Those that control the present control the past, those that control the past control the future.
-1984, George Orwell.
Gouri Patwardhan’s “In a Shadowless Town” is an absorbing 52-minute documentary revolving around the exclusivists versions of history, particularly, the case of the erasure of the Dalit Bahujan history.
Patwardhan’s film is set in the intersection between the dialogue of caste location, the identity of a city and a discussion about ‘what makes history’. Set against the development of Pune city, it stresses on the ability of the dominant section of the society to construct their version of history, documenting the erasure of historical figures and buildings in Pune and what this meant for the Dalit Bahujan community through interviews with various people involved in activism as well as teachers, scholars and the general public.
The film is a walk through Pune city looking at important landmarks through heritage walks as well as conversations with scholars of Dalit history. Patwardhan also examines the heroes Pune tends to commemorate through statues at traffic islands and others it has either undervalued or ignored. As the filmmaker states, “The main object of a film – [is] to understand your society better, to understand your own position better and make sense of the world around you.”
The first question she is always asked is ‘What was your inspiration to work on such a topic, that is maybe not picked up in the mainstream media?’ Interestingly, her answer showcases how personal her work and the subject are to her, which is perhaps what makes it impactful and real. As a resident of Pune, Patwardhan grew up realising the strong Brahminical presence in the city. Her first interaction with members of the Dalit caste was while researching for a documentary on B.R. Ambedkar. Subsequently, she went on to make films revolving around the Dalit Bahujan history and members of the community. “In the process of my filmmaking, I become more familiar with the very identity of the city which is rooted in caste and how divided the city is. Students and people in general never realise that there are pieces of history missing because they are never really exposed to the nondominant dialogue,” she says.
“In a Shadowless Town” was a result of in-depth research and conversations with a section that was being kept away from telling their own history in their own words. Patwardhan explains further, “I had a lot of conversations about how and why Dalit Bahujan Samaj history has disappeared. That’s why I became more conscious of the fact of how strong the brahminical imprint on the city is. It is almost nauseating. This was particularly evident in the instances of markings on the homes of buildings and houses important in the ‘upper caste history’ of Pune.”
The documentary’s core focuses on how a stronger part of the population holds power to define history. The concept is not new, especially considering the Indian political scenario today. The documentary is focussed on the voices that were not heard predominantly. According to Patwardhan, “The majority and the mainstream narrative is very upper caste dominated. So if you’re talking about other narratives, you are talking about them because they’re not heard. The easiest comparison to drive the point home is the example of feminism. When you say women perspectives are being neglected – you don’t say that you’re not talking about the contributions of the men. But that’s the point. Men have been talked about so much. But the women haven’t. And that is a problem.”
It goes without saying that this intersection of caste and history is a very relevant issue in India. The moment when people who are in a weaker position in the society start articulating their demands to remember is when such conversations start. It is only a question of a particular segment of the society becoming aware of a weaker position and wanting to challenge that position.
Advising young writers and filmmakers on methods of dealing with the subject correctly and doing justice to the discourse, she says, “You first need to start looking at your own caste location, especially if are upper caste. People who come from a vulnerable position don’t have to be taught as much, but awareness is important. Then, talk to people, do not be bogged down by the upper caste narratives, read more, understand and listen to different articulation patiently, Because if you don’t, you’ll end up making films from a superior position.”
Further drawing from her own experiences, she remembers, “There are two sphere’s in life – one was the secular sphere, and one is the family sphere where caste was practised. Therefore, as an individual and a filmmaker, I thought I was casteless. The film made me so aware of my own limitation as an upper caste person and how limited my Pune was. This experience made me aware that all the functions I attend, the people I know, I live in a very upper caste world. If a person can think and say that they are casteless – that they don’t believe in caste – it is a privilege.”
Catch Gouri Patwardhan’s film “In A Shadowless Town” at 3.30 PM on September 17, 2017 at India International Centre. To see the full Open Frames Festival programme, click here.