A new parallel cinema?

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WHEN the National Film Awards were announced on the 7th of March this year, it came as no great surprise that the mainstream media totally blacked out the non-feature film awards. It does not need great insight to understand why they did so, since a dumbed-down media cannot be expected to rise above its programmed responses.

For too long, in India, non-feature films have been lumped along with dull documentaries as propaganda and being ‘too educational’ for mass consumption. In recent years, the advent of satellite TV channels has allowed us a window to witness some exciting non-feature films – telecast on History Channel as well as on Discovery and BBC – which has set the gold standard by which these films are judged. Now the internet, with You Tube offerings, has brought some stunning international non-feature films to our computers and iPads.

But the result of a media blackout in India has meant that most of us are oblivious to the changes being witnessed in the Indian documentary scene. A quiet movement with significant works by passionate film makers is there for viewing. This may still not qualify as a creative tsunami in the making, but there are enough films in the market to convince even skeptical critics that these films must be applauded, encouraged and distributed aggressively.

This year, in particular, the national awards for non-feature films consisted of a remarkable harvest of exciting films. The subjects chosen by the film makers reflect their deep and intuitive concern for Indian society. Some possessed a compulsive need to give voice to the marginalized; others captured the angst and laid out a guide for survival amidst India’s million mutinies. Some films celebrated the marvels of technology in India, while others brought us closer to understanding the vanishing wildlife and its implication for the Indian environment. Many resorted to conservative storytelling of aspirations from small town India, but there were some, who in a spirit of adventure and experimentation, sought out a poetry of loss and longing, conflicting it with the idiom of modern sensibilities. In each of these films a unique facet of India was documented, debated and dissected. Some were flawed, others perhaps simplistic, but almost all of them had a core integrity of the innocent eye.

The special jury award – a prestigious national recognition – was given to Jai Bhim Comrade directed by Anand Patwardhan. Anand remains one of India’s most uncompromising activist film makers. And this, over three hours long blazing study of Dalit empowerment in Mumbai, works far beyond its brief as it plays out the painful history of Dalit exploitation – the place of Ambedkar as an ultimate icon for Dalits in India, the impoverished lives of the marginalized, the daily humiliations they suffer in contemporary India, and the efforts of a few to arouse the youth to rebel against this system to fight for political and social empowerment. In the process, we witness the subterranean anger and blind rage articulated through militant and visceral poems of Dalit artists.

Shot over 14 years, the narrative takes as its point of departure the suicide of a Dalit poet following a police firing in the Ramabai colony where 10 Dalits, who were protesting peacefully against the desecration of the statue of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, were killed. The film works on multiple tracks – the effort to get the policeman who ordered the firing indicted by the courts, even as the establishment ring fences him from any punitive punishment. It follows the machinations of national political parties as they try to woo the Dalit vote banks, and the final irony, of right-wing politicians managing to get a foothold into the Dalit colony by splitting the Republican Party. Jai Bhim Comrade exposes the hypocrisy and contradictions marking every strata of Indian society. But as we witness the transformation of conformist to rebel, the narrative is propelled with inherent drama. This is observational documentary at its best, blended with a fanatical social concern.

There were many films from the outposts of India – from Kashmir and the North East. The Silent Poet, winner of the best debut film, takes a poem by Irom Sharmila, the iconic nonviolent activist from Manipur, and intercuts her anguished verses with the social turmoil in the North East. The film captures in an understated style the dilemma of those caught between the crossfire of ruthless militancy and the tyranny of the state’s response.

In another feature length documentary set in Manipur, Fried Fish, Chicken Soup and A Premiere Show, we get to witness the making of a commercial Manipuri film – within this same disturbed social milieu. The producers must overcome challenges from the self-imposed censorship of local bodies to objections from militant groups as they go about their creative process. The canvas of Manipuri cinema is woven in, and the film makers, actors and producers multi-task to feed the local fans a typical song and dance Manipuri film diet.

The choice of the subjects and the sheer diversity is what gives these non-feature films their significance. A noteworthy film, And We Play On, is a moving tribute to an Olympian hockey player whose life is cut short by cancer, and the tenacity of his father who sets up a hockey training academy in Varanasi in memory of his son. Inshallah, Football by Ashvin Kumar follows the travails of a young Kashmiri football player (whose father is a former militant) and his effort to get a passport so that he can train at a Brazilian football club.

