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Seven Islands and a Metro and Manipur: Be Whoever You Want to Be, As Long As You Look Like Us

poster for the movie seven islands and a metro, which shows a lit-up building with people standing in front of it

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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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

feminism?

An extremely important post. Since representation seems to be an overarching theme in Battameez's series, this piece definitely makes a person think long and hard about what we consider as "gender issues". I think the exclusion was probably because according to the mainstream corporate-NGO-funded conferences and other gatherings, feminism and "gender issues" are probably those which will extend only to gender issues recognizably in the realm of the hegemonic Hindu-middle-class variety. We really do need a demolishing of what is intended by "gender issues" in the feminist (and other left-progressive) spheres, because gender issues relating to non-mainstream feminism simply do not count as gender issues. How else can one explain that the women's protests in Manipur and other states in the North-east as well as Kashmir, not count as "women's issues"? The state, I think, has become comfortable with the demands of a certain kind of liberal-Hindu feminism (or at least thinks it can be accommodated without the State and the corporate's hegemony being called into question) so there are larger opportunities for those concerns to be heard....

I haven't seen either movie but will definitely make it a point to watch both.

From your descriptions it seems obvious that the movies do deal with issues extremely important to many women (if not address those issues directly from women's perspectives). So if they portray the larger world and communities that many women move in and show us their struggles and resistances how can they not be feminist? As you imply, feminism (the official version which seems to get all the funding from whatever accounts I've read) needs to align itself to other movements for justice. In not doing so, it also invisibilizes the thousands of women actively involved in seemingly non-gender oriented political protests, as somehow not falling within this conception of 'feminism'.

<<<<<<<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>>>>>>>

This is so true. We're drilled in a Hindu-nationalist version of history in school which dominates public discourse as well. At the end of my schooling, as someone not from the Delhi-Bengal-Mumbai centre, I knew more about a neatly and unproblematically narrativized, non-questioning 'history of India' made in 'important cities' by 'important men (and very rarely women)' than about my state and community's history of oppression, struggle and resistance (which did not figure at all in this version) to the point of absolute ignorance. This is worse in the case of Manipur and other states in the northeast, where they rarely figure in the discussion vis-a-vis Indian history and not surprisingly this erasure continues to this date where the middle class and our kind rulers can go on living comfortable lives while the State perpetuates the worst kind of violence in many regions. Considering that popular discourse creates one kind of nation in which there are so many exclusions it doesn't seem surprising that feminism also reveals such marginalization and silencing.
Thanks again.

I want to watch both these

I want to watch both these documentaries right now, the source material sounds fantastic, and heretofore ignored. Thanks!

Thanks Gemma. Seven Islands

Thanks Gemma. Seven Islands is easy to find, Manipur may not be that easy. It's a Bengali documentary made on Manipur, which is banned in more than 18 states in India. Do let me know if you find an online source somewhere.  

Heylo again

Thank you Anju (as always) for your kind words. Considering that popular discourse creates one kind of nation in which there are so many exclusions it doesn't seem surprising that feminism also reveals such marginalization and silencing.  It's not? I keep on expecting for feminism to always do better, if we can talk about marginalisation at the hands of patriarchy, why are these other structures hard to get at? (Of course, I know why. But I keep on hoping it always won't remain this way).  

You might have already seen

You might have already seen them, but there are some interesting posts about intersectional feminism on Tiger Beatdown.

I love Flavia!

Yes, the Tiger Beatdown team has some great stuff lately. However, I think, AnjuinDelhi is talking about the problems in feminism in the global south, mostly -- and the fact that these sort of conversations rarely happen, given how scarce even conversations about mainstream in any place that is not-US are.