Through the lens: the world of the working class

Media activist groups Marupakkam and Periyar Self-Respect Media organized a workers’ film festival in Periyar Thidal on May 1st. The films in the festival brought out the contrasts between excessive production of commodities and the labour who makes it possible – who are always on the fringes of society – without voice, without protections, each of them reduced to the level of a dispensable part of a machine.
The opening film Arrival (1980) is a sequence of shots – of commodities pouring into a metropolis for consumption, of workers loading and unloading goods, of faceless workers in construction sites, workers crammed into trains chugging into the city before daybreak
and of workers sleeping in railway platforms.

The products of their labour rise up in the background – skyscrapers of apartments crowding a concrete jungle. This is juxtaposed with a sequence from a slaughterhouse. Herds of goats packed tightly in trucks being unloaded – killed – skinned – workers performing these tasks in an assembly line, the clattering of a hook on the assembly line indicating one animal processed.

In Dilly Dallying, a government-sponsored film from 1957, the government exhorts its citizens to work hard and be punctual – without dilly-dallying – urging the citizenry into machine-like obedience. The order borders on violence towards the citizen. Amudhan, the curator of the festival, phrased the government’s orders to its ‘thick-skulled’ subjects as :  “you better fit in the shirt – you are the wrong size, the shirt is right.” This is a window into the mindset of the Indian state, of how it approached the project of nation-building. It consisted of homogenizing and disciplining vastly diverse peoples. The model of success held up by the film is the upper caste office go-er who is at his desk as the clock chimes ten. In a way this mindset is closely mirrored in our educational system.

Where has this project taken us? The nuts and the bolts of the machine – contract workers, migrant workers – where have they ended up in the subsequent decades? In Jagadish Bhai – A life in Progress (2015), we meet a person who has worked in the Border Security Force (BSF) through the prime of his life, separated from his wife who is sick and probably depressed. In Playgrounds (2014), a child of migrant workers gets lost playing hide and seek – and the contractor pressurizes the parents to move on from the site.

But workers have fought back and provided alternate imaginations. In First Cry (2014), the adivasi workers in Dalli Rajhara coal mines (in Chhatisgarh) are frustrated with the government health system. The health system was dysfunctional for the coal mine workers, who were too ‘dirty’ for the staff. The workers respond by building their own hospital. Over 10,000 workers donated their wages and built Shahid hospital, brick by brick, with their own hands. Such an endeavour was possible because of the presence of a strong workers movement – Chhattisgarh Mazdoor Shramik Sangh – under the leadership of Shankar Guha Niyogi. In the hospital they build,  health workers, assistants, dispensers of medicines – are all ‘uneducated’ adivasis. Ironically, Dr. Saibal Jana, one of the doctors of Shahid hospital was arrested recently, as part of the government’s ongoing crackdown in Chhatisgarh.

The theme of large scale production is brought up again in the closing film Dollar City (2015, directed by Amudhan) about the garment industry of Thiruppur. Since as early as the 1920s, Thiruppur has been a garment manufacturing hub. It has been a melting pot for migrants of different castes. But the working conditions are tough. Most workers are employed on piece rate basis, they work 12 hours a day 7 days a week, and don’t have any benefits like ESI and PF. There are instances of children being employed in the factories. In spite of machines – the industry is very labour intensive. A regulation-free environment made it very attractive for international brands. In the 1990s, factories in Thiruppur supplied to all leading international clothing brands. But in recent years Thiruppur has been facing a downturn. Discharge from dyeing had made the water from Noyyal river unsuitable for irrigation, and a 2006-Madras High court order instructs dying and bleaching units to ensure Zero liquid discharge. In addition, to pollution-related troubles, the tax holiday and other concessions from the government (like a high duty drawback rate) also ran out in the 2000s. This is yet another case of corporates milking a place dry – both in terms of labour exploitation and environmental pollution, and exiting when profits dip.

As the mainstream narrative is dominated by the importance of growth, development and the importance of individual hard work, on the occasion of May Day festival, the film camera lingers on invisible workers – giving them faces, families, stories, and struggles. How a person who kills bulls in a slaughterhouse views his work, the BSF security person in Kashmir who has to stand for long hours wearing a 22-Kg bullet-proof vest, workers in a metro train in commutes that are endless as the working class is pushed out of cities. Can these workers dream together, and struggle together and reject the oppressive reality of capitalism forced on them?

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