Please Don’t Beat me, Sir! (P. Kerim Friedman and Shashwati Talukdar, hereafter PDBMS) is a moving documentary about the Chhara community of Gujarat, India. The Chhara community is one of almost two hundred groups that were designated as “criminal tribes” by the British Indian Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, a designation rooted in perceptions of the caste system as a rigid system with traditionally assigned occupations.
Under British rule, many Chhara families were rounded up and imprisoned in settlement complexes, where every aspect of their lives, including marriage, was regulated and determined for them. (For a detailed analysis of how the British codified and regulated Indian social structure through law, see Bernard Cohn’s Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge). In 1952, they were “denotifed” and released from the settlement complexes by the independent Indian government, but without any rehabilitation or redress. As one young Chhara man notes in the film, once released, they didn’t know how to “mainstream” because they had been imprisoned for decades.
Members of these communities continue to carry the stigma of being “born criminals” in contemporary India. PDBMS explores this stigma, its sociohistorical contexts, and community reactions to it across generations. Among these reactions is a form of public group theater known as the street play. In many parts of India, street plays are a well-known form of social education and activism. They are an established form of grassroots education, but also, as one of the leaders of the Chhara troupe points out, “tools for protest.”
The Chhara street play troupe is called Budhan Theatre. Its stated goal is to “raise awareness about the condition of [denotifed] tribes,” those formerly designated as criminal tribes. In contemporary India, Chharas face the stigma of being considered born criminals, the weight of their colonial history, consequent significant police harassment and brutality, and poverty. The poverty was historically countered by stealing, and by brewing liquor, which is illegal in Gujarat (it’s a dry state with statewide prohibition).
Friedman and Talukdar do a very good job of capturing Chhara responses to these conditions of structural violence, how the street plays are conceptualized based on personal experiences, and how they are performed. PDBMS also touches on the complexities of how different generations perceive the community and its identity. Chhara elders think of stealing as dharma, one troupe actor notes. Younger members of the community see it as a problem, a stigma, one they should overcome by being good citizens who follow the law. This is an ideological divide of sorts—for example, Dadi, the grandmother of one of the activists, says all her grandsons are “useless” because they none of them will steal.
The most charming and yet distressing scene in this film is one where a group of elderly Chharas sit in a circle discussing, with clear nostalgia for the good old days, their prowess at thievery, old ladies high-fiving each other as they reminisce about how fast they could run or how swiftly they could jump down from trees. Under the nostalgia, though, is the undercurrent of reminder—these were people who were, over their lives, repeatedly arrested, jailed, and beaten for what, in the end, is clearly the crime of being Chhara. The film shows how social stigma can be institutionalized and internalized, to the extent that fighting against it seems an impossible task.
The film, as I said, is moving. It covers a lot of ground, discussing social stigma, history, and institutionalized state discrimination and violence against the backdrop of the caste system. It also examines how age and generation affect Chhara identity, which I particularly appreciate as someone who works on youth culture, and because age is an often-neglected axis of cultural analysis. The filmmakers also touch upon gender, showing how Chhara girls marry and have children too early, and how their education is consequently neglected (and their dreams and aspirations left behind).
PDBMS is very well-made. While a few scene changes need better segues, on the whole it is polished, powerful, and tells a good story well. There are some lovely shots, such as one where a group of kids are mimicking a train during play rehearsal, and in the background a train streams past. I would have liked to see a little more of the filmmakers’ presence. In the few scenes where we do hear their voices, it adds greatly to the flavor of the documentary. However, this is a very minor quibble, and one based entirely on personal preference.
Overall, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! is an excellent documentary, and very useful to anyone interested in work on India in general and the caste system in particular, on contemporary dimensions of caste, on police systems, theater and activism, or age and identity. I can see it being used successfully in classes on India, introductory anthropology classes (sections on caste), and other classes that deal with social stratification and discrimination. I have to also mention that, despite the seriousness of the topic, I enjoyed watching this film. Without straying from the gravity of the theme, it managed to be fun and was very compelling. It’s worth watching, no matter what your academic interests.
Available at: http://fournineandahalf.com/pleasedontbeatmesir/
Running time: 75 minutes
Language: English, Bhantu, Hindi, Gujarati (English subtitles)