We are, as Salman Rushdie has said, storytelling animals, the only species we know of that uses stories as a way of understanding ourselves. Nation states, those artificial entities that we derive such a disproportionate sense of identity from, are first and foremost, narratives.
The story that we tell ourselves is that in the 21st century, India is a country on the cusp of greatness. It’s a relentlessly upbeat narrative that we, India’s English-speaking middle and upper classes, need, in order to convince ourselves that we are modern people living in a modern society.
We look to popular culture for validation and find what we’re looking for. This isn’t surprising. Purveyors of popular culture know their audiences and, in turn, seek the validation of ratings points and revenues.
Into this la-la-land of elites talking to themselves, living in denial about the brutal hierarchies of caste, class and gender, comes a kick in the teeth, in the form of the recently-released Marathi film Sairat.
Directed by Nagraj Manjule, Sairat is a hauntingly well-told story of how all the symbols and accoutrements of modernity — confident young women who ride motorcycles, love that transcends boundaries of caste and class, jobs that allow young people from the villages to forget their feudal identities and construct new ones amidst the anonymity and opportunity of the big city — are not enough to escape the medieval rules of a stratified and misogynistic country.
Recent films that tell the story of India from the bottom up, including Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, have been described in these columns as “anthems of aspiration” (IE, May 3, 2016) that reinforce the PM’s hard-to-argue-with assertion that vikas is the only answer for India’s downtrodden.
Seen through a different lens however, these subaltern films (Fandry, Masaan, Ozhivu Divasathe Kali, Sairat) are cries of desperation against a feudal and patriarchal order that refuses to go away. They tell us that development cannot take place in a socio-cultural vacuum.
And that unless the rigid structures of caste, class and gender that destroy the oppressed in our society are named, shamed, and dismantled, vikas is not going to reach those who most need it.
Perhaps what films like Masaan and Sairat are saying is that the light at the end of the tunnel is still a mirage. Both films feature female protagonists (Devi and Archana) who have been raised differently from generations past. Both reflect the reality of a changing India where some of the world’s worst rates of female foeticide and infanticide notwithstanding, girls are being raised less unequally as compared to boys, where girls are being educated in increasing numbers, and made capable of achieving financial self-sufficiency. So far, so good. This narrative fits well with the modern identity we want to applaud and be applauded for.
However, both stories ultimately deliver a much more sinister message. They warn today’s young Indian woman, that no matter how educated or capable she is, the rules of a patriarchal society cannot be transgressed. They warn her, that if she dares to believe that her sexuality can be delinked from her family’s honour, then she is wrong. And they show her the force with which patriarchy can deliver punishments of social stigma, shame and violence. They tell her, that in order to survive after breaking the rules of a feudal society, she has to go into exile (Devi to Allahabad and Archana to Hyderabad). They tell her that she can run, but never hide.
Everyone loves a narrative of aspiration, empowerment, and development. But without a concomitant movement that shuns majoritarian impulses and works to dismantle age-old structures of oppression rooted in gender and caste, vikas that is inclusive and enduring will remain a pipe dream.