By Drishadwati Bargi
In Indian cinema, we have encountered morally ambiguous lovers before. In Vishal Bharadwaj’s 2004 classic Maqbool, we see a relentlessly scheming Nimmi (played by the inimitable Tabu), flirting and courting with her lover/patron’s aide, treacherously aiding the former’s murder, and unleashing a tragedy that ultimately consumes everyone. We have seen the same cold-blooded calculative nature in O Nir’s 2010 film I Am, where a queer man appropriates an abusive relationship with his stepfather through low-key blackmails and turns this into a principle of his romantic life, until a moment of reckoning happens with his mother. What is new about Netflix’s Geeli Pucchi (Wet Kisses) is perhaps the emplotment of the same on a Dalit woman who works as an assembly line worker, faces discrimination because of her caste, and finally avenges this very normalized exclusion. She achieves this by manipulating out the only other female employee, Priya Sharma; a savarna woman, in an unapologetically male-dominated workplace. A cursory glance at social media shows that the short-film has won the hearts of many, not least because of Neeraj Ghaywan’s (director) and Jyoti Nisha’s (assistant director) deft representation of caste discrimination at workplace in contemporary India. Those who do not care much about the authenticity that Ghaywan and Jyoti Nisha’s Dalit-Bahujan identity brings to the film, have found their love in the brilliant performance of Konkona Sen Sharma as Bharati Mandal, whose talent has pretty much overshadowed the more subdued Aditi Rao Hydari as Priya Sharma. Indeed, so positive is the response, and so neat is the separation between the two types of receptions, pessimists like me begin to suspect an invisible marketing strategy, a well-planned reconciliatory gesture that may have overdetermined the plot, the casting and the dialogues. But then, we cannot expect a young Dalit-filmmaker to fight all the battles, especially given Hindi and Indian film industry’s shoddy history of Dalit employmentGhaywan interviewed by Sukanya Santha “On Why his Job Call Seeks Bahujan Talent” The Wire 13/Sept/ 2019. and Dalit representationSiddharth, Jyotsna “Geeli Pucchi is a lesson in Intersectional, Inclusive Film-making” in The Quint 22 April, 2021.. Perhaps, a savarna woman actor was indeed needed for the film in order to attract a sizeable number of audience. Perhaps, certain things (like stating that Mandal is a Dalit surname) needed to be made obvious to an audience that refuses to acknowledge caste, unless it is mediated by the visible presence of another savarna, whose undeniably upper-class and cultured Bengali identity, and no doubt accent reassuringly resists any resemblance with the image of someone like Mayawati, the first visibly Dalit woman politician of India. Admittedly, these are some of the inevitable constraints that come with the industry, and one cannot overturn these through one production alone.
My concern in this article is with the character Bharati Mandal. It is undeniable that coming up with the idea of a Dalit lesbian assembly line worker is a revolutionary feat, in it-self, given the total absence of this complex subjectivity in Indian films. Yet, because of its newness, it provokes you to ask, what is queer about Bharati Mandal? or what makes her a Dalit character? The term Dalit is historically connected with resistance, a resistance predicated on the successful act of re-writing and re-signifying an old word, which when uttered and claimed by someone, connotes a force. It is not a neutral utterance. In the Indian context, it has been quite the opposite. It is partisanal. It makes a claim on behalf of a historically oppressed community. Hearing this word on the screen and seeing it being uttered by a character is not insignificant. It reveals the film’s unapologetic Dalit assertion. This is where the film’s mood is different from that of Masaan (The Crematorium), Ghaywan’s first film. There, the politics was less obvious. Deepak, a young Dalit man mourning the accidental death of his girlfriend, a savarna woman, was not as indurated as Bharati. He was vulnerable. His helpless, adolescent cry, “saala, yeh dookh kahain khatam nahin hota, be!” (“Why doesn’t the pain end!”) draws the audience towards him, because the inchoate cry made the pain seem universal. As an audience, you would want to reach out to the young man and console him. His separation becomes yours. This cinematic cultivation of empathy is not insignificant when Dalit men are regularly killed for loving savarna women. Hence, the empathy that this vulnerability elicits is political. It is antidote to the collective indifference to hate-crimes that targets Dalits as a community, irrespective of gender.
Not so with Bharati Mandal, the young Dalit lesbian assembly line worker. She resists any empathetic gaze. Instead, you will be forced to hate her by the end of the film. And this complete absence of expression of vulnerability and the resultant refusal of empathy for the Dalit woman is not insignificant for a narrative that claims allegiance to feminism, queer and Dalit politics.“Its Intersectional”, Neeraj Ghaywan on caste-class conflict in Ajeeb Dastaans, PTI. The Indian Express. 13/Apr/2021. Nor is the mood of intense dislike and hatred that you are led into. For instance, the lover’s presence does not affect her. She is always in perfect control of her emotions. Her body remains closed. When she is offered food by her for the first time, (a strangely uncharacteristically innocent gesture for a savarna woman), she refuses the offer. This trope is repeated later in the film; when she accepts the food with a little hesitation. Like the perfect soldier, she fights her battle, silently and secretly, all alone, with dogged determination. She proudly rejects the other Dalit employee Dashrath’s fearful counsel and separates herself from him. When a male worker slaps her, she relentlessly punches him. When the superintendent tries to intervene, she asks him to ignore it. At no point, does she let her lover become part of her battle. The two NEVER become one. Unlike films like Sairat (Manjule 2016) and Fandry (Manjule 2013), where the heterosexual couple fight the caste order as ONE, here there is no such cross-caste solidarity. At the end of the narrative, she successfully gets the position she had been denied due to her caste. This is a moment of triumph and resistance. Perhaps, this is what intensifies the film as a Dalit narrative.
