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In 1998 Andre Gunder Frank’s highly controversial “ReOrient” appeared. It argued that “the East” (mainly China and India) would eventually supplant “the West” as hegemonic powers, thus reestablishing the relationships that existed before 1492 when all of Columbus’s fleet could be put on the deck of the flagship of Zheng He’s fleet that made multiple voyages to the east coast of Africa in the early 15th century.
I have my doubts about Frank’s overall thesis but on one level it is surely borne out by Indian cinema that now makes most American films look crude and amateurish by comparison. To see Indian cinema at its best, I urge New Yorkers to make it to the New York Indian Film Festival that runs from May 5th to the 10th. It can only be described as an embarrassment of riches.
In this article, I will be discussing a group of documentaries that I had the great fortune to preview but urge you to visit my blog over the next several days where I plan to follow up with articles on narrative films as well.
1. GULABI GANG
Leaving aside the artistic merit of the documentaries under review—and there are many—their very existence as documents of Indian social reality would recommend itself highly to the left given the challenges posed by the possible election of Narendra Modi, the BJP politician who has Muslim blood on his hands. Like many far right politicians such as France’s Marine Le Pen, Modi is trying to repackage himself as a moderate. One can easily imagine that documentary filmmakers such as Nishtha Jain, the 49-year-old female director of “Gulabi Gang”, will make Modi’s job a lot tougher.
Gulabi means pink in Hindi, the color of the saris worn by the women in a mass movement that would be the envy of our own Code Pink. The Gulabi Gang’s Medea Benjamin is Sampat Pal Devi, a mother of five and former health worker who grew sick and tired of domestic abuse. Instead of appealing to the authorities—men in uniforms who could care less about gender oppression—Devi organized women to look up the men and beat them with sticks until they behaved themselves.
Some call the Gulabi Gang vigilantes. Considering the odds against them, the women of poor and rural India would seem to have no other recourse. Most are dalits, the so-called “untouchables” who face double oppression both as lower caste members and as women. As is so often the case, oppressed males become the ruling class within the household as Engels observed in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”: “The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”
The bulk of the film is devoted to Sampat Pal Devi and her closest deputies intervening in a case that goes beyond beatings. In a small and poverty-stricken village, a man has already been cleared of burning his wife to death. We look over Devi’s shoulder as she stands aghast at the charred corpse. Not only does she have to deal with the local police’s willingness to accept the husband’s words that a cooking accident was responsible, there is also the collusion of the town’s elected chief and the husband’s friends and family members in supporting the husband’s patently absurd alibi. Even the dead women’s male siblings are willing to allow the murderer to go unpunished since “it was God’s will”. When seeing such complicity, the Western left might begin to understand the power of hegemony. In our societies, we have to contend with educated elites committed to the status quo. In rural India there is also the burden of a thousand years of patriarchy reinforced by religion and the reactionary state power that makes women’s liberation so difficult to achieve. From that perspective, the mass action of the Gulabi Gang is testimony to the willingness of the most oppressed to take on their oppressors, even if they have been forced to share a bed with them.
I should mention that director Nishtha Jain had no intentions of making a hagiographic film about Sampat Pal Devi who she regarded as using the movement as a way of advancing her own goals. Indeed, since the film came out Devi has been expelled from the Gulabi Gang for pretty much for conforming to the director’s expectations. That, however, does not invalidate her contribution to the movement or the need for the struggle to continue. In an interview the director stated:
For me, what was inspiring about her [Devi] is that, even much more than urban feminists, she has individual agency. She takes her own decisions. That is amazing. If you look at village communities, one thing I learnt is that there is no individuality. Everything you decide is as a family or a community, they cannot make a decision about their own lives. Coming from that context, it’s amazing that commanders can emerge who assert their own individuality. These are women who’ve never stepped out of her own home. They can travel, hang around with women, and just that aspect of being able to hang out and not be bogged down by household work is liberating. But then there is confusion, because there has to be a vision for a big change.
