Malayalis in most parts of India have the privilege of spending Vishu at home, as the Kerala New Year coincides with the birthday of one of the country’s greatest sons - Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. The architect of the Constitution of India, who dedicated his life to the social and economic transformation of Dalits and other depressed classes, did not spend much time in Kerala but is greatly admired by Malayalis irrespective of caste or religion. So, it’s a matter of great pride that director Jabbar Patel chose to cast Malayalam film legend Mammootty to play the role of Ambedkar in a biopic titled Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.
The film that took almost a decade to complete was ready in 2000, although it has not been screened commercially. A moustache-less Mammootty looked like a natural when delivering dialogues that were based on Ambedkar’s talks, lectures and writings. From recordings of his speeches and interviews, we can tell that the economist and social reformer, who was independent India’s first law and justice minister, had an immaculate diction. In the film, Mammootty’s accent is more or less neutral, and it is a real pleasure to hear Ambedkar’s words “educate, organise and agitate” via the actor’s powerful voice.
Children grow up idolising Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as our school history syllabus highlights the important roles played by these two giants, however not enough is known about Ambedkar’s role in the foundation of the modern Indian republic. Many school children from privileged backgrounds do not fully understand that Dalits and members of other depressed classes faced double discrimination in British India - one from the British and the other from many fellow Indians who saw them as lesser human beings.
The film shows us important events in the Dalit struggle for basic rights such as the 1927 Mahad Satyagraha, which was held to allow the so-called Untouchables the right to use water in a public tank. It is a well-known fact that Ambedkar and Gandhi did not have an ideal relationship. The film boldly and candidly depicts their meetings and conversations, and the lead up to the Poona Pact. Several decades after these events have occurred, it is imperative for us to look at them more fairly, even if it means that we need to acknowledge that the Mahatma was a lot more human and fallible than many are willing to accept.
There are also glimpses of Ambedkar’s life as a student in Columbia University in New York and the London School of Economics. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is set in London, where a fellow student racially abuses Ambedkar and pours some soup on his shirt. Seeing the Indian leader stand up and get an instant apology from the student is a ‘goose bumps’ moment.
One can tell from the depictions of this phase of his life that Ambedkar believed that the eradication of Untouchability and India’s freedom struggle had to go hand in hand.
Ambedkar was briefly a professor of political economy at Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai at a time when it was the premier commerce college in the country. A few minutes of the film are dedicated to his time in the college in 1918. Being a Sydenham alumnus, it was particularly heart breaking for this writer to discover that students initially had no respect for this overqualified professor because of his caste, and that his upper caste colleagues also mistreated him. These are all uncomfortable truths that more people should know about.
Popularising the film
The movie deservedly won three National Film Awards - Best Feature Film in English, Best Art Direction for Nitin Chandrakant Desai and Best Actor for Mammootty. There is no doubt that Mammootty deserved the award. For those three hours, it was Ambedkar himself and not Mammootty that one saw on the screen. It takes tremendous talent to deliver the way he did. It is, however, unfortunate that the film is not widely known. It took 16 years after its production for the film to be screened in public (when it was a part of the 2016 Independence Day Film Festival).
The film has been dubbed into several Indian languages, including Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Bengali and Tamil, but it does not make the programming schedules of even the national broadcaster Doordarshan. CDs of the film are sold in places where the Ambedkarite movement is popular, such as Mumbai’s Dadar, but not close to enough people have even heard of the film, let alone seen it.
The biopic should be part of the school syllabus of every education board in India. Only a strong and accurate depiction of the struggles of the downtrodden will create enough empathy in the minds of the young for the historically underprivileged and those who continue to face discrimination to this day. German children grow up knowing about the horrors and brutality of the Nazi regime thanks to the country fully acknowledging its ugly past. This has at least in principle created an environment where bigotry and racism are universally accepted as social evils, even if there are some closet racists. An acknowledgement of historic wrongdoings as well as universal acceptance that caste-based discrimination is a black mark on Indian civilisation may help pave the way for a more egalitarian Indian society. Hats off to Jabbar Patel, Mammootty and the whole team that worked on the biopic for attempting to bring a greater awareness of the struggles of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the depressed classes of India.
(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)