Other films chose to dwell on subjects which are normally considered taboo in India – such as schizophrenia, and how a family deals with this problem – told by the protagonist herself. There is Something in the Air, yet another debut film – directed by Iram Ghufran – is an impressionistic understanding of mental illness as men and women visit the dargah in Badayun to exorcise themselves of spirits and djinns. It is a film which in terms of sheer form is a transcendental celebration with a strong grasp of the cinematic language. Cotton for Shroud investigates the suicide of farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, caused as much by official apathy as by alleged greed of multinationals recklessly introducing Bt cotton seeds. Bom is an ethnographic study of Malana, a remote tribal village in Himachal Pradesh, which witnesses social change as democracy transforms the power equations at the grassroots for these former descendants of Alexander the Great, and who have earned a worldwide reputation for the marijuana produced in the region. The Tiger Dynasty by S. Nallumuthu is a powerful narrative which takes us deep into the jungles of Sariska and gives us an intimate portrait of the life of tigers as they fight for survival in an environment made hostile by poachers and angry villagers. Photographed with stunning images, it documents the life of the tigers and wildlife with visuals which are both unique and poetic.

At a time when feature films in India are becoming homogenized and almost formula ridden, when the best of these films are celebrated only because they are marginally offbeat, the documentary arena is full of experiment and promise. Digital technology has lowered the entry barrier for Indian film makers. And although funding is still a major problem – and distribution almost nonexistent – it is precisely these challenges that help create the fire in the belly syndrome that allows the film makers to push the envelope. In the process, we witness the growth of artists and activists. The medium becomes a source for ideas to be set forth and then challenged, for stereotypes to be destroyed; a democratized medium where a thousand voices can now bloom. In the cacophony one will occasionally hear the voice of the mute and the challenged, watch poets and writers flourish using digital and visual language – all holding great promise for the future of non-feature films in India.

Ramesh Sharma

* Ramesh Sharma is a national and international award winning film maker. He was Chairman of the Jury for the 59th National Film Awards for non-feature films, 2012.


Fractionalized centre of power

A MODERN state is considered a ‘fully formed social organization of the whole society’ once it has succeeded in creating a viable and capable ‘centre of power’ whose writ runs over every segment of society under its territorial jurisdiction. Philosophers of modern European state systems like Machiavelli and Hobbes considered a state as formed only when undisputed authority was exercised by a ‘Prince’, ‘Leviathan’ or a ‘Sovereign’. In contrast, liberal democratic theorists argued that state sovereignty should reside in a constitutional democratically elected Parliament and political executive because only these ‘centres of power’ enjoy a democratic legitimacy and popular support. While absolutists, monarchists or democrats vigorously differed about the appropriate form of modern states, all agreed that the fundamental salient feature of the state lies in its capacity to exercise control over the whole society through an identifiable and visible ‘centre of power’.

India cannot be an exception to this general story of historical evolution of modern state systems. A key justification of the extremely powerful anti-colonial liberation movements was that state power should be controlled by the ‘natives’ and colonial rulers should be dislodged and compelled to vacate their illegal occupation of ‘power at the centre’ in the colonies. This historical context is essential to appreciate the fact that the current vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the authority of the Indian state can be best understood by focusing attention on the existing fractionalized nature of the ‘centre of power’. The existing social situation is creating a feeling of ‘pessimism’ because the authority and writ of the real ‘centre of power’ is questioned not only by those, like the Communist Party of India (Maoists), who are fundamentally challenging the very foundational principles of the existing state and want to ‘capture the centre of state power’ to create a alternative state system. The unfortunate fact is that the ‘centre of power’ is divided and weak even when, in its own judgment, it is working in the interests of the leading ruling exploiting classes and its multiple class fractions and the state is confident of its military capability to confront these ‘enemies of the state.’ Rather, it is the friends of the state who are a problem.

Marx clearly stated that, ‘The social relations of production (i.e.) social organization in its broadest sense, and the material forces of production to whose level they correspond, cannot be divorced’, and this is the reason that ‘the economic structure of society is formed by the totality of these relations.’ This Marxist theoretical approach makes it clear that, ‘Economic development cannot be discussed except in terms of a particular historical epoch and particular social structure.’ It deserves to be recognized that despite the hegemony of the capitalist mode of production, the state in India has to operate in the specific situation where a mixture and coexistence of different ‘forms’ of social relations of production are in contest and competition for extending their own control over the ‘centre of power’.

