“Father, what is our caste?”
“Son, there is not caste for the poor…”
In an article published on Youth Ki Awaaz, Indian director Pawan K Srivastava starts with the phrase “We become what we read and watch”. The phrase, to him, sums up quite fittingly the kind of influence modern media has on the individual, the advantages as well as the negative aspects of this development. In times which sees governments shutting down parts of the internet or forcing companies like Google and Facebook to adjust their content to their political agenda, we have all witnessed the kind of power one has if this person or system takes control over digital and social media. It is of no use to control the everyday life of people, but it has become essential to observe and manipulate the kind of images you see on Facebook profile and which are sent via Snapchat and Whatsapp.
However, for Srivastava, the problem is not necessarily related to a political system per se, since the most significant development takes place when society consciously or subconsciously selects the images and videos we see. Considering these reflect the way we see the world around us, he emphasizes it is shocking how most Indians have excluded a large part of the country’s population and problems from their view of the nation and its people. After his first feature “Naya Pata” (2014), he experienced securing the finances for his new project, a film about the caste of the Untouchables (Dalits) and rural India, being an impossible challenge. With both aspects effectively absent from India’s cultural consciousness and media, he was confronted with the fact no one was willing to give him the necessary backing for his new project with the film’s rather dire economic prospects. Nevertheless, the project was finally financed with the help of crowdfunding, and Srivastava considers the experience he made in the making of the project as an additional reason why his film is perhaps more relevant than ever.
The story takes place in a very small village in rural India, where a man (Ravi Sah) lives with his wife (Shalini Mohan) in extreme poverty. Having motivated his son (Bhaskar Jha) to learn in order to have a better future for himself and his family, his son has become a math teacher. Unwilling to put religion over rational thought, his son is soon arrested as this act is seen as a violation of the caste system. Because he is a Dalit himself, his father attempts to get his son out of jail, earn some money for the judicial procedures ahead of them and find support for his son’s case.
Ultimately, many viewers will see “Life of an Outcast” as a story about contradictions, formally and thematically. As Srivastava has expressed in many articles related to the movie, as India has become independent in 1947 and lately has taken steps marking economic progress, its society largely lacks the kind of development which would define a more thorough step into our century. Leaving his central characters without names, gives his film a universal appeal and emphasizes the kind of authenticity he and his crew were probably aiming for. The switch between the rural and the urban parts of India, the bleak wilderness and the concrete structures, as well as the images of extreme poverty and affluence. And let us not forget the omnipresent image of the father on his rusty bicycle making his way through the crowded streets while breathing in the emissions from the cars in front of and behind him.
While this might label the film the kind of social melodrama we see quite often, and which a less talented writer and director would have created, “Life of an Outcast” is the work of a committed and all in all passionate artist. Ravi Sah as the character of the father moves through the majority of the film seemingly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Every step and every mile on his bicycle is another fight of a powerless David against the Goliath of the outside world, their prejudices and their views on people like him. The same goes for the characters played by Bhaskar Ja and Shalini Mohan, showing characters who have attempted to fight their caste and their poverty, but have grown tired over time. The image of the son in jail trying to discuss his situation with the guard is an exercise as well as a demonstration of the kind of small-mindedness defining a society which ignore a large amount of its members. And the one character stupid enough to mention the name of B.R. Ambedkar, the famous social reformer who fought against the discrimination of Dalits in India, is soon told to mind his own business.
Visually, the images of Vikas Sinha capture the kind of contradictions within Indian society, while also stressing the documentary-like approach of the project. Browns, blacks and gray determine the look of the film as if color has ceased to exist in the world in which these characters live. Both the village and the city represent stages of a system, a vicious circle one cannot escape from.
In the end, “Life of an Outcast” is an angry film. While it is certainly not a polemic movie, it demands answers to the questions posed, most importantly, why the fates of so many still go without any notice by the public. Even though its message and images might be bleak, defined by a feeling of hopelessness, there is perhaps hope in the knowledge these kinds of stories might be heard now. Pawan K Srivastava’s voice is certainly one which cannot be ignored in this context.
1) Basu. Lahari (2018) ‘Life of an Outcast’: A crowd-funded film on caste discrimination, religion
dbpost.com/life-of-an-outcast-a-crowd-funded-film-on-caste-discrimination-religion/, last accessed on: 11/25/2018
2) Shrivastava, Pawan (2017) How I’m Fighting To Tell Stories About Indians Whose Voices Are Being Suppressed
www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/06/we-become-what-we-read-and-watchlife-of-an-outcast/, last accessed on: 11/25/2018