(Still from Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani by Jiju Antony)
Holocaust and the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent have given us more burning images than any other world events could impart. Perhaps, if you just close your eyes, closer to home images of horrifying images might pop up. And you often wonder why, if given without a suggestion to think a good or bad image, but just an image, why you imagine only those horrible images? Do images an innate horrible side to it? Does each beautiful image engender a horrendous image? Do the good images hide the bad ones? While the latter cannot be doing the same to the former ones, in dire contexts or even in the controlled contexts of a concert hall or a theatre or even in a drawing room where you read your daily dose of newspaper, the sad images could lead you to a cathartic experience and after the mental climaxing you may, yes you may, come out of the experience as a much refined being, at least temporarily. That’s what art does to a person. Jiju Antony’s movie, ‘Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani’ (EELS-2017) does the same to a viewer, especially when one sees it against the backdrop of the images of migrant laborers walking miles to get home streaming into his consciousness.
(Filmmaker Jiju Antony)
The word could be cathartic, when spoken in the context of a movie or art form as just mentioned above, but in a real life situation the images could something else; a pure indignation could fill inside you, an unreasonable dejection might engulf you, an inexplicable gloominess would envelop you, provided if you are a human being. If you are in a high rise building, move away from the balcony for you might feel this itch to jump down. If you are in possession of a gun, keep off from it for you might pull the trigger against yourself for you and I know it is a gloomy Sunday. Art could however make life imitate it inversing the oft-held notion of art imitating life. Here, almost four years before, Jiju Antony, the director of EELS seemed to have imagined the life imitating art. This line of thought becomes all the more poignant and powerful when you tend to see each abstract face in the milling crowd of daily wage earning men and women throng the bus stations in the blistering hot, making the drone shots a jumble of human pixels, a story. Like a shot where an image comes into focus after hovering around in out of focus for a long time, the faces become clear and each face belongs to a human being and each of them has a story to tell.
They do not tell it. They perhaps tell it to their silent nights through sighs of longing and pain. But there are sensitive film directors like Jiju Antony who would walk an extra mile to eke out stories from those faces. In EELS the protagonist is a taxi driver (when we see him in the narrative for the second time) and in due course of time we come to know that he is an orphan named Prakash Jadhav. As we see him on his day of hanging inside the jail and also in the 9th segment him committing a rape and double murder we ourselves have given the judgement that he deserves the capital punishment. Hailing from the underbelly of this vast country called India, any innocent looking person could turn into a potential criminal and that is what we learn to believe. A flotsam in the urban pool of life, these people are looked at with suspicion and distrust. And each time we confront them we make them believe that they don’t belong. “Tere aukat kya hai yeh toilet use karneka’ (What’s your right to use this toilet) asks the lady who has employed him as her personal driver. The relationship between the employer and the employee is so tentative and flimsy that any moment the latter could explode. He doesn’t do it because he does not want to be a criminal; but each time he knows that one beast is growing in him. He doesn’t even spit that hatred growing in him like the way the protagonist in Arvind Adiga’s novel the White Tiger, Balram, a driver does.
(Prathap Joseph, cinematographer of EELS)
What makes one a criminal is the question that many a film has explored. But in EELS, done in the Decalogue fashion, ten stories, of the same person but done in a reverse order but not strictly in a flashback fashion. Also one could see Jiju auto-refers the short movie, ‘An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge.’ However, Jiju’s idea is not to justify the rape and murder committed by Prakash Jadhav but explore how he has become one. In a way the culprit is not Jhadav but the events that unfold in his life which lie beyond his control. By the time we reach the last section we almost sympathize with the six year old Jhadav and wonder how this boy could do such atrocities in life. He goes through a series of setbacks in his life. Orphaned at a young age he is brought up by a Christian priest who subjects him unnatural sex which makes him escape from that hell. His baptism through street life and destitution finally makes him a taxi driver and in the meanwhile his experiences have made him impotent. His impotency is treated in the movie as a trope that makes him rethink about his worth and manliness and he could express that only through violence.
(Deewar by Yash Chopra 1975)
One may find Jiju’s movie thematically a bit overdone especially in the mainstream cinema where a harrowing life is attributed to the protagonist to make him an anti-hero that a society craves for especially when it collectively feels the political impotency. But the way the film has been created is different. One doesn’t even come to know the transition of tone in each segment to not only show the time in past but also to emphasis the dying innocence of the man. By the time he commits crime, he is in color. One good thing about the movie is that neither the character Jhadav nor the director justifies the wrong doing of the protagonist. There is a sort of inevitability of events in the movie that couldn’t have controlled by any other parties. It is not even like the man flowing with the stream but it is more like an episode caught by the storm of history, as Walter Benjamin would put it. Perhaps, the grand tragedy of Jhadav is the collective tragedy of the laborers in India. Disorganized and anchorless these people are pushed to the edges of the society, as dregs of life. It is an effort to find a meaning to its own incomprehensible existence. It is not like the grand narrative of Deewar (Yash Chopra 1975) where the protagonist from the village living on a footpath looks at the high rise, promising himself to reach there by hooks or crook. Vinay Lal, the sociologist and cultural historian speaks of two viewpoints of the movie; one from the footpath and one from the high rise. ‘Mera pass gadi hai buglaw hai…sab kuch hai, tuhmare paas kya hai?’ (I have got a bungalow, car and everything what have you got?) ‘Mere pas maa hai’ (I have got mother).
(Cultural Historian Prof.Vinay Lal)
This effort to belong versus the natural belongingness (to mother, mother India, mother earth and so on) was the great point of crisis in 1970s and the grand narratives of the time sold the dream that one could make it in a city like Mumbai. But the post-global scenario unveiled a new reality where the movement from the footpath to high rise became impossible. Prakash Jhadav, with his surname connoting his lower caste identity is bound to end up either as a taxi driver or a small time worker. There is no emancipation for him in this city. The termite like existence that has brought them out during the corona crisis into the streets of Delhi underlines the fact that the rich has to exist with this kind of poor and make them constantly invisible. This sudden visibilizing of them through a calamity in fact has caught the rich unprepared and that has exposed their vile. Jhadav’s crime is not his crime but a collective crime which got manifested through him. It is constant invisibilizing of Jhadav and his ilk makes them assert their visibility through the most horrendous ways. Jiju Antony definitely does not endorse the criminal act but he calls out (like Lawrence Fishburne calls out ‘wake up’ in Spike Lee’s ‘School Daez’, a black redemption movie) ‘Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani’ ‘Oh God Oh God Why have You Forsaken Me?’
(Lawrence Fishburne in Spike Lee's 'School Daez)
Christ calls this out to God and it is what each person today on the road calls out. Perhaps it is what each person who have come down with Covid 19 calling out ‘Oh God, why me and why have you forsaken me?’ Prakash Jhadav could have been anybody else. But the question is that why he? So the story should go back. Had he been born to a rich family he would never have been this. Prakash Jhadav could have been an IAS officer, a doctor or anything of his choice had the events in his life were different since his birth. Hence, those who are back home relaxing and feeling okay about the migrant laborers and the destitute, Jiju Antony’s movie tells you, should know that they are lucky only because they are born in a different condition and grew up in a different way. Your crime is not lauded but the question remains, why oh God, if you are there, why have you abandoned me by ‘choosing’ me? Produced by NiV Art Movies and Kazhcha Film forum the film EELS has excellent cinematography by Prathap Joseph, himself an award winning indie film maker and is edited by another award winning film director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan.