Re-viewing the seedling April 2010 Himal Magazine

By: Prashant Kadam

Locating the ‘untouchable’ in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur.

Published at:

In reading the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema descriptions of Shyam Benegal’s renowned trilogy – Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975) and Manthan(1976) – one might be led to imagine the ‘straightforwardness’ of the narratives of the films. Ankur, for instance, to be about a young man’s affair;Nishant, about a woman who is abducted and raped by rural feudals; andManthan, about corrupt politicians and their struggles with new technologies and milk cooperatives. In general, if one were to read such synopses without prior knowledge about the larger social relevance of these films, one could tend to believe that they have nothing to do with caste or untouchability. The reality, however, is that these films have layers of subtle references to the dynamics of caste in rural India. Unfortunately these crucial yet understated elements have ambiguously been omitted by film critics.

To test this claim, let us explore the caste indicators of Lakshmi and Kishtayya in Ankur, and then look closely at how the synopses addressed this. The morning after his arrival into the village, Surya (a newly married city-bred young man played by Anant Nag) asks Lakshmi (played by Shabana Azmi, the wife of a deaf-mute labourer, Kishtayya) to make tea for him. She hesitates, asking him whether he would drink tea that she made saying: “Mere haat ki chai piyengey aap?” Confused as to why he would not, Surya asks, “Kyun, kya baat hai?” and she responds, “Woh, hum loga kumhar hai sarkar”, telling him that she belongs to the kumhar, or potter caste, considered ‘low’ born.

Although castes involved in skilled professions such as carpentry (sutar) and ironsmithing (lohar) are technically, in the government parlance, considered to be ‘backward’ classes/castes, they were not necessarily considered as ‘untouchables’ or Dalits. In other words, a Kumhar might be considered to belong to the ‘lower’ Shudra caste, but the practice of untouchability was by and large reserved for the ati-shudra, the Dalits. The working mechanism of the caste system, however, systematically laid down ‘inherent’ notions of caste/occupational hierarchy, leading to what B R Ambedkar termed ‘graded inequality’ within Indian society. Thus, for example, Sutars consider themselves to be superior to Lohars, who consider themselves to be superior to chamars (leatherworkers) and so on.

Of the various ambiguities in Ankur the lived reality of untouchability that the Dalits faced was imagined for the Shudra couple Lakshmi and Kishtayya. Therefore, depicting them as Kumhars and ‘untouchables’ was perhaps erroneous. Not that it was completely inaccurate, as Shudras (ie, Bahujans) might also have encountered such discriminatory treatment. Nonetheless Kumhars being treated as ‘untouchables’ highlighted yet another dimension of the practice of untouchability that can be thought of as permeating Indian society. On being asked about the caste identity of Lakshmi and Kishtayya and their depiction as ‘untouchables’, Benegal recently told this writer that although Kumhars might not now be considered Dalits, they were treated as ‘untouchables’ in the Telengana region of the 1950s, the period in which the film was set.

Productive skills
In the critical analysis of Ankur that has been published over the past three decades, Kishtayya is often referred to merely as a ‘labourer’. There is no doubt that both he and Lakshmi are ‘labourers’. But failing to mention their caste backgrounds – perhaps the primary reason for their being on the margins, and the reason for being virtual slaves of the landlord – subverts a vital element that consolidates the economic, social, cultural and political positions of the subjugated couple. Furthermore, labourers are generally remunerated; but during the entire course of the film, one never sees either Lakshmi or Kishtayya being paid a fair remuneration for their work, for which Benegal may have intentionally maintained an element of ambiguity.