But can we ignore the means of her struggle for the end it achieves? Can we simply let go of the fact that what enables her triumph and resistance is another woman’s pregnancy? Especially, when we know that pregnancy in the everyday functioning of the capitalistThakur “Ajeeb Dastaans Review” The Wire 19/Apr/2021. workplace is perceived as an incapacity, an interruption. Why? Because for any industry to survive, production must go on. We are told that a wound or pain in the worker’s body is practically a loss of production time. And what is pregnancy to a worker’s body? A state of vulnerability, dependence, hunger, mood-swings, lack of control perhaps! Hence the rationale behind Ambedkar’s legislation of Maternity Benefit BillTeam Ambedkarite Today “Ambedkar’s Role in “Maternity Benefit Act” and “Equal Pay for Equal Work” in Ambedkaritetoday.com 12/2019 (date not available). for all coal mine workers, which acknowledged the gendered difference among the workers, and in effect made Ambedkar an ally in the struggle against patriarchy. I am evoking this Ambedkarite recognition of the needs of working women in the workplace to point at the former’s regard for vulnerability in the battle against inequality and discrimination, something that we witnessed in Masaan. However, in Geeli Pucchi, vulnerability is somehow otherized. It is located and contained in the savarna woman’s body, the antagonist and the instrument of Dalit woman’s resistance. Once humiliated, Bharati gives up on love. Indeed, the plot would suggest that if she did not, she would cease to be the triumphant soldier in her battle. She nonchalantly lets Priya know that she had had a miscarriage in the past, and that she had been abandoned by her husband, a fate shared by many Dalit women in India. Indeed, one begins to ask if this is indeed what the figure of the Dalit lesbian stands for at the end? The solitary, secretive fighter, who must not publicly express her pain, and hence must cry and mourn away from the gaze or ear of the world. For instance, she cries secretly in the workplace after she is refused to participate in Priya’s birthday celebration because of her caste. During these moments she hardly faces the camera. After crying, she ties her shoes with her eyes resolutely focused on her shoelaces. In another scene, she cries in her room when she misses her lover. Here too, we do not meet her gaze. Then she offers this very room, her only place of mourning and playing (with her dog) to the lover/friend Priya so that the latter can have sex with her husband and conceive a baby. As Priya is discouraged to join her workplace after pregnancy, Bharati opportunistically takes her place and gets her much awaited promotion, something that had been denied to her because of her caste.
Capitalist patriarchal workplaces demand invulnerable and productive bodies, and the humiliated Dalit woman delivers it, by ruthlessly barricading herself from pain, mourning, friendship or love. The narrative ends with Bharati sipping tea with Priya’s family from a cup that is clearly different from that of the rest of the members of the family. Priya’s family members address her respectfully (as Bharatiji) even when they serve her tea in a separate teacup. This time she accepts this humiliation, but with the secret pride of a person who has broken the caste-norms of a workplace. Like her secret and separate battle, this pride remains hers alone, completely beyond the recognition of the savarna family that admits her into their drawing room only to serve her tea in a separate cup, and her friend/lover who realizes that her pregnancy had been but an instrument in Bharati’s plan. Perhaps it is symptomatic of a capitalist patriarchal workplace that a Dalit woman’s battle against caste must remain separate, unshareable and incommunicable. Masaan’s Deepak had the comforting presence of his male friends when he uttered, “Saala, yeh dookh kahain khatam nahin hota, be!” Geeli Pucchi’s Bharati Mandal has only her own self to share her grief and anger.
Perhaps, this is where the importance of Dalit cinema and all art in general lies. It lets us share and communicate what is otherwise impossible in real life. No, we cannot empathize with Bharati because she does not solicit empathy. There is something repulsive and indeed frightening about the way she instrumentalizes her personal emotions for the sake of a position in the factory, a position that is denied to her due to work-place’s bias against Dalits. Yet, this very silence, loneliness, and the self’s recoil onto itself is represented by art. Art witnesses the collapse of solidarity, communication, and friendship that capitalist workplace mandates in the embattled lives of many Bharati Mandals in contemporary India. I would like to thank Shalmali Jadav and Paulami Sharma for personal conversations and film-maker Rajesh Rajamani for our Facebook communication.This essay was originally published on Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes.
|Ghaywan interviewed by Sukanya Santha “On Why his Job Call Seeks Bahujan Talent” The Wire 13/Sept/ 2019.
|Siddharth, Jyotsna “Geeli Pucchi is a lesson in Intersectional, Inclusive Film-making” in The Quint 22 April, 2021.
|“Its Intersectional”, Neeraj Ghaywan on caste-class conflict in Ajeeb Dastaans, PTI. The Indian Express. 13/Apr/2021.
|Thakur “Ajeeb Dastaans Review” The Wire 19/Apr/2021.
|Team Ambedkarite Today “Ambedkar’s Role in “Maternity Benefit Act” and “Equal Pay for Equal Work” in Ambedkaritetoday.com 12/2019 (date not available).
|I would like to thank Shalmali Jadav and Paulami Sharma for personal conversations and film-maker Rajesh Rajamani for our Facebook communication.
|This essay was originally published on Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes.