Meet the Director: Jyoti Nisha Unveils 'BR Ambedkar, Now and Then' and the Bahujan Narrative

' Discrimination has been a part of my life in various ways. I vividly remember being turned away because of my caste during Kanya Pujan at six years old, which was humiliating. In my twenties, people would question how I could speak good English or mention that I didn't look like a scheduled caste person. I would retort, asking them about their perception of a scheduled caste person.'
Meet the Director: Jyoti Nisha Unveils 'BR Ambedkar, Now and Then' and the Bahujan Narrative

New Delhi- Step into the world of Jyoti Nisha, the visionary director behind the compelling documentary 'BR Ambedkar, Now and Then.' Delve into an exploration of the Bahujan perspective and the clash of realities within the popular culture, as this filmmaker offers an intimate view into the complex layers of representation, caste struggles, and social narratives through her lens. The film features personalities like Jignesh Mewani, Raya Sarkar, and some NRI activists. The trailer for the documentary was released recently.

TM: Please tell us how the film takes forward the Bahujan narrative.

Jyoti Nisha: As an academician, I have formulated a theory called Bahujan Spectatorship. This theory deals with the question: when marginalized sections see their representation in popular culture, are they able to relate to it? Does it validate the Bahujan perspective, make us laugh, or infuriate us because it distorts the perspective? As a Bahujan, I felt I couldn't relate to the representation of Bahujan culture in the popular narrative. The Bahujan movement revolves around self-respect, but I couldn't see that self-respect in popular culture. There was a grievance that, although our story has been penned by eminent figures like Savitri Bai Phule and Baba Saheb, the representation lacks depth. The film, made by a woman, incorporates an Ambedkarite feminist perspective lens.

Considering my background in an anti-caste Ambedkarite family, I strongly felt the need for the Bahujan anti-caste narrative in popular culture. My inspiration from Bell Hooks, an Afro-American theoretician, heavily influenced my work. Hooks asserts that popular culture is the site of transgression and literacy. I concur with her because a discussion about the representation of our perspective is essential for communicating our authentic imagination. If education and communication through cinema and literature are to be successful, collaboration with people from our society is crucial. Marxist thinker and French philosopher Louis Althusser opines that cinema is an ideological state apparatus. Therefore, understanding who funds our cinema and why there's a lack of discussion around it is necessary. I disagree with popular culture because it lacks authenticity, especially when there's no collaboration with people from our society.

The movie "BR Ambedkar, Now and then" signifies what's happening today and what occurred in the past in the anti-caste movement.
The movie "BR Ambedkar, Now and then" signifies what's happening today and what occurred in the past in the anti-caste movement.

It took eight years to make the film, and it features feminist and Dalit activists like Raya Sarkar, Jignesh Mewani, Thenmozhi Soundarrajan, Urmila Pawar, etc. The film explores cases like Una (flogging Dalits for skinning a dead cow) or the Rohith Vemula case. Our discourse is often dismissed or leans towards leftist perspectives because popular culture lacks knowledge about our culture. I believe the film is essentially about our self-respect.

TM: What is the significance of the film's title, "BR Ambedkar, Now and Then"?

Jyoti Nisha: When I began the film, the BJP was appropriating Dr. BR Ambedkar, which led me to question why they were discussing him at that point. He was being talked about, but not in the way that he should have been. The expressions of artists, activists, and thinkers from the Bahujan community differed from the mainstream Bahujan community. Figures like Rohith Vemula and Jignesh Mewani were expressing from a distinct perspective. I pondered why the popular culture suddenly became so interested in Baba Saheb in 2014. I realized that appropriation occurs when the privileged community appropriates the culture, music, dress, food, sacred objects, and stories of oppressed communities without giving them credit. If they appropriate Baba Saheb socially and culturally, what impact will it have? I believe it was crucial to provide a platform to those who engage with the state. "Now and then" signifies what's happening today and what occurred in the past in the anti-caste movement.

TM: Pa Ranjit, with whom you collaborated, uses mainstream cinema to indirectly infuse the Bahujan narrative. What do you think about the subliminal impact made by cinema?

Jyoti Nisha: We need to understand the state and its apparatus, such as the court, police, judiciary, administration - these are regressive and often ideologically motivated state apparatus. Then there are cultural and ideological state apparatus like family, school, arts, religion, radio, TV, trade movements, and activists. Whichever cinema you watch, you can observe symbols representing their ideologies, which affect you personally because you relate to them. When I saw Pa Ranjit's cinema, I felt a personal connection. I find his cinema assertive as he addresses land rights. Even in his latest film, he emphasizes inclusivity. I began working on this cinema in 2016, shooting in two to three states until 2019. Due to limited funds for post-production, I started crowdfunding. I spoke to Pa Ranjit and pitched the idea to him, and he agreed. Working with him has been a great experience. He's supportive and understanding, recognizing the time required to make a film.

The film explores cases like Una (flogging Dalits for skinning a dead cow) and the Rohith Vemula case.
The film explores cases like Una (flogging Dalits for skinning a dead cow) and the Rohith Vemula case.

TM: Tell us about yourself and explain your statement that your perspective was clouded by the popular narrative.

Jyoti Nisha: I come from a background in western UP called Bijnor, where my grandfather was a farmer. My father, Netram Singh, sold grass to complete his diploma and moved to the city when he got a job. He was an ardent Ambedkarite, and I witnessed him conducting cadre camps at our home. Most people struggle to fight caste because they can't comprehend its structure. I learned about the caste structure and where I stood within it through my family. My father was the National President of BAMCEF in 2002, the year he passed away. However, my perspective remained clouded by popular culture due to the narratives on TV and in newspapers, which did not align with my experiences.

In 2014, I observed the apprehensions of the Bahujans becoming a reality, and it became challenging to ignore these truths. Studying at TISS provided me with the language to articulate my experiences. No matter how skilled your craft is, the content lacks richness and nuance without proper representation. I also questioned whether our own people are aware of our perspective, even if the privileged community is not.

TM: This is your first full-length documentary film. Please tell us about your earlier projects.

Jyoti Nisha: I studied scriptwriting at FTII and media and cultural studies at TISS, so I was familiar with scripting but not direction. Although I lacked training as a director, I was well-informed about popular culture and felt I could undertake this endeavor. I faced financial losses after collaborating with the wrong people but learned a great deal. Later, I worked with Dharma Productions for "Geeli Puchchi," and prior to that, I had worked on other projects. Directing involves being the captain of a ship, and attending film school was undoubtedly beneficial. I also served as a producing faculty at Whistling Woods, learning from the students. Filmmaking requires significant funds, especially in cities like Mumbai where living expenses are high. During the making of the film, I often struggled to get enough sleep.

Jyoti Nisha with her crew at Dharamshala International Film Festival, 2023
Jyoti Nisha with her crew at Dharamshala International Film Festival, 2023

TM: Explain your lived experience of caste discrimination conflicting with the popular narrative.

Jyoti Nisha: Discrimination has been a part of my life in various ways. I vividly remember being turned away because of my caste during Kanya Pujan at six years old, which was humiliating. In my twenties, people would question how I could speak good English or mention that I didn't look like a scheduled caste person. I would retort, asking them about their perception of a scheduled caste person. More recently, I mentioned my love for beef kababs in Lucknow, and someone asked for my full name, insinuating indirect harassment and a challenge to my work.

The purpose behind making this film was to question the education of privileged communities. If they are educated, where is their humanity? If they are casteist, I nullify their education. It's unfortunate, but caste is a reality in India.

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