It took 14 years to make the 200-minute-long documentary “Jai Bhim Comrade” on Dalits. Director Anand Patwardhan explains why.

On January 9, in the bylanes of Byculla's BIT Chawl, a documentary was premiered after sundown. A huge white screen ensured that people from the three-storeyed buildings nearby could also view the film. For over three hours Anand Patwardhan's “Jai Bhim Comrade” took us on a musical-historical journey. Beginning with the rousing voice of Vilas Ghogre, we move quickly to the police killings in Ramabai Nagar in 1997. Suddenly, the camera takes us inside Ghogre's home, where he scribbled his last words before committing suicide on the fifth day after the police firing.

Why did the film take 14 years to make? “I wanted to continue filming till all the false cases against the people in the colony were removed, or until the police officers who had ordered the firing were sent to jail,” explains Patwardhan. The Ramabai Nagar case took its own natural course. Another thread was exploring the tension between caste and class. Patwardhan says, “Vilas was a Dalit who became a Marxist, but then chose to reassert his Dalit identity, by tying a blue scarf as he hung himself. I wanted to understand this seeming clash of identities. As Vilas was no more, I began filming others from his musical tradition. A few were Leftists like Vilas, others celebrated Dr. Ambedkar's life and message. I wanted to do justice to this whole spectrum.”

The spectrum is broad indeed — from a proud song describing the Dalit who became a barrister, to those that recount the travails of migrant workers to the city; from lullabies based on the teachings of the Buddha, to naughty qawaalis that celebrated sexuality equally by men and women. Almost each song is juxtaposed with evocative visuals — claustrophobic slum-dwelling illustrated by a chicken coop; “My barrister husband is coming home” juxtaposed with visuals of men sweeping the streets. As Patwardhan points out, this is not an ethnographic film. “It is a record of the people and events I encountered. Many were not recognised as singers. Saraswati Bansode was a housewife. Shanta Bai Gadpaile's husband was a poet and she remembers his songs. The tradition is so strong that ordinary people just sang.”

Many songs in the film narrate the game politicians have played with Dalits. In one instance, at an Ambedkar Jayanti function, small boys are dancing to the tune of “In the Mumbai... we are the Bhai..” from Bollywood's “Shootout At Lokhandwala”. Somehow the lyrics fit — Dalits have been used by the underworld, as well as political parties.

Actual statistics higher

The mention of the Khairlanji incident was thus expected. “Official records show that two Dalits are raped and three killed daily. The actual statistics are higher. The film speaks of two other cases from Beed — a teacher murdered and a girl raped. So people cannot say that Khairlanji was a one-off incident which won't happen again. These incidents are part of our daily occurrence,” says Patwardhan.

The fact that instead of addressing this, Dalit leaders are busy flirting with the Congress or with Hindutva, got the audience to acknowledge the movement's weak leadership today. Several of them, including Dr. Ambedkar's grandson Anandrao, felt that the documentary was a wake-up call. But what generated most outrage was the way in which Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) was forced by the police to go underground.

Singers and poets

Patwardhan had met KKM in 2007 during a memorial meet at Ramabai Nagar. He followed these cultural activists and their families as they raised questions about the effects of a “development” that displaces the poor and Dalits alike. In June 2011, Sheetal Sathe and all the people from KKM had been pushed underground as they had been branded as Naxalites. “That's when I realised that I have to start showing this film. I want this country to understand who these singers and poets are so that people like Sheetal can come out in the open again and prove that they hadn't done anything wrong, anything more than speak up for the powerless,” says Patwardhan.

The premiere on January 9 had its effect. Born out of the Dalit movement, the film was going back to the same people on the day when they remember Dalit Panther theatre activist Bhagwat Jadhav. A resident of BIT Chawl, Jadhav was killed during a rally in 1974, when Shiv Sena supporters dropped a grinding stone on his head. Since then, every year, his family conducts a memorial talk. There couldn't have been a better tribute this year than the premiere of “Jai Bhim Comrade”.

“Basti screenings are a must. The intellectual class in India laps up and understands every political nuance of the developed world, but the reverse is not true. We like to be spoon-fed with over-simplified cliches, and that concession I have refused to make,” says Patwardhan, about his 200-minute-long documentary.

But tell him that this is his first documentary that has managed to get a Censor certificate without a major struggle, then he smiles, “Perhaps the democratic system is maturing? I think the upper castes know that they have been oppressing Dalits for thousands of years. If Dalits don't have a right to say ‘Gande Mataram', then who does?”