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December 15, 1998


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On her blindness

Shobha Warrier

A still from Oru Kann, Oru Paarvai. Click for bigger pic!
It was sometime ago that entire nation's dailies and magazines found something to be horrified about -- the blinding of a dalit girl for daring to cross the caste barrier.

Educated Indians were most upset to read that even in twentieth century untouchability was practised in India, that too in a state that prided itself for being the second-most literate in India, Tamil Nadu.

In Salem, where the incident occurred, it is apparently hubris for a lower caste person to use the same glass used by one from a higher caste.

A master who caught her breaking the rules, beat her with a stick that finally entered the girl's eye. The girl lost her eyesight and after the initial uproar, the public also blinded itself to the incident. Nobody knew, or maybe even cared, whether she got justice or her eyesight.

But the incident continued to grate one man who had never seen the girl, but who was sensitive enough to feel anguish that such a thing could happen. This was Gnana Rajasekharan, an IAS officer then the district collector of Trichur district in Kerala.

Rajasekharan, now the regional officer of the Central Board of Film Certification, had earlier, in 1994, won the Indira Gandhi National award for 'the best of first film of a director' with his Tamil film, Moha Mullu.

On the sets of Oru Kann, Oru Paarvai. Click for bigger pic!
It was about that time that Doordarshan, in an effort to popularise the much-neglected short film arena, sent Rajasekharan a letter, making its routine invitation to directors of calibre to submit short film scripts for its productions.

Rajasekharan thought of the blinded girl, of the wishy-washy inquiry into the incident and the callousness of the authorities and decided he had a story after all.

The script was ready soon and Doordarshan found it met its standards. The result was Oru Kann Oru Paarvai. Incidentally, it is the only short Tamil film selected in the non-feature film category section for the Indian Panorama at the India International Film Festival to be held in Hyderabad in January.

The film is disturbing, even painful. The thought of a child having an eye jabbed out and the culprit -- and not the victim -- being protected isn't very pleasant. But that is what the story portrays in 30 minutes that you squirm in your seat.

The film starts with a pregnant woman drawing water from a well and carrying it to the school. She is a dalit and though it is she who brings the water to the school she did not take water from the pot or use the tumblers reserved for higher caste children. When dalit children feel thirsty, they queue up with cupped hands, waiting for someone to pour in the water; the upper caste children, meanwhile, use the tumblers available and drink as much as they want.

And then comes the bit about the little girl who becomes so thirsty that she loses patience to wait in the long queue. Her lips all dry, her face red in the heat, she looks greedily at the other children drinking water. Unable to control herself, she picks up a glass and drinks the water she wants. Immediately a stick falls on her face and thrusts its way into her eye.

Gnana Rajasekharan. Click for bigger pic!
And once the slivers of wood have punctured the child's eyeball and drawn blood, it is time for some merry politicking. Everyone in the village is manipulated, through money, threats and power. The panchayat president has nothing against the child; he just doesn't want the image of the institution he heads to be tarnished. The officials of the 100-year-old school too are averse to their reputation being spoilt while the master doesn't want his record spoilt by one visible smear on his character.

So the panchayat president bribes the father who uses the money to fund a booze session while the school authorities threaten to boot the mother out of her job if she opens her mouth while the schoolmaster trains the children to tell the sub-collector heading an inquiry into the matter that there is no untouchability in this school.

And so the sub-collector arrives in his official car, goes about collecting the evidence while the dalits demanding justice are pushed out of the school premises. The confident school headmaster tells the sub-collector that he can ask the children since "children never lie".

But the officer asks the authorities to let the children play on. And in the midst of play, some come over to take water from the pot to quench their thirst while others stand silently in a queue awaiting for those of the higher castes to pour in the water.

The sub-collector turns around and sarcastically remarks, "Children never lie."

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