Anushka Sharma, Varun Dhawan's Sui Dhaaga explores a new hero — the undervalued Indian artisan

Archita Kashyap

Oct 07, 2018 09:40:58 IST

Sui Dhaaga features convincing performances, particularly those of Raghuvir Yadav, Yamini Das and Anushka Sharma. But the film’s real charm lies in its premise. Lives and hardships of India’s artisans and weavers have rarely made it to popular media; much less to a film. While Stree, the runaway hit has made a hero of a small town tailor, it’s not a story about the craft.

With its lens, Sui Dhaaga brings focus to an ignored but valuable section of India’s economy and society - our blue-collar workers. The only time cinema has referred to their contribution is during the heydays of Amitabh Bachchan as the 'Angry Young Man'. Be it as mill worker, dock worker, coal miner or as a jaggery trader from a village, Bachchan embodied the common man’s angst. But specifics of their vocations were often omitted. Sharat Katariya has endeavored to capture the underlying class conflict and deprivation of those who can’t speak English, aren’t highly educated and therefore, marginalised by the industry.

 Anushka Sharma, Varun Dhawans Sui Dhaaga explores a new hero — the undervalued Indian artisan

Anushka Sharma and Varun Dhawan in Sui Dhaaga. Image via Twitter/@AnushkaNews

Sui Dhaaga is not dramatic or gripping. It's not a slice of life either. It is about hopes and aspirations of those on the fringes of an economy and the lack of support, be it from the state or from their industry, for growth. That the government of India has decided to carry out a nationwide, ground level exercise with specially trained staff to document unorganised labor, is indicative of just how many fall under these undefined spaces professionally and economically. Their survival depends on daily labour and wages; their rights simply don’t exist. Unfortunately, for a country where handicrafts, handlooms and weaving have been cultural symbols and linked to livelihoods of entire communities, the people behind the craft are paid very poorly. Their labor is adapted by modern business with over 100 percent mark ups and sold at exorbitant costs. For instance, ethnic chic is the in thing, even in common street and superstores currently. The motifs and designs used in almost all of these pieces are drawn from ethnic Indian weaves. Not a single one has a trademark or some semblance of ownership, although they belong to a community, tribe or cluster of villages that has created and nurtured it for generations. Manufacturing such motifs in a factory is plagiarism, but there are no checks and balances in place to prevent intellectual and cultural theft which is why, the tribal art of stick figures from Chattisgarh and Bihar have become a rage across clothing, home linen, and footwear. But the original region where this motif comes from, has not benefited one bit.

As Indian handloom and handicrafts have become popular beyond street-side shopping and entered universes of couture globally, a few details have remained unquestioned. In tony shopping districts like Khan Market in New Delhi or the Kala Ghoda-Cuffe Parade area of Mumbai, ethnic Indian brands like Fabindia, Anokhi, Cottons, Killol and Soma proliferate. Foreigners and a particular section of local customers buy from there loyally. While each one claims to collaborate and work with clusters of artisans, its hard to define what percentage of their sales actually trickle down to creators (weavers, workmen, artisans, crafts people). Prices of their products have steadily gone up against market standards given their consistent demand. But the trickle down benefits to artisans is yet to be looked at closely.

This is an important aspect of Sui Dhaaga, albeit one that has been dealt with hastily and cursorily. There is an element of class distinction and condescension at the essence of this story. A haughty fashion designer, trained in the USA, sarcastically runs down Mamta’s aspirations to be an entrepreneur; comparing with her her own story of coming back home to save her father’s textile business to insult her. It’s almost as if a dream too, has its class limits. This distinction runs through the heart of the Indian fashion and design industry at a fundamental level, although the educated elite would like to believe otherwise. While some fashion designers have actively worked with local artisans and craftsmen to their betterment, in most cases, assistants of designers go shopping for ‘swatches’ (patches of cloth) to remote parts of India; and then buy these to add to their collections. Credit sharing is non-existent which is why it’s no surprise that despite over a decade of dedicated fashion weeks, mediocrity and repetition largely rule the fashion design space in India.

Sharat Katariya, and Maneesh Sharma a thes producer of Sui Dhaaga, have turned to characters who come off as the salt of the Earth to tell an honest story. Its language is colloquial and puritan, its actors presented as plain, honest and clean people without any fancy for clothes or make up, and its narrative structured around the battles of a family; and of a community of craftspeople that have lost their skills to unemployment and financial stress. It’s about tailors, embroiders, weavers whose journey to become self-reliant is both difficult and discouraging. In the film, there’s an anti climactic climax, which features a lame fashion show. Once you think about it, the lame fashion show makes sense in its context. For Mamta and Mauji and their community of paan sellers, caterers, retired office peons and auto rickshaw drivers, putting up a stylish fashion evening with models wouldn’t be possible. They can’t speak English and hence they can’t communicate with the world that rules fashion. So they walk for themselves. It’s an uncompromising approach to a real challenge, as presented in the film.

Where Sui Dhaaga flounders is its narrative as there are no dramatic moments or not too many surprises. But by focusing on a section of people that urban audiences barely pause to look at, it has brought them to center stage. Is it a smart strategy to align with the government’s Make In India campaign? It probably is. But that doesn’t make it wrong or manipulative. For one who has always been called a ‘jholawali’ for her obsession with traipsing down cloth mandis, and artisans’ lanes across India, I was vindicated to see that the present day government has subsidised jute silk, matka silk, bhagalpuri silk and chanderi fabrics at manufacturing and distribution levels. These subsidies have reached popular family stores and local markets. And people are lapping them up.

The Indian artisan, weaver and crafts person has been dying a slow, painful and definite death for over six decades. Dull and sad-looking state emporiums and the erstwhile Khadi Gramadyog stores were unsuccessful retail attempts. Often, the small-scale industries ministry or secretary ship was viewed as punishment posting. In this process, countless crafts and crafts people across India have faded away, or have been forced to take up urban labour. If Sui Dhaaga presents their story to millennial and urban movie goers and helps build some consciousness of our rich, varied and worthy tradition of homegrown manufacturing, then this film will have made lasting impact.

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Updated Date: Oct 07, 2018 09:40:58 IST