Most well-to-do Indians view the Hindu caste system—in which social status is handed down from generation to generation—as a thing of the past.
They believe that laws passed since independence have mostly ended discrimination against so-called “untouchables,” the lower castes that have occupied the lowest rung in Indian society for centuries.
Anand Patwardhan, one of India’s most celebrated documentary filmmakers, believes they are wrong—and his convictions drove him to spend fourteen years making “Jai Bhim Comrade: The atrocity of caste, a tradition of reason, a song that will be sung.”
On Tuesday Carleton community members were treated to a rare U.S. screening of “Jai Bhim Comrade” hosted by Patwardhan himself, complete with a question-and-answer session after the film.
The screening, which took place at the Weitz Center Cinema, was meant to commemorate the work of now-retired Carleton history professor Eleanor Zelliot, much of whose work focused on India in general and particularly on untouchables (who prefer to be called “Dalits” or “the oppressed”).
Religion professor Shana Sippy, the chief organizer of the event, introduced Patwardhan, calling him “one of the best documentary filmmakers of the 20th century” and “a voice for those whose lives are often marginalized.”
In remarks preceding the film, Patwardhan spoke of Zelliot’s long relationship both with him and with Dalit groups.
“She is a big star in the Dalit community,” Patwardhan said. “Everybody knows her work, everybody cherishes her.”
“Jai Bhim Comrade” is an extremely long film (clocking in at three hours and 20 minutes) and, as Patwardhan warned beforehand, makes few “concessions” to those unfamiliar with the issues it discusses, but it nonetheless paints a fascinating and eye-opening picture of the caste problem in modern-day India.
The film opens with an episode in 1997, when unarmed Dalit demonstrators protesting vandalism against a statue of Bhimrao Ambedkar (a Dalit who had an enormous influence on India’s history) were fired upon by Mumbai police, causing several deaths.
The death of a longtime friend in the aftermath (who was distraught enough to take his own life) drove Patwardhan to make “Jai Bhim Comrade” in his memory, chronicling the problems facing Dalits in his native Maharashtra state (which contains Mumbai).
The film explores the history of the Dalits’ struggle for equality, focusing on the figure of Ambedkar (often known as Bhim), one of the fathers of Indian independence, who encouraged many of his fellow Dalits to convert to Buddhism.
Much of the focus of the film is on the role of protest music in stirring a largely impoverished and illiterate community—Patwardhan highlights the musical troupe Kabir Kala Manch, which mixes music with calls for social justice.
The film also looks at many non-Dalits’ “casteist” feelings and general denial of discrimination. In the end, the film notes, no police officer went to jail for the 1997 massacre.
In his discussion after the film, Patwardhan explained that he views the film as speaking directly to Dalits. He noted that he has screened “Jai Bhim Comrade” heavily to Dalits in Maharashtra
“The film should speak to the people I make the film about,” he said.
Patwardhan admitted that he “didn’t imagine it would take [him] fourteen years” to complete the film, and one student asked how Patwardhan knew the film was finally finished. He responded that he was driven to release the film last year, when Kabir Kala Manch, a group featured in the film, went underground to escape arrest.
Patwardhan felt he “had to do something” to raise awareness of the problem.
In response to another question, Patwardhan noted the parallels between casteism in India and racism in the United States. He noted that the Dalit rights pioneer Ambedkar was inspired by the work of Abraham Lincoln and that one of the early radical Dalit groups, the Dalit Panthers, was inspired by the Black Panthers.
However, Patwardhan has focused on an Indian audience, though he said he plans to have the film distributed in the U.S. in the future.
A large number of both students and faculty attended the screening. Some of the students were enrolled in Sippy’s “Religions of South Asia” course, while many of the faculty came to honor Zelliot’s work.
Religion professor Roger Jackson added that Patwardhan’s dedication and “radical political perspective” make him a fascinating figure.
Patwardhan was drawn into radical politics while studying at Brandeis University in Massachusetts during the Vietnam War.
His films have taken on pressing social issues in modern India, including such topics as the nuclear arms race with Pakistan, the fate of political prisoners, life in the slums of Mumbai and union activity among Indian farm workers in Canada. Patwardhan’s films have been widely praised and screened at festivals worldwide.
“Jai Bhim Comrade” is the first Patwardhan film that was distributed in India without being challenged by censors.
When asked why this was, Patwardhan praised “good leadership” in the government but then added, “I think we won so many cases that they are slightly embarrassed.”