Oscar-nominated Writing With Fire misses path to Dalit liberation | Cinema

As a Bahujan woman (representing the majority) and a filmmaker with roots in the anti-class movement in India, I watched the Oscar-nominated documentary, Writing with Fire, with the look of a skeptic.

The film chronicles the lives of three brave Dalit journalists (members of the lowest class of India’s traditional caste system) at Khabar Lahariya, a grassroots newspaper led by women that is transitioning to digital space. It follows chief reporter Meera, who holds a Master’s degree in political science, BEd, and news nose, citing the newspaper’s reporting; Shyamkali, who learns the value of education and overcomes his shyness, introduces his baby to the use of smartphones for the first time and finds his voice through his work; and Suneeta, a former mine worker turned journalist who is not afraid to report on illegal mining despite receiving death threats.

Set in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the heart of the newspaper and also where Dalits make up about 20% of the population, Writing With Fire finds an eager audience for the story that deals with identity and representing Dalit from an aspirational point of view. But does it provide anything more than a surface representation?

The inescapable nature of class – like race – runs through the lives of three women as they cover everything from broken roads, lack of medicine, water and electricity, to illegal mining. , political protests, and rapes and murders. Through the power of their writing and fearless investigative journalism, they do an outstanding job of reporting in a state with the highest rates of class-related violence in the country.

But the filmmakers, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, are not from the Dalit community and lack the life experience of being placed at the lower end of the generational caste hierarchy in Hindu society. While they sensitively document the lives of these journalists and make it possible to get past the microphone – on screen at least – there are things that make the film problematic.

Meera, Shyamkali and Suneeta find their voices, their ability to support their families, and the space to ask bold questions as journalists. But ideologically – at least in the world of the film – they lack a social anchor to free them from the oppressive class hierarchy in Indian society.

This may be because, in this film, the story of Dalit’s representation and caste issues is told from an upper-class point of view, which is removed from the real-life experience of Dalit. a Dalit, and thus a voyeuristic exercise in essence. ; or the subjects themselves have not yet engaged in the question of caste and why they are socially excluded in Hindu society.

In the movie, when Meera says that the oppression of the caste system will continue to haunt her throughout her life, even though she wants to get rid of it, I immediately realize that this is missing a point. social anchor.

For me, the head is Bhimrao Ambedkar, a champion of India’s anti-class movement. His academic work has helped me build a scientific temperament to understand caste and gender; his strategic mind on his civil rights movement – ​​campaigned to allow “The Untouchables” to use public water tanks and have equal access to religious sites; his newspapers which he used to broadcast the struggles of this community; and his commitment to studying all the religions of the world – inspired me.

Throughout his life, he urged self-representation – to destroy class as a collective and establish a society based on social equality in India. He also sought to break down class, caste and gender structures through various methods, despite facing backlash from Hindu traditionalists, even after his death. Born in the 1950s. Surrounded by many spineless people, Ambedkar has the backbone of a dinosaur, believing that social reform must take precedence over political and religious reform. He insisted on rebuilding Hindu society and breaking up the caste system, and urged Hindus to acknowledge that one caste was unfit to rule another.

Having not seen this perspective in Meera or in the film, I feel uncertain about the intentions of the filmmakers. How can we talk about Dalit caste and representation without talking about Ambedkar who has analyzed caste for the world?

The flawed conversation about the social emancipation of Dalit identity using Ambedkar’s methods is something I cannot fathom. I wonder, is that something that doesn’t exist in these women’s lives, or does it not exist in real life either?

Reporting on a crime in the film, Suneeta said, “Most of the violence happens on the female body. Rape, murder, threats. They are victims of society. A woman’s life is a sin.” Resigning, she shared that it was a condition of society. Suneeta posed a brave question about a woman’s life status in Hindu society, but it was not specifically asked by a Dalit woman.

In the film, I see Meera and Suneeta cultivate dreams of power and what that might mean for a Dalit woman’s right to self-determination who is subject to three-tiered oppression institutionalized by caste , class and gender in Hindu society.

“Being a Dalit journalist is unthinkable because of the institutionalized caste system in the profession,” says Meera. “If Dalit women have power, they can do what they want,” she asserted. I really wanted to believe her but I felt hopeless in the absence of a unified ideology or method that would free her from her caste identity – in the film at least.

