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The social crusade of cinema

 | June 18, 2013

Often cinema plays a social crusader.


Even the most innocuous of films tell us something or the other. Directors like Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and even Raj Kapoor had something socially or culturally or historically relevant to say in their movies. If Roy’s Sujata spoke of the ills of India’s untouchability system, deeply ingrained in the caste hierarchy, Ray’s Jalsaghar underlined the decay of feudalism. Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan is a brutal look at the master-slave relationship, and some of Kapoor’s cinema took a peek into Nehruvian idealism.

A lot many of the films we see today are equally enlightening. Recently, I saw two movies, one a documentary and the other a fiction feature, which illuminated a couple of present-day evils.

One of the finest works I saw at the recent International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala was Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang or Pink Gang, a title synonymous with a band of women wearing pink coloured saris and armed with sticks taking on the social villains of Bundelkhand in central India.

Interestingly, Gulabi Gang, led by Sampat Pal – a middleaged woman whose soft voice and mild mannerism hide her steely resolve – fights not just gender injustice but also oppressive caste practices and corruption. Composed of many women, the Gang travels to distant places, sometimes on carts and tractors, to dispense justice, and in the face of extremely hostile situations. There are bureaucrats who lie through their teeth, brazenly inconsiderate to a woman’s suffering. There are cops who insult their uniforms by their callous sneers and apathetic ways of dealing with crime especially against women. And then there villagers whose cowardice blocks the path of justice.

Jain presents in her 96-minute feature-length documentary several cases of women who are wronged. In one such instance, she takes us to a village where a young woman has been murdered (by her brother-in-law) and then burnt to make the whole thing look like a fire accident. The Gang finds that the family has tampered with evidences, created fresh ones to drive the police barking up the wrong tree! The cops buy all this, partly because even the father of the dead woman is not willing to testify against the culprits, her in-laws here. Obviously, he is pressured by social and other considerations.

Jain’s work — as some of the other documentaries I saw at the Festival – had the power and the punch to shake us out of the comfortable slumber we have sunk into. In times as these, when women are abused, raped and even killed, the efforts of Gulabi Gang seem like a step in the right direction.  Of course, the Gang’s commitment to social cause and fair play is to be seen to be believed, and Jain documents this with poignant realism.

The feature now in the cinemas, Suhail Tatari’s Ankur Arora Murder Case, is a graphic description of what has gone wrong with India’s medical system. A huge sum of money has to be paid as capitation fees to get a seat in a medical college, and this is the beginning of the cycle of corruption. A boy or girl who finishes the course begins to find ways to earn the money spent on fees as quickly as possible. Patients are put through needless medical investigations and procedures, their hospital stays extended unnecessarily. The doctors who prescribe the investigations and extend hospital stays are assured by the hospitals of commissions or kickbacks.

Ankur Arora Murder Case is the story of an eight-year-old boy who is wheeled into the operation theatre for a simple appendicitis surgery after he is forced to spend an additional night at the hospital (so that it can make that extra buck). But the little boy, Ankur, never returns from the theatre, because the hospital’s star surgeon, Dr Asthana, forgets to drain out the contents of the boy’s stomach. He vomits immediately after the procedure, chokes and slips into an irreversible coma.

But Asthana – haughty and arrogant enough to think that he is “God”, is unrepentant and goes to a great length to hide the truth from Ankur’s mother. Till an internee doctor blows the whistle.

The movie highlights in a fictionalised form — though the plot is said to have been inspired by a real incident — all that is wrong with the country’s medicare. It tells us how hapless patients are exploited, and how when things go wrong, doctors and hospitals are unwilling to take the blame.

Works like Tatari’s while providing a platform for entertainment (and a great performance here by Kay Kay Menon who portrays Dr Asthana) are capable of provoking a debate, and asking uncomfortable questions. Herein lays their significance.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at [email protected]


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