By Vithya Subramaniam
‘Don’t fall asleep ah’ my mother teased as I left to attend the 4-hour long screening of Reason (2018). Frankly, I was lethargic, dragging my feet, not looking forward to watching and thinking about anything for that long. Yet that is perhaps the need of the hour—to give time and to resist.
Reframe: A Time to Resist, guest programmed by filmmaker and curator Shai Heredia, focused on Indian cinema ‘as a site through which democracy has been imagined and negotiated’ (asianfilmarchive.org). Even though about 57% of countries are democracies of some kind, ‘democracy’ does not look the same in every place and in every time. A Time to Resist offers an extended consideration of Indian democracy—its images, its locations, its voice, its movements, its lovers, its conspirators, its limits, its realities.
‘Time’ is not an empty container. Resistance happens in time, with histories, for futures. Wise to the hour, ‘this programme outlines how India has entered one of its most complex and dangerous political periods yet.’ (asianfilmarchive.org) While this instinctively feels like hyperbole, it is not. For one, politics in India has come to dominate and coalesce two previously separate acts of popular political participation—elections and mass protest. Under the British Raj, the subaltern and the marginalised only had recourse to mass protest while the few landowning ‘natives’ were enfranchised and could vote. In contemporary India, it is those who numerically dominate the voting box who most often take to mass protest, even orchestrating violence to influence the vote. Secondly, the loudest political discourse today dangerously toys with time. The Hindu Right reconstructs an acceptable history in order to reframe the nation, claim rightful belonging and rule, and legitimise their fascist actions in the present. As Romila Thapar, India’s foremost historian, spells out: ‘the most dangerous aspect of the implanting of the Hindutva version of history across Indian society is that the divide between professional history and the version of the past used to legitimize Hindu majoritarianism is increasing.’ (nytimes.com) The Right rejects historical evidence. Cinema seeks, in part, to collect it.
Reframe: A Time to Resist brings together shots of resistance over various eras, domains, and styles. Beginning with I Am 20 from 1967, and at least one film from each decade since, the collection continues all up to 2020 with A Rifle And A Bag. Together, these documentary, observational, satirical, poetical films are stitched from, and are themselves, recorded testimonies to acts of resistance across India. We see efforts to oppose destructive economic and land policies in the east, attempts to reason with the ground swell of communal politics in the south and north, negotiating bureaucratic red-tape in the centre and west, seeking what little corners of freedom may be gotten in the nation’s capital, and laughing at the farce of it all in an imagined Indian-anywhere.
Witnessing across time, as we watch testimonies from decades past today, this collection of films also works to demonstrate that time in India is not singular, or linear. Time is cyclical, is arrested, is warped. Just as the Hindu Right moves to reconstruct history, in Reason we learn of their remastering of 17th century Maratha emperor Shivaji Bhonsale I as an anti-Muslim Hindu ruler and thus hero for today’s Hindu nationalists. Likewise in What Has Happened To This City? (1986), the presumptive separation between ancient and modern times is undone when we see retired Telugu cinema star N. T. Rama Rao in the garb of a Hindu ascetic getting sworn in as Andhra Pradesh’s Chief Minister on the back of a modern democratic election. It is not just communal politics that seizes time. While trying to recall the lyrics to a protest song from the present-day movement, an interviewee in Blood Earth (2013), for a moment, hurls us back to the years of the British Raj with his offhand invocation of ‘Company Hawa’. These were protest songs against British rule and exploitation, and ‘Company’ references the East India Company that ruled large parts of India for about a century (1757–1858) even as a trading company and laid the grounds for another century of direct colonial rule. A Rifle And A Bag reminds us that communism did not wither with the end of the Cold War. The film follows Somi and Sukhram, ‘surrendered’ Naxalites, whose past haunts them as they negotiate the bureaucracy trying to procure a ‘tribal certificate’ in order to get schooling and secure a future for their children. Though Somi disagrees with the way the Indian Naxalite movement executes it, she still believes in the communist ideology and we see her impart this to her eldest child through song. That call of the red salute still rings through some states of India, still beats in the hearts of its jungles. In India, communism is not simply yesterday’s theoretical musings; it is one very real way to get to tomorrow.
