All revolutions are selective. There are some bodies that are worthy only of sacrifice once the revolution is over, because they were never truly considered a part of it before.
It is the age of #MeToo in India, and yet, a video (unavailable on Youtube, but still on The Viral Fever and Girliyapa's Facebook pages) made by the content portal Girliyapa where the central character is a female domestic help bullied by three men, who in turn are egged on by women, was released just a week ago. Titled 'Gully Bai' it is modelled on the trailer of the upcoming Bollywood film, Gully Boy — evidently an attempt to present a 'spoof' empowerment story, starring a domestic help instead of a rapper from the streets. 'How is this casteist?' asked many people, despite the fact that more often than not, domestic helps belong to lower castes.
Countless voices against the oppression of women have emerged in various sectors, and academicians, authors, workers, activists, journalists, comedians, actors, poets and students have raised a clarion call, suggesting that ‘enough is enough’. Except they probably meant that enough is enough for upper caste bodies.
Why else would a man shout ‘Go back to your gully’ to the domestic help in Girliyapa's video, when it is known that many helps actually live in slums — and why does this pass as humour? How is one supposed to laugh when a well-dressed woman shouts ‘Yeh Tinder kar rahi hai, yeh randiyapa chal raha hai yahan pe?' at her help, when we know about the correlation between caste and sexual abuse at the workplace, where lower caste women are often considered to be ‘sexually available’ and harassed as a result?
Ignoring the complexities of caste is often an upper caste privilege. One of the simplest defenses of the video is that it is a portrayal of real-life injustice on the screen, rather than an endorsement of it. To what extent does the display of such verbal and physical violence against the marginalised transform into an act of violence in itself — an act that mimics reality and presents a casual replica for the audience, to determine whether or not they should ape such behaviour in their own drawing rooms — is a lingering question. It is rather difficult to prove that there is a definitive intent to mock, insult and repeat the humiliation, but I suggest that an emphasis on intent is incorrect.
Accidental castiesm is still casteism, and should no longer be allowed, especially in a society where crimes against lower castes are rampant and their bodies are enmeshed in a routine of humiliation.
Being half-'woke' is still complete laziness, and as always, the upper caste laziness affects everyone else’s lives.
What one often forgets is the relative ease with which violence against marginalised groups passes the censor. Consider for example a video that avidly displays violence against an upper caste body or any other ‘respectable’ body, or consider a video that could potentially insult the office of the Indian prime minister. If such videos were to be posted online, one can imagine the unrest and uproar that would ensue because the body being defiled belongs to a respectable position. People will be shocked to see someone who has the audacity to indignify what can only be respected.
It is exactly this element of shock and unrest which is not to be found when a video displaying hurt marginalised bodies is released online or offline, because such hurt and violence has been normalised. There is nothing abnormal about watching a maid being slapped or held by her face, because it has been repeated both in image and reality so many times that it no longer appears outrageous or disgusting. It is this casualness of violence that adds another layer to marginalisation.
Moreover, what is problematic is the pleasure that casteist humor also generates, even when not actively showcasing physical violence against the lower castes. There still is the pleasure that it is absolutely easy and free to debase a lower caste person, laugh at them, mock them. It is often second nature for people to treat those lower than them as a subject of their humour, the butt of their jokes. And no, it is not because there is something fundamentally hilarious about being lower caste. On the contrary, even if there was something absolutely laughable about the people higher up in the social hierarchy, a lower caste/class person's urge to laugh at power often comes with a certain hesitance, because of the expectation of retaliation. It is this lack of expectation of retaliation, of resistance that allows for easy and undeterred humour directed at and at the cost of the marginalised.
In the second part of the video, the ‘Bai’ (a colloquial word that is used to refer to female domestic helps) is shown attempting to reverse the power display. She is apparently powerful now, and has formulated ways of upsetting her employer to seek revenge against her for not giving the help her bonus. However, this unfortunate and extremely inappropriate attempt to display the subversion of power, probably to compensate for the deeply distressing first part, fails at best. If you rely on the same stereotyping lens, that has contributed to the marginalisation of the concerned group, to resurrect their remnant dignity, it is only going to contribute to a reinforcement of their oppression.
The only manner in which the Bai refuses to be subjected to bullying by her employer is by doing what she has been apparently accused of — being a 'kaamchor' (slacking off, being lazy). In fact, it is shown that her employers think she excels at this behaviour. Here is the return of the trope of the inefficient, unproductive, free-riding, undeserving lower caste person, whose poverty is a result of their own lazy and futile existence, whose oppression is a remarkable, fitting response to their apparent lack of contribution to society’s prosperity. And isn’t this the same sentiment that fuels the apparently 'deserving-but-exploited' upper caste anger against the unashamed lower caste, who swallows the benefits of the reservation system without matching up to the level of upper caste 'merit', no matter how flawed and Brahmancial it is?
If only the lower castes would study harder, they wouldn’t have to lap up the charitable affirmative action policies, say many Savarnas, even when Brahmanical knowledge production systems have disregarded lower caste learning as worthy of being called knowledge. Even when the caste system has upheld the economic inequalities that restrict the actualisation of potential and opportunities available to lower caste students, even when the lower caste students have to consistently bear with rampant casteism and humiliation in schools and universities. How dare the lower caste student not fight economic deprivation and emotional abuse to score better marks — not successful compared to their own background, but better than that of the upper castes? These hardships are clearly mythical or self-inflicted, and it is the responsibility of every lower caste student to overcome their laziness and fight as equals among their fellow upper-caste brethren/oppressors, right?
What the video does is strengthen these existing caricatures, thereby deepening the prejudices held against the marginalised by displaying marginalisation as a choice. It would hardly be contentious to suggest that in most cases, retaliation isn’t even possible; a Bai who is slapped at work is often forced to return and cook for the oppressor because of the larger structural inequality that exists. Physical, emotional and sexual violence of which domestic workers are survivors often goes unreported, because of the lack of coherent laws as well as implementation.
It is only casual ignorance that comes from a privileged background which can allow one to forget proportionality in justice.
Even if one were to give the benefit of doubt to the creators of the video for at least trying to show some sort of resistance on the part of the oppressed, the unequal response disturbs the balance. The physical violence accrued on the lower caste body is retaliated by a mere display of indolence; the slap is met by a mere leave of absence, although in real situations, one can hardly forget what happens to lower caste bodies that retaliate or resist.
It is not difficult to imagine who benefits from the display of marginalised bodies as absurd, which in fact is an important step to show them as dismissible. Showing a languid, idle lower caste person who escapes work is not just a lie because we are all aware of whose labour is most exploited, but it is certainly beneficial in creating the rationalisation of their dismissal from profits. Lower caste people who work as lower class unorganised labour are not just exploited, but their long working hours, lack of paid holidays, undignified work conditions, harassment at the workplace, double-day jobs are often disguised by an overarching sentiment about their lack of enthusiasm to work. The irritable kaamwali aunty, the expressionless chaukidaar who refuses to salute everyone, the patriarchal makeup didi, the crass, unskilled but arrogant autowala are tropes that have been circulating in the comedy industry for way too long to be considered accidental slips by the privileged-but-well-meaning ‘content’ creators.
Humour is a powerful conceptual tool with layered uses. Laugh at power, utilise the skill for displaying the absurdity of powerlessness to change situations, and do not forget that humour is political because the bodies that are dragged onto screens to be displayed as unimportant and stupid have actual lives where they face the same circle of humiliation and exploitation, and none of that is funny.
Simple Rajrah is pursuing an MPhil degree in political theory at the University of Oxford
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Updated Date: Feb 04, 2019 10:58:43 IST