Monday, September 1, 2014

Subaltern Resistance in the City of Joy

For many, depictions of Asia and Africa can consist of a variety of (sometimes competing) archetypes. Amongst these embodiments is the image of poverty and life in slums replete with disease, crime, and open sewers. For many living in such countries, these images reify certain caricatures of the "developing" South/East and simultaneously provoke (naturally) defensive responses as though such tropes of otherness singularly define the nations' existence and that of its people. Yet embedded within films that display such imagery, there are still other powerful narratives that depict more than just the abject poverty - there are also stories about law and resistance.

In this posting, I shall explore, in particular, one film's exploration about law and resistance, The City of Joy, directed by Roland Joffé. The film was based on the book of the same name written by Dominique LaPierre about the rigors of life in Calcutta's Anandnagar (City of Joy). At the time of its filming, in the early 1990s, there were local protests against the production for fear that it was portraying India in a poor light. The filming nevertheless continued and it was eventually released in 1992.

At first glance, the film appears to model and replicate the notion of a Western savior (in the form of Dr. Max Lowe played by the late Patrick Swayze) swooping in to save the local residents of the slum - from the miseries of disease (such as leprosy) and from the local mafia crime lord and his son who extract high rents from the local residents and businesses. Max does indeed improve their lives through his medical skills and his assistance. Yet, as the film progresses, another narrative develops that highlights the subjectivity of the local residents, and in particular, the resistive qualities of the relatively docile Hazari Pal (played by Indian actor Om Puri). While Max acts as a catalyst to inspire and taunt individuals such as Hazari into action, it is ultimately their own decisions to resist that makes them legal agents/subjects in their own right. Before explaining how Hazari asserts his (legal) subjectivity as a resister, rather than merely being saved by an outsider, I shall explain how and in what manner law plays a role in this film.

The "legal" framework is not one that centers around the legal norms of the governments of India, the state of West Bengal, and/or the city of Calcutta - it is an informal (if not illegal and unjust) system of norms created by a local crime lord and enforced by his son, Ashok, and their henchmen. The crime lord's control in many ways operates like a mini-government/fiefdom. He mandates that "taxes" be paid for "protection". When Max and other residents of the slum seek to build a free clinic to treat lepers without paying the crime lord's tax, and thus engage in their own form of a tax revolt, they are besieged by "protestors" - in essence the crime lord's hired thugs. The clinic is damaged and the property destroyed. The residents eventually capitulate and agree to be "protected". This crime lord-operated "government" also functions as a licensor for rickshaw pullers who must pay fees to work as pullers. It is a system that limits free(er) enterprise and places restraints on commerce.

Hazari's legal subjectivity as a resister emerges in two ways within this normative context. First, it comes into play when Hazari takes defiant steps to pull his rickshaw without the permission of the crime lord. After Ashok deprives Hazari of his "license" to pull a rickshaw (retribution for his part in setting up the leprosy clinic without the clinic paying taxes), Hazari decides, after some prodding from Max, to reconstruct/repair an unlawfully acquired rickshaw with the intention of using it to earn money. This act of reconstructing the rickshaw is itself an act of resistance against this local polity that restrains him from earning a livelihood of his choosing. Hazari furthermore involves himself in a strike by rickshaw pullers against an increase in "fees" imposed by Ashok. During the strike, Hazari asserts himself by urging his fellow pullers to continue to strike after Ashok threatens to take away their rickshaws if they persist in their strike. He advances to where Ashok is situated and grabs the microphone to speak to the rickshaw pullers. This causes a commotion and Hazari is arrested for this act. Later in court, before the judge, he in effect proudly declares his right to strike and to carry a rickshaw without having to pay illegal fees to Ashok (who has now taken over the mini-government after his father's passing) as well as bribes to actual policemen. The judge agrees with Hazari's rights to strike and pull a rickshaw without let or hindrance and furthermore issues a restraining order preventing Ashok from prohibiting Hazari from pulling his rickshaw. The judge formally legitimizes his act of resistance which here is in furtherance of a right to earn a livelihood, not to mention more essentially, a basic right to liberty in carrying on a livelihood of his choice. Although his defiance comes at a cost as he must pay fifty rupees as a fine for his part in the "disturbance" or stay in jail for several days. Legitimized resistance thus comes comes at a cost.
Second, after undermining Ashok's control by being able to pull his rickshaw, Hazari's penultimate act of defiance is manifested by physically confronting Ashok directly. While transporting his kids (a teenage daughter and two younger sons) and Max on the rickshaw, Hazari is stopped by Ashok and his henchmen. As Ashok takes hold of Hazari's daughter and threatens to disfigure her face with a razor blade, Hazari lashes out and lunges at Ashok. Although stabbed, Hazari physically bests Ashok and is on the verge of killing him when Hazari notices his children are watching and witnessing. He then stops and admonishes Ashok to stop his oppressive activities against him and the other residents of the slum.

More than just another movie that portrays life in the Third World as tantamount to a slum dwelling, The City of Joy is a film about normative (and indeed oppressive) structures and how resistance can operate within such structures - indeed to defeat or substantially undermine the system itself in defence of larger and perhaps more fundamental legal principles (e.g. the right to work, right to liberty and notions of fair taxation and good governance). Furthermore, the film also recognizes Indian/Third World characters as having subjectivity to reconstruct legal normativity without having it delivered upon them by outsiders (read: Westerners) as saviors. Undoubtedly Max's character is influential and is a catalyst. But he does not, vis-a-vis this informal governing structure, act as its vanquisher. Indeed through much of the film, Max hardly ever wins a fight (of course this is usually because he has to face 3-4 of the crime lord's henchmen at once). It is ultimately Hazari who frees the residents of the slum from Ashok's oppressive control.

None of this of course is to suggest that there is nothing problematic about other aspects of the film perhaps, however I will reserve that for another blog posting.

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