India has not arrived at a stage where a fully formed and mature capitalist mode of production has been completely successful in either weakening or eliminating pre-capitalist and pre-industrial surviving modes of production, especially the ‘old’ landlord, feudal remnants of the ‘agrarian peasant societies and classes.’ Thus, even as the capitalist mode of production has penetrated the agrarian sectors of economy and society, the leading strata of the capitalist classes face resistance from the agrarian surplus-generating peasant classes who refuse to be ‘subservient’ to the demands and interests of the big industrial houses, medium capitalists and professional educated middle classes who are an active social segment of the capitalist economy especially in the ‘service sector’, real estate and other commodity production activities of the growing consumerist classes.

While a kind of ‘urban’-‘rural’ divide persists at a level of social relations of production, the ‘surplus producing peasantry’ which is materially, even technologically, linked with the modern capitalist economy, continues to maintain its traditional domination over ‘village society’. India is at a historical stage where the peasant question remains a critical part of the social and political ‘agenda’ and only on its satisfactory resolution will the Indian ‘centre of power’ emerge as a fully ‘formed source of authority.’ The peasant question is integrally linked with the problematic of peasant power because traditionally in pre-capitalist societies, aristocracy, nobility, feudal, landlords, et al. dominated over the whole ‘people’ within their area of control, and this ‘consciousness of power’ to dominate over ‘village society’ persists among ‘the surplus producing’ peasant classes of agrarian India.

The means and instrumentalities of coming to power have no doubt changed because of a democratic electoral system; nevertheless, the political project of dominating over subordinate and marginal social groups in rural India remains the driving force among the peasant classes. It is not without reason that peasant-based parties have emerged on the political scene and are exercising substantial control over the state governments. Further, these peasant-leader led parties have more or less obliterated the distinction between the ‘party’ and ‘elected state government’ because of insufficiently evolved mediatory mechanisms between the exercise of power by chief ministers, ministers or MLAs and the peasant classes who have formed their own parties to directly pursue their class interests. The Akali Dal of Punjab is thus virtually indistinguishable from Sikh Jat peasantry; the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav or the different Janata Dals and Lok Dals are essentially an extension of the dominant strata of the peasant classes which exercises control over ‘village society’. Similarly, the surplus-producing peasantry of developed regions like Maharashtra or Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka constitutes the real backbone of the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party or Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party. The argument is that the peasantry, while accepting the logic of the ongoing process of capitalist development and desirous of sharing the fruits of capitalist growth, is still imbued with the memory of its historical role of domination over its defined areas of control in agrarian society and that the democratic process is merely an instrument to capture government power for class domination over village society.

It is simplistic to reduce the issue to federal tensions and the conflicts between state governments and the Centre. The question is not about centralization versus decentralization of power, or a redistribution of powers between the central and state governments; the larger question is that to meet the logic of centralization and globalization, the capitalist classes and capitalism need a state which has an effective ‘centre of power’ so as to facilitate accumulation of profit in both the national and global markets. The peasantry in India finds itself at a crossroads because it finds the urban capitalist classes fully entrenched in the corridors of power at the Centre and realizes that to achieve its own goal of controlling the levers of governmental power, which it can achieve only at the state-regional levels of governance, it will have to accept the leadership of the capitalist classes. The real explanation for the fractionalization of the centre of power of the Indian state is that the Indian peasantry is finding it difficult to share power with the leading classes of the capitalist state because in doing so, it may have to surrender its own area of dominance which is coextensive with the boundaries of states, regions or sub-regions.

Even if the peasantry is on the wrong side of history, it has nevertheless shown great tenacity to hold on to power in its limited, social universe. The future of Indian state’s ‘centre of power’ depends on the ability to structure an appropriate balance among the different strata of the exploiting ruling classes, especially the bourgeoisie and the peasantry, while resolving the contradictions and conflicts in which the peasantry finds itself. The Indian state is engaged in inter-class and intra-class conflict and competition and this conflict situation prevailing among the fractions and strata of the ruling classes has directly impacted the actual functioning of a coherent and cohesive ‘centre of power’. History provides enough evidence that in situations when the ruling classes and their fractions are not threatened by a revolutionary force, they remain trapped in pursuing limited agendas, even if in the long-run, the process is counterproductive.

C.P. Bhambhri

* C.P. Bhambhri is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.