To watch these films, is to give time. To watch cinemas of resistance is to ‘give’ from this precious currency in an age of short-span consumption. Even as Love In The Time Of Malaria (1992) entertains, A Rifle And A Bag and This Freedom Life have us invested in their subjects’ futures, Blood Earth confounds with its fragments, and What Has Happened To This City? and Reason unnerves with its dense intensity, the viewing audience too gives witness, weight, and way. To sit and watch for twenty minutes, an hour, or four is not a passive act. It most certainly is not, when to do the same in India is fraught with uncertainty and risk, and even required judicial intervention. The screening of Reason in Singapore was delayed a few weeks past the programming period of Reframe: A Time to Resist, as organisers awaited an official rating. Even so, about 40 safely distanced viewers caught the one-time screening at the Oldham Theatre. As we made our way out just past 11pm, I looked around and saw several overwhelmed faces. Reason was not a drag, it was a lot; a constant inescapable piling on of one assassination of a social activist over another, one case of caste oppression in a state over another in a university, one protest march by marginalised groups over another mass gathering of Hindu nationalists. There was no happy ending to this film, there is rather hope in the ‘inevitability of success’ though it be far off and hard fought. Whatever their runtime, these films capture the longue durée of resistance — they demand and enable longer attention on these movements.
The movement against oppressive social and political structures is a constant hum in the air of everyday life in India. We, beyond its borders, may hear about a flare up or two, but we must not mistake this infrequency of attention for an infrequency of action. Even as these films were being screened here in Singapore, India’s farmers (predominantly Sikhs from the state of Punjab) continued to camp on the capital’s borders protesting three new predatory agricultural laws for the ninth straight month, despite violence from police and the COVID-19 threat. Early last year, these threats ended a similar 4-month long sit-in protest in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. Women of this predominantly Muslim neighbourhood began the sit-in to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 and the National Register of Citizens planned for nationwide implementation—policies that together would work to deprive Muslims already in India of citizenship. The local action in Shaheen Bagh quickly amassed support across the country with many travelling to Delhi to join the sit-in, but the then emergent pandemic and subsequent lockdown inhibited the movement’s momentum. Resistance takes time.
As these recent protests show, resistance also takes place. While informed by intangible ideologies and Rights, these too take material form, of which space emerges as the most salient. The rallying of minority communities is not divorced from their neighbourhoods, as we see with the political meetings in What Has Happened To This City? and Reason. The orchestrated march of Hindu nationalist protesters in the former or the Dalit Long March through Maharashtra in the latter are no unmapped wanderings either. Even when ‘surrendered’ the former Naxalite family of A Rifle And A Bag still lives by the jungle, not far removed from the terrains of the movement, its ideology, and the lands it protects. In Blood Earth, we sense the trepidation around allowing outsiders entry to lands already ravished by unregulated mining and development, as the filmmakers are made to take detours, wade through streams, and thread the edges of fields.
Resistance in India is not simplistically ‘to go against’, it is fundamentally ‘to be for’. It demands Rights that are supposed to be universal, it stands for life, it seeks freedom. In This Freedom Life, the subjects find freedom in particular peculiar places. In a small humble neighbourhood beauty salon, Sachi finds employment and support. Here her boss teases Sachi about the women who come to see her, counsels her on dating multiple women, and defends her freedom to live with whomever to opinionated customers. In his own roadside cigarette stand, Praveen earns his keep, negotiates relationships with family, cajoles his partner, and gets into fights. In both these unremarkable, albeit hyper-gendered, corners of the capital, a copy of infinite others just like it across Indian towns and cities, Sachi and Praveen find the place of their ‘freedom life’. Cinema gathers these spaces, and is itself a site of resistance.
Cinema conceived the imagined nation of Khojpuri in Love In The Time Of Malaria. Yet does so by reframing real worlds. In his piece of satire, Sanjiv Shah is still filming in real places, not sets. This, in his words, allows for breaking ‘the distinction between fiction and non-fiction’. It allowed him to create an imaginary country from the spaces of a real country, to satirise India through its own land. Sanjiv further blurs the distinctions between fact and fiction; documentary and satire; real country and imagined country with the inclusion of real footage of Hindu nationalist agitations filmed in Hyderabad in 1984. These same frames were a central moment in What Has Happened To This City?, which was also filmed by the same cinematographer Navroze Contractor. As a piece of satire, Love In The Time Of Malaria is strongest where it is closest to reality. As a subplot we hear about a dam project, and a politician’s complaints that ‘infected by mosquitoes, people are protesting the dam’. Over the course of the film, we see posters on the walls, first celebrating then damning the ‘Macchu dam’. In reality, the failure of the Machchhu dam in 1979 saw the Gujarati town of Morbi inundated and claimed a still uncertain, but estimated death toll of 25,000 people. India’s Naxalites and communists (i.e., the film’s ‘mosquito problem’) are vocal environmentalists leading the movement against natural resources alienation, and frequently agitate against the country’s dam projects.
