Trying to explain how untouchability is detrimental to every basic principle of humanity because that is what some girls have been subjected to In SRFTI (Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute). I want to tell you how practising untouchability on women and others who support the fight against sexual harassment is sexist and feudal apart from being regressive.
It is an attempt to point out the untouchability now prevalent in SRFTI and which people are largely ignorant of or conveniently try to overlook. Let us agree to agree that there is caste and gender in cinema and so there is it in a film school as well. Film schools have people in it and people are casteist and sexist. Well, mostly.
Being ostracized is not new. Not for me. In first year in SRFTI, in the very first week of my course here i complained against ragging and became the blacksheep. Reason? Everybody likes ragging. According to popular view on campus, it is the best way to ‘interact’ with juniors so much so that after three years here students have started calling ragging ‘interaction’. The place where ragging is held as a ritual, the terrace of the old hostel continues to be called ‘ragging terrace’, though. SRFTI lacks logic in many ways. But it is now, after the recent ostracizing that some of us faced after we complained against sexual harassment that i realized that the seclusion meted out is based on untouchability. I am going to try and explain how.
Untouchability is supposed to have stopped. When a person is hated there are many ways in which they can be dealt with. For example, some students, mostly males, engage in physical fights. Some just give wolverine like looks. [I told you not to ask for logic] Some stop talking. Some write hate messages on walls. Some spread stories. But what i faced and am still facing is something of a different nature. People seem to avoid contact with me. As in, they do not want to touch me even by mistake.
Let me start by speaking of S.
We were good friends. At least that is what i thought. Classmates, shared trips, food, alcohol, weed, jokes, arguments, a kiss on the mouth. I knew he was casteist from some of the conversations i had had with him. In one of them while talking about beef i had argued that his beef allergy was casteist and not about being a vegetarian. I was taunting him and the way he reacted made me realize that i was not wrong in making that accusation. He said that when one of his relatives had died he had thrown a party. I laughed. It was so like him. At the party, he said, that he had invited his ‘beef eating friends’ and had asked them to cook at his place and that he evenwashed the dishes after the party. There could not be a better example of the typical ‘see i have done so many things for dalits, i can’t be casteist’ one.
On another occasion he spoke against reservation. He did this along with a professor and when i questioned him why he was of the view that reservation was not necessary, he said that he used to believe otherwise till Nandan Commission Report. I shut up because i didn’t know what to say to that.
But i never imagined that he was one of the practitioners of untouchability. Film students never stop surprising me.
But i never imagined that he was one of the practitioners of untouchability. Film students never stop surprising me.
There are different kinds of people. I am nobody to say that one thing is better or worse than the other. S is castesit. I am too, at times. I am an agent of patriarchy sometimes. I have noticed Islamophobic traits in me as well. I believe that these are all things people are and it’s okay to be that way, as long as you do not implement your regressive views on people who get affected by it. I recently wrote a script in which there was a Muslim man being murdered for having eaten beef like Akhlaq and the family were butchers. It’s only after two people pointed it out to me that ‘all muslims are not butchers’ that i realized that i was resorting to yet another stereotype. I dropped the script altogether because i was convinced that i was not the person to write that subject. I believe that S can be casteist and i can question his casteism and misogyny which he claims not to have at all. So can i do that with the vast majority of people in SRFTI. These are just some of my experiences and the lack of voices ensure that there are many more problems and incidents which bear testimony to the same issues.
So S and i were friends till i complained against ragging the second time. This time S was on the terrace as well. I had gone up there and created a ruckus, called the police and made life hell for the people who ragged. S had tried to convince me on the terrace that everything was allright and there was no need for me to raise voice. There was and i did. He stopped talking to me.
Only his silence was a little odd and it was not like anything i had faced till then. He stopped talking to me and stopped looking at me. When i came across his path he would lean against a wall and try inhaling himself in so that no part of him would touch me even by mistake. In the mess he would stand far away from me when i was taking tea or food. S, who is known for his anarchist lifestyle (oh yes, it still thrives in filmschools, not just among John Abraham loving mallu males) and leaves his plates to be licked by dogs suddenly had a problem when food was served and i was around.
