In Narratives of Gendered Dissent in South Asian Cinemas, Alka Kurian appraises dissent in cinema narratives and takes received categories of art/parallel and commercial/popular films as given, rather than worthy of further investigation. Conventional ideas about high/low or alternative/commercial cinema have been destabilised in cinema scholarship since at least the last two decades of the 20th century. For instance, art films could be critiqued for affirming the status quo just as much dissent could be found in what might for long have been considered an unlikely place: popular cinema. Dissent in popular films might point to the politics of the everyday, symbolic of deeper fault lines, and often somewhat incredibly, battles fought and won by individual heroes. Much of these developments in reading strategies have to do with revisions about redistributing the power and locus of making meaning in films. A reader might therefore take issue with focusing on art, parallel, and a few crossover-film narratives as the exclusive provenance of dissent. Kurian, however, takes up narratives in cultural work deemed art cinema, rooted exclusively and explicitly in Southasian radical political mobilisation and social movements that erupted in the second half of the 20thcentury.
Dissent and outright rebellion in film narratives about leftwing mobilisation in the 1950s and 60s, rightwing mobilisation in the 1990s, ethnic liberation movements, and migration to Britain are creatively selected in thematically aggregated chapters. Kurian’s close analysis turns a spotlight on women’s figuration in mainly feature films and two documentaries tied to key postcolonial struggles since the mid-twentieth century. The films she selects are marked by local-global dynamics affecting Southasian politics and culture: anti-feudal organisation and insurrection, flashpoints in the Indian left movement, the Naxalite uprising, state actors trucking with religious fundamentalists in Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogrom, Pakistan decreeing itself an Islamic state, the Sri Lankan secessionist liberation movement’s guerrilla tactics, and the Southasian diaspora’s experience in Britain. Kurian picks these political skeins to stage her analysis of select film narratives – no mean task – providing an exemplary model for interdisciplinary scholarship that draws on contemporary literary, historical, cultural, subaltern, and diasporic studies under the rubric of postcolonial academic discourse on Southasia.
In considering caste and patriarchy that Nishaant stages, Kurian invokes Dalit feminist literature and criticism. This highlights tensions with mainstream, predominantly upper-caste feminists, suspect for ignoring caste politics, and mainstream feminist scholarship, faulted for “elitist fetishization”. Dalit and upper-caste women’s sexual slavery inNishaant exposes Dalit male powerlessness against feudal lords, contrasting with notions of sexual pollution associated with upper-caste women, victims of abduction or domestic neglect in the case of the feudal wife character featured. Kurian faults the film for failing to affirm cross-class women’s alliance against a common state of sexual enslavement, although she somewhat contradictorily concludes the chapter by acknowledging the Dalit feminist movement’s suspicion of and distance from its upper-caste counterpart.
Kurian charges conventional historiography and films representing the 1960s Maoist-inspired Naxalite uprising in Bengal of excluding peasant, Adivasi, and women’s participation, in favour of a delimited metropolitan, middle-class and masculine focus that valourises urban males as heroes. Representation in three of the films Kurian takes up offer the necessary corrective to academic discourse’s erasure of urban women’s participation in the Naxalite movement, as well as the role of peasants and Adivasis. In Hazaar Chuarasi Ki Maa (Mother of 1084, Govind Nihalani 1998, hereafterHCKM) based on Mahashweta Devi’s novel of the same name, Sujata, a grief stricken middle-class mother’s political “awakening” from somnolence after finding out about her Naxalite son’s killing in a police encounter. Sujata is inspired to rebel in her private life by discovering the grieving mother of her son’s lower-class friend, as well as her son’s party-activist girlfriend. She is spurred beyond domesticity to a public life, fighting for human rights. In Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Thousand Desires Like This, Sudhir Mishra 2003, hereafter HKA), set against the same historic moment, the urban, upper-class protagonist, Sidhartha, is a radicalised Delhi college student who joins the Naxalite movement and is followed by an ex-girlfriend, Geeta, after she ends her bourgeois marriage to Arun. Sidhartha finally retreats from the movement, escaping imprisonment through his class connections within the Indian bureaucracy, but his once-skeptical middle-class friend Vijay takes his place and joins Geeta to continue the movement’s work. Kurian overlooks Geeta’s figuration primarily as a love interest (in relation to Sidhartha, Arun, and Vijay) motivating the staple film convention of romantic subplots. Notwithstanding the centrality afforded to Sidhartha’s screen time, Kurian reads Geeta’s role against the film’s grain.
