Two very different settings across the breadth of the country, two films on rather different subjects (but I should say with less than six degrees of separation), and it’s been quite a mix of emotions, nostalgia and introspection.
On May 19, 2018, the People’s Film Collective screened S.D. Saroj Dutta and His Times as part of an event ‘Naxalbari 50’ at Jogesh Mime Academy in Kolkata. Directed by Kasturi Basu and Mitali Biswas, the nearly two hours long film takes one through the genesis and trajectory of the Naxalbari movement that started in 1967, and in that context the life and times of communist intellectual and revolutionary figure Saroj Dutta.
The film is a wonderfully shot rich repository of archival material (media clippings, audio-visual footage and Saroj Dutta’s own chronicles and poems) that portray the happenings during the Naxalbari movement, the angst and anger behind it, and the State repression of the movement. A must watch for anyone interested in looking beyond what popular media and even formal educational discourses have to say about left wing thought and politics.
For instance, was it true that the Communist Party of India did not quite condemn the Chinese invasion of India in 1962 – as I remember my late school principal saying in geography class? But then expounding on history or the clash between ideology and nationalism is not my intention here. The film triggered off several memories and thoughts that I would like to share.
I was around three and living in Hind Motors Colony when Saroj Dutta is said to have gone ‘missing’ as per Kolkata Police’s version, or brutally executed by the police according to other narratives (which could well be the same thing). It’s not as if I have any vivid memories from those times. But as part of family lore, my mother would often joke that even as a toddler I had a temper that I must have imbibed from the Naxalbari movement. I was reputed to have slapped one of her friends who had taken liberties with tweaking my cheeks.
If the subject comes up, my mother still talks about the “extremely difficult time that the Naxalites put people through in the early 1970s”. But it was not as if this seemingly middle class perspective was entirely bereft of any consideration for the injustice that the Naxalbari movement was fighting against. It couldn’t have been, given my late father’s work as a labour welfare officer and mechanical engineer in two factories in West Bengal through most of the 1960s and 1970s. He felt strongly about the interests of labourers and acted on them too, often acting as a bridge between them and the management (and owners).
The stand my father took didn’t quite make him popular with the managements, which affected his career prospects as well as health. He felt extremely let down with the favouritism in the company he worked for in Hind Motors, and he was at least once denied a rightful promotion. To this date I remember the day he returned home dejected from office and burst into uncontrollable sobs, with my mother consoling him. She didn’t allow me into their room as she saw the shock on my face and shut the door. Not many years later (in 1976), my father quit the job and we shifted to Kolkata.
About a decade or so later, I became friends with someone in college whose father had worked as a labourer in the same company as my father in Hind Motors. My friend conveyed to me that his father remembered mine rather fondly for his work and commitment. As our friendship grew, I found myself trying to protect my new friend from barbs from classmates aimed at his inability to speak in English (he was the only student in class who had earlier studied in Hindi medium). In return, his company helped me overcome my sense of isolation in class as a gay person, though I didn’t come out to him until much later.
My mother as far as I can remember was always supportive and respectful of my father’s stand. She, in her own right, was no less thoughtful in how to treat the domestic workers employed in our home and till date makes sure to first allocate their share of daily meals. In the early 1980s, she raised funds for food and education for the poor in the neighbourhood of our first home in Kolkata. She learnt the hard way not to rely on some of the biggest charities in town to reach out to people who would never be on the programmatic radar of any NGO.
However, none of these instances takes away from the fact that my parents or I are all part of the problem that we were or are trying to acknowledge and address – in terms of class and several other privileges. For the Naxalbari movement the starting point itself was a complete absence of social hierarchy. Another comment from my father during our post-dinner family walks comes to mind. I was likely in high school then. In response to a remark from one of us that our family believed in social justice, he said that if the downtrodden were to raise their voice, the wave of protest would not necessarily spare us because we would still be seen as part of the privileged. Not his exact words perhaps, but this was the essence.
The scenes from S.D. and these meanderings keep taking me back to a few thoughts and questions. Even if absolute equality in society is an unattainable dream, shouldn’t mechanisms to check runaway inequality exist necessarily and be strengthened? Isn’t democracy supposed to be such a mechanism, and if yes, is its current form in India (or the form envisaged when the Constitution was drafted) effective?
[Aside: The irony of watching S.D. even as the Karnataka Legislative Assembly elections drama was unfolding in Bangalore couldn’t have been stronger!]
