What Adoor Gopalakrishnan must remember is that caste still thrives systemically, through people like him, who expect to be above criticism just because they claim to have denounced caste on paper.

Stylised image of Adoor Gopalakrishnan against protesting students of KRNIVSA
Voices Opinion Tuesday, January 17, 2023 - 18:57

“What is the logic in assuming that a well-meaning man would have a problem with people from marginalised castes? There should be a motive to oppress people based on caste, right?” asks filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan in a recent interview, brushing aside allegations of caste-based discrimination against KR Narayanan National Institute of Visual Sciences and Art (KRNIVSA) director Shankar Mohan. It feels as if too much ink has already been spilled writing about the absurdity of a savarna man dishing out statements like this. But he does not seem to keep quiet about his own privileged ignorance, making it inevitable that we critique him, despite having already done it many times over.

It's quite ironic watching a man of Adoor’s stature reveal his true self, interview by interview, statement by statement, undoing his own art. If he needs it to be spelled out again, this is how caste operates – by asking for a ‘motive’ in treating people differently and placing oneself on the high horse of magnanimity. 

Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who is also the chairperson of KRNIVSA, has been stubbornly backing the institute’s director Shankar Mohan who is facing serious charges of violating reservation  norms in admissions and discriminating against students and sanitation staff on the basis of caste and class. Women cleaning staff have accused Shankar Mohan of forcing them to perform domestic chores at his official residence as well as clean toilets with their bare hands using extremely small scrubbers. Not only has Adoor shielded Shankar Mohan with testimonies of his efficiency and humanity, but he has also completely brushed away the fact that there is a clear power hierarchy in a workplace, and that when the ones in power also have caste and gender privilege, it is important to be sensitive to the ways in which power can corrupt.

“[Shankar Mohan] studied in the film institute and even acted in MT Vasudevan Nair’s film Manju. He served as the director of the Directorate of Film Festivals. He was the director of the Kolkata Film Institute. He also served as a governing council member of the Pune institute. He has successfully curated five editions of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI),” Adoor waxes lyrical about Shankar Mohan, stressing that the younger filmmakers who are now conducting parallel classes for the students of KRNIVSA have “not even seen the gate of an institute”. 

The belief that a person’s worth lies in their resume is appalling, especially coming from someone like Adoor who has documented the human condition in all its complexity through his films. What appears to be lost on Adoor, seated on his mountain of privileges, is that opportunity, exposure, and access to plum positions in premium institutions are all a cumulative outcome of social capital. Those who are pushed to the margins have no option but to chase their dreams without the backing of university certificates. 

The protests at KRNIVSA are historic in Kerala’s socio-political landscape for several reasons, the most important of which is that it holds a flashlight to the state’s so-called progressive social fabric. Neither the much-touted literacy rate nor the supposed Left ethos of the state can exorcise the ghosts of caste from the psyche of Kerala society. They must be exorcised with resolute struggle and agitation, which is exactly what the staff and students at KRNIVSA are trying to do. 

When Adoor says, “I judge people based on their actions. Caste has nothing to do with one’s performance. In fact, there are only two castes – good and bad people,” it can be perceived as nothing but the plain convenience of a feudal patriarch who feels that the only reality is his own. This is also perhaps why it is effortless for him to defend actor Dileep, who is accused of masterminding the sexual assault of a female actor in a moving car in Kochi, in 2017. “I am against tarnishing others without any proof. I believe Dileep is innocent. I am against labelling someone without any proof,” Adoor remarks in the The New Indian Express interview. Survivor solidarity is crucial, especially in a society where gender, power, and capital determine who must be believed. But it looks like a futile exercise to elaborate on all this to Adoor. 

“I am someone who discarded my caste surname at the age of 20. So please don’t give me lessons on casteism. I am someone who donated my land to the LIFE Mission project to build houses for economically backward sections. How many of these people who accuse me of casteism and classism will do that?” Adoor says when asked by the interviewer about the allegations that he possessed a casteist mindset. What Adoor and other dominant caste individuals who boast of their revolutionary act of dropping caste surnames must remember is that by doing so they have not single-handedly ended caste discrimination. Caste still thrives systemically, through people like him, who expect to be above criticism just because they had their surnames changed on paper.

In fact, Adoor keeps repeating several versions of this argument, in a desperate bid to establish that “they are criticising me for publicity”. But what he must understand is that this whole exercise is not an attempt by a few ‘propped up’ women and ‘irresponsible students’ to bring down a cultural icon, whom the world, unfortunately, doesn’t revolve around. Anyone who says ‘I have helped the marginalised’ is being obnoxiously ignorant of how that very statement is a product of their sense of superiority and saviorship. 

It is not charity or benevolence that anyone is asking of you, sir. Just plain empathy and cognisance of the fact that denying the existence of systemic oppression is a reflection of privilege. We urge more humanity than that from you, with all due respect.

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