By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter
A Rifle and a Bag is an intimate look at a former Naxalite couple who have surrendered to a system that still works against them.
The documentary begins with an explanation:
The film, like Writing with Fire, gives us an idea of how a caste system functions in today’s world and leads to questions about recent US rhetoric about racism.
A fire burns in the forest. We hear the call of wild animals. We’re not going into the jungle. We’re following a couple, Somi and Sukhram. The two met while in a commando unit of the Naxalies and surrendered together.
Somi and Sukhram surrendered to the government. They resettle in Maharashtra, but their past comes back to haunt them. The parents need to get the father’s cast/tribal certificate. In order to do so, they would have to go to Chattisgarh, the place that Sukhram and Somi escaped. Going back there would put them in imminent danger.
The documentary was shot over a period of three years, with about 50 days between 2017 and 2019. In order to build up trust, the directors, Asian Indian Arya Rothe, Romanian Cristina Hanes and Italian Isabella Rinaldi spent five months to get to know them. Much of what we see is the family going about their daily lives and some of this seems indulgent. Although the film comes in at 87 minutes, it seems overlong for the content presented.
The value of this film, in its striking visuals and presentation of frustrating social dilemma, is to present an aspect of a caste system as it exists today. With the publication of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author “says racism is an insufficient term for the systemic oppression of Black people in America,” and she “prefers to refer to America as having a ‘caste’ system,” according to an article in NPR.
The book sparked national debate, and while the NPR article touches on going outside the binary of Black and White, an Asian Indian American anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai, who was born in Mumbai, wrote a thoughtful critique for Wire, Comparing Race to Cast Is an Interesting Idea, But There Are Crucial Differences Between Both. Appadurai notes that Wilkerson’s thesis uses anecdotes and allegory, but does not stand on a strong structural foundation.
While Appadurai notes there was a flow of ideas between Dalits and African Americans, the “mutual admiration cannot be the basis for the sort of deep structural comparison that Wilkerson is keen to make.”
The documentary, A Rifle and a Bag, provides an example of the caste system at work in India from the viewpoint of three female documentarians as well as showing one strategy of dealing with domestic ethnic strife with both the good intentions of inclusiveness as well as the systems failings.
A Rifle and a Bag premiered in January 2020 in the Netherlands. It was part of the AAIFF 2021 programming in August.
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