BY CHRIS SZABLA
Intelligence was set aside for the animal kingdom; humans are bound by the divine (and discriminatory) law of the Shastras – so says a colorful and fiery Brahmin priest who goes on to scold mankind “not to use logic.” This character is one of many extremist figures populating the reels of “India Untouched”, a documentary critical of the Hindu caste system and its effects on social and economic conditions in modern India.
Blunt criticism is, in fact, almost all the film offers: it presents a ceaseless rotation of lamentations for the lower castes, with little to say about the history or present-day political reality of their situation.
The film, presented by the South Asia Law Students Association in association with the Black Letter Law Journal, tends to give itself over to such absurd figures as the one quoted above, to decontextualized citations of the Laws of Manu and other Hindu religious writings, and, most of all, to members of India’s Dalit (untouchable) caste, who recount with horror the depredations of their daily lives, which run from denial to the entrance of temples to the need to accept tea served in glass rather than silver mugs.
Episodic “injustices” are pasted together with little to no obvious narration or story arc. Instead, the viewer is hit over the head – again and again – with images and stories that, taken together, create a portrait of a country ruled by religious extremists bent on an irrational apartheid against the depressed and demoralized Dalits.
The reality of caste in India is far more complicated. Caste as it exists today is not an immutable vestige of Hindu law extant from time immemorial. Instead, the contemporary caste hierarchy arose during the British surveys of the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. Colonial officials, seeking a way to govern the country in the “native style,” consulted Brahmin priests, who presented narrow, self-serving interpretations of Hinduism’s vast array of textual sources. That system was ultimately reflected in the organization of British censuses, and was reflected in the sense of prestige that began to accrue to the various castes. By the early 20th century, this system had begun to crack. Indian independence movement leaders like B. R. Ambedkar labored largely outside the international spotlight to right the social injustices and barriers wrought by caste. Today, the Indian government has implemented a series of affirmative action policies, called reservations, designed to promote the welfare of lower caste members. These remain controversial, however, as caste does not necessarily conform to economic status: there are poor Brahmins as much as there are wealthy members of lower castes. The documentary references little of this turbulent and complicated history. A montage makes passing reference to a statue of “Baba,” the nickname of Ambedkar, though viewers unfamiliar with India would not have been likely to understand the scene’s significance. A sequence of shots also takes the viewer through a protest against reservations for the lower castes. Yet, since there is little narration to guide one through the scene, one could easily assume that, instead of objecting to the system, as they did, because it denied opportunities to poor Brahmins, they, like the extensively-quoted religious authorities depicted in the film, simply opposed the social and economic rise of the lower castes.
Students who saw the film tended to agree that it failed to supply crucial background information which would help one understand the causes and consequences of caste discrimination in India.
“I wish they had explored in more depth the implications for law in India,” of caste discrimination, said Nitya Shekar, JD’10, referring to the film’s brief but unsatisfying glimpse into the policy of reservations.
Jacob Hupart, JD’10 had a wider range of criticisms.
“It was a film on a worthwhile subject that falls into the category of agitprop films usually shown to a very targeted audience,” Hupart said. “It did not talk about historical aspects at all. It mentioned Ambedkar only in passing. The film would have benefited from more context.”
Documentaries are a powerful blend of art and fact: by capturing iconic images and weaving them into a captivating narrative, they can serve to motivate, inform, and inspire to a degree unparalleled by static media. India Untouched failed to seize hold of the opportunity to tell a coherent story, to explain the circumstances of the problem it set out to explore, or to truly enthrall its audience. Instead, it went out of its way to obfuscate and oversimplify its subject in order to beat a recurring mantra into viewers’ heads.