So says one of the Nats, a community of street performers in eastern India, featured in the documentary King of India. As itinerant performers existing on the margins of society, the Nats pass through the markets, street corners and fairs of metropolitan India, eeking out a living by putting on shows. Another day, another dirty slab of concrete, another set of headstands and tightrope walking. Possessing the dual charms of athleticism and cuteness, the child performers grind out their show several times a day, hoping to bring in enough rupees to keep their family afloat. The kids’ energetic dance and acrobat routines are driven by rhythms pounded out an old drum and tin plate rattling against the ground. Squint your eyes, muffle your ears and maybe you might mistake it for a big ticket Bollywood number. Or maybe not. The dust and desperation of these children is the Un-Bollywood. The throbbing beats and gyrating hips filtered through the dusty melange of Kolkata’s backstreets offers us a different story altogether.
The King of India is just one of several films about India and South Asia that were screening at the 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival in Taichung. These depictions of struggle are far removed from the all-singing, all-dancing entertainment juggernaut that is Bollywood. In addition to King of India, I also saw Dreaming Taj Mahal and three of the Journeys with Kabir tetralogy.
Dreaming Taj Mahal tells the story of a Pakistani driver, Haidar, whose lifelong dream is to visit India’s Taj Mahal. Frustrated by small-minded village life, government propaganda and the semipermeable membrane of the Indo/Pak border, Haidar never gives up his dream of visiting the Taj. He lives in a world where fear of the Other conspires to trap him. The restrictive duality based on Hindu and Muslim differences that shapes Indo/Pak relations is nothing new though, Kabir had already dealt with similar issues in an altogether different era.
Kabir was a poet who lived 500 years ago in India and the Journeys with Kabir films look at his contested legacy. Kabir sought a more inclusive society through religious tolerance. His poems have long existed in an oral tradition and are kept alive in many different ways. The director, Shabnam Virmani, stated “the more people I meet, the more Kabirs I meet”. Almost everyone seems to have a different interpretation of Kabir’s poems, from the universal view of the protagonist, Dalit (untouchable) folk musician Prahlad Tipanya, to the more dogmatic and exclusivist position of some of the pundits and experts met on the roads and rails of India. The Journeys with Kabir films offer a probing look into the forces that shape contemporary India, from communalism to globalisation, with an ever-present folk soundtrack. For fans of Indian folk music, the Kabir movies are worth watching for the extensive concert footage alone.
These stories are given time to unfold and are uncluttered, especially Journeys with Kabir. The characters have space to talk, to let their feelings flow. The ambient (and not so ambient) sounds of India reverberate throughout – car horns, train station announcements, heated finger-waving discussions. The India shown here is the flipside of years of economic development. Those in the village and those who have moved from the village to the city in search of a better life aren’t shown to be sharing in the spoils of India’s growth. They survive in a world where the politics of caste continue to shape one’s destiny.
As opposed to the glitzy glamour Bollywood, these movies are better seen in the context of subaltern studies. Writers in the subaltern studies group have long attempted to give a voice to those who are neglected by most historical accounts, an approach that can be equally applied to film.
For several decades writers from the subaltern studies group have been generating a view of history that locates the place of minority, repressed or low class people within the context of post-colonial societies. The work of these writers can help explain how the lower castes remain on the fringes of Indian history. Evolving from the work of Antonio Gramsci, subaltern refers to non-elite or subordinated groups. A large number of groups have this status in India as they are marginalised by their caste or other socio-economic factors. According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the existence of the subaltern is an unavoidable product of the discourse generated by elites. This discourse in India has been primarily concerned with the democratic progress towards modernity and is found in the media and history books. The subaltern is thus “marginalized not because of any conscious intentions but because they represent moments or points at which the archive that the historian mines develops a degree of intractability with respect to the aims of professional history”.
The characters in these movies all occupy the role of the subaltern. Be it the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, the struggle for equality for the lower castes or the ferocious forces of globalisation that threaten to leave large portions of the Indian population behind as the country modernises, these events are so large that the voices of the marginalised can be easily drowned out. Watching the Indian selection from the 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival won’t necessarily be an entertaining couple of hours, but it will be eye opening. The frustrations of the characters in these movies say so much more about the unfortunate reality of so many in India than your average Bollywood extravaganza could ever hope to.
You can watch the Journeys with Kabir tetralogy at http://www.cultureunplugged.com/
 Gyatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography” in Ranajit Guha (editor), Subaltern Studies IV, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.
 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts” in Saurabh Dube (editor), Postcolonial Passages: Contemporary History-writing on India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004.
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|Written by : Paul Farrelly
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