Film Reviews

‘The audience for a film on Ambedkar is assured’
By Meenakshi Shedde | Times Of India


MUMBAI : "Everybody knows about Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, but not about Babasaheb Ambedkar. We've got to get him out of India," insists Dr Jabbar Patel, the noted Marathi film director, thumping the table. "He was not just a leader of the Dalits, he was a champion of human rights for all." This, indeed, is the thrust of his forthcoming film in English Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, with Malayali actor Mammootty in the lead. The film, whose domestic release is as yet uncertain, has already been selected by the London film festival.

It is the first biographical film in a prolific career for Dr Patel who has been a pediatrician, actor and director of plays and films. The films include Saamna, Jait Re Jait, Simhasan, Umbartha (remade as Subah in Hindi), Ex Hota Vidhushak and Mukta. The high point of his stage career was the brilliant and spectacularly successful Ghashiram Kotwal, which he directed. The play had 800 shows all over India. Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

Ambedkar has had a nearly decade-long history. The feature film actually grew out of a documentary on the leader that Patel made for Films Division. Thanks to the enthusiasm during the Ambedkar centenary celebrations in the early '90s, he was able to secure Rs 6.7 crore for the film from the state and central government. More versions are planned in Hindi and seven Indian languages.

What led him to choose Mammootty for the lead? "I was flipping through a film magazine one day and saw his picture. I just put my finger over it as a moustache and found he had a pretty good resemblance to Ambedkar. When I had the photo digitally altered and showed it to him, he was taken aback - and agreed to play the role. He is a great actor and a lawyer himself," says Patel.

The film has been scripted by Sooni Taraporevala, journalist Arun Sadhu and the late Dalit poet Daya Pawar. One of the film's poignant ironies comes when Ambedkar, who has been humiliated as a Dalit untouchable throughout his childhood, enrolls at Columbia University in New York, only to find discrimination against the Blacks. "The Black district of Harlem is just a stone's throw away from Columbia. Dr Ambedkar was in Columbia from 1913-'16, and imagine his feelings when he discovered that Blacks were not allowed into Columbia!" Patel recounts.

Worse was to follow. "After acquiring two doctorates following his studies at Columbia University, the London School of Economics and Gray's Inn in England, he returned to India and was still treated as an untouchable. A man in his office wouldn't hand him a file for fear of touching him, he would throw it on the table," says Patel. "His life was very dramatic and full of humiliations."

The film covers considerable ground, as Patel points out, including "his views on discrimination against the Blacks, the fight for freedom from the British, the struggle against caste traditions. He felt the Congress movement was essentially a nationalist political movement, whereas he was more interested in a social movement. He wrote the Indian constitution and insisted on equal rights for women. It was very difficult to simplify such a complex person for the film."

Given today's volatile caste politics, were there any external pressures to hijack the film's agenda or any trouble with the censors? "None at all," he shrugs. And how does the film deal with the differences between Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar on critical issues, like the ways in which to emancipate the Dalits and Partition? Patel sidesteps the question with eel-like grace, saying, "They had differences, but they respected each other nonetheless-and both of them compromised."

Despite relatively generous state subsidies and entertainment tax free status for Marathi cinema, most Marathi film directors feel like outsiders in their home state with the stranglehold of Hindi cinema. Even so, why is there is such a dramatic difference in the overall quality of Marathi cinema and theatre?

"True, a Marathi film maker gets a flat subsidy of Rs 16 lakhs for his next film. But we struggle to keep our regional identity in our cinema, as everyone speaks and breathes Hindi. Malayalis and Bengalis love their cinema as well as their language, but we don't love ours with the same passion. Besides, Marathi theatre has an exciting tradition of collegiate one-act plays and rural street play competitions. But the overheads of cinema are so high, 90 per cent of Marathi films are made in 16 mm and then blown up to 35 mm."

Despite everything, Patel is sanguine about Ambedkar. "Commercial cinema has an uncertain audience. But the audience for a film on Ambedkar is assured. There is no gambling here. The love people have for him is exceptional." One is tempted to agree for, as Dalit writer Arjun Dangle pointed out, "People go to Tirupati to ask for blessings. But Dalits go to Chaityabhoomi only to express their gratitude. They want nothing in return."


Times Of India

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