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Who owns my story?

Depiction of socially vulnerable subjects raises questions about the politics and ethics of cultural production

 Works that have touched on taboo subjects such as gender and sexuality, for instance, have often provoked fierce national debate and political opposition.
Works that have touched on taboo subjects such as gender and sexuality, for instance, have often provoked fierce national debate and political opposition.

The legal conflict between the producers of Gulab Gang and Sampat Lal was the latest in a long line of controversies involving portrayals of public figures. Individual subjects of a wide array of biographies and films have sought legal action against what they perceive as unauthorised or inaccurate representations of their lives. Such controversies have surrounded Shekhar Kapur’s depiction of Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen, Hamish McDonald’s depiction of Dhirubhai Ambani in The Polyester Prince and Javier Moro’s book on Sonia Gandhi. These controversies raise longstanding questions about freedom of expression and censorship. The issues are certainly not new, and political controversies and contexts often shape (and restrict) artistic and academic expression in complex ways.

Works that have touched on taboo subjects such as gender and sexuality, for instance, have often provoked fierce national debate and political opposition. Legal and political battles over cultural representation — whether through film, biography or academic research — are complex cases, each of which is mired in distinct dynamics shaped both by the substance and style of the work on the one hand and the political actors and interests unsettled by these works on the other. However, taken together, they raise important issues regarding the politics and ethics of cultural production that makes claims of fact or authenticity about living subjects.

The ethical questions provoked by these films and biographies are not neutral or self-evident, and may have different implications depending on the social location and political power of the subjects involved. Prominent privileged individuals or powerful movements, for instance, may effectively use claims of factual inaccuracy for self-interested reasons and effectively censor public debate. But the public depiction of subaltern subjects who are socially vulnerable in terms of their gender, caste or class position raises a more complex set of questions regarding the political implications of artistic expression. Public controversies over such depictions often serve as ideological flashpoints that reveal the national politics of cultural production. They are flashpoints precisely because they invoke or unsettle significant national sentiments about social and cultural issues.

Phoolan Devi’s attempt to stop the screening of Bandit Queen hit a chord in part because it intersected with national debates on public norms about gender. Bandit Queen provoked a sharp debate on the representation of rape in the film. Kapur’s use of nudity in representing the rapes was particularly unusual in the context of existing genres of popular Hindi and regional cinema at the time. One of the deeper ethical quandaries that the film raised was whether the attempt to break silences about the violence of rape was inadvertently recolonising Phoolan Devi by depicting her as a passive rape victim. This question has no easy answer. The effects of such a depiction are contingent as much on the audience’s reception as they are on the film’s substantive strategies of depiction.

However, such contingencies of audience and strategy are also now located within a highly globalised market for the authentic stories that depict the real life of individuals. The life stories of subaltern figures in the context of this market risk becoming the raw material for public consumption in ways that raise troubling ethical questions. In effect, the endeavour to unmask or make visible socio-economic relations that marginalise certain social groups may produce a new form of economic and cultural extraction. At one level, this may take place financially (whether subjects are given financial compensation in depictions of their lives and struggles for social justice). At a deeper level, there are more complex questions regarding the emotional and ideological labour extracted from the subaltern subject. In a globalised age of cultural consumption, in what ways have we become accustomed to safely consuming the “authentic” stories of subaltern groups’ hardships and struggles for survival? The stakes are heightened by the global reach of the Bollywood industry.

These issues have long haunted Western and global processes of cultural production and consumption. Slumdog Millionaire, for example, sought to portray the realism of poverty in India both by filming large portions of the film in Mumbai’s well-known slums and by using child actors who are actual residents of Dharavi. Despite the film’s  success, the child actors continued to reside in the same conditions. Meanwhile, the success of the film with middle-class audiences in the US was intimately linked to the desires of a fragile American middle class for an authentic depiction of poverty that could safely be projected onto a subaltern figure in an “other” cultural and national context. Thus the child actors provided a form of emotional labour that eased the economic and social anxieties of an American middle class facing the prospects of its own decline.

The ethical and political issues surrounding a film such as Gulab Gang thus extend far beyond the specific facts around legality and accuracy. After all, there is never any simple or unmediated access to the reality of someone’s life. Rather, the controversy calls for deeper reflection on the relationship of extraction that often places the economic, cultural and emotional labour of the subaltern at the heart of national and global cultural production.

The writer is Glenda Dickerson Collegiate Professor of Women’s Studies at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, US

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