Seven Islands and a Metro and Manipur: Be Whoever You Want to Be, As Long As You Look Like Us
Earlier this year I was invited to speak at a panel aimed at "young feminists" across South Asia where we talked about our experience of coming of age in the women's movement, who our role models were, how we entered the movement, and how we imagine the future of feminist organizing. I've been to enough of these workshops to comfortably say, the point is to make feminism "less scary" and to end with a catchphrase that can immediately be transposed to a mug, a bag, or a T-shirt. All of these are really clever and accessible ways to talk about feminism, but it becomes a problem when all engagement in feminist politics and organizing is only mediated via products that one can and/or is required to buy. This shift in the idea of feminism is not new, neither is it limited to a group or a class of people—the panel had feminists from across South Asia and most feminism(s) were molding themselves around a politics of desirability, a politics of "inclusion" if you will, so the conversations around "how I should be able to wear whatever I want" were feminist, but questions like, "What happens to the people making my clothes?" were never asked.
This conference isn't out of the ordinary, and there will be many more like it as long as CSR keeps funding them. On another panel on media, speakers were asked to talk about the new feminist media they were creating, endorsing, or recommending, accompanied by a little introduction to the oeuvre. Out of seven films and three poems, two got flagged as "interesting but not entirely feminist" because they "didn't focus on the gender component enough." One was Madhushree Dutta's Seven Islands and a Metro that speaks of a Mumbai from the points of view of its working class, members of different countries and cultures who've long since settled in the city; and another was a (extremely controversial and even banned in some states) documentary called Manipur talking about Manipur's contribution to the national freedom struggle, as well its ongoing struggle against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It's a history we're very good at forgetting. Both documentaries are extremely empathetic to their working-class subjects; Manipur in particular doesn't shy away from showing the police brutality that the Indian State perpetuates.
Seven Islands and a Metro uses Sadat Hassan Manto and Ismat Chughtai as narrators to talk of the city's backbone—window cleaners of huge skyscrapers, women in slums making electrical switches, slum demolition workers, people in the sexual entertainment industry—as the camera lets us see the multitude of cultures that have somehow managed to find themselves here. The documentary doesn't raise hierarchies, or use a particular stance while showing impeccable Hindi-speaking Japanese monks, doesn't judge when the Kohlis, Pathare Prabhus, Kayastha Brahmins (and a whole slew of other communities) all start attesting that they were the "first and original" inhabitants of the city. Neither does it victimize or hijack the narratives of the people working in the (now closed) mills nor in dance bars, it doesn't hesitate to address intra-communal conflicts; peppering their stories with words from many a Left-leaning, anti-caste/anti-oppression labor union leaders. If I ever had my way, I'd ask everyone who ever saw and/or read Slumdog Millionaire watch this film, just so they'd have another memory of Bombay, one that doesn't necessarily feed off of people's pity and revulsion. I can see why some might say Seven Islands and a Metro doesn't focus enough on the "gender issue" (whatever that means), given that it is extremely committed to telling the stories of communities and not individuals. So you'll have testimonies from Bollywood's "stunt women" (usually who stand in as body doubles), or a couple of people from the indigenous fishing communities talking about their lives, but these testimonies also voice the history of disappearing forms of labor and livelihoods, issues their respective communities negotiate with daily.
Manipur starts off by reminding us to move away from the popularly remembered history of the national struggle, one that repeatedly casts Delhi, Bengal, and Mumbai as spaces where "history happened," and to rethink the politics of the colonial occupation itself. As viewers we're told of the contribution and resistance of Manipuri people making national history, and the film doesn't flinch while addressing the betrayal they feel while being "dropped" in national memory—neither does it sanitize the violence the Indian Army indulges in. Even more interestingly, it focuses on women's groups across the state, who are involved in a wide range of activities, from protesting against the AFPSA, to the defense drills they carry out, alerting neighborhoods that they may be the next targets, performing illegal abortions to protesting naked on the streets to bring to light the atrocities the Indian State does in the name of "keeping the peace." Some of these groups are mothers groups, fighting to have their children released from prisons; some are Christian groups working against sexual violence while advocating for radical anti-imperialism at the hands of both global and the local right wing. I simply don't understand how such a film doesn't pass the "gender test," given its focus on women's organizations and particularly their emphasis on the networks women have made, over generations, against the oppressive military occupation.
Arguably, both films are hard to digest—these are stories of people whose livelihoods have been pushed to structural irrelevance—and definitely puncture the nationalism that gets infused in our histories. These films refuse to hero-worship one community or person, these are collective voices speaking out. The question is, Why aren't they seen as feminist? What about histories of labor, of conflict and resistance, makes them "hard to digest" for a movement that landmarks its origins in lobbying for justice in support of Mathura, a tribal girl who was raped by a police officer? I'm not saying that protesting on the streets, making appeals to the State, is the Way To Feminism, but I would like to know why we invest so much time and energy in forgetting these histories.
Previously: Fire, Dor, and Kari: Who Decides if a Work is Queer?, Who Speaks in the Inner Courtyard?
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