The story of Lakshmi and Kishtayya begins when a self-indulgent Surya arrives in the village, supposedly to look after his family’s estate. However, he displays little interest in following agricultural pursuits, for which he has neither the will nor the required skills, and he is thus largely dependent on the labour done by Lakshmi and Kishtayya. In this context, it is interesting that film historian Sangeeta Datta has written, “Living on the verge of poverty, Lakshmi steals grain from her master’s storeroom – her survival instincts are stronger than any moral qualms.” It is rather unfortunate that Lakshmi’s act is labelled as ‘stealing’. Datta not only fails to comment on the dependency of the ‘master’ upon his ‘slave’, but also neglects to comment upon the non-payment of a fair remuneration for their productive labour. Had Lakshmi been duly paid for her services as a housemaid and field labourer, she would not have had to ‘steal’ grains – produced, incidentally by her own labour.

Datta, while questioning Lakshmi’s ‘morality’, does not fail to highlight Surya’s seeming modernity. “Surya displays liberal ideas when he eats food cooked by the ‘untouchable’ Lakshmi,” Datta writes, “and sends off the village priest who protests.” Hailing from a patriarchal background, where sons often do not learn to cook, Surya’s ‘liberalism’ comes at the price of Lakshmi’s subjugation. After cooking food regularly for Surya in his house, their relationship eventually becomes sexual. On this point, Datta attributes this sexual relationship to Surya’s supposed liberalness: “Despite his earlier display of progressive views, Surya’s claim on Lakshmi is a replay of his father’s ownership of the village woman Kaushalya.” In other words, Surya’s father ‘owned’ a mistress in a similar manner. It is pertinent to note here that, after Kishtayya is caught stealing toddy, Surya makes sure that Kishtayya is publicly humiliated, after which he disappears. It is in Kishtayya’s absence that Surya and Lakshmi become sexually involved, at Surya’s hollow promise to Lakshmi that he will “look after” her.

Although we see Kishtayya perpetually drunk, there is a significant scene that highlights aspects of his productive skills. In his ‘usual’ drunken state, Kishtayya climbs a tall tree to drink toddy, from which he then descends with a pot full of the drink. Both of these manoeuvres are done with notable ease and agility, despite Kishtayya’s full knowledge that one false move would mean a number of broken bones, if not death. For most Dalitbahujans, such productive skills are learned at a young age, and one tends to become an expert by youth. Although the film depicted various aspects of this skilled-though-marginalised Dalitbahujan consciousness, critics have rarely if ever commented on its significance, particularly from a Dalitbahujan perspective.
In another subtle yet telling scene, Surya follows an unknown noise by a nearby well. It is broad daylight, and he stands by a wall looking at a few women by the water. Suddenly, Surya is frozen at the sight of a snake and, terrified, he calls out to Lakshmi for help. Without much ado, Lakshmi calmly picks up a stick and shoos the snake away. Here again, it is significant to read this scene as reflecting Dalitbahujan culture and knowledge of the often-undermined rural underclass/caste. Not only does Lakshmi not hurt the snake; but by not being intimidated by it, she displays a far deeper sense of understanding of nature – again, a critical example of the Dalitbahujan consciousness. In contrast, the educated, urban, middle-class, ‘upper’-caste Surya is speechless at the mere sight of the snake. Yet while the focus for critics has remained largely on the negative facets of ‘lower’ caste characters, positive and productive skills apparent in the narrative have systematically remained unseen.

Kishtayya’s child?

After Kishtayya’s humiliation and subsequent disappearance, Surya and Lakshmi gradually become sexually involved. The time between Kishtayya’s disappearance and his return (close to the end of the film) is left ambiguous, due to which a viewer might tend to believe that Surya impregnated Lakshmi – likewise, the reference made by the title, Ankur, or ‘seedling’. When Surya and Lakshmi argue over her pregnancy, Surya expects her to go through with an abortion, but Lakshmi refuses. Surya asks, “Don’t you feel ashamed?” to which she retorts, “Must I only feel ashamed and not you?” Although the claim to paternity here is not clear, it is apparent that Surya does not consider having sex with an ‘untouchable’ an act of shame – as long as it is not made public. It is only when Lakshmi’s pregnancy would reveal their involvement that he wants Lakshmi to feel ashamed. Lakshmi, meanwhile, is bold enough to question Surya’s stance, and brave enough be a single mother. Critics hailed Priya Bakshi’s character from Kya Kehna (2000), played by Preity Zinta, taking a similar stance; however, when a ‘lower’ caste Lakshmi took such a stance 26 years ago, was it not worth the mention?

Most critics have taken a rather simplistic approach to this complex dynamic. Some have suggested that Lakshmi had always wanted a child; or implied that Kishtayya was naive, as he seems to be joyous seeing Lakshmi pregnant when he returns. But it is important here to note how ambiguous the narrative actually is with regards to the ‘seedling’. Early on the film alludes to Lakshmi and Kishtayya having sex; but because the film does not explicitly reveal how much time has passed during Kishtayya’s absence, the viewer cannot be conclusive with regards to the paternity. At the same time, what will follow after birth is perhaps much more important – and oddly, one of the least commented upon aspects of the film. There is no doubt that Lakshmi’s and Kishtayya’s child will bear an invisible signifier as the child of an ‘untouchable’. But the narrative also implies that the ‘seedling’ is ‘sown’ in their family: leaving claims of paternity ambiguous, Ankur leaves the lower-caste Lakshmi with the hope of a future generation. On the other hand, at the end of the film we see Surya and his wife virtually trapped in their own house, with no apparent hope in the narrative for their family to grow. Ankur thus leaves the deprived and subjugated couple on the margins, but with the hope of a family.

For her pivotal essay “Can the Subaltern speak”, noted Indian theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s perspective was hailed as a ‘voice of concern’. Implicit in her work, however, was the presupposition that the marginalised is “inherently mute”. In real life, as in innumerable films, the Dalitbahujans have spoken, sung songs, murmured, acted and reacted; if they remained mute, it was perhaps in protest. If only Spivak had considered the complexities and implications of caste along with class, she would have found that, indeed, the subaltern often speaks. Whether they are being heard, of course, is often another matter altogether. Prashant Kadam is pursuing his master’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies at York University, Toronto, and is working on a documentary on the representations of Dalits in Hindi cinema.

Can you please be clear?

Dalit party wants Sena, MNS derecognised

This misleading headline alludes to “Dallt party wants Sena” but seeks to have the MNS de-recognized. Perhaps it would have been appropriate if it read: “Dalit Party wants Sena and MNS derecognised.”

Dalit party wants Sena, MNS derecognised

Sat, Feb 6 11:35 AM

Lucknow, Feb. 6 — Dalit political outfit Indian Justice Party (IJP) plans to petition the Election Commission or the Supreme Court, seeking the de-recognition of the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena as political parties.

“Bal and Raj Thackeray are playing divisive politics,” IJP president Udit Raj said at a press conference on Friday. “They are out to make Indians fight against Indians.

” Udit Raj, also chairman of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, said he would meet the chief election commissioner on Monday and, if the demand to disband both parties was not met, would file a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court.

Hindustan Times

The role of India’s untouchables in film

Published originally in The Star here

DEEP THOUGHTS | living | The role of India’s untouchables in film

The role of India’s untouchables in film

Jun 22, 2007 04:30 AM

Shauna Rempel
Toronto Star

Name: Prashant Kadam

Age: 35

Program: First year of master’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies at York University

Thesis: Visual representation of the Dalits in popular Hindi cinema

The background: Dalit refers to an outcast class of “untouchables” under the Hindu caste system in India. Before the caste system was thrown out in the 1950s, Dalits were considered the lowest of the low, relegated to society’s most menial jobs and subjected to violence, harassment and abuse.

Even though the Indian constitution forbids discrimination along caste lines, it still exists, especially in modern cinema, a huge business in India. Nearly 200 Hindi-language films are made each year in India and the 160 million Dalits are sorely under-represented. When they do appear, they are usually cast as victims or stereotyped as uneducated, rebellious and violent.

“There’s a tendency to portray them as physically handicapped at times even. It’s how filmmakers perceive them and how society still perceives them,” Kadam says.

The correlations: Similar studies have been done on portrayal of aboriginal peoples in film and on Blaxploitation films of the ’70s. In Shaft, for example, there is a perception that a marginalized group is taking back some power.

