How Cinema and pop culture have made the poor invisible and irrelevantHow Cinema and pop culture have made the poor invisible and irrelevant. “Her nails are blue. Her feet are swollen… Her eyes are watery, her father is broken and looks at his son’s limping. Kya gareebo ka bhalaai, adhikaar kay liye sabse ladna itna bada jurm hai? .
The above is an excerpt from The Tribune report on the condition of Shiv Kumar, president of Mazdoor Adhikaar Sangathan. Kumar has been arrested along with activist Nodeep Kaur for protesting against unpaid labor by factory owners. His lawyers allege that he was not brought before a magistrate within 24 hours, as required by law; finally done after seven days. They said that even his medical examination had not been done for a few weeks. The abuse situation described above is the result of him being kept in custody for a month – suggesting that the abuse was serious.
A police complaint against Kaur and Kumar that they attacked police officers present in response to a harassment call from factory owners, who claimed they had been robbed of ‘unpaid wages’.
When I read the police version, I was shocked. Both Kaur and Kumar are Dalits. I can tell you from my professional experience that for the first time, poor people are reluctant to go to the police, especially when they are in conflict with the rich. They know that the police will work as instructed by the rich. Dalits is even more hesitant; they know that police stations have racial prejudices, and they do not hate them. Different, of course, just – different. The idea of workers beating the police and robbing factory owners is absurd.
Then I wondered how most of my fellow middle-aged people would respond to this. Would they find it absurd? The answer is no – and not just because they are biased against other class members, but also because the poor are excluded from normal conversations. A UNICEF report entitled State of the World’s Children 2019 states that 38 percent of Indian children suffer from dehydration, and that malnutrition has resulted in 69 percent of deaths among those under five in India.
A recent Oxfam inequality report states that 6.3 crore people in India are pushed out of poverty every year because they cannot afford health care. According to the 2020 Global Hunger Index, India is ranked 94th out of 107 countries. The world poverty watch says that about 8.7 crore people in India live in extreme poverty. Amazing numbers, aren’t these?
Their health, their pain and their anxieties are simply restricted in appearance. This removal did not happen only in journalism (and, outside) but in another domain that influenced public opinion perhaps more than anything else: Cinema. Widespread inequality and the fact that the status quo was unfair and favorable to those who accumulated wealth were often highlighted. Even when inequality was not the focus of the story, at least you could see poor people, and stories were built into their lives.
Digha Zamin was a film about a farmer and his family who were driven by extreme poverty after his land was confiscated by an industrial lender who wanted to establish a mill on his land. I don’t think there’s a discussion in the movie with the mill owner saying, “Now, I’m paying taxes”.
In a song from the film Shri 420, entitled Dil ka haal sune dilwala, one stanza reads: ” hai daulat waala “. The film also has a scene where after a poor man (played by Raj Kapoor) returns a lost / lost wallet to a rich man, the rich chap takes him to a hotel, points out all the rich people there and says, “These are people who have never returned their wallets”.
Fast forward to the 80s and to the film Coolie, actor Amitabh Bachchan plays the leader of the coolies union. You are planning a strike that cripples a train station. In Deewaar, Bachchan’s father, who is also a union leader, was fenced in by a factory owner and falsely accused the thief.
In Trishul, Bachchan’s mother is a construction worker, while in Kaala Patthar, Bachchan and actor Shatrughan Sinha play miners who are at risk because the mine owner (played by Prem Chopra) violates safety rules. Mazdoor, who plays the role of Dilip Kumar, has a song inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s song,
“Hum mehnatkash is the world of, Jab apna hissa mangenge, Ek bagh nahi ek khet nahi, Hum saari world mangenge… Daulat ki andheri raaton ne, mehnat ka suraj chhupa liya “In Angaar, a police constable and a political constructor go about destroying people’s lives because they are looking for positions, while Mere Apne and Ankush are facing unemployment. In the Hindu movie atmosphere, beauty was always with the poor.