Unfortunately, this predicament is not only of Meera or Suneeta but of a disorganized mass of oppressed communities of the Scheduled Caste (SC), the Scheduled Tribe (ST). , Other Backward Members (OBC) who are divided by castes and unions across India.

Officially designated as one of the most disadvantaged socioeconomic groups in India, SCs and STs are enshrined in the Constitution of India. According to the 2011 census, they make up about 16% and 8% of the Indian population respectively. OBC is a general term used by the government to categorize people from educationally or socially disadvantaged backgrounds. According to a 1980 Mandal Commission report, OBCs were found to comprise 55 percent of the population, who, despite finding education, status, property, power, access, and governance, remained. have not found a method to destroy the class. They are isolated islands, far removed from the organized school of thought of the Ambedkarites – or those driven by Ambedkar’s methods of class annihilation.

The women in this film, despite being educated and doing a powerful job that helps them find their voice, they don’t seem to understand the ideology of the state that sees only the Dalits as banks. labor and votes.

Maybe it’s because the women lack this perspective, or so does the movie itself. Here, the camera is in the hands of an upper-class man. The way he looks through the lens is what you see on the screen. The way the film has been edited and the way the meaning is constructed, is the viewer’s gaze, sometimes intimate, sometimes intrusive, but mostly aloof, trapped within its own confines of looking at Class identity from a privileged point of view. Only scratch the surface.

In the film, Meera’s company is set up against Satyam, the Hindu youth leader Yuva Vahini, who onscreen sashays with a large sword and considers himself a protector of religion and morality. He believes that there are 33 Hindu gods (330 million) crore (330 million) residing in a cow and his highest duty is to save them. Assigned as the systemic villain, the story pits his Hindu totalitarianism against Meera’s bravery, where she is seen covering the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election campaign ( BJP) 2017. On the occasion of Ram Navami Shobha Yatra – one of the biggest and best Hindu festivals in India, marking the birth of Lord Ram in Ayodhya – the film shows the women in the page. saffron dress holding sword. This shows a dangerous display of power and fundamentalism as it returns Ramayana folk tale of Ram killing Shambuka, a Shudra (or of a lower social class), for participating in a practice forbidden to his community.

As I watched Meera report on those events, I saw a Dalit journalist covering a Hindu nationalist movement – but not anti-class views. It made me wonder, was there anything that existed in anti-class circles during the years of making the film? And why did the filmmakers only choose a Hindu perspective in the Uttar Pradesh election?

Writing with Fire is based on the popular aversion to Hindu right-wing fundamentalism and its backward dream of making India a Hindu nation (nation). But here, the characters are merely left-wing ideologies, and although they raise the question of caste, the perspective through which the story unfolds remains that of class.

The documentary was one of the first globally recognized films to showcase the distinct, empowered side of Dalit women and has reached the Academy space. And the life experiences of Meera, Shyamkali and Suneeta do show some authenticity. But they are still stared at by filmmakers – a voyeuristic look, and not fully engaged in the political economy of Dalit identity and their representation in Indian cinema.

I found the film supported and funded by some of the biggest funding agencies and patrons in the global film industry, including the Sundance Institute Documentary Program, the SFFILM Documentary Film Foundation, the Film Institute Tribeca and others. That makes me wonder what power relationships and networks must be involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of this documentary, which has been a source of communication on Dalit’s representation in popular culture. Especially because Dalit filmmakers are very rarely well-supported in telling their own stories.

The French philosopher Louis Althusser said that cinema as a cultural ideological state apparatus operates primarily ideologically and affects people on a private level. Writing With Fire does not criticize the rules of the caste system, excludes Ambedkar from the caste story, and ignores his methods for destroying the caste system. The gaze is still mainly the gaze of someone who is looking, selling the emptiness and hopelessness of intergenerational caste injuries.

Politics in India today is concerned with the assertion of anti-class discourse against Hindu totalitarianism. A historic claim – as the BJP came to power in 2014, class violence increased and with it growing resistance in the Bahujan community.

So in the movie, Dalit identity is used as political currency to attract more Dalit eyeballs to the screen. Audience attention equates to making a profit. Thus, the selling off of the identity, dignity, shame, and even integrity and honor of a marginalized community, is the vision of the upper class realized into film as a product of capitalism.

Writing with Fire only taps into the Dalit representation but doesn’t delve into methods of class destruction, and in that way it capitalizes on a discourse of oppressed identity.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of Al Jazeera.

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