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Out of the shadows of human bondage

Nicholas Fraser talks to a filmmaker who is touching the untouchables.

The Observer 3 June 1990

In most Indian films there is a scene where the camera moves through a café, lingering on signs of affluence or desirability: bangles, kohl, saris, bourgeois plumpness. But in CASTE AT BIRTH, the same shot is taken from a lower angle, revealing among the legs and tables a squatting figure in the shadows, brush in hand, propelling himself like a frog from one pile of dirt to another. The rich patrons are so habituated to the proximity of this frog that they do not see him. The frog-man is an Untouchable (Dalit), one of the 150 million members of the lowest Hindu caste.  


"They are everywhere - in hotel lobbies, on the pavements, in trains,” says Mira Hamermesh. "You go to a bourgeois home, a professor or a lecturer, and you have a civilised conversation about race and feminism. It takes an hour before you can get them to admit that they too, have their own Untouchable. And during this time someone will come in to clean the rooms. After they have gone away, another person, a creeping person, shadowy and ghost-like, will come in to clean the toilet. So this is the most complete system of segregation in the world, even separating different types of servant."  


CASTE AT BIRTH is the third film of Mira Hamermesh's remarkable triptych about race, sex and oppression. Born in Lodz, in pre-war Poland, she survived because she was sent to Britain as a child; her parents were killed in the camps. She learnt filmmaking by going back to Lodz on the first scholarship awarded to a foreigner.  


Her triptych deals with the condition of powerlessness by examining the systems of belief - apartheid, caste, Zionism - which allow one group of people to deny humanity to another. These are highly personal films, lyrical in style despite their sombre themes.  


"When I was young, I had this strange psychological condition" she says, "Sitting next to another child I would become like that child. I had the ability to spill out into other people. So, in adult life I suffer from an extreme case of compassion. I am able to become the oppressor as well as the victim. Whether I like it or not I cannot pass judgement in my films. And I think this gives to the stories I am telling their own existence, and their own morality. I much prefer myself in my films to the person I am in life."  


The idea of MAIDS AND MADAMS came to her when she thought of her mother. "I had never been to South Africa" she says. "And it occurred to me that making a film about apartheid would be a way of understanding how my middle-class, middle-aged mother was consigned to a ghetto, and then condemned to death on grounds of racial inferiority. I was as perplexed by her fate as she must have been, so making the film was a way of understanding on her behalf."  


MAIDS AND MADAMS (which won the Prix Italia) scrutinises apartheid behind bedroom doors. Hamermesh's feminism allows her to see that all South African women, black and white, good madam and bad, are exploited in different ways. Sadly, liberal efforts to render the madam - maid relation less oppressive end by binding the blacks tighter to the white family they serve. But the women are remarkable in adversity and their courage undoes much of what might seem to be bleak or hopeless in their condition. The film ends lyrically with a church service in which the maids and madams join each year to pray for deliverance.  


The next film, TALKING TO THE ENEMY, follows Muna Hamzeh, a young Palestinian woman in exile, as she visits a young Israeli family, the Shurs, on a Kibbutz in the Negev. Interviews with schoolchildren and sociologists establish how difficult it is to reach across the barrier of race and dispossession, but the viewer isn't ready for the raw, unconsoling scenes that follow.  


Muna may have lost her country, but the Shurs, a sad middle-aged couple, have lost their son, killed in a retaliatory raid on a PLO stronghold. The barriers are crossed but there is also a realisation of all that keeps the three apart. Muna talks of the sorrow and the joy of crossing over to the other side. " I never had any hate" says Mrs Shur, weeping, "no, I never had any hate."  


CASTE AT BIRTH began when she read Untouchable by Mak Raj Anand in an old Penguin edition first published in the thirties. "The book reminded me of 'One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich.' There was so much suffering of the kind I am familiar with" Hamermesh says. "However I felt there was no connection, no personal link. This was an alien place with a culture I did not understand. Also, I was working in a context of post-colonial gripes from the third world. The assumption that you shouldn't say bad things because you hadn't a right to, being a white person, is still prevalent. Indians tend to encourage such notions."  


Fifty years ago, Gandhi picked up a broom and made his wife sweep excrement, yet it was apparent that the existence of the flush toilet, and other symbols of modernity, had not changed the lot of untouchables. Efforts to break down caste by creating quotas in education have been widely resented in India. "Censorship is exercised on the subject" says Hamermesh, who was obliged to concoct a fictitious explanation for her presence in India. "The untouchables are slave labour. Middle class Indians believe the situation has improved, but it hasn't. The Indian psyche seems to be composed of self-delusion and denials. There is a will not to see."  


Because it depicts such a systematic blocking of reality, CASTE AT BIRTH is chillier than her other films. When a college teacher explains the history of caste, only one student complains of the injustice. High caste Indians justify their position by recourse to the theory of rebirth " My position is a reward or something I did in my past life," says one of them. Bad deeds must be paid for, and untouchables are in this world to make payment. "I have to sweep" an untouchable explains " I am being punished". Throughout the film, in latrines and on rubbish dumps, on trains and in city slums and fields, the sweeping goes on.  



In rural Bihar, caste war between landlord and untouchable breaks out each time the villagers claim the minimum wage. Local politicians suggest that this is the struggle between rival left wing factions. A small memorial raised by the untouchable villagers lists the names, whole families often, of those who died.  


"I don't want to seem to attack India, or Indians", Hamermesh says, "maybe other people should do that, maybe Indians. I am interested by the way nothing is changing. In the thirties, everyone in India believed in progress. Progress, which was coming from the Soviet Union would sweep away such injustices. Instead progress has often consisted of an adaption of traditional injustices to modern conditions. This is happening in much of the world and we are all responsible, in varying degrees. What do we intend to do about this?"

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