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Watching Question Mark and Sairat, thinking Elections



This last week was an exciting and much-awaited one for me, beginning as it did with Francis de Tuem’s new tiatr Question Mark and ending with Nagraj Manjule’s new film Sairat. Both productions were brilliant in their own way, and both reminded me of the elections on the Goan horizon.


Question Mark is a must-watch, raising important questions about political corruption and hypocrisy in the current context of Goa. It combines this political agenda with ambitious technique, using not just the usual media of drama, song and music, but also powerpoint presentation, motion picture, and old news videos.

question mark

One of the old news videos is of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar as opposition leader, giving a fiery speech against the casinos; his government’s u-turn on this issue looks even worse when placed next to the bombast. Other questions raised were about the creation of the powerful Investment Promotion Board (IPB) apparently to fast-track questionable projects, the attacks on grants for English medium schools, the changed landuse in the Regional Plans which have allowed exploitation of forestland, the pushing through of DefExpo, and the strange death of Fr. Bismarque Dias. At one point, there is even a suggestion that that the army take on the job of dealing with corrupt politicians.


One hopes of course that the last suggestion is not serious, since the army’s record in places like Kashmir is far worse than anything we have experienced in Goa. In fact, public control over politicians is better than the rest of the ruling establishment – army, police, top bureaucrats and judiciary – who are not accountable even once in five years.


sairatAt first sight, Sairat couldn’t be more different from the political discussion of Question Mark. The film was said to be a love story, but it turned out to be THE love story of South Asia. Not surprisingly, it is a disturbing, or even harrowing, film, for South Asia is not a place that likes love. This is a place where it is easy to get rusticated, evicted, thrashed, jailed, and killed, sometimes with your family, just for being in love. The film shows how the main roadblock for love is caste, with a savarna landlord family stopping at nothing to end their daughter’s relationship with a Dalit. Even the friends and family members of the boy are not spared, being thrashed, driven out of the village, and socially boycotted, and not just by the savarnas but also their own caste folk.


Both the productions see women as central to change. In the tiatr, it is women, as activists, journalists, lawyers or ordinary villagers, who take the lead in challenging the politicians. A noted achievement in Sairat is the character of Archana, a rich upper caste girl who challenges patriarchal norms by riding a motorbike and physically taking on her father’s thugs as well as the police, to save her lover. But she does all this from her dominant caste position, and suffers when she loses this position by eloping with him.


The other common thread is the politician as problem. Sairat’s politician is the representative of not just big money, corruption and goons, as in Question Mark, but also Brahmanism, landlordism, and patriarchy. Like in Question Mark, his patronage of local sports clubs and festivals gains him votes, but none of his voters can dream of questioning him between elections.


And this is where questions about Goa’s next elections rise.


As Francis de Tuem declares, the BJP must go. But to be replaced by what? The Congress again, which laid the basis for the BJP in the first place? Or the smaller parties, who all talk of stopping the land-swallowing projects and corruption initiated by the big two, but rarely about the rampant social exclusion in Goa, be it caste discrimination in jobs, the promotion of Brahmanism via language et al, or the minoritising of non-Hindus. In fact, the anti-corruption movement looks likely to add to this exclusion unless it first opposes the way the poor are illegalised by this society and thus forced into corruption.


Perhaps, given the limited choices, what we should aim for is simply a weak government. This may sound strange, given the way the media sells the benefits of strong and stable government. But what this means is often the power to ignore criticism and overrule normal procedures, as in the creation of the all-powerful IPB, or the ignoring of Supreme Court directives against illegal mining, or the pushing through of unpopular projects backed by local elites and national/international capital. A weak government, i.e. a minority or coalition government, would serve better, with more assembly discussions and cabinet meetings, rather than dictatorial orders, and where everybody might be too concerned about their survival to do much damage.


Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, had declared his opposition to stable government a long time ago (India Today, 1993); given the caste and class background of most politicians, he said, political stability and strong governments only strengthened the dominant sections of society.  This sentiment is echoed by Ambedkarite activists in Goa today; their struggles to improve the living conditions of Dalit communities in Pernem have found most politicians allied with the dominant castes to oppose change. A strong government, they say, just strengthens the status quo.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 5 May, 2016)

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