This three-hour film biography of one of India’s most important social reformers was completed in 1999 by Jabbar Patel, who had previously made a well-received, but fairly short, documentary about the same subject.
The intention when making the film was two-fold: to produce a dramatic work that would be on the same scale as the Gandhi movie in the 80s; and to correct the historical facts regarding the life of the man and the history of the country. That this was controversial can be shown by the fact that the director took almost 2 years to get the film past the censors.
To say the story is epic is very much an understatement, only in fiction would we expect to come across such a story. Here is a man who was born an untouchable at a time when they were largely forbidden education – he himself was not even allowed inside the classroom. But somehow, through hard work he studied and entered Elphinstone College and obtained a degree from the affiliated Bombay University.
He managed to get a Baroda State Scholarship and then studied at Colombia University in New York, where he prepared his MA. He later went on to London and did his PhD thesis and meanwhile studied law, attaining both his degree and being called to the bar within three years. In doing so he faced and overcame enormous hardships along the way, but his determination brought him through.
Back in India he started working for the upliftment of the untouchables, which brought him into conflict with mainstream Hindu society, which was still shackled to the law books and customs that had been passed down to them. He wrote articles, led marches and engaged in civil disobedience to attain his aims, and gained a huge following amongst the people.
He also had to struggle with the leader of the Independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, who had his own – and sometimes very different – approach to the problems the country was facing. Branded as a traitor for dealing with the colonial government, and facing opposition to his upliftment and human rights programme, he still managed to struggle on, eventually coming to an uneasy compromise with Gandhi.
The Indian Congress would only agree to support the Allied Powers during the war if they were guaranteed independence after it, and when the time come it was Dr. Ambedkar who was appointed the nation’s first law minsiter, and was the main person who drafted the constitution. Another of his attempts at reform to uplift the legal position of women, called the Hindu Code Bill, died in parliament, and he thereafter resigned his seat.
Already in the 1930s Dr. Ambedkar had announced that because of the impossibility of reforming the Hindu system he would himself leave the fold and take his followers with him, and the final revolutionary act of his life was to renounce Hinduism and declare himself a Buddhist following the Theravada school. That was in 1956, and he died only two months later.
He had previously written a book called Who were the Shudras? in part of which he tried to show that originally the Mahar people, the caste he was born into, were originally Buddhists who had been forced outside of regular society when they refused to give up their beliefs and practices, and so he considered his conversion a re-conversion.
The film is compelling because the character it portrays is so heroic, but I found that the epic sweep of historical events that was found in the Gandhi film was missing here, and for an outsider they may have difficulty piecing together the life story with the historical story. Next week I will show a recent documentary by Stalin K. about the situation of untouchables (now called dalits) in India today.