Telling BR Ambedkar's story is difficult; for Bahujan filmmaker Jyoti Nisha, it has proven to be even more so
It is hard to tell Ambedkar’s story. Ironically, it is harder to tell his story if you are Dalit or Bahujan.
There is a need for all of us to understand Ambedkar beyond the bespectacled man we see in dull portraits and certainly beyond what history has offered us so cunningly.
Which is why Jyoti Nisha’s film — BR Ambedkar: Now and Then — has come to us at a crucial point.
It is not easy to pick a favourite picture of Babasaheb. Even so, when I ask Jyoti Nisha what hers is, she is quick to name one in which he’s looking back and waving. It wasn’t difficult to figure out which one she meant; it’s probably one of the very few pictures he’s smiling in.
Jyoti Nisha and I are sitting at my table in college. Her film BR Ambedkar Now and Then is scheduled to be screened at my department's litfest. It is a feature-length film, for which she has been trying to raise funds. The following day, she has an exam on Image-making at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, so she has a late evening flight to catch. Between the blurriness of running a fest and an impending exam, we manage to steal time to show each other our favourite Babasaheb pictures.
‘Is this the one?’ I ask her, and her face lights up. Mine does too.
The more I look at this picture, the more I wonder what I know about the man. As a child, I’d only seen his photos in government offices, always next to Gandhi’s. It is odd that Gandhi continues to appear alone on most office walls despite his throng of supporters, while Ambedkar — who stood alone most of his life — rarely appears alone (sometimes he is there only to accompany Gandhi).
In these boring government pictures, his face is always boxed in and grim-looking, the portrait barely able to contain his cheeks. That’s probably why this picture brings him alive. It makes one wonder: what are those books that Babasaheb is carrying? Did he like pressing his face up against the window in the airplane? Did he hate travelling? Did he sleep easily? Did he like kids? On flights also?
Unlike in my home, where neither Appa nor Amma mentioned him, all Jyoti Nisha heard when she was growing up was Ambedkar this, Ambedkar that. Her father, the late Net Ram Singh, worked closely with Kanshi Ram. As a young girl, she wondered why the house was full of party workers on weekends and why her father was standing next to a white board, always talking about Ambedkar. (Now I know, she says)
Despite this, she discovered Ambedkar much later in life. I recognised the familiar glint in her eyes as she said this. Regardless of whether one is Dalit or Bahujan, that glint is piercingly familiar when we speak of Babasaheb.
Nisha read The Buddha and His Dhamma and felt ‘Jaise ki andar ek bulb jal gaya ho (as if a bulb was switched on inside)'. This 'bulb' is all pervasive too. When you go through much of your adolescence mired in self-doubt and a strange kind of loneliness, discovering Ambedkar is like finding answers to questions that you didn’t know how to ask.
My own discovery of Ambedkar happened much later, through Siddalingaiah, the Kannada Dalit poet. In his autobiography, Ooru Keri, he speaks of a similar light-bulb feeling. After reading Ambedkar, he began writing poems and speeches about him. Sometimes he made up stories like this:
Young Bhimrao loved reading but couldn’t find a quiet place to read. So, he’d climb up tall trees to be able to read peacefully. Problem was he knew how to climb up and not how to climb down. So, he’d jump down with all his books. Once, after jumping into an ashpit accidentally, his friends began calling him Boodisaheba (boodi = ash) and Bhimrao said, ‘I might be Boodisaheba now but I will be Babasaheba in the future’
There is an ordinariness to this story which may never have happened but is still valuable for Dalit and Bahujan memory. Half the fun is in imagining the many versions of young Bhimrao — the Maharashtrian, the North Indian, as also the South Indian. One for Jyoti Nisha, one for me.
I told Nisha about Ambedkar:The Attendant Details — a book I’d been reading which I found unique in the life it gave to Ambedkar. She perked up when I told her that he woke up early in the mornings to practice violin; that he loved gardening and cooking; that most people who knew him say that he woke up next to books that had fallen off his chest the previous night; that he got used to eating eggs, toast and tea for breakfast at Columbia, and this habit continued.
This dignity of narrative is what is persistently absent in Savarna memory, and retelling of who Ambedkar was. It is generously given to ‘Chacha’ Nehru, Bhagat Singh, and even Bose. These small stories have an intrinsic energy that lends itself fiercely to the everyday lives of Dalit and Bahujan people. These are stories that your textbooks written by Savarna writers, and documentary films made by Brahmin men, will never be able to tell with passion.
It’s not even about the soulless debate of who gets to write/make films about marginalised communities. It is so much more than that. At the heart of these stories that young Ambedkarites are constantly seeking to learn and desperate to tell is a thirst that is inherently Dalit in its survival. What has it survived? Our thirst has survived years of your expert forms of exclusion.