She views Geeta’s trajectory as signifying and acknowledging women’s participation in the movement, something glaringly omitted in academic sources. The narrative arc in HCKM of a “disappeared” or killed son, sibling, or spouse is not uncommon in fictional accounts of insurgencies within the audience’s collective memory (and resonant with the contemporary news media in India’s case). The fictional family member’s journey serves as a pedagogical tool, their point of view eliciting viewer sympathy through the discovery process. Kurian creatively reads HCKM, albeit a fictional representation, as affording a woman’s point of view, filling the gap in historiographical accounts that erase the role of women. This both reminds us of and compensates for the lack of commemoration of women’s participation in the Naxalite movement. If, Kurian seems to argue, historical accounts of the Naxalite movement have mythologised the urban male leader’s role with no place for the urban woman, it may as well be fictional mythologies which accord women that place.
Finally, Kurian regards Lal Salaam (Red Salute, Gaganvihari Borate 2002), as a feature film legitimately figuring peasants and Adivasis as protagonists of their own struggle and a more accurate representation of the Naxalite movement, even if the narrative’s focus is the debate about political strategy. It pits two Adivasi brothers against each other: Kanna (advocating non-violence) and Ghisu and his girlfriend Ripu (ardent Naxalites), supporting the movement’s by-any-means-necessary dictum. Fictional license, of course, allows for freedom from prescriptive narrative arcs or treatment. But the fact that Lal Salaam does not focalise the narrative through urban middle-class subjects as protagonists of the Naxalite movement, featuring instead the constituency directly affected and those constituting the backbone of the movement, certainly bears significance. However, in HKA, class-gender dynamics do not receive even-handed treatment: Kurian argues that Sidhartha “declasses himself”, forgoing opportunities his class status affords him after joining the movement. In the narrative denouement, Sidhartha, not Geeta, returns to his middle-class origin, but deifying Geeta’s choice appears one-sided and misplaced. Kurian’s analysis suggests spurious assumptions about the nature of class belonging and downward mobility. Geeta, like Sidhartha, has the option to access privileges linked to structural features of her class origins, unavailable to other classes she works alongside.
Firaaq foregrounds unusual bonds tying subjects in different social locations as the carnage, killing, and violence rip Hindus and Muslims apart: a victim of domestic violence bonds with a four-year-old Muslim boy, who, emotionless, offers an eyewitness account of his family’s horrific killing; a cloud of suspicion grips a Muslim working-class woman, helped by a female Hindu friend at the risk of her own life. In Final Solution, a Hindu family who lost a loved one in the infamous Godhra train burning incident speaks out against reprisal aimed at innocent Muslims. In Parzania, an American researcher studying Gandhi’s legacy in Gujarat shelters the Parsi mother who loses her son in the mayhem.
The last film exemplifies Kurian’s forceful argument for the need to reclaim portrayals of Hindu identity and represent Hindus as all-inclusive, pluralistic, and tolerant. The films instead represent all Hindus as “barbaric”, failing to adequately include tolerant Hindu majority members who deplore the carnage, and courageously assert “dissident friendships” affirming the potential for Hindu-Muslim amity. Kurian’s pollyannaish faith in the power of such representations transforming communal minds is only offset by her concession that heroic instances of Hindu selflessness, much like the proverbial finger in a dyke, cannot hold back the ferocity of Hindutva men – and women’s – organised brutality. Kurian declares that the critique of Indian secularism associated with elite disavowal of community religious ties, ceding discursive space to religious zealots, is a valid but inadequate appraisal. She proffers an alternative economic logic behind the events: Gujarat, turned into India’s Manchester after its textile mills closed, witnessed high unemployment and an anti-labour international investment friendly New Economic Policy that left large swaths of youth unemployed. Easily swayed by opportunistic rightwing electoral politics, they seized upon scapegoating Muslims and were sanctioned by a post 9/11 climate in which the world turned a blind eye to the genocide in Gujarat.
Kurian examines Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters, Sabiha Sumar 2003) next, a film that marks two important moments in Southasian history: the Partition in 1947, and when Pakistan decreed itself an Islamic state by formally adopting the Objectives Resolution under President Zia-ul-Haq. Visiting the now well-worn grounds of gendered national imaginaries constructed through visions of the nation as the venerated mother, mothers birthing nations, coaxing virile sons to her defense in liberation movements – and then disenfranchising women and daughters who participate – Kurian parses meaning in Khamosh Pani. The protagonist Veero defies her father’s command, refuses to commit suicide to save the family’s honour during Partition, remains in Pakistan, marries her abductor, takes the name Ayesha, converts to Islam, and raises a son. When her brother suddenly returns after thirty years she even refuses his plea to visit their dying father. Kurian explores feminist revisionist histories of Partition – a genre that emerged around the turn of the twenty-first century – that are breaking the silence around families shamed by abduction, rape, and their ambivalence about reclaiming “sexually polluted” women. Khamosh Pani valorises Veero’s agency, her self-determining defiance, refusing submission to patriarchal nationhood. However, when Ayesha’s son, succumbing to US-aided Afghan jihadists’ influence in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, demands she publicly proclaim her Muslim identity, she instead commits suicide by jumping into the family well. Kurian reads this act, too, as one of choice: an agent of her own will, Ayesha refuses to submit to her son or the new Islamic state. This is a provocative reading of a stirring moment of pathos in a narrative ending in defeat, a life doomed by religio-national fanaticism.
