It is hard to write a review of this film that is also not an obituary. Two of the film’s central characters, Bhagat Singh Bilga and Lal Singh Dil urf Mohammad Bushra, passed away in 2009. In that sense alone, this makes Kitte Mil Ve Mahi poignant and powerful. Both men were involved in revolutionary left politics in the Punjab, yet came from completely different social backgrounds. Bilga, was forged in the Ghadar party and in the later years of his life spent much of his time in England. Lal Singh Dil, a poet and activist, became politicized, ultimately by his caste status, but also through intense involvement in the Naxalite movement. Their ongoing political commitment, to social justice and the removal of caste inequality provides the ideological direction and potency to the film.
What makes the documentary aesthetically appealing is the constant intermingling of music with the interviews. Throughout the narrative serious points made by the subjects of the film are followed by some appropriate music or supporting song. For instance when the custodian, Kadar Sakhi, of the Baba Dasondhi Shah shrine is talking of the way in which the lineage of a particular saint goes back to the Qadiri order from Baghdad, the scene is followed by the BS Balli Qwaali group singing: ‘Get me Qadri bangles to wear.’ This is then often followed by a commentary from Bilga. This interweaving of aesthetics and politics makes the film a powerful and pleasurable visual and aural experience.
The film touches on a considerable number of themes. Quite clearly the backdrop is that ‘other’ place and that ‘other’ time in which Muslims were present in East Punjab and these shrines were to some extent perceived as their domain. This is never made explicit. Just as Lal Singh Dil is never referred to as Mohammad Bushra, yet for those who can read the imagery, after we are told his name, he is then shown in great detail doing his wuzu (ritual cleaning) and doing the namaaz (prayer). Indeed, in all of the shrine scenes, it is ostensibly Muslim saints, who have been integrated into a dalit lineage, that are present, yet absent. The Islam of the shrine fits in so well with Dalit identity, that even the shift from Chisti Sufi Pir to Brahm Chand seems perfectly fine in a world where caste rather than formal religious identity is crucial. Here in the normative boundaries established by formal religion of high-caste/low-caste: male; female cease to operate. At the shrine of Channi Shah, in Sofi Pina, a woman devotee has taken over the role of the living saint. No one in the film protests this transition, rather her pious position is seen as just reward for seva and piety to the saint. Localised power and spirituality of a diverse and appropriate nature come to dominate the scene in this Jalandhar-doaba landscape.
This is a film that works at many levels. At its most explicit it is a treatise on the continuing ‘slavery’ of Dalits in India. Most powerfully articulated through the voice of Lal Dil, but also supported by Bilga. Yet the shrine culture demonstrates a site of creative appropriation and resistance without articulating it in that way. At a more subtle level, the centrality of caste even punctuates the analysis given in terms of social justice. The struggle that Lal Singh has with the Naxalbari movement and the left, though not explicated in the film, is certainly present. The endemic nature of caste stratification is illustrated in the contrasting ways in which Bilga and Dil talk about Chamars. Bilga stands as a Marxist when he is critical of the Indian state or the way that the left is marginalised, yet when it comes to talking of Dalits, he centers himself as the mainstream and them as the ‘other’. This is not an unsympathetic position but is in marked contrast to Dil, speaking as a Chamar. An un-necessary debate about those who face oppression and those who fight against it from a position of caste advantage is not made in the film, nor is that my intention now. Rather, it is to highlight the existence of this tussle within the left, that partly made Dil turn towards Islam as a way of dealing with caste oppression. But even this escape route, did not lead him away from his caste identity, as at the time of his death, he was not buried but cremated in the Dalit cremation grounds of his village.
In opening this review as an obituary, it is important to end it with the optimism that pervades the film in the face of increasingly rigid religious boundary marking in the subcontinent. In the world of Dalit spirituality and shrines, the opposition and resistance that Lal Singh Dil bemoans is lacking in other social spheres, such as the economic and political, seems alive and well. Paying no heed to the requirements of formal religious markers, the sites the film explores are such that all that wish to come and pray are welcome, in whatever form. In the face of changing structures of caste inequality in contemporary Punjab and the emergence of a proud Dalit/Chamar identity, Kitte Mille Ve Mahi provides the cultural background and a clue to the resources mobilized in this new found self-assertion.
For copies of the film please contact Ajay Bhardwaj at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Virinder S Kalra
University of Manchester, UK