Sairat: Casteism in Bubble Wrap

BJP leader Tarun Vijay was beaten up by a mob when he was coming out of a temple in Uttarakhand with a Dalit leader he had taken along. Besides this obvious criminal act, some have dismissed the episode as drama; others have called Vijay’s a bold move.

The problem is that such gestures negate the Dalit; it indicates that Dalit purity is dependent on the high-caste. That Dalits cannot do anything without such magnanimity and constant appraisal of their position.

I had similar thoughts upon watching the Marathi film Sairat. It is the highest-grossing film in the language, already chalking up Rs.65 crore. There are stories about its impact. In rural areas they have extra shows at 12 am and 3 am.

Is a film that manages to become urban folklore also capable of ushering change? 

City folk, especially non-Marathi speaking ones, are fascinated by these anecdotes. We love a small one growing into something big, and wish to become a part of it, and dance along with it as the amazing music plays. And then there is director Nagraj Manjule’s own background as the son of a stone-breaker in a Maharashtra village.

As a regular entertaining film genre, it is at times brilliant and always cinematically beautiful. But going by the rash of analyses one would imagine that this one film can bring about change, and that it has in fact overturned many stereotypes.

For me, Sairat gives us casteism in bubble wrap. This gift is being hailed for it's message.

The story is hackneyed for anybody accustomed to the rich girl-poor boy scenario. Here, the boy Prashant (Parshya) Kale is from a low caste fisherman family and the girl Archana (Archie) Patil belongs to the high caste Maratha family, her father also being a political bigwig in the village.

There is the obvious power play between rich and poor. In villages, as in cities but to a lesser extent, the caste divisions are palpable. There are clear markers. In Sairat, they are indicative. To call this subtlety would be false. I find this rather worrying, for by giving casteism in slow motion the director has made it appear fictional.

The two of them elope and set up a home in a slum in a different city and not in sylvan surroundings as in mainstream cinema. These are indeed realistic touches, but they are props. This is the story of many migrants.

It would seem that some have watched the film with only a caste template in mind, and so caught up are they in this that they've decided to ignore the typical commercial film reductionism.

Parshya has a Muslim friend and a lame friend, both disadvantaged in many ways. It is a boys’ club of the relegated where women and erotic dreams are discussed with abandon.

In the beginning, along with his buddies, Parshya stalks Archie; as she plays with her pals, he stares at her rather unnervingly. She confronts him. And then, with a wicked half smile, she conveys that she likes it. For some years now, there has been vocal opposition to such projection of 'eve teasing', which is in fact violation of a woman’s space. So why does it not come under the radar in a ‘message’ film?

Rather intriguingly, some have chosen to see it as a feminist film. The girl rides bikes, makes the first move, and works while her husband cooks. These would be good points in any other film. Here, if the take-home package is caste, does it not override gender considerations? The director shows Archie in a factory job. Is it because a menial one would reduce her as a character or because the caste division needs to be maintained? Does she not order the boys to get out of the well so that she and her gang can swim? In fact, she is a benefactor throughout. She reprimands Parshya and Salim for referring to Pradeep as Langdya, the lame one. Archie is asserting her high-born right, as she has been accustomed to since birth.

The end is gut-wrenching, made more so because the action takes place off camera. They play host to her brother who has come with a motive. To kill them. He does. All we are left with are their child’s silent cries. Cinematically profound.

However, this and the other incidents point at not merely pessimism but reality. Sairat is portraying and reaffirming the status quo. Therefore, it seems odd that it is being projected as a film upsetting the roles. The director, recounting his own experience said this in a recent interview: “Growing up in a village in Solapur, I could only picture myself as the villain in Bollywood. Only villains had names like mine. Not only was I from a lower caste, I was also dark and not conventionally ‘good looking’.”

This is laden with innuendo about how he perceives those from such a background. It is also rather telling that his hero is a pleasant-looking, quite light-skinned chap. Archie falls for Parshya, the best student and cricket captain. This is the problem whenever there is any attempt to patronise the disadvantaged. They are expected to excel to be acceptable to those who might not even be mediocre.

Such catering to type while addressing an elitist audience ensures returns. We have seen how in recent months Dalit/caste-watching has become little more than a spectator sport.


A Havan for Trump

Nobody should be surprised that the Hindu rightwing supports Donald Trump. That they are bizarre, too, is a known fact. Adding to their weird tactics, the Hindu Sena held a special havan (prayers propitiating gods before a fire) to ensure that Donald bhai wins the US elections.

They placed him along with icons of their holy deities. They seem to have found a common enemy in Muslims. The founder of the group, Vishnu Gupta, said: “The whole world is screaming against Islamic terrorism, and even India is not safe from it. Only Donald Trump can save humanity.”

There is a banner along with the revered gods declaring as much. Aren’t these the same people who claim an ancient heritage that includes having made the first discoveries of planets, rockets, and math and science? Don’t they declare that Hindu heritage supersedes all cultures? How are they, then, relying on a capitalist who has just come on the scene?

The reason is simple. They are outsourcing their own insecurity.

A few months ago a man called Kristopher Allan from the far-right group Scottish Defence League was out in the streets declaiming, "f*** off refugees" and "Allah is a paedo". Reports coming in reveal that he is a sexual offender and a paedolphile. This sort of projection is common, for negativity seeks its own reflection.

It is precisely why the Hindu Sena is holding on to Trump for dear life. He is mirroring their hate.