Cinema, on top of collecting visual testimony, also amplifies the voice. The films in this edition of Reframe bring together and amplify multiple instances of the recorded voice. We hear the raised and shut down protests calls, the testament of activists, the wails of grieving families, the voices that echo through speakers at political gatherings, and the polemic lines of the sung voice. Songs are especially key to the messaging of sociopolitical movements, and protest songs have their own long history in India of transcending musical styles and languages. For Sanjiv, songs were key in expanding the commentary beyond the scripted narrative as well as playing the pragmatic role of making the film ‘easier for people to watch’. In so employing, Sanjiv evokes song as device in much the same way popular Indian cinemas do. In Blood Earth, the filmmakers’ quest was to record protest songs. It is uncertain if that mission should be considered accomplished since most songs seem incomplete. What the film does do, rather well though, is to provide a sense of how these songs live—in the middle of fields, in the front yard as kids play noisily, penned in notebooks, remembered in fragments. By extension, perhaps it reminds us that resistance too lives at ‘a junction between voice, music, silence, sound and noise’.
What we also see in Blood Earth is the recorded voice of dissent and distrust against cinema itself. One villager, out of the gathered group, asks the filmmakers who they are and why they were there. When the filmmakers attempt to situate themselves, as one would in the subcontinent, by naming the contacts who connected them to the village, the villager dismisses that contact and his associate as ‘useless people’ who came in, ‘started the movement and left’. That scene breaks the already negligible ‘fourth wall’ of documentary films to seed questions of the filmmakers’ intent and the hand behind the framing of this narrative that we the audience are to receive. Other filmmakers faced similar encounters with resistance to their project, but those do not make it to the neatened cinematic product we receive. In Shai Heredia’s online discussion with filmmakers, conducted as part of Reframe: A Time To Resist, Arya Rothe reveals that she too was met with reservations from her protagonist’s family in the early months, and that trust had to be earned slowly through the three year filming process of A Rifle And A Bag. Yet this resistance is absent in the film.
Perhaps then, it is up to the audience of films of resistance to exercise just that—to resist the immediate charm of the narrative, the lure of a well framed shot, or the magic of cinema. Though one should not immediately dismiss it either, viewers of films of resistance in particular need to think beyond what is shown, what is projected. It is the work of the film viewer to resist the film maker, to not passively take on, but to actively think with and question. To watch films of resistance is to recognise time, place, and voice, to ask ‘Where does this film speak from?’ ‘Where am I watching this from?’ ‘What does it mean for me to be watching this, on film?’
What might it mean for a Singaporean audience to watch a full programme of films of resistance from India? Acknowledging his positionality, Anand Patwardhan, director of Reason, says ‘I belong to a privileged section of society and must use my privilege to act as a witness’ (thehindu.com). To stand witness seems a fair start, to watch and listen to testimonies of the need of resistance. But also to witness the cost of resistance beyond the romanticised frame or heroic overtures. Though, we ought not to reduce another’s pain and reality to our ‘teachable moments’. I think a humbler start might be to give time; to give some of this currency to works of resistance and those that record them. To give time could further entail an investment beyond a film’s runtime—to continue thinking with the film, to continue standing witness to the resistance even if it feels never-ending, to remember… as my mother put it… ‘don’t fall asleep ah’.
Suggested Further Reading
On cultural histories of Hindu Nationalism:
Sumit Sarkar. 2004. Beyond Nationalist Frames: Relocating Postmodernism, Hindutva, History. (New Delhi: Permanent Black)
David Ludden, ed. 2006. Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press)
On song in Indian cinemas:
Pendakur Manjunath. 2003. ‘Film Music: Pleasure and Popularity’ in Indian Popular Cinema: Industry, Ideology and Consciousness. (New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.)
Rajiv Vijayakar. 2013. ‘The Role of a Song in a Hindi Film’ in The South Asianist Journal. Vol. 2 (No. 3).
An accessible read on the Naxalite movement:
Arundhati Roy. 2011. Walking with Comrades. (India: Penguin Press)
About the Author
Vithya Subramaniam is presently a DPhil Student in Anthropology at the University of Oxford, exploring the work of objects in the material making and experience of ‘Indian-ness’ and ‘belonging’ in Singapore. She had previously trained as a South Asianist at Columbia University and the National University of Singapore, with particular interest in collective sociopolitical memory and memorialisation. Vithya is also a playwright and member of the playwrights’ collective, Brown Voices. She most enjoys marrying her academic and creative practice, such as with projects of museum-making including the recent Migrant Workers Community Museum (part of The Substation’s SeptFest2021) and upcoming Thamizhachi digital museum of ‘Singaporean Tamil women’ (part of T:>Work’s N.O.W. fest 2021).