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Documentary, Indian Cinema

Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011)

The revolutionary poet-singer Vilas Ghogre

The revolutionary poet-singer Vilas Ghogre

Anand Patwardhan is a major documentary filmmaker who since the 1970s has courageously produced a series of uncompromising films about the central political and social issues of contemporary India. Jai Bhim Comrade was 14 years in the making. The title is a salutation invoking the memory of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) who inspired the Ambedkarite Dalit movement. In 1997 a statue of Ambedkar in Mumbai was desecrated and in the aftermath of the discovery of this act 10 local people from the local ‘colony’ were killed by the police. Four days later a local radical poet and singer was so affected by the events that he took his own life. The police officer responsible for the men who committed the atrocity was suspended but it would take ten years for a hearing and a judgement from the court to come through. In the meantime, Patwardhan set out to put together a complex interweaving of witness statements, reportage, history lessons and, crucially, music performances to represent the persecution of Dalits, the corruption of police and judicial services, the hatred fostered by communalist politics, but also the incredible fortitude of the people forced to live in poverty and work in appalling conditions so that the Indian (upper) middle classes can have a comfortable existence.

‘Dalit’ (‘the oppressed’) is the preferred term used by those Indians who find themselves at the lowest level of the Indian caste system, deemed ‘untouchable’ by the brahmins (priestly caste), ‘warriors’, traders and skilled labourers. Statistics given in the film suggest that one quarter of Indians are ‘Scheduled castes’ or ‘Scheduled tribes’ – effectively second-class citizens. This means that a certain number of jobs are ‘reserved’ for them by the constitution but this quota treatment just emphasises the maltreatment of all the other SC and ST populations. Patwardhan puts all of these arguments before us in painstaking detail. But this doesn’t make the film depressing. He finds wonderfully articulate witnesses. Men, women and children discuss their situations eloquently and with fierce spirit and they are accompanied by wonderful singers and poets. I doubt any audience could fail to be impressed.

Not surprisingly perhaps, for much of his long career, Patwardhan has had to look outside India for the funds to enable him to keep shooting and keep editing. (When Channel 4 in the UK was committed to alternative political voices, it was one of Patwardhan’s funders via its purchase of films for telecasts.) He wields the camera, interviews his subjects and edits the footage himself in the main.

There is a great deal written about Anand Padwardhan. For instance, you can see a visual essay as well as a review of Jai Bhim Comrade by Catherine Bernier on the Jump Cut website. Patwardhan himself has his own website and he guards his rights carefully – the film can be purchased from this website. On Patwardhan’s website you can also find a range of reviews and interviews. I found the interview by John Akomfrah and Ilona Halberstadt very useful. But if you want to see and hear Anand Patwardhan talk about Jai Bhim Comrade, I urge you to watch the BFI interview conducted by the revolutionary dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson at BFI Southbank.

(Jai Bhim Comrade is referenced at the end of Chapter 8 of The Global Film Book.

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