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Despair And Hope Of The Mahadiga

By Chandrabhan Prasad

08 September, 2004
The Pioneer

The very idea of a Suresh Lele in a Dalit Film Festival might sound utterly ridiculous. But such is the Dalit condition in India. Lele's film Mahadiga was screened at the Cochin International Film Festival (CIFF) held between August 6 and 12. Contrasting the Dalit situation in India with the Blacks of the US can be interesting. While CIFF began on August 6, where a Dalit filmmaker got the opportunity to screen his film, another film festival had just ended on August 5, in the city of Newark in the US.

Beginning June 30, the Fleet Newark Black Film Festival (FNBFF) concluded on August 8, a 40-day exercise, where dozens of Black filmmakers competed for best film, actor, director and soundtrack awards. The FNBFF was celebrating its 30th anniversary, indicating that the annual exercise had begun in 1974. I understand that the FNBFF is not alone, there are many more similar agencies hosting Black film festivals all across the US.

Will there be a Dalit film festival, say by 2020? By our standards, that would be a milestone in the history of the Dalit movement, albeit half a century behind the Black movement.

It would be in order to state here that the first Black film The Railroad Porter was made in 1912, directed by Bill Foster, a pioneering Black filmmaker. The first Black film production company Lincoln Motion Pictures was founded in 1915. The first full length Black sound films were Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah, both made in 1929.

The first modern film was Odds Against Tomorrow made by Harry Belafonte in 1959. Hattie McDaniel was the first Black woman to receive an Oscar in 1940 for her supporting role in Gone with the Wind and the first Black male to receive an Academy Award for best Actor was Sidney Poitier for his performance in Lilies of the Field in 1963. Today of course there are hundreds of Black filmmakers, all professionals in their field.

By Black American standards, the Dalit situation in India is at best a "fiction".

I do not know many Dalit filmmakers. My own nephew Pankaj K Pracheta, a trained filmmaker, makes small documentaries, often for private producers. And there is Suresh Lele of Andhra Pradesh, whose first film Mahadiga I had the opportunity to watch. There could be a few more. But I do not know.

The American Blacks and Indian Dalits have identical legacies of exclusion, suffering and rebellion. Both have identical aspirations of freedom, dignity and equality. The goal is far from being achieved but in relation to the Blacks, the Dalit situation remains pathetic.

Films and newspapers and the TV media largely shape public opinion. How amazing it is to note that there is not a single Dalit Film Festival? Which means portrayal of the Dalit world is left to the mercy of non-Dalits.

Watching Mahadiga, a film produced by Chindu, a Hyderabad-based Dalit Cultural Resource Centre and co-directed by Suresh Lele, a Dalit culture theorist, and his colleague Sabrina Francis is like a march through the bylanes of Dalit history.

Though in Telugu, the film has excellent English subtitles and narrates the Madiga (a major Dalit sub-caste, historically engaged in leather work) life with complete artistic passion. The film begins with: "...I am the Madiga. No! I am Mahadiga. The man descending from above."

Lele uses Dappu, a musical instrument, to narrate the life of the Mahadiga. This itself is a very high form of imaginative genius. The narrative through the song form makes the viewer stand still, in terms of his/her imaginative existence.

For instance, while warming up Dappu, the maker thunders: "I am the sacrificial fire, I smoulder in the fires of hell and the smile of flowers! I am the thunder of Dappu".

About Mahadiga children, the film centres on the deepest corner of human imaginary: "I am the mutinous child of the caste system. I am a magic-child of the demon. I move fast to seek the evil uncertain."

Mahadiga is a 42-minute film one must watch, not only to understand Madiga life in totality - the suffering, the happiness, despair and hope - but to also understand what difference a Dalit filmmaker can make.

One little caution though, untouchables have little reason to be nostalgic, but the film moves in that direction.

Hope the Dalits go on to have many more Leles. And it will be glorious day when the Dalits organise a Dalit Film Festival, the way FNBFF did lasting 40 days.






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