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Touching a raw nerve

‘India Untouched’ by Stalin K. brings home the truth that untouchability exists closer home than one is ready to admit



The buck stops here If you deny that untouchability exists, you perpetuate it, and that makes you malicious, says Stalin K.

As the recent protests over reservations by forums like Youth For Equality have shown, the country’s elite would have us all believe that caste-based discrimination and untouchability is a thing of the past. For anyone who takes these vocal sec tions of society at face value, Stalin K.’s ‘India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart’ must come as a rude shock.

Screened at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore last week, the film travels across eight states, making one strong point that is impossible to ignore at the end of its 108 minutes: untouchability still exists, in the “backward villages”, in urban centres, in some of the highest centres of learning, in the north, the south, the east and the west and even under the traditionally “non-religious” communist regime of Kerala.

“When I made ‘Lesser Humans’ (on manual scavenging) people would sit back and say this happens in Gujarat not here,”says Stalin of why he chose such a pan-Indian anecdotal format for the film. “I wanted to cut through the denial and show that it happens on a pan-Indian level across urban and rural spaces, states and religions.”

Potent weapon - Denial

The rationale behind the film, says Stalin, is not demolishing untouchability immediately, but rather taking away its most potent weapon, denial. “If you deny that untouchability exists, you perpetuate it, and that makes you malicious. I’ve made the film on the basis that I should give everyone the benefit of doubt. But if even after seeing the film you deny that untouchability exists that makes your denial malicious.”

Interestingly, the anti-reservationists too find their place in the film, as Stalin juxtaposes the vehement protests of the urban youth “against attempts to divide on the basis of caste” with images of the pernicious presence of untouchability. “There is a thin line between malice and ignorance, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of doubt,” he says of the anti-reservationists. “Their argument is based on a simple assumption that there is no division and the government is creating it with reservations. But this is naïve. I can’t change casteist behaviour. All I’m saying is make your slogan something else. Stop fooling yourselves. I don’t think such rhetoric suits intelligent, educated minds.” In making the film, he adds, he has not approached the issue as a Dalit activist, but rather as a rational human being who is waiting to hear strong, rational logic to counter his own anti-casteism stance.

An interesting corollary ‘India Untouched’ manages to sneak in is the double jeopardy of Dalit women. “There are a number of cross-cutting oppressions at work,” explains Stalin. “So, Dalit men do not want to talk about the situation of Dalit women. That is what I was trying to explain with the sequence featuring Dr. Yadulal and his wife. He has been discriminated against and so has she, but she is still the only one who has to cook, clean and manage the household.”

The film also makes two mentions of Dalit women being raped, he adds, because of their double vulnerability to sexual violence. “Even when Dalit men are angered by the rape of their wives and so on, it is a reaction that stems from a patriarchal, male construct.”

One aspect of the film that disheartened Stalin was the lack of hostility while it was being made. In all of the eight states from which he obtained 9,000 minutes of footage, he says, not one of the casteist groups raised any objections or showed any reluctance to being filmed. “I shot everything in the open, and people had no trouble coming out talking about it proudly. It was very disheartening to see that people could say these things so openly, and with a tremendous faith in their beliefs.” Stalin, is no stranger to the seamier side of many of our current belief systems, however. When the Godhra incident and the subsequent Gujarat riots occurred, Stalin was in the thick of things reconstructing the incident from survivor testimonies within days of the first riots.

Called ‘Gujarat: A Work in Progress’, the film is a raw, bare testimonial that is part of the official documented evidence that the National Human Rights Commission used in their investigations into the tragedy. “I have over 110 hours of footage, but I haven’t been able to properly edit it into a film because I can’t bear to see it,” he explains.

“There is no real blood or gore, but there are reams and reams of people describing the horrors they went through. It is particularly disturbing for me because these are people of my state. These are probably people whose autos I’ve sat in, whose shops I’ve bought bananas in, who I’ve seen, smelt, heard… To think that my people could do this to my people really disturbs me.”

As for what will follow ‘India Untouched’, Stalin still isn’t sure. At the screenings, suggestions come up, about caste in the corporate world, in elite educational institutions and so on. “On one level,” says Stalin, “I don’t want to do another film on caste because I feel that I have dealt with the issue. But on the other hand, it is such a huge issue that I could make films on caste all my life and still not exhaust the subject.”

For details on ‘India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart’ and other films by Stalin K., email the director on stalink123@gmail.com.

RAKESH MEHAR

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