Amudhan’s focus is on hegemony

His ‘Dollar City’ is about hosiery town Tiruppur, and he is now working on a documentary ‘My Caste’. And he is talking to gentle people, not the usual caste villains.

He is an easy man to interview. When he speaks, his words are usually accompanied by a smile that seeks your eyes, accompanied by a pause. It’s a mode of conversation that enlists you into contributing, into completing the idea he began, into listening more carefully than you would if you knew for sure that the person talking would be reliably non-stop. Likewise, it allows him to turn the phrase you added into a question, to agree with what you said and then go off into a little story, or gently to set aside your little contribution and say something opposite and unexpected.

He is thus a rather difficult man to interview. Perhaps the free indirect mode will do something to capture the energy of the dialogue he manages to initiate.

Talking about the film he has just completed, he says, “I spent a lot of time talking to ordinary people in Madurai, Coimbatore, and Chennai. I didn’t want to talk to the usual caste-villains, and so I spoke to gentle people,  like us, who agree on many things about caste.”

That ironic inflexion gives way to a little jhalak of discovered method. “I shot a lot of street-names,” he says. “Don’t know if I will use these shots in this film, but it helps me understand what I want to do with caste.”

Documentary filmmaker R P Amudhan was in Bengaluru for a couple of days earlier this month. Time enough to meet old friends and recharge spent batteries. To convince the software-engineer-by-day and musician-at-night who scored the music for his previous film ‘Dollar City’ to find the time to do the same for his new film, ‘My Caste’. To show his films at one or two places, and watch or plunge into the conversation that might follow. To promise or to plan new screenings, workshops, and other follow-ups. The schedule is, in some sense, the man.

This becomes visible again when he starts talking about the film. ‘My Caste’ is part of a trilogy on consensus and hegemony that began with ‘Dollar City’. “I want to know how people consent, and how that has produced the present moment. My next film will be about men, and about the jolly ride we have had. It takes me about three films to get to grips with the questions and confusions within,” he says.

The film he screened in Bengaluru, ‘Dollar City’, is set in and around Tiruppur, the small town that probably gifted the term ‘export garments’ to Indian English. It does not try to take apart the carefully packaged success story of the town, apart from some ironic inserts from films that the manufacturers have financed. It begins with a little title card on Gramsci’s idea of hegemony, and travels thence to an AITUC May 1 meeting and their triumphant commemorations of a factory’s workers calling for a strike many years ago in the US. He then moves to a series of conversations with old people, remembering how they came to Tiruppur, and began working in the units there.

The thing that seems missing is a clear sense of the problem, in the way in which you expect documentaries to give you a position you can take. For the careful viewer, however, there is much to process. The speaker at the May Day meeting talks of how workers worked without seeing sunrise or sunset till leftist politics won workers their rights. The Dalit woman who remembers moving as a child talks about working 12-14 hour shifts, but also talks with pride about how order, routine and civilised living became theirs. Another complains about how they have lost their moorings in traditional occupations.

The leftist thundering from the May Day stage does not acknowledge caste. A Dalit consents to one kind of oppression to escape another. Another questions that choice. Each speaker, and indeed each shot, annotates, comments on, and contradicts another. Irony becomes a narrative principle, and the film insists that the viewer brings a capacity to ask questions around these ironies and contradictions.

Apart from irony, the discursive rather than linear method that Amudhan favours makes another thing possible. There is time for much more than simple ideological polemic to come in. A boy talks about going to work for one week, and then quitting, because the work got progressively harder. He lies about coming back to collect the week’s wages. We follow the 
camera as it looks at the intricacy of the labour that produces hosiery and t-shirts.

Several different kinds of Tamizh are heard; caste-dialects that mark the locals, various immigrant rhythms from across the state, and the learnt language of those who’ve come in from other states. And because there is such time, there is also space for viewers who might think differently to make something of the film that is their own.

One moment captures the simple beauty of this rambling narrative mode. A sleek factory owner points with evident pride to a Golden Arowana that has to be housed in seawater procured from far away, and fed regularly with smaller fish. This is my Vaastu Fish, he says, “idhan valarchi than en valarchi (its progress is my progress)”. Without too much discomfiture, he tells the camera that he had several such before, but they died. Vaastu fish evidently allow their owners many reincarnations.

When the film closes, it goes off at a tangent. Another title card tells you that Modi’s party won the elections that year with a simple majority. It is perhaps only at this moment that the film-maker reveals the question that holds the film together. Is the rightwing consensus of our present something that evolved out of our having consented to other, smaller acts of hegemony in the past?

In conversation after the screening, Amudhan mentions wanting to move away from the film festival mode to a simpler, more direct interaction with audiences. This small-scaling of ambition seems to owe something to his own roots in the film society movement, as much as it does to a desire to move away from polarising commentary towards narrative and exploration.  The rightwing consensus of our times is a mechanism that is expert at ensuring the disintegration of the intellectual, he remarks, in response to a question. We have to find new ways to ask questions. Of ourselves, and of others.

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