A documentary film on American-born Indian sociologist Gail Omvedt and her doctor-turned-activist husband Dr Bharat Patankar is in the offing. Somnath Waghmare, director of 'Battle of Bhima Koregaon - An Unending Journey', is presenting the couple's life in a visual medium. In an interview with Deccan Herald, Waghmare, a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), talks about his project and the emerging Dalit cultural appropriation in the country.
What made you choose Gail and Bharat for your upcoming film?
I met them during my graduation days in Islampur town in the Sangli district of Maharashtra. They lived in the neighbouring village. I was involved in some of the activities of Dr Bharat
Patankar. I knew that Gail Omvedt was an American scholar who wrote about Dalit issues and had read some of her works. Those days, she was not residing in the village but would come there for the programmes and that's how I met her. But I didn't think of making a film on them then.
When I was doing media studies for my postgraduation at Pune University, I understood that people liked them and issues like 'Bhima Koregaon' would never become a topic for cinema, thanks to the established structure of the industry. There is a reason for it -- the media and cinema are hesitant to take up positive stories on Dalits and about anti-caste movements because of the dominance of privileged castes in the industry.
After the documentary on 'Bhima Koregaon' battle, I was thinking about producing a film. Then I realised that the life and work of Gail could be a good topic. Initially, I focussed on Gail and later, I added Bharat also because both worked in parallel and the story would be incomplete without mentioning the contributions of both. The title of the documentary is 'Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar: Story of Intellectual Activists'.
My objective is to turn the movie into a supporting visual document of the ongoing anti-caste struggles, the researchers and others working in the movements. Bringing such stories into the mainstream, I hope, would start a tradition among marginalised communities to take up various issues in the form of visual art.
What was their contribution to the anti-caste movement?
Omvedt came to India as part of her research on Mahatma Phule and the Satyashodak movement. Phule can be considered as a parallel to Karl Marx, but Indian academicians have not accepted him as a revolutionary thinker. At the same time, Omvedt and before her, Eleanor Zelliot -- both Americans -- extensively worked on the anti-caste movements in India from the time of Buddha to post-Ambedkar. If Phule and Ambedkar are getting international recognition and universities are running centres on Ambedkar's thoughts, these two scholars are the reasons for it.
Bharat was the vanguard in developing the counter-culture of Bahujans based on the principles of the Satyashodak movement. This is known as 'Vidrohi Samkritik Chalval' (Counter-Cultural Movement). He also founded an organisation - Shramik Mukti Dal (Toilers' Liberation League) -- to fight for farmer's rights. This movement constructed a dam in Sangli for the purpose of irrigation for the farmers in the area. Unfortunately, Bharat did not get any recognition from agencies and is almost forgotten.
Cinema will help create anti-caste cultural politics too.
What prompts you to take up Dalit issues as your subject for your films?
There are not many films about Dalits and their issues and you can't see many filmmakers from the communities. Most of the movies on the communities are made by people from other communities like 'Jai Bhim Comrade' of Anand Patwardhan, who is a Communist and belongs to the privileged community. Also, such movies narrate the victimisation of the community. It does not bring out positive stories such as their socio-economic and political assertion, the educational growth and changes in the society because of the religious conversion as articulated by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. That's why I began to think about making films to highlight the assertion of the community into the mainstream.
The movie 'Fandry' influenced me to do such stories. After 'Kalaa', it is clear that the movies on Dalit assertion has space. Cinema will help create anti-caste cultural politics too.
How has your experience as a member of the Dalit community influenced the filmmaking?
In my opinion, cinema is a medium to share our own experiences on the screen. But we hardly find marginalised people in cinema. The main reason for it, according to Gail, is because, for centuries, Dalit, Bahujan and women have been alienated from acquiring knowledge. Apart from all other exploitations, the major crime that Brahmanical texts like Manusmriti did towards the marginalised communities is this historical alienation. By doing so, these communities became underrepresented in mainstream culture and failed to develop a space for themselves.