After every shoot people throw a party, again, on the terrace. It is customary that everyone goes whether or not they drink and wish the crew happiness and good. I went there to see S and tell him congratulations on completion of his shoot. Really, i had nothing against him except difference in politics and now pity. He was not there. I looked for him and found him in a corridor. Again he drew himself in as if he wanted to be part of the wall. I offered my hand and said congratulations. He extended two fingers from the wall on which he was sticking like a moth. [Reminded me so much of Bootstrap Bill Turner in Piratesof the Caribbean. In fact most people in SRFTI are capable of chanting ‘part of the crew part of the ship’ because of its decadence] He did not utter a word.
When i looked back and tried to understand what exactly had happened, i got even more confused. I mean, once my tongue was in his mouth and his in mine and naturally mouth fluids were exchanged, i even remember feeling his erection over his pajamas and someone knocking on the door and we having had to stop and open it and never get back to where we were because in the fight that ensued after the knock everybody stopped talking to everybody. Reconciliation happened months later and he and i were back to being friends. I felt it was a natural thing for both of us and we had a tacit understanding that we had forgotten the past and were back to being the people we were without any vestiges of the one kiss we had shared. There was no need for it, neither of us pursued it further, neither of us seemed interested. Like i said we went on trips together with other friends and talked a lot, bitched a lot and generally found happiness in each others’ problems and depression. On one occasion we had spent the night together with some of our other batchmates. Then nobody seemed to have a problem with having me in the same room as them. On another occasion we were on a trip and S scared me by saying that the professor who had accompanied us was not to be ‘trusted’. We were supposed to sleep on the same bed and i got scared. I was the only girl in that group of three men and i had no problem with that because i thought that all of them were my friends. So i remember pleading with S to sleep next to me and not let me sleep next to the professor because of the information he had just divulged. So that was how comfortable we were with each other and when the ‘woman, i shall not be touched by you’ phase started it was quite incredible for me in the beginning.
But i got the complete logic of this one when one of my few friends over here told me that he had been advised by S. The topic was ‘film school girls’. S was of the opinion that this genre of women were created only so that men could sleep with them. Everything fell into place for me all at once. We could exchange whatever fluids we wanted to but i would always always remain that ‘film school girl’ whose life’s purpose was in getting laid by men like himself. It immediately took me to the feudal days in Kerala where the janmi (landlord) wanted his way cleared away from the 'untouchables', when a loud howling sound was produced so that the people who tilled the land would not make the road ‘impure’ by their presence; at night the same janmi would have someone bring him to bed an 'untouchable' woman whom he had chosen because after all, that was what they were made for?
I had also got to know that S had told his then girlfriend, when she got to know of the kiss that i had forced myself on him. I thought he was trying to save his ass and let it be for the peace of mind of the girl whom i loved very much. [I should seriously stop loving people].
I had to note down these facts because when looked in the light of the recent ‘keeping a distance’ form of ostracizing meted out by people including S, it is evident that it was not a gradual weaning of friendship but a sudden and conscious move to avoid touch.
That brought back another memory which i had dismissed as being juvenile in its nature. After the first time i complained against ragging and everyone was busy saying things about me, one day, a mallu male student came up to me and gave me a long lecture on the importance of taking bath. Since i reached SRFTI after spending 20 years in mallu land among mallu men it is very hard for them to surprise me. Generally i am prepared for everything so i listened to his speech arduously and suppressed my laughter when he went over the bits in which he swore my skin would go bad if i didn’t take bath. Then he said that he was saying all that not because he thought that i did not take bath and because my then roommate had gone around saying that i never took bath. He was worried he said. Later i asked the girl why she had said so. She denied having said that the first time and the second time said that it was because she never saw me take bath. Intention not to prove that i take bath but to draw attention to the concern of ‘hygiene’ that was spread about me. I have heard similar tales in hostels everywhere. There were always people who were considered ‘unclean’ because ‘they smelled weird’ [This reminds me of Baby Kochamma in the God of Small Things who is disgusted about the particular smell that Paravans had and wondered how Ammu could stand that.] or they dressed weird, or that they ate weird food or basically because all of them were ‘different’ from how the ‘clean’ people were.