Kurian returns to the question of suicide in the following chapter. This time she does so in the context of the tactical use of female suicide bombers as a strategy of organised armed rebellion, the theme of a feature film, The Terrorist(Santosh Sivan 1998) and a documentary, My Daughter the Terrorist (Beate Arnestad 2007). Revolutionary terror, Kurian argues, unequivocally fails to serve the ends of gender equality or justice in national liberation movements. The literature and testimonials on suicide bombing within revolutionary terrorism expose how female subjects escaping poverty and patriarchal circumstances are impelled to join the movement only to submit to the patriarchal and masculinised ethos of an armed movement, which Kurian insists is not a sign of subjective agency. Furthermore, ethnographic studies of these guerrilla movements, Kurian cites, confirm these inequities in the lower compensation the liberation movement pays the martyred girls’ families compared to boys’.
Kurian draws attention to a long-running fault-line in literary studies: the transfer of the authorial voice and its authority. Roland Barthes famously led the way, calling for and claiming readers as the rightful locus of making meaning in texts. Provocatively juxtaposing this claim along with the postcolonial academic discourse in which the representational figuration of the subaltern woman has raised the rhetorical question (a la Gayatri Spivak) if she can speak, Kurian asks what we make of fictional and documentary representations in which the subaltern woman does speak. On the one hand Kurian thinks nothing of roundly endorsing Lal Salaam for peasant self-representation in political movements (albeit an artist/author’s fictional rendition in a feature film), and on the other, questioning the young subaltern women recruits’ speech and interview testimonials in Arnestad’s documentary My Daughter the Terrorist. Countering these female subjects’ claim to acting as independent empowered political agents, Kurian contextualises and reads their choice as misguided, a sad tale of escaping violent circumstances and trading them for disempowering manipulation by masculine leadership.
Nonetheless, on the whole the book adds useful pedagogical material for instructors designing curricula in response to the growing interest in Indian cinema. It can potentially engage students in critical film analysis encompassing a range of issues in contemporary Southasian politics and history. Unmistakably, Kurian argues with passion, does not flinch before thorny political issues, stakes out the literature, voices dis/agreements with other critics with clarity and a certainty that leaves no room for ambiguity or doubt, although some of the time her arguments and readings may seem tautological and at other times contradictory. For example, she may in one instance strongly endorse the female protagonist’s suicide as a self-determining agent (Khamosh Pani) and in another denounce suicide bombing as a tactic of revolutionary terror in organised resistance (My Daughter the Terrorist). She can argue that a woman choosing suicide over acceding to the family is a sign of agency, but that women professing political agency within organised rebellion is not.
Yet the true strength of the work lies in the creative selection of representative films etching violent postcolonial struggles that draw together Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Even more impressive is how Kurian demonstrates inflections in local politics interlinked with and susceptible to global geopolitical pressure points – Pakistan’s Islamisation spurred by the superpowers turning the globe into a chess board during the Cold War; Gujarat’s morphed economy responding to the Washington Consensus and its New Economic Policy igniting scapegoating of Muslims in a climate of post 9/11 Islamophophia; third world conflict zones fuelled by dumping weapon stockpiles sold to child soldiers in Sri Lanka; and using women suicide bombers as cannon fodder to momentarily draw the world media’s attention to social injustice. No single argument exclusively explains the complex politics behind these struggles, but Kurian does a valiant job in drawing together the layered forces at play in seemingly isolated Southasian political conflicts and events.
~ Jyotika Virdi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. She is the author of ‘The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History’ 1947-2000 (2004). Her essays on Indian cinema have been published in ‘Film Quarterly’, ‘Jump Cut’, ‘Screen’, and ‘Visual Anthropology’, and anthologies such as ‘Global Bollywood’ (2008), ’24 Frames’ (2009), and ‘Critical Visions in Film Theory’ (2011), among others.