Sruthi Herbert converses with film maker Rupesh Kumar on his new documentary 'Don't be our fathers'. Watch its promo here:
Sruthi Herbert: 'Don't be our fathers' is your latest documentary set in your village in Kerala, Peringeel. This being your native village, the process of making this documentary must also be an intense personal experience for you. Tell us more about it.
Rupesh Kumar: First of all, I am not dealing with Peringeel as a village – I am not talking about it as a village. I don't like to read it as a village. A village is always marked by caste. From an upper caste and communist point of view, Peringeel is a Harijan Colony. When I interviewed a comrade for my previous documentary, he asked about Peringeel – 'Isn't it a small colony?' He was reading the people there as Harijans. I want to bring to it the terminology of a 'Dalit land' – because I want to break the concepts of both the village and the colony.
But I did not grow up here. My father and his previous generations lived here. But there is something that draws me here, and that is the land here, this river, the attachment to the people. During my childhood, we would come and stay here during our summer holidays. The crabs here, this river and life around the river, there was always this 'pull' that Peringeel had on me. At some point, I realized that 'this is Peringeel'. There was a history of the people in Peringeel and this, I felt, had to be recorded. So naturally, I wanted to preserve their memories, and have it taken to the next generations. So I went about collecting these memories, and when I edited it, it became my first documentary.
This land is where I have my roots, this is not where I grew up. I grew up in another Dalit 'colony'. But my grandparents were here, and I had attachments to the people here. Later, this attachment transformed into a sort of political attachment. This political movie arises from the political reading of that attachment.
Sruthi: So you don't see the making of this movie as a personal experience alone. You have a political reading of your own personal experiences...
Rupesh: Actually, I see this as a Dalit political reading of my personal experiences. Peringeel which is full of my personal experiences is translated into a Dalit political text. What is different is that, while many directors call their readings 'Dalit', they are behind the camera. But I stand in front of the camera too – and thus reveal my personal and political identity. This is very important.
Sruthi: Recently there have been a few documentaries from the Dalit perspective. Do you think they all have this problem of the directors not facing the camera to reveal their identity?
Rupesh: The problem of the director not coming to the front is that when documentaries have been made on Dalit issues, many patronizing characters are inserted into them. Whether that is Dalit cinema or mainstream cinema, there is a clear detachment and this is even 'manipulative'. For example, in Stalin's documentary, he shows some scenes where he is asking questions behind the camera - do we have caste here? In the Indian context, this question is irrelevant; it is the last question that should be asked. So when this question is asked, another question too arises: what is the location of the director who is behind the camera?
The camera becomes an equipment to pose questions and the people who experience caste become 'victimized', to have the responsibility of answering these questions. So, the Dalit people in India have answered this long ago, and assert themselves in huge debates, even today. In many of the colonies, even amongst the uneducated Indian society, there are huge explosions in the personal spaces against these daily experiences of caste. These are never reported or documented.
But in this scenario, going with a camera and asking them whether there is caste is, in my view, untouchability using the camera. Many of the cinematic texts that the savarna filmmakers make are like this. Another important point is that there are many environmental documentaries – they talk about the nature, river, hills etc., They ignore the Dalit experiences that are closely associated with the environment.
Also, I don't have to talk about caste in cinema here: it has been discussed elsewhere. But in my view when we make a documentary, it is important to see who is addressing these issues. If this is a savarna, then from which point of view is their camera and direction? Also, who is talking about the marginalized in their films? How much political identity and compassion is there? In my documentaries, my identity and experiences as a 'Dalit' is asserted in this documentary.
Sruthi: The name of your documentary, 'Don't be our fathers' – this is a bold statement, and is an outright rejection of the patronage that the Dalits experience. This patronage is something that we don't talk much about in Kerala. Can you elaborate on this patronage that you are rejecting?
Rupesh: This patronage is of two types. The first is in our own personal life. I want to negate it. It is personally experienced, but thrust upon us in many forms from multiple places outside us. This patronage can be because of poverty, caste, or many other reasons. I am addressing the caste character of this patronage. In Kannur especially, which is a communist stronghold, there is a strong experience of this patronage. This is experienced in many sites- the student organizations, in educational campuses and in political parties.
Secondly, in a place like Peringeel – the communist people and organizations outside Peringeel who decide what should happen in Peringeel – they view us from outside and decide what kind of development should happen here, and think that they have the responsibility to help us out of our situation into this 'development'. Worse of all is that they will just dole out advice to us. They will love us, hug us and then advise us. This is caste. I am not talking only of communist parties. It works outside the party too. In BJP, in Congress, in the educational institutes in Kannur, in campuses in Kannur, in temples, in the clubs in Kannur, in the libraries in Kannur, inside the colonies, and in the interaction of the colonies with the outside world. So what I am saying is that this patronizing is present in many elements of society, outside our own personal experiences.
And that is what I reject by saying 'Don't be our fathers'. By saying this, I just want to blow the lid off this patronage.
Sruthi: Now in this documentary, there is a focus on the labour of the Dalits – the labour involved in catching crabs, prawns. How do you see the connections between labour and patronage that is extended to the Dalits?
Rupesh: The life in these Dalit lands has been problematized by many – as if the life is very sad and miserable. If you see the visual sequences that deal with lives in colonies – be it documentaries, news programmes or in movies – they show a lot of suffering, as if this is a very pathetic life. Or these are shown as breeding places of violence, and the characters from the colonies as villains. So what I am trying to break is that even as these things are there in 'colony' life, the reason why this so-called development is not happening in the colonies is because of the savarna political thinking that rules these places. In places like Peringeel, they fight and assert physically and mentally, engage in labour, and live beautifully. Most of the jobs they do here include fine skills. For example, the process of catching crabs. There is a lot of beauty in how they do it – this is also an aesthetic process. I have tried to show that too.
