Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: Chamm spurs viewers to think rationally about emotional complexities of exploitation
Chamm establishes a truth about today’s Punjab with every frame: that this Punjab is not “grand” anymore, it is organically deprived.
Historically, Indian cinema exploited the labour of Dalits in its making, whilst erasing or appropriating their stories. This was not an accidental practice. When their stories were told on screen, it would be by savarnas who also played their characters with patriarchal, sexist and casteist undertones.
The scenario has slowly changed, and the identity of Dalit characters in cinema — directed by a Dalit (and a few non-Dalit) filmmakers — has become explicit, transcending boundaries of caste and class. These filmmakers have helped shape visual storytelling that combines “justice with aesthetics”.
“Justice with aesthetics” was rarely present in cinema made by savarnas, or it was seldom honest. Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers have filled this gap, while creating a new wave of cinema that is more appealing to a Dalit-Bahujan audience.
In this series, we examine 10 Indian films that count not only among the finest cinema the country has produced, but are also intertwined with justice, politics, and aesthetic.
Udta Punjab — directed by a Brahmin filmmaker, Abhishek Chaubey — released in June 2016 after a much-reported row with the censors. Apart from its censorship woes, the film on its release was lauded for highlighting the epidemic of drug abuse among the youth of Punjab. However, I’d argue that the film in fact sensationalised the subject, failing — precisely due to this reason — in providing the audience with what good cinema must: perspective.
That perspective can be found in Chamm, a 2017 Punjabi language film, directed by Rajeev Kumar. Chamm released not in theatres but in screenings among the villagers to whom it belongs, passing from the people of one pind to another. To watch Chamm is to develop a perspective to see human stories from lands far from our own, in languages that are not ours, of people who share a commonality in their joys and sorrows. Chamm also establishes a truth about today’s Punjab with every frame: that this Punjab is not “grand” anymore, it is organically deprived.
“Chamm” translates to skin in Punjabi; the film’s story is as intrinsic to Punjab as the idea of revolution once was to it.
Its protagonist is Keepa Singh, a Dalit who works as a tanner. He skins animals and sells their hides at a factory to make a living. His wife is employed as a housemaid; they live with Keepa’s brother (who doesn’t have a regular job) and his pregnant wife. Keepa and his wife have no children, but they rejoice in the impending addition of a niece or nephew to their family. In his community, Keepa is respected for his honesty.
Keepa is Sikh by religion. But by Jat Sikhs, he’s treated as “unworthy” (an untouchable). His worth is recognised only in the wake of a village election for Sarpanch. A Jat Sikh candidate, hoping to cash in on Keepa’s image within his community, asks for his help in contesting the polls. This candidate, however, loses, and his rival — another Jat Sikh — decides to teach Keepa a lesson by bringing the plot of land on which Keepa carries out his tanning under government control.
To continue working there, Keepa has to cough up half a lakh, which he scrapes together somehow, even borrowing money from a friend whose son recently died of a drug overdose. Even as Keep manages the balancing act between work, hunger and survival, a personal tragedy awaits: his sister-in-law, advised by a con baba that she should deliver her baby only at her husband’s home or risk her child’s life, returns. When it is time for the birth, complications arise that make an at-home delivery impossible, and she is rushed to the hospital. The hospital demands money to admit her, and as Keepa’s family cannot arrange the funds in such a short time, the baby is lost. A sorrowful Keepa and his brother bury the infant’s remains.
But Keepa’s tragedies are not due to poverty alone, they are deeply social. Keepa’s grief is historical.
Chamm demands our uninterrupted attention as viewers, to see it as more than a movie or a story. It addresses the two eternal pursuits of a man: hunger and dream/s. But it requires that one think rationally rather than emotionally, because to understand the emotional complexities which lie at the heart of any exploitation, it is necessary to think rationally. In Black Skin White Mask, Franz Fanon observed that, “All forms of exploitation are alike. They all seek to justify their existence by citing some biblical decree. All forms of exploitations are identical, since they apply to the same ‘object’ — man. By considering the structure of such… an exploitation from an abstract point of view, we are closing our eyes to the fundamentally important problem of restoring man to his rightful place.” Caste is the position of an individual in our society. This position denotes limitations to low/lower castes, and freedom to high/higher castes. This is the subtext of Chamm.
Keepa Singh is politically aware but deploys all his energies into his work, his livelihood. He is also stuck in the dilemmas of the past. But politics comes to him. He is a vote, hence he must be identified. Meanwhile, his personhood is crucified.
As a director, however, Rajeev Kumar keenly explores the personhood of Keepa Singh. He is shown carrying hides to the factory, breaking [animal] bones and separating them, meditating on his life and misery. His younger brother, struggling to find regular employment, is almost brainwashed by Jat Sikh politicians at the beginning of the film. Keepa’s wife’s upper caste-class employers accuse her of stealing food, assaulting her dignity. This is an important frame, sharpening our perspective and making it more critical, as this is a story about the “invisible men (and women)” in our lives and movies.
To keep his work of skinning dead animals, Keepa is pushed into a dire financial situation. This in turn means he does not have the money to save his brother’s child. It is a metaphorical situation, hard even to imagine. But there are people in this caste-society who go through it. Chamm succinctly addresses this problem; at the same time, it also provides hope.
His brother eventually moves to the city and a veterinary doctor comes to stay as a paying guest at Keepa’s house. She organises the Dalits in the village. After confrontations with Jat Sikhs, Keepa and his community succeed in buying land and cultivating it. When the doctor leaves the village, the villagers promise to continue their struggle against exploitation, by being organised. This is Chamm — from being deeply personal, it becomes profoundly political. Miseries are pushed into the background, and hope is resurrected.
Chamm explains to us the emotional theater of a colonised man, as analysed by Fanon. Chamm demands the necessity of the vision of Ambedkar in the struggle against caste. Chamm ensures we do not forget the possibility of Raidas Saheb/Ravidas’ Begumpura:
“The regal realm with the sorrowless name
they call it Begumpura city, a place with no pain,
no taxes or cares, none owns property there,
no wrongdoing, worry, terror, or torture.
Oh my brother, I’ve come to take it as my own,
my distant home, where everything is right …
They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
those who walk beside me are my friends.”
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
— Featured image: Still from Chamm, via Facebook/@chamm2017
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