Which is why Jyoti Nisha’s film has come to us at a crucial point. There is a need for all of us to understand Ambedkar beyond the bespectacled man we see in dull portraits and certainly beyond what history has offered us so cunningly. Another equally dishonest form of appropriation comes when Savarna people express ‘concern’ about Dalits and Bahujans making a God out of Babasaheb ‘without knowing the full picture’. But obviously they say it with much more nuance.
The faith that Savarnas have in the incompetence of Dalit intellectuality is commendable. It is widely believed that within the Dalit and Bahujan community, there are very few intellectuals who are able to keep their emotions aside and understand Ambedkar for what he was and criticise his flaws diligently.
It is amusing that the intellect and the emotion are two separate things for Savarnas. It is even more amusing to let them think that one can’t be Dalit or Bahujan and an intellectual at the same time. Too cute they are. Brings to mind writer Rajesh Rajamani’s film (currently under production), aptly titled The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas.
Ambedkar’s language was such that he was able to deliver slap after slap — like Jabya’s stone in Fandry — perhaps because the intellect and the emotion weren’t two separate things for him. And even if they were, he’s probably the only writer whose research papers I can only read emotionally.
Here is an excerpt from a research paper he presented at Columbia University titled Castes in India, Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development:
‘The subdivision of a society is quite natural. But the unnatural thing about these subdivisions is that they have lost the open-door character of the class system and have become self-enclosed units called castes. The question is: were they compelled to close their doors and become endogamous, or did they close them on their own accord? I submit that there is a double line of answer: some closed the door: others found it closed against them.’
According to Narendra Jadhav’s book Ambedkar — Awakening India’s Social Conscience, Ambedkar was barely 25 when he wrote this.
It’s a shame that the man who could write like that at 25 still had years of discrimination, and exclusion waiting for him in India.
It is hard to tell Ambedkar’s story. Ironically, it is harder to tell his story if you are Dalit or Bahujan. To begin with, there aren’t many films on Ambedkar and the existing ones lack this madness of passion told both intellectually and emotionally.
It’s probably what Nisha means when she speaks of ‘lived experience’. It takes a certain kind of lived experience to be able to understand the story of a boy who was desperate to learn, to read, and to write, and was able to bend the English language to his submission. He even wrote research papers on Economics and Finance with the passion of a poet. And in order to return to those stories, we need a passionate storyteller.
Jyoti Nisha is a passionate storyteller. Her face has a life of its own when she speaks of Rohith Vemula and Babasaheb. About Vemula, she says, ‘He wanted to be a science writer! Can you imagine what it would have been like if he was with us, writing about science? How many of our people can say this today?’
There is a fracture between what Ambedkar envisioned for his children and what is happening with our boys and girls in higher education. After Vemula’s death in 2016, Nisha said she wanted to do something about this distance. Why are we even tolerating this fracture, this indignity? That was when she decided to make a film about Babasaheb.
But why has it been so difficult to get funds for her film? Especially when we have been told there are many, many allies who want to support us?
At this point, I must admit that I am jealous.
I am jealous that Savarna networks are a real thing and very reliable when it comes to standing up for each other. I am jealous that they are able to raise bombastic money for their cause overnight. On the other hand, there is no such thing as an Avarna network; if there is, it is still only beginning to form and has zero capital — social and financial. This is the only explanation I could think of when I asked myself why Jyoti Nisha’s film wasn’t pulling enough funds.
I wish our work, our words, and our art never had to carry the burden of caste. But they do. Ambedkar tried everything in his power to make sure that we don’t have to keep proving ourselves again and again. But we do. And because he knew that he won’t be around, he wrote the Constitution. He wrote it for us. And if you want to say he wrote it for you too, then read him, know him, stand with him.
There is a lot that we don’t know about Ambedkar yet. All through school I kept hearing that Ambedkar’s education was possible only because of the generosity of the Maharaja of Baroda. Why weren’t we told that this generosity came with an expiry date? That Ambedkar’s request to extend the scholarship so he could complete his studies was turned down by the Maharaja?
The history that we learnt as children in school is a lie. Why are they hiding so much from us? What are they afraid of? Why does the story of a boy who applied himself against all odds terrify them so much? Is it because his merit is bigger than your grandfather’s land?
Reading him is not easy. I tell Nisha that his stories make us do two things at once — they inspire and they also make us want to protect him. From the young Bhimrao who studied under street lamps, to the teenaged boy who boarded a ship to London from the US without money, food, or clothes, so he could get a recommendation letter to continue his scholarship, to the man who gave us the Constitution — there is a world of love that we owe him.
Jyoti Nisha’s target for the film is Rs 20,00,000 and she has made Rs 4,40,070 so far. There are 22 days left; if she fails to meet the target within that time — even by a rupee — the money will go back to the donors. BR Ambedkar — Now and Then is a huge project and it’s not easy to make a feature-length film about the man there is so much to say of.
In the words of my professor, “Ambedkar’s life proved that merit was nobody’s father’s house gunny bag” (risking a loose translation from Kannada to English – it basically means Merit does not have a Savarna stamp on it and it's not your father's property).
And if we can give Jyoti Nisha a chance, she can show us why.
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