“The notion of a Blaxploitation film is that the industry understood that there was money to be made by portraying black characters in a film,” Kadam says. But, “they were still stereotyped.” Male characters were often subjugated and beaten, while female characters were either sex-hungry or victims of sexual violence, he says.

The movies: Kadam focuses on three films that are rare because they have Dalit characters as protagonists.

Ankur (The Seedling), from 1974, is a story about a maidservant who is impregnated by her boss and abandoned by her deaf-mute Dalit husband. The husband later returns to his wife’s side, only to be beaten by the guilt-laden boss.

The 1994 film Bandit Queen is loosely based on the life of Phoolan Devi. She was sold into marriage at 11, subjected to years of abuse, and by her late teens was leading a gang of bandits on violent robberies that targeted the rich and shared the spoils with the lower castes.

The 2000 film Bawander (Sandstorm) is also inspired by the story of a lower caste woman who stands up for justice after a gang rape by taking her abusers to court. However, she is again victimized, in the court and police system.

The Future: After his master’s degree, Kadam wants to expand his study as part of a PhD thesis. He hopes by then Dalits will portray themselves in their own films in the same way filmmaker Spike Lee does with the black experience in North America.

Deep Thoughts is a look at research

going on in and around the GTA.

Canada’s Indian community shocked at attacks in Mumbai

This news appeared on CBC after the 2006 Mumbai train bombings.

Original link to the CBC story here.

Mumbai train bombings – CBC news

Canada’s Indian community shocked at attacks in Mumbai

News of the deadly bombings in Mumbai has struck hard in Indian communities across Canada.

By late Tuesday, the death toll had risen to at least 190 people after seven bombs exploded on the train network in India’s financial capital during the evening rush hour.

People stand outside a train coach that was destroyed in a bomb blast in Mumbai.
People stand outside a train coach that was destroyed in a bomb blast in Mumbai.
(Associated Press)

The Patel family from Toronto is heading back to Mumbai for a summer vacation. But instead of excitement there’s now a sense of trepidation.

“It surprised us as soon as we heard,” said Kalpana Patel. “My brother called and said we’d better inquire about our flight and see if we [should] still go.”

Their flight was to leave as scheduled, but the Patels weren’t so sure leaving Canada is such a good idea.

“Toronto being home, Mumbai is our original home. It still feels [scary] to go home like this because being here, it’s so safe and nice,” said Chirag Patel.

It’s also their children’s first visit to the country from which they emigrated seven years ago, a prospect they say is now “scary.”

Pratima Jha is flying to Delhi and then taking the train to Rajistan. But those plans may change.

“I will think about taking a taxi instead of going by train. I’m much too worried now these things has happened.”

Plenty of concern

In Toronto’s Little India there is worry and concern.

“There are some friends over there,” said one woman. “We’re definitely going to call them and find out what’s going on over there.”

“I feel very sad and I feel sorry you know, for the loss of life and injured, and I’m very sorry for their families,” said another man.

Prashant Kadam, who is originally from just outside Mumbai, says he’s puzzled by the bombings.

“The first thing that comes to mind is why would this happen and who would let this happen?”

That’s a question many people are asking.

“First reaction will be surprise. Second reaction will be disbelief. And then the next question will be why? Why should these kinds of things be happening?” said Ajit Jian, editor of India Abroad.

Calls about the attacks took over regular programming on Vancouver’s Radio India.

“They are all worried … right now especially because the phone lines are dead,” said news director Sukminder Cheema.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement: “This is another awful reminder of the determination of terrorists who use murder as an instrument to advance their political ends.

“Canada,” he said, “stands with India, a proud democracy, in condemning these acts of terror perpetrated by those who value human life less than their own extreme beliefs.”

Foreign Affairs officials are still trying to reach Canadians in Mumbai to determine whether any were injured in Tuesday’s attacks.

Last Updated: Tuesday, July 11, 2006 | 11:14 PM ET