One may be critical of the extreme violence and futility of the armed revolt of the Naxalbari peasant uprising. But do people from my generation or even the one before ours really understand what it was or still is like to be a peasant in independent India? And so what do we know or feel about the social circumstances that instigated the revolt (beyond what we see or don’t see in the largely simplistic Bollywood projections of rural distress)? Even a landmark film like Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (based on Mahasweta Devi’s Bengali novel Hajar Churashir Maa) didn’t quite throw light on the agrarian origins of the movement.
For the large masses, did political independence bring about freedom from class and caste subjugation? Couldn’t a development such as the Tebhaga movement in the late 1940s have better informed the policies and programmes of independent India? Wouldn’t that have prevented the occurrence of the Naxalbari uprising? Why State violence against people for demanding their rightful share, and why all the piety and hand wringing when such violence begets nothing but more violence?
Another popular belief in some quarters has been that the communists didn’t really fight for India’s independence. But when one looks at the larger essence of independence from all kinds of subjugation (not just colonial oppression), does one have to be a communist to worry about the ‘incompleteness’ of political independence? Even from a queer lens, India’s independence seems far from an ideal.
Finally, S.D. also showed how the left parties themselves let down the peasants and labourers they were fighting for! First an ideological split in the Communist Party of India (CPI) in the mid 1960s led to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Initially, the CPI rebels who later formed the CPI(M) were at the receiving end of State violence for protesting CPI’s tilt towards the Congress-led central government. But later, when the CPI(M) itself took to electoral politics, they couldn’t handle the spontaneity of the agrarian revolts they had engendered, and turned into oppressors of the very people they had wanted to empower. This then resulted in the formation of the Charu Majumdar-led CPI (Marxist-Leninist), which initiated the Naxalbari movement in 1967.
One takeaway for me from the film is that when we rebel for freedom of any kind, we must also be prepared to give space for dissent in our own ranks. This can’t be mere ‘strategy’ to keep the flock together; it has to be the ‘principle’ of trying to build a better present or future for everyone. I may have missed it in S.D., but I wonder if and how the Naxalbari movement dealt with the issue of caste oppression or gender inequity along with class struggle.
On the whole though, S.D. the revolutionary and S.D. the film both reaffirmed my belief in the cause of equity and personal freedom, even if this may not be achievable through political outfits, isms and revolutions of any kind that exist at the moment. They also left me with the toughest question of it all to grapple with. Given the inherently unequal social structures that I am a part of, what is it that I can do as an individual – through my thoughts and actions – to make a difference in the struggle for equity?
Exactly a week after watching S.D., I got the opportunity to attend the ‘9th Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival’. Three absorbing films within the space of a few hours on a single day left me with a splitting headache but also a warm feeling of time well spent. The films were Arshad Khan’s documentary from Canada Abu: Father; Vandana Kataria’s drama Noblemen; and Marcelo Caetano’s debut feature from Brazil Body Electric.
It is Arshad Khan’s personal story of migration from Pakistan to Canada, multiple self-realizations, and the narration of tension and reconciliation with his parents that will stay with me a long time. The narrative of how a new social environment makes him realize his ‘differences’ was piquant to say the least – differences around sexual orientation, masculinity (or femininity), religion, skin colour and more.
Arshad Khan’s experience of child sexual abuse by a male relative, its entanglement with realization about his sexual orientation, and eventual separation of the two – something many queer people would relate to closely – was well delineated.
At a personal level, what I could relate most closely to was the filmmaker’s relationship with his father. The constant struggle – almost over a lifetime – of wanting his father’s approval, then not caring about it, and in the end wondering if he had been unjust to his father through his self-assertion took me to memories of my father and my disagreements with him.
It took my father nearly 20 years since I came out to him (and my mother) as gay to come to terms with my sexual orientation. He demonstrated it by agreeing to be interviewed for an article in a queer journal and also for a documentary film on queer people coming out to their families (albeit with his face not shown). Like Arshad Khan’s father, he too had to struggle with personal work-related successes and failures while also coping with the social challenge of his child not fitting into the norms. And in another parallel, my father too found some answers and solace in spirituality in trying to accept his child’s sexual orientation.
Arshad Khan’s mother plays an equally important role in the trajectory of his life as a queer person. Interestingly, her journey seems to have been a reversal from a position of relative acceptance to disapproval influenced by a turn towards religiosity in the aftermath of the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on USA. The film also points at some of her personal struggles with self-esteem. Her story within a story could be worth a separate film that I would be eager to watch!
Main poster courtesy: Facebook page of S.D. Saroj Dutta and His Times.