normalized everyday torture by the state, its uncivil society, and the media is the challenge before women who care for their dignity in the twenty-first century.

I look around myself, but can see no light anywhere. But that does not mean I capitulate. One needs to learn to see in the dark, and to wait. One needs to learn how to wait and use the time to recuperate, strengthen ourselves from within. Sleep is not death; it is recuperation, active, preparation for empowerment. The word ‘empowerment’ was used by Afro-American feminists who needed to imagine light within a similar darkness. It meant ‘power within’, primarily; the strengthening of the will, intellect, and the heart to resist evil and stay creative in its face. I think we need ‘empowerment’ in that sense at this moment, and we need to slow down, wait.

Wait for what, you may ask. Work and wait for two things, I answer. One, wait for this spreading evil to implode and decay. There is no hubris in human history that has not collapsed under its own weight. Also, wait for what we planted to sprout and grow. There is a saying in Malayalam: adiyolam cheenjhaale valam aakoo – only if it rots to its very core can it become manure. There will come a day when the rotten mess of majoritarian and misogynist evil decays to its very core, collapses, and becomes the manure for living things. Indeed, this evil is already dead.

Remember the story of the King’s staff? There was once a mighty King who terrorised all by his very presence. He died on his throne, finally, but did not fall down because he was leaning then on his huge staff. He decayed and stank but continued to be powerful because no one dared to speak of the stink. But the termites were patiently, quietly, humbly gnawing at his staff. They did so slow and steady between loops of being swept away and returning, between generations wiped out and generations newly born.  One day – no termite or non-termite foresaw — the staff collapsed. So did the King and  with him, hubris.

In our society, the staff that props up the dead King is crafted from brahminism and misogyny. All of us who intervene in culture have to be patient as our labour is of gnawing at it. We need to conserve our strength to carry on despite everything.

The WCC’s work has been precisely that. You are dreaded precisely because you have exposed the cinema industry ‘s rotten feudal core. The culture of this industry was shaped by the 1930s, when usurious capital from the agrarian sector began to flow into other, more profitable enterprises in the wake of the Great Depression. The feudal roots of this capital combined with elements of the highly exploitative, caste-ridden, gender-iniquitous culture of traditional entertainment and performance, to produce the toxic mix of modern cinema – I daresay that in its everyday practices and human relationships there must have been little that was ‘modern’ about modern cinema. While the sexual control of women workers in other forms of labour – such as agriculture and factory work – was wiped out by the rising tide of unions in Kerala, cinema remained largely untouched, mostly because its status as ‘industry’ remained ambiguous. It could be passed off as ‘art’, ‘culture’ – and labour would be hard to recognize, especially when the practices of an earlier, feudal, male-oriented ‘rehearsal camp’ culture continued to linger. I have heard prominent male technicians in the industry say that even in the 1980s, the practice of going to the homes of producers and waiting there patiently to be paid was rampant.

It is this rottenness, and its implications of women in the industry, that the WCC exposed so powerfully. Your discourse cut through the ambiguity like a powerful headlight, leaving no doubt that what mattered in cinema was labour and not just ‘creativity’ or ‘passion’. You demanded that the different aspects of filmmaking – from cinematography to makeup — be treated as professions and women artistes be permitted to separate their personae from personal lives, like their male peers. You refused the feudal demand for sexual favours. In doing so, you sowed the seeds that will germinate in the future. Indeed when you all began to speak up, when you became WCC, you had already won.

I can only say that we are on our way.  We are already the termites working away on the oppressor’s staff. 

Termites are fascinating beings – helpless and unremarkable as individuals, but unstoppable together. Their peerless ability to build structures of unparalleled beauty and utility comes almost by itself when they come together. Maybe we don’t need their social structure – for our ‘queen termite’ would surely be not a physical being, but the ethical core of feminist knowledge, memory, and voices, which we nourish, and which in turn, generates us. Termites pool their phenomenal digestive capacity – share it freely with each other, and pass it on to the next generation.

And I have known no one who has managed to drive them away for good, not even the most dangerous chemicals (those who apply them are anyway in for a pyrrhic victory). The earth will ultimately belong to the termites, and society, to those who gnaw away patiently at power waiting for hubris to collapse at the end of its own deadly game.

From earth broken by termites the seeds that sleep now will grow and flourish.

Much love and with you always,

J Devika

9 thoughts on “How to see in the dark? An open letter to the women in cinema collective”

  1. Amazing strength flows through your lines, Devika…
    we are all in this together…
    Onwards Together
    Much Love

  2. My dear Soul sister, have not read anything so poignantly stirringly beautiful in a very long time…
    “There will come a day when the rotten mess of majoritarian and misogynist evil decays to its very core, collapses, and becomes the manure for living things. Indeed, this evil is already dead.”

    May we,the unglamorous termites chew the innards of the staff in the hands of the putrid corpse.
    May we each sing our songs through the stench and in the dark holding hands,interlacing together strong fingers, in strength,kindness &tenderness…

  3. Well articulated. Your genuine concern comes across in beautiful expressive words. Time to not despair and fret. Let us gather our strength in this darkness by relying on our camaraderie and unfailing hope for the new day of relckoning. Ultimate victory shall be ours. Let us not give up and do get up and stand up for the fight.

  4. That was beautiful but came out to be acceptance of a passive attitude in present for certain future to turn miraculously free of evil. i am sure you didn’t intend that. The seeds of equality seem to be so scarce, and tending them is becoming a greater struggle everyday .well, i am hopeless with the present world order. I can’t find termites a solace when viruses are thriving in a world left already too vulnerable.
    Bear with me today

    1. That is because you think that the work of the termites is either too slow or useless. Neither is true. I do believe we need to stop dancing at the pace set by the perfervid media and evil politics which wants to exhaust us, make us run from one thing to the other all the time.

  5. Termites! What a wonderful metaphor, Devika. It captures both the need for collective action and for patient work.

  6. Thank you Devika for articulating so powerfully the feelings that many of us hold in our hearts – our apparent powerlessness before the systemic nexus of powers crushing the vulnerable and and the unending struggle for justice. The termites metaphor is indeed powerful, we need to persist in solidarity and subvert the oppressive system!

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