Nishant Roy Bombarde
Two important events happened on Thursday, October 29, 2015. A 17 year old film festival in Mumbai rejuvenated itself with Kiran Rao at the steering wheel; from a connoisseur's festival to a grand B-town affair. Same day, 5 filmmakers from the same city got intimated that their documentary has been denied a screening by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting because the synopsis of the film mentioned "beef". Although with a very narrow 'beef approach', Electronic and Print media did take notice of it; the vivacious Social Media on the other hand did not care much about it. It rather talked everything about MAMI from who partied with whom to who was wearing what. "Movie" business just became a bit bigger and comprehensive, but "Film" as we know of the term in a socio-political context died a silent death the same day.
'Caste on the Menu Card' is a beautiful 21 minute long documentary by Ananyaa Gaur, Anurup Khillare, Atul Anand, Reetika Revathy Subramanian and Vaseem Chaudhary on the politics of caste and how it has seeped onto the Menu Card. It is made under the series 'Castemopolitan Mumbai' for Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The 'Beef Pork Chicken' Rap by Ashwini Mishra at the end of the film is absolutely fab and not to be missed. It is almost a theme song of the film that summarises it in a way.
With the minimalist documentary approach, the film intelligently makes the journey of food from private to public kitchens and from tanneries to campuses. It gives a voice to everybody – from marginalised sections to cow therapists (yes, they exist) and from patriots to cobblers. It makes everyone talk very candidly. But it has its opinion. Like a filmmaker once said, "the moment you have placed the tripod on the ground you have taken a side". But the documentary does it very skillfully. With tools of intercutting aptly used to make haunting voices from the past speak on the current issue, the film makers take a front seat in mature story telling style. And these are haunting voices from none other than thinkers whom the beef ban zealots consider their idols. In one stroke of a cinema tool, the film slashes all the (make) beliefs currently sold to promote the ban on food items. This is what it does! What it does not do is make some elite rant on how Freedom of Expression is being killed by the ban etc.
What is it then that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is worried about? The film does not say "Eat Beef" It only shows how caste has seeped everywhere including the Menu Card. What is it then that the Ministry is irked about! It is because the documentary does a very dangerous thing. It opens a dialogue. And the dialogue is of a livelihood. The government and their party can ignore the elitist rant on social media about undermining some non-existent Freedom of Expression because of the beef ban. Because they know that these elites will shout the whole day and attend an after party of a film festival in the night where they will enjoy wine with imported beef.
What worries them is if food habits are connected to livelihood. And that is exactly what the documentary does. The Manuesque ideologue of the government, its power source, hates dialogue. It can have the "pseudo-seculars" (term coined by Advani) create a hullabaloo and link this prohibition with communal politics. Because that is exactly what they want. The pseudo seculars are to the Sangh, what Congress was to the British. A Safety Valve. One of the filmmakers, Vaseem Chaudary says, "We are glad that at least the film is getting talked about in the media a lot because of the controversy, what we are sad about is the fact that everyone is looking at it from the beef ban angle and linking it to the communal politics. It is much more than that."
It is pertinent to mention here that the film was produced well before the Dadri lynching as well as the Maharashtra State ban on beef. The constitution makes it clear that the Indian state is irreligious. It is not "Anti-religious" like a communist state or "Pro-religious" like an Islamic state, but it is irreligious. What does it mean? It means that the state is not bothered about an individual's religion. Will the so called "vibrant civil society of India" discuss how constitutional it is to enact a religiously motivated beef ban? Or will it only discuss reservation because that challenges their privilege? Will the honourable Supreme Court act suo moto and see the unconstitutionality of this law or is the meritorious privilege bench busy in weeding out reservations and not bothered about the livelihood of people?
"I was born in a Brahmin family in Matunga where everywhere you look there is a temple and vegetarianism is a norm. Looking back in retrospect, the flowers offered at the temples came from a community which was not allowed inside the temples. While the scripting of the film, I was questioning my identity and privileges for the first time. We talk quite openly about class and gender, but quite honestly, caste is the elephant in the room", says Reethika Revathy Subramaniam, another film maker.
After the Dankaur incident where Dalit women were stripped naked, a famous woman activist posted on Social Media, that there are "conflicting reports" about the incident. The activist wanted to know whether they took off their own clothes. It did not strike her that, for hypothesis, even if it was assumed that they did, how helpless they must have felt to do so. It is similar to the question that one poses to a rape victim, whether she was wearing short clothes and venturing out at a time when she shouldn't have been! In the garb of activism, we sometime dehumanise people says Reetika. And she is right. This is exactly what most of these activists do. They dehumanise and focus the discussion on religion, fancy vegan eating and animal love. And this documentary brings back the focus to livelihood.
In a hilarious anecdote, a local resident in the film puts the relation of caste to beef as it is. "Jo maraa hua khaata hain woh insaan chhota ho jaata hain, aur jo khaakar bhi kehta hain hum nahin khaate woh bade hain" – The one who eats meat is considered inferior and the ones who eat meat and pretends he didn't becomes superior (Upper Caste). In a vigorous criticism 'Did the Hindus never eat beef?' Dr. Ambedkar says, "To the question whether the Hindus ever ate beef, every Touchable Hindu, whether he is a Brahmin or a non-Brahmin, will say 'no, never'. In a certain sense, he is right. From times no Hindu has eaten beef. If this is all that the Touchable Hindu wants to convey by his answer there need be no quarrel over it. But when the learned Brahmins argue that the Hindus not only never ate beef but they always held the cow to be sacred and were always opposed to the killing of the cow, it is impossible to accept their view"
That was the time. And now this is the time, where abundant numbers of Caste Hindus eat beef. This is a widely known fact. They just do not eat at their homes probably, but they savour it outside. The Jain Items on the menu in a restaurant are as much a charade as the weddings of homosexual men with women. The "Iyer groom wanted" ad is as much a violent spectacle as the Dadri lynching. Caste performs its own dance of death in equal ways in both instances. As Vaseem says, "...isn't it violence that we force a person from North East to eat Paneer and Dal roti?" What if in a remote Dendrophilic African country, it is a crime to kill the plants and they want to shove only beef down your dvija throat?
It must be cosmic justice that daal prices are soaring high during the same time that cow meat is banned. Where do the poor take their protein from, is a question people have started asking on the internet. This is terrific! Because this ought to be asked. To neither take the blue nor the red pill but shift the attention from the communal politics and fundamental rights angle back to the question of survival is the challenge. "Caste on the Menu Card" is a brilliant first step towards it. Watch it for it makes you question. Watch it to question your own privilege. Watch it because it is banned. Watch it for the sheer rebellion. Because the Indian Renaissance won't happen because of Film Festivals or Booker Events, it will happen because of food.
"An empty stomach is not a good political adviser."
― Albert Einstein
You can watch 'Caste on the Menu Card' here.
Nishant Roy Bombarde works for Essel Vision, the premier media house in Marathi, as an Executive Producer. He also heads the Social Media promotions at the firm. A credited writer for television show Fear Files, he has now shot his first short film Daaravtha meaning threshold in Zaadi; a local dialect of Marathi. The film is a compilation of real life inspirations around him and currently on the edit table.
Pictures courtesy: the net.