Changing Perceptions of Criminality Through Cinema

Director Dakxin Chhara Bajrange, in Sameer, chooses to tell a story that is ostensibly not his to tell – one about anti-Muslim violence.

It is quite likely that the average person’s perception of a denotified tribal (DNT) is either that they are habitual criminals or that they are often in the news, accused in various criminal cases.

If you are a police officer, you may even have read that they are ‘born criminals’ as per the training manuals still in use in India. So, it might surprise you to learn that an upcoming Bollywood film is made by a Chhara – Dakxin Chhara Bajrange. There is a lesson to be learned from this. A lesson about how state power fabricates our perceptions of people around us and makes it difficult for us to perceive a Chhara as anything but criminal. Think about your surprise. It might give you a glimpse into one of the key themes of Bajrange’s creative work – the pervasive ways in which state power incites divisiveness and violence through the perceptions it generates. His politics and creative work has unfolded in the course of directing plays in Budhan Theatre, the Chhara community’s political theatre troupe based in Chharanagar, Ahmedabad. And this is the political sensibility that he brings to his first feature film Sameer, releasing across theatres in India on September 8. The film reaches a mainstream Bollywood audience but unlike the standard fare, it aims to make people question the world around them rather than accept it as is.

We might have expected a Chhara’s first feature film to tell a story about state violence against Chharas or at least about denotified tribals. Or broadly about the tribal or Adivasi identity. That would affirm our sense of what motivates a Chhara to make a film. But Sameer is about terrorism, encounter killings, Hindu-Muslim violence and Anti-Terrorist Squads. The main character, Sameer Memon (played wonderfully by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), who was mistakenly taken into Anti-Terrorist Squad custody in a quest to find the culprit behind serial bomb blasts.

Why is a Chhara making such a film? State power, combined with widespread perceptions of movements such as Chipko and Narmada Bachao Andolan, to give us an image of besieged adivasis under water, fighting to protect their forests and sacred mountains. These are surely the relentless struggles of the Adivasi people, for land, forests and water, overrun by corporate interests in this country and others. But what are the struggles of the urban Adivasi in India? How many of us even have a picture of them in our mind?

Some directors, like Bajrange, making powerful films like Sameer, help us broaden our understanding of Adivasi struggles. And Sameer is a community-based film – from the director to the actors in it as well as the promotional process of the film. Word about the film has spread on its own momentum across DNT communities in India.

Bajrange has made a number of documentary films before this – most recently Birth 1871 – about the British Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 that listed Chharas among hundreds of other communities as habitual criminals – the stigma of which continues even today.  Some of Bajrange’s theatrical adaptations for Budhan Theatre – such as Jean Genet’s The Balcony and Dario Fo’s The Accidental Death of an Anarchist – are poignant accounts of state violence in agrarian displacement and riots, but also its infiltration in performance and community-building itself.

Significantly, Sameer continues what Budhan Theatre has always done – address the internal struggles within communities. National School of Drama-trained Chhara, Alok Gagdekar, who plays the role of the wise street theatre artist, Manto in Sameer, previously adapted a Mahasweta Devi story for his play Choli Ke Picchhe Kya Hain to confront issues of gender inequality and autonomy inciting self-reflection among Chharas.

Sameer continues the Budhan Theatre and Dakxin Chhara tradition of being committed, not just to reflecting community histories of pain and stigma, but constructing the community itself through their creative work. They do this in part, through an intense and hyper-realistic approach to depicting the everyday and extraordinary pain of violent histories and experiences. A few of the depictions in Sameer may strike some as excessive. But that’s the point – some communities don’t get to look away from pain. Not every artiste is compelled to imagine and tell stories onstage or onscreen that are charged with the proximate possibility of their children’s death in life – but history compels Bajrange to do just that.

Rather than tell a tale that will enable the state to put the Chhara in a museum or showcase their DNT talent for next year’s Republic Day parade, with Sameer, Bajrange breaks the silence. As he puts it, “When there is silence, somebody has to speak.”

Chhara identity politics as far as Bajrange is concerned is mobilising the particularities of Chhara historical experiences against the vast reality of state violence. This amounts to the recognition that African American scholar Barnor Hesse notes as: “All politics is identity politics. Politics creates the identity it mobilises.

For Bajrange, the Indian state’s identity politics is mobilised through perceptions that incite and entrench divisions, hatred and violence among disenfranchised communities as a means to secure upper caste, patriarchal and capitalist state power. Bajrange mobilises a fight against this entrenchment, by grounding his struggle within and beyond Chhara histories.

As is well known, the Hindu Right has successfully mobilised DNTs, Adivasis and Dalits in its anti-Muslim violence. Anti-Muslim violence is thus an intimately and intensely experienced DNT tale. State power has made it so. But state power also continues to project the idea that anti-Muslim violence is not a DNT story but a Muslim one. It is this identity politics that Bajrange rejects. He instead, chooses to tell a tale that is ostensibly not his to tell – Muslims suspected of being terrorists – by showing us the ways in which the state’s power to construct divisive violence among disenfranchised communities has made it his tale to tell.

It is no wonder that he faced trouble from the censor board that disallowed the use of the phrase ‘mann ki baat’ in the film. Perhaps they are worried about an onscreen representation of the culpability of our off-screen upper caste Hindu state. The state is rapidly securing monopoly control of our vision and ability to know criminality and terrorism when we see it – a monopoly that works relentlessly to obscure and yet, make ordinary its own criminality and terrorism. Sameer is a courageous gift to Indians – which challenges this monopoly.

If it has a number of lessons for disenfranchised communities, its lessons for the deeply privileged, who gain dividends from silence in the face of violent state histories, is even greater. The film shows us that there is no community-building without acknowledging one’s privilege and complicity, without forgiveness and solidarity work.

Dia Da Costa is the author of Politicising Creative Economy: Activism and a Hunger Called Theatre.