Culturally-dominant groups make films in India and their works always glorify the culture of urban-elite 'savarna' men. Those films are mostly unrelated to social realities, unlike the African and Iranian films. That's the reason why our movies fail to get global recognition. On the other hand, the stories we people are trying to explore are universal in content. These films talk about equality, social justice and even human rights and values.
Cinema is the reflection of the socio-political experience and the dreams of the filmmaker. Likewise, my dream is to bring the constitutional value of equality in society by exposing social realities like annihilating caste-based, religion-based and gender-based discriminations through the medium of cinema.
Indian filmmakers never think beyond their castes
Can you elaborate on your efforts to make the movie? How have you managed to finish this project?
I have been working on this movie for the last one year and planning to release it by the end of the year or early next year. We are a small team. There is no corporate production house or government funding. We mostly rely on crowdfunding from like-minded people. I had appealed for funds through Roundtable India. I work on the movie whenever I get time and in between my studies at TISS. For a month, during the vacation, we were shooting the activities of Gail and Bharat. The Bengaluru-based Pedestrian Pictures are associating with us. They will help us in the post-production activities.
The main problem we face is the health condition of Gail. She is not able to do extensive travelling to attend various programmes. Almost 45 per cent of the work has to be done.
Has the Indian film industry ignored/distorted Dalit issues and its community members?
Obviously, they are ignoring them. That ignorance comes from their caste mindset. Indian filmmakers never think beyond their castes. Take the example of the Marathi movie 'Sairat' by Nagaraj Manjule. It was the first movie to cross 100 crores and a critically acclaimed film. It portrays the existing reality of caste violence in rural Maharashtra. But when the movie was remade as 'Dhadak' in Hindi, the producers removed the caste angle and put class instead. They did not even deliver justice to the original movie. That's why 'Dhadak' failed to reach anywhere close to the success of 'Sairat' at the box office.
I think, rather than criticising them, we should come out to make films and show them the reality. Nowadays, it is easy to make movies compared to earlier times.
When anti-caste filmmakers emerge, there is the dangerous trend to tag them as a 'Dalit filmmaker'. This labelling is not there when it comes to people from other communities.
Is the film space opening up for Dalits also, especially after the success stories of Pa Ranjit, Nagraj Manjule, Neeraj Ghaywan etc.?
It is not opening up, these people are forcefully opening it. At present, nobody can deliberately ignore Dalits and their issues. Because of the educational development in the community,
growth in technology and the power of social media, articulating social issues has become easier. The audience is also changing. Therefore, it is a positive signal for underprivileged filmmakers.
The industry has been set up upon caste lobbying and people hesitate to work outside of it. For example, the Dalit Panther was a big movement in Maharashtra and contributed a lot in uplifting the community and changing the society. But we can't find any reference about this group in any Marathi or Bollywood film. At the same time in Tamil, a superstar like Rajinikanth plays the protagonist in anti-Brahminist movies like 'Kaala' and 'Kabali'. Both states witnessed several anti-caste movements and unlike Maharashtra, in Tamil Nadu, cinema, politics and culture are interconnected.
When these anti-caste filmmakers emerge, there is the dangerous trend to tag them as a 'Dalit filmmaker'. This labelling is not there when it comes to people from other communities. This is also part of an ongoing discrimination against the community. It is very difficult to get out from the labels once given to us.
What message are you trying to send to society through a film on Omvedt and Patankar?
I am attempting to popularise the work and life of these two anti-caste crusaders. People outside the academic world hardly know about Gail. These people are heroes in our ongoing struggle against the caste system. We should celebrate them. Their stories would be a real inspiration for the upcoming generations.
What's next for you?
This project will take another six months to finish. After this project, I would like to produce a Marathi feature film on students, caste and gender politics on campus. I also wish to work with Tamil director Pa Ranjith. But it will take some more time.
Watch the promo