Sruthi: Yes, this is shown in the documentary beautifully.
Rupesh: Yes, it's the same with catching prawns. This is a tough job. Many times they do it after their main occupations. But they enjoy doing this. This tough life and the daily livelihood struggle are because of the political powers that be. We should portray that as pathetic, and the people as resilient. We should see their lives as a joyful assertion.
Sruthi: So in that sense, you are trying to portray this labour as the opposite of the patronage that is extended to the people in the colonies...
Rupesh: Yes, definitely. We don't need the patronage that stems from the understanding that 'colony life' and 'Dalit life' are hell! They are struggling, but we don't want the sympathetic gaze. Similarly, there is this saying in Kerala – 'to behave like in the fish market' – and this has very negative connotations, and I consider this even racist. So I just want to show that for the fish to be in the fish market there are these highly skilled, risky and aesthetic processes that are involved.
Sruthi: You also mention the educational institutions in the documentary and show the experience of caste there. Could you tell us how Dalits are saying 'Don't be our fathers' in educational institutions? Are they even able to say it and assert themselves in all instances?
Rupesh: In India, Dalits are saying 'Don't be our fathers' for quite some time now. Ambedkar was the one who said it with the constitution. I am not delving into it now. In these times, many Dalits have now attained good education; some of them have good jobs abroad, and are living a good life. This is one way of rejecting the patronage. Also, as I show in the documentary, when Dalit students experience caste in educational institutes, they explode in their personal spaces. It doesn't come out, but they are agitated and are angry with the caste powers in the campuses, schools, students' bodies and so on. The political reactions against these are happening in personal spaces, and therefore are not reported. But what I am stating is that caste is instilled in the minds of kids in schools even today – it is still very much present, and that we Dalits recognize that this process is happening. That is what I want to show.
Sruthi: This movie then is not merely about the patronage, but about the lived experience of caste. In Kerala, caste is not something people want to discuss. In that context, how is the response to this documentary?
Rupesh: Well, I have sent this to many people in Kerala. We have had several screenings. The usual reactions have been that this is breaking the largely theoretical nature of the documentaries that deal with caste. Also, this is a stylish cinematic documenting. It also has powerful cinematic visuals. Also, like you said, the savarna spaces in Kerala are scared of discussing this. They have just set it aside, because they know that they will have to address their own savarna selves if they discuss this. When I did my first documentary in 2007, and till now, I have experienced the same thing.
But the Dalit spaces outside Kerala, in universities and others have celebrated this, and have accepted and discussed this. In many discussions, participants said that this movie gave them a lot of energy.
Sruthi: So maybe you got some critical comments – were they discouraging or encouraging? And particularly, how has the savarna response to this been?
Rupesh: Actually, my experience with this documentary was that there were no casteist or discouraging comments. Even the critical comments from friends were encouraging, to point towards more powerful possibilities... But the biggest casteist negative reaction that I had was that there were no comments! There was total silence from the savarnas!
Sruthi: So this is my last question: These are the times when the articulations on caste are charting new territories, by using the new technologies and more secular spaces that we have at our disposal – especially the visual media and online platforms. As a Dalit filmmaker, how do you perceive these changes?
Rupesh: We have to look at secular spaces critically, and maybe that can be a different discussion. As you know, in the Indian visual media, the Dalit spaces are very limited. More than 80% of decisions taken from the editorial positions in the Indian media are made by savarnas. We hardly find Dalits in the newsrooms and in the print media. There has been a very negative sympathetic depiction of Dalit lives. In the Media Scan program of Media One, the same issue was presented. But even in this channel, the presence of Dalits is very less. Many of us Dalits assert through the online media – like You Tube, and social media like Facebook. So we have been able to utilize these possibilities. But when we engage with our identities on all these spaces, we have been violently attacked. Under the secular guise, we have been viciously attacked. But there are many powerful counter-assertions. So when we do these, and there are so many of us in many parts of India and the world, there is a lot of power.
Sruthi: Is there anything else that you have to add?
Rupesh: Yes, there should be a deeper analysis of colonies in Kerala. There are many colonies in marshlands, hilltops and other isolated spots. And yes, I have tried to show the attractiveness of black bodies which many visual texts do not show. Also, the music video in the movie - I have penned the lyrics, and it has been composed by Ajith Kumar A S. This is probably the first music video that is fully done by Dalits. So, I have tried to make a stylish movie that shows patronage through my viewpoint. I just want to blow the lid off this patronage. This is a start. There may be many ways of viewing and interpreting this visual text. I want to kick-start the process. This is most importantly, a record, for other people to examine and interpret too.
'Don't be our fathers' is a buddhaneverleeps production. Its director Rupesh Kumar is a documentary filmmaker who views his 'visual texts as political tools against caste discrimination'. The discourses created by his documentaries have 'triggered international debates against caste, racial and gender discrimination'.
This is the music video of the film:
The DVD of the documentary 'Don't be our fathers' can be purchased (for Rs. 600, including postage in India) by contacting Rupesh Kumar on Facebook.
Sruthi Herbert is a researcher who seeks to interpret the Indian society from the vantage point of the oppressed and the underprivileged. She is starting her doctoral degree in the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and has previously studied at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.