I believe at least in Kerala and India the question of cleanliness is ultimately a question of caste. The ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’ from the Prime Minister cleaning India while manual scavenging by dalits continue unabashed is the cleanliness paradox that India actually is. The ‘cleanliness’ that all upper caste mallus seem particular about reeks of shameless casteism. I have no reason to believe that in SRFTI things are different. It cannot be different especially when casteism, sexism etc have been sanctioned by professors themselves just like how sexual harassment was.
I became aware of this sanction when in my very first year i started noticing some bizarre trends in class. There were jokes being cracked about people’s complexion. I am brown, the colour of coffee with very little milk. In first semester my group had the most number of South Indians. Two mallus, two Telugus. During one of our cigarette breaks Ag, a Bengali and a proud owner of his fair complexion, scanned all of our faces right in front of us and posed his theory that the complexion of south Indians got darker and darker as one went more and more south. The audacity with which he spoke that casteist pig way made me suspicious.
When i looked into my suspicion i landed up in the trends among professors. One of them had in one class said that ‘sound students were like SC/STs. When asked why, he said that it was because usually on shoots they were ignored and would just stick to their corner and practically be invisible while doing their job. Nobody, including me, said a word. There were SC/ST students in the class. To this day i am ashamed that i didn’t file a complaint against the man. On another occasion a professor joked that ine would have to do a 'black balance' (the correct process is white balancing) on a dark skinned student. So yeah, this was the atmosphere in which students were being taught and i realized that it was no big deal for students to talk in that blatantly casteist or sexist way when it was common among professors.
Did i tell you that i had witnessed a complexion competition between two male students? One of them was Ag again and the other was from Editing. They were rolling up their sleeves and comparing their complexion in those areas not touched by sun because hey, that was where the real complexion was. In the same way there was a girl who had clicked photos of her leg before and after shoot to show how much she had tanned. Calling her ‘kaali’ (the black one) used to vex her so much during those days, i was told. But i must say that it was very funny when i was shown the photograph and it was clear to everyone who was around then that my own complexion was much darker than her ‘tanned leg’ which she was ashamed of.
So coming back to the ostracizing spree that is currently happening on campus based on the complaints made on professors on grounds of sexual harassment, i would like to state that all of us girls have got used to it. By talking to other complainants i know that they facing things of the same nature. We have all come to terms with the fact that a large group of people we were friends with or we loved have all drifted to that island where everyone is blind to sexual harassment and misogyny. We are now okay with the fact that every other day a new person stops smiling at us. We know that people want to avoid contact with us. We know what people tell about us and talk about us. From the security guards to professors people have all kinds of stories to tell about me. A lot of work has gone into how to make work more difficult for the complainants. But it gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to let everyone know that we have survived it all till now and will in future too. I have come to believe that it is because by fighting for a cause together we have all found true love in each other and that binds us together even while belonging to different states, languages and backgrounds.
One night at a general body meeting i was experimenting with my phone and caught two of us complainants without realizing it. The meeting itself was relevant because it addressed one of the issues which a group of students found was questionable. People had a problem with the letter that SRFTI had brought out in support of students protesting in UoH. I still have not understood the problem in having brought out a letter in support of what i personally think is the most important fight happening in the country currently.
In the video we girls were sharing a cigarette in shadows and when i played it back in room i felt that we were sharing much more. May be it was the realization that this sharing of tobacco was not because anybody ‘owned’ anybody but because that’s the way we were, in all earnest ways. We were normal people. Normal women.
We would not try to make other lives invisible by sticking into walls and trying to be part of a building which is feudal, casteist and misogynistic in its very foundation and structure.