However, besides appearing ridiculous performing that ritual for Trump, they are insulting the culture they seem to claim to revive. But, then, their behavior and expression are a daily assault on the culture. Let us also not, never, forget that it is such organisations that have killed rationalists in the past couple of years. 

London’s Mayor and his White Knights
-The Wrath of Khan

[Published in CounterPunch, May 11]

The new mayor of London has been asserting from every podium available that he is the mayor of all of London to ensure they do not imagine he merely represents some kebab corner in Hounslow or other Outer London hub where many of his fellow Pakistanis live.

That is the least of his problems, for he wears all the distinguishing identity marks with some confidence. In the ceremonial position of mayor, however, he is being made to hold forth on ‘Islamic terrorism’. Worse, he is playing ball, as they knew he would.

He told TIME magazine:

“One of the things that’s important to me as a Londoner is making sure my family, people I care about, are safe. But clearly, being someone who is a Muslim brings with it experiences that I can use in relation to dealing with extremists and those who want to blow us up. And so it’s really important that I use my experiences to defeat radicalization and extremism. What I think the election showed was that actually there is no clash of civilization between Islam and the West. I am the West, I am a Londoner, I’m British, I’m of Islamic faith, Asian origin, Pakistan heritage, so whether it’s [ISIS] or these others who want to destroy our way of life and talk about the West, they’re talking about me. What better antidote to the hatred they spew than someone like me being in this position?”

Mr. Khan believes that by virtue of being Muslim you become an expert on extremism and an electoral victory in one small part of the world is enough to shake the terrorism fortress. He is mouthing the clichés they love to hear.

That is the reason even Donald Trump says he will lift his ban on Muslims for him: “There will always be exceptions”, adding, “I think [his election] is a very good thing, and I hope he does a very good job … If he does a good job and frankly if he does a great job, that would be a terrific thing.”

But the mayor is not biting:

“This isn't just about me - it's about my friends, my family and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world…Donald Trump's ignorant view of Islam could make both our countries less safe - it risks alienating mainstream Muslims around the world and plays in to the hands of the extremists. Donald Trump and those around him think that western liberal values are incompatible with mainstream Islam - London has proved him wrong."

It is good that Khan made his position clear (this was before the TIME interview), but then Trump is considered a political buffoon and fair game. Khan would be circumspect before the supremacists in his own backyard. Somebody has to break it to him that not only his opponents but his supporters too tag him with the M word. They believe they have saved him, not themselves, from his main opponent the Conservative Zac Goldsmith who ran a vicious bigoted campaign. They are patting their backs by concluding that this choice proves there is no place for racism in London.

Sadiq Khan taking on Zac Goldsmith
It is not as simple as that. Congratulating Khan, Jemima, Zac Goldsmith’s sister, did not fail to mention that he would be, “A great example to young Muslims.” Some say it is a blow to the ISIS. Echoing the western prototype, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote:

“A Khan victory would also demolish the extremists’ anti-western narrative. If a Muslim can be elected by millions of voters of all backgrounds to take charge of the world’s greatest city, how would the jihadis – how could they – carry on believing and arguing that we Muslims have no future in Europe, or that westerners hate us? This victory could do more to combat radicalisation than any number of government strategies – most of which are in any case unjust and counterproductive.”

The extremists’ reaction is 1) to assert supremacy 2) to take revenge. The first is a fantastical and fascistic idea, as upheld primarily by the ISIS. With the other category, where terrorism is a social phenomenon, the future of Muslims in Europe inspires them little. It is the future of and for their homelands they fight for, however faulty their methods.

Ms. Alibhai-Brown’s analysis spins the good vs. bad Muslim by attributing Sadiq Khan’s victory to westerners’ love as opposed to hate. Perhaps unintentionally, she also conveys that all that potentially radicalised people need is a lollipop from the aforementioned loving westerner to the good Muslim. The hyperbolic response to Khan from the liberal is perhaps precisely because it is a ceremonial post and a little symbolism costs nothing and hurts nobody.

Sadiq Khan chose to attend a Holocaust memorial event on his first official outing because it is, “So important to reflect, remember and educate about the 6 million Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust.” Indeed, Holocaust deniers contradicted him. But it is the anti-Islamism that he will have to deal with: “The cult followers of Muhammad have killed 270 million people in 1,400 years.”

Even with the diversity he brings along and stands for, including his background as son of a bus driver and seamstress who shared a little home with seven siblings or his voting for gay rights, his biography as written by them carries one buzzword: Muslim. The subtext is that they have legitimised him despite it.

Being a good role model

The counter-query, “When will a non-Muslim get a position in a Muslim country?” itself reveals that such positions in the public imagination are perceived as handouts. Multiculturalism cannot exist in a theocratic state. And Britain – despite the new Catholic Tony Blair reportedly praying to god when deciding whether or not to send British troops into Iraq – is still not quite there.

However, in Sharia-compliant Pakistan a Hindu did become Chief Justice. And westerners, including those from human rights organisations, are quasi mayors and sheriffs of the lands they hope to reform.

Sadiq Khan is mimicking this module by using successful Muslims as role models so that “when somebody comes along and tries to brainwash them (the youth) with a sort of nihilistic view of life and say the way to get success in this world and the hereafter is to get a Kalashnikov and go to commit — in inverted commas — jihad is to say, ‘you know what? That’s not true’.”

It is rather uplifting to know that way beyond the call of duty the mayor of London has plans not only for the city but the hereafter of his co-religionists. Sadiq Khan has been nicely coopted and saved from a pyrrhic victory.