This is a spontaneous movement, which means that women want change, so let’s look at it like that. All movements have gone through these confusions. I’d like to look at the universal questions it throws up for any movement anywhere, and in that sense, this movement should be looked at sympathetically.
(Screens on Saturday, May 10, 2014, 3:00 pm)
2. I AM OFFENDED
If Indian film validates A.G. Frank’s hypothesis, the stand-up comedians profiled in this film does so even more. As someone who has been watching stand=up comedians since the 1950s, when I used to see Rodney Dangerfield in performance in the Catskills when he was Jack Roy, I was amazed to see how far superior the Indians to the men and women of America who were their original inspiration.
Unlike the typical American comedian, who is careful to leave his or her politics at home, the Indians are ferocious critics of the high and mighty. While focused on stand-up comedians, the film also has a look at cartoonists, their equivalent of Jon Daley, and other satirists many of whom take advantage of Youtube to get the word out.
For an idea of the best of observational comedy in India, here’s a compilation from Vir Das, their Louis CK and Jerry Seinfeld.
While much of the film consists of excerpts of performances such as this, the most interesting parts involve the comedians reflecting on the difficulties they face in a society that is becoming increasingly repressive. Over and over they stress the importance of comedy performances that target corrupt politicians as necessary for the preservation of Indian democracy. It of course helps that lessons in civics are delivered with a laugh.
(Screens on Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 9:15 pm)
3. SONGS OF THE BLUE HILLS.
The blue hills of the title are home to the Naga people in the northeast states of Nagaland and Assam in India, a collection of tribes that were headhunters in the past but who today lead a quite civilized existence, even as headhunting continues to be a matter of pride to their elders but by no means valued as much as their folk music—the subject of this hugely appealing documentary.
Before the modern states of India and Burma came into existence, the Naga tribes held sway in the mountainous region overlapping the two states. Perpetually at war with each other and outsiders bidding for control over them, they seem to embody the values of the headhunting tribes of New Guinea who offed Michael Rockefeller. Like so many other such “primitive” peoples, their warfare could not begin to compare to the mass murders carried out by modern India or Burma, no matter what Stephen Diamond or Steven Pinker say.
After becoming “civilized” by a combination of Christian missionaries and Christian guns, the Nagas became assimilated into Indian society while continuing to preserve their traditions. The film depicts both the tribal costumes and handicrafts that fortunately have not been spirited off to some museum in the West, as well as their amazing music that defies such colonial ambitions. The only sign of outside pressures on the music comes in the form of seduction acting upon the youth through CD’s and Youtube; they are committed to combining the best of Naga traditional forms and Western rock. In my view, the Naga group Purple Fusion is very good at blending the old and the new. The guitar licks come from Santana, the chants are a thousand years old.
(Screens on Friday, May 9, 2014 6:30 pm)
4. THE UNSEEN SEQUENCE
This documentary examines Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance form, through a series of interviews and performances by Malavika Sarukkai, the 55-year-old leading practitioner of an art that originated in the 6th century AD.
Bharatanatyam originated in the dances of the Devadasi, who were the Hindu rough equivalent of Christian nuns. Instead of praying all day long, the Devadasi danced—a telling commentary on the differences between an ascetic religion and one that celebrates the senses.
During British rule, the Devadasis lost their connection to the temples since the Hindu monarchs who provided the material support for the temples had lost most of their power. The Christian colonizers crusaded against the Devadasis on the grounds that they had become mere prostitutes.
The dance, however, never disappeared. It survived as “Nautch”, the Anglicized version of the Hindi word for dance. The “Nautch girls” were a staple of Indian popular culture for decades, including Bollywood films, and memorialized in the Merchant-Ivory documentary “Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls” that can be seen in its entirety here.
Bharatanatyam is the more refined version of the traditional dance and something uniquely Indian. As a combination of story-telling and dance, it makes most ballets look one-dimensional by comparison as this excerpt from a Sarukkai performance would indicate.
(Screens on Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 6:30 pm.)
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.