After a four-decade-long First Day First Show addiction, I gave up watching Hindi films a few years ago. Many big budget releases now only serve as a piercing orchestra for the government. Recently, a film that distorted history even got tax breaks and gung-ho endorsements from top politicians.
But if Hindi cinema has chosen to play the part of bigoted uncle or the friend who ducks when she sees ‘bad news’, filmmakers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala have pulled their weight and spoken up through their work.
Tamil anti-caste films invariably crush any lingering romantic ideals one might harbour about this country. They spotlight the extraordinary lives of Indians that nobody cares about in compelling narratives that force you to cede space. The Malayalam film industry itself is misogynistic but its new wave cinema burrows where none dare to go: in the hearts and minds of Indian women. Two recent films tackled abortion, contraception and a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.
“Political awareness, debate, questioning of policy, speaking truth to power are in the DNA of the culture in Kerala. Both the filmmaking community and the audience treat it as par for the course,” says Smriti Kiran, creative producer and curator. “Thrilling and compelling narratives with a spine give voice to our own state of being, without being dull.” She believes this is the key reason Malayalam cinema has easily hurdled over the state’s border.
Apart from filmmakers, the tribe of modern-day dissenters is also made up of artists, musicians and students. In this piece I examine a new Malayalam film that draws its title from the Constitution and an Assam-based lawyer who fights pro bono against unjust citizenship laws to uphold constitutional values. Both are emblematic of the idea that one person is plenty.
The power of one is reflected not just in the way we have been governed for the past eight years and how our society has mutated, but also in the way scores of individuals have pushed back.
Whether in film or in real life, the importance of the individual in driving change is a counterpoint to the idea now being propagated by the government and its ideologues: that everyone must listen, obey and do their ‘duties’, that this is an era for ‘rights’ to take second place.
A new Malayalam release 19(1)(a)—the article that outlines our right to freedom of speech in the Constitution—tells the story of one woman’s awakening to an Indian reality: speaking up can kill you.
The unnamed protagonist of this story inhabits an easily recognisable world where women make life decisions such as marriage not because they are okay with it but because everyone around them is okay with it, and because it’s easier to ‘obey than object’.
Her life revolves around her scooter and her shop, National Printers and Photostat, where she runs through the motions of xeroxing notes for lazy students or printing exam papers for former professors. She drinks endless cups of black tea and minds her own business and her four grey hair, until a customer hands her a manuscript to xerox and says he will return to pick it up.
When he is murdered, she finds out that he was a dissenting writer, Gauri Shankar—a character clearly inspired by Gauri Lankesh, the fierce Hindutva critic and writer who was gunned down at her home in Bengaluru in 2017. In the film, a news channel reports that another progressive writer was similarly killed, a likely reference to the murders of rationalists MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, and Govind Pansare. Another writer calls it an “undeclared emergency”, a phrase we’ve heard so often in recent years that one lawyer even wrote a book about it.
Now our unnamed protagonist is in possession of the only copy of Shankar’s unpublished manuscript. What will she do with it? The film opts to go the deep rather than dramatic route as she embarks on a quiet, contemplative journey that will change her forever.
He formalised this effort in 2019 by setting up the Justice and Liberty Initiative, which has provided pro bono legal aid to those whose citizenship has been questioned under new rules. “We are also working for the right to shelter by challenging eviction notices and seeking rehabilitation of evicted people,” he says. “Tough times here in Assam.”
In the last 12 months, Wadud and his team have challenged 64 orders where people have been declared foreigners. His intervention has helped release some from detention centres that house ‘foreigners’. His team convinced the Supreme Court to ease the mandatory 3-year-detention rule and two security bonds of Rs 1 lakh each. “The SC reduced the detention period to 2 years because of which more than 350 people have been released till now,” Wadud says.
Directing his energy and attention to work has proved to be the most effective way to beat the “anger, outrage and stress” that he feels about this time in history. “I just keep on working,” he says. “Either I am doing this or I am not doing this, and if I am doing this I can’t play victim.”
He’s driven by two things. “The violation of our constitutional rights is so gross and so apparent and the suffering of people is so heartbreaking that any person who has regard for values, rights and founding concepts like justice, equality, fraternity would do what I am doing,” he says, adding that his determination to do this work is powered by the suffering and utter helplessness of people around him, many of them older than his father. “I can’t think of looking away.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.