Chamm, a Punjabi film screened in more than 350 villages before hitting theaters, brings stories to those whose life it portrayed
A Punjabi film Chamm, based on the complexity of caste-based exploitation, set in rural Punjab, is shown to more than 350 villages.
The power of cinema touched the lives of the common men and women in the 1950s and 60s in films like Do Beegha Zameen, Garam Coat, and Naya Daur, that addressed the issues of the marginalised. The themes of rural distress, poverty of the peasantry or the labourer, vanished from cinema produced for the multiplex audience — primarily urban and middle-class — that lost connect with the village. The poor, landless, marginalised lack the resources to buy a ticket in a multiplex that lends their stories — not lucrative enough for the producers. Few narratives woven around Dalit lives in recently made films like Chauranga, Fandry, Sairat or Masaan, are shown to the intellectuals, travel to international film festivals and win awards, but fail to make a dent in the lives of those whose narratives they portray.
If cinema is viewed as an instrument of social change, what model should filmmakers use to touch the lives of millions of marginalised, at the same time make these films financially viable? This bothered a young filmmaker, a policeman’s son from Mullanpur, Dist Ludhiana, who had seen the power of alternative theatre of late Gursharan Singh, for social change in rural Punjab. Rajeev Kumar worked with the late thespian in his formative years, therefore even after winning National Award for his debut Punjabi film, Nabar, he was not happy. His films were not reaching the audience they addressed. He was also looking for a new model of film viewing.
Kumar had made two short films, Aatukhoji and Saavi, before writing the script for Chamm, inspired by a newspaper report about an infant who died of jaundice because his Dalit parents could not pay the incubator fee. The script of the film is based on the life of a low-caste, whose job involves removing hide (chamm) from the dead animals. The village panchayat, dominated by Jats, decides to lease the work for a fee of Rs 45,000, that, they say, would be used for village development. This sends the poor man to the money lenders. In between all this, the baby is born in the family and the money raised is spent in delivery and treatment of the baby, who dies despite draining out all resources. The film offers insights into the caste equations, their well-defined codes of conduct and morality and the shift of power dynamics among Dalits who get to powerful positions. A veterinary doctor, posted in the village, takes up a room on rent in the Dalit household and makes them aware of their rights, especially their right over Panchayat land. When put to practice, it brings about a shift in village politics, resisted by the powerful Jat community.
Punjab is the state with highest Dalit population, close to 35 percent, yet Punjabi filmmakers hardly touch upon the caste issue. Films like Gurvinder Singh’s Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan, that went on to win scores of awards — international and national — was not viewed by those whose life it portrayed. Even though leftists have been very active in the state for decades, “they continue to believe in class-divide rather than the caste," observes Kumar, who adds, “My quest was — can art play the role of a bridge between communities? I have seen in rural Punjab, for a community film or TV show, people sit separately, divided on caste lines.”
The filmmaker came in touch with social organisations involved with the Dalit cause in Punjab, like ZPSC (Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee), PMU (Pindu Majdoor Union), Bhartiya Kisan Union Ugrahan, Naujavan Bharat Sabha etc, while writing the screenplay to forge authenticity in the portrayal of Dalit life. He didn’t know they would own up the film as their own.
“The words spoken, the situations, the language, all find a connect with the audience, because of authenticity. Dialogues are written by renowned dalit writer Bhagwant Rasulpuri. During screenings people clap, cry, get agitated, they find their lives mirrored,” says Mukesh Malaudh, ZPSC President, whose organisation has shown the film in 65 villages around Sangrur, for it deals with, and realistically depicts, the struggle for land rights of the Dalits. The influence of the film was such that in the recently held Panchayat elections of Punjab, several Dalit candidates contested elections, even though unsuccessfully, from non-reserved seats. “We fielded seven candidates for sarpanch, of these five won, two panchayats were dominated completely by Dalits,” adds Malaudh. In village Balad Kalan, Paramjit Kaur contested election from a general category seat. She lost but it gave her confidence to voice her demands for the first time in her life. “Under the law, after every two years, the seats are rotated for reserved candidate. In 70 years, only once the seat was given to a Dalit in Balad Kalan. If we wait for another 70 years, when will we learn to raise voice for our rights?” says Malaudh. “I was inspired by the film and decided to contest,” says Paramjit, who had come for the first public screening of the film in her village.
Demand for the film screening spread across Bathinda, Nabha, Moga, Ludhiana, Gurdaspur and Sangrur. “The youth wing of Ambedkarites had a fight with their elders who wanted to screen a film on Guru Ravidas but the young insisted Chamm was more relevant. It was viewed by a strong audience of 3,000. After the screening, the elders came to our team and said, what can be a better message of Guru Ravidas, than this film?” adds Kumar, now researching comparative cinema on the diaspora of Punjab and Latin America, for PhD degree from Delhi University.
The film was screened for NRI viewing and part of the production cost was recovered. “This could be a new model of viewing, PVR is now going to make a limited release of the film,” says Kumar. The audience is also asked to contribute whatever they can. The projector and transportation is provided by another organisation committed to social cause. “People drop Rs 5 or Rs 10 in the box, the message they take away is priceless; this is their cinema, they own it, there is empathy between the characters on the screen and the audience,” adds Malaudh.
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