racism at home

A photographer trains his lens on the racism faced by Africans in India

Mahesh Shantaram wants to capture the experiences of African students in words and images.

In September 2014, a video emerged on YouTube of three black men being assaulted by a mob at a Metro station in Delhi. The men, whose alleged crime was “misbehaving with women”, couldn’t find protection even at a Delhi Police kiosk: the crowd rained blows despite the policemen’s attempts to stop it.

Indians’ disturbing racism and their penchant for vigilantism was on display again this year. In January, a 30-year-old African-American tourist in Goa, Caitanya Lila Holt, was mistaken for a robber, chased into a rice field and assaulted by locals and the police. He died from choking on sludge.

The next month, a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman was stripped and beaten in Bengaluru following a car accident involving a Sudanese youth which resulted in the death of a man. Despite the public outrage, politicians justified the racist mob violence.

That February episode deeply upset Mahesh Shantaram, a 38-year-old documentary photographer in Bengaluru who decided to challenge Indian society’s mob mentality through a series of photographs. His project Racism: The African Portraits aims to capture glimpses of the racism in India through photographs and stories of African students in India.

As a Congolese man is beaten to death in South Delhi, and several assaulted in a separate incident in the Capital, Shantaram talks about his project, and the systematic racism in India. Excerpts from a telephone interview with Shantaram:

Natoya, from Jamaica, is pursuing Applied Medicine at Manipal University in Karnataka. Credit: Mahesh Shantaram
Natoya, from Jamaica, is pursuing Applied Medicine at Manipal University in Karnataka. Credit: Mahesh Shantaram

What was the genesis of the Africans in India series?
It began with the racist incidents in January in Bengaluru wherein like-minded people were wallowing in shame and misery. By the time it became news, the Jawaharlal Nehru University incident blew up and we forgot all about this.

I read and think a lot about people, their rights and their freedoms. I was taken aback by the horrific incident. The reaction to such incidents is always along the lines of, "This can't happen in my city." Nevertheless, this incident made me realise that there were so many Africans living in my city about whom I knew nothing about. I decided to see the place where the students were living. Why were they living there? What was their life like? Curiosity motivated me to go.

Why do you think African students still come to India despite the attacks?
In Africa, there is this rampant belief that Indians are well-educated. It might be because the Indians who have settled there may come across as well-educated. That is the current that draws students from Africa to India. It also helps that higher education in India is more affordable than in the West.

The frequency of attacks have increased, but Africa is a huge continent. Education has been a constant dream. People don't change their life plans on the basis of incidents. Maybe next year the education industry might take a hit. But bad news is mostly filtered down. Take the case of Natoya. In 2012, just when she was informed that her application to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi was successful, there was a breaking news alert on TV. Nirbhaya happened. Natoya decided against going to Delhi. It took her two years to get over her shock and find a place suitably distant from Delhi to pursue her medical studies. That’s how she came to Manipal.

How do you hope your photo series might help in the fight against racism?
I am attempting to elevate myself from just focusing on the news value of the incidents. Racism clearly exists in India. I am using this as a means to document the issue. We don’t get to respond to racism in India by saying racism exists abroad as well.

In foreign countries, racism is very well-documented. People talk about it. There is huge shame associated for being a racist. There are ways of addressing racism right from the top level itself. In India, we need to recognise what racism means, spot it and talk about it more often. Currently, the word racist comes to fore only when there is an incident. We need to change that.

Why does your project focus mostly on students?
I have limited my view to Africans students because they are the most vulnerable group. Their numbers are really small.

They don't have anyone to go to. People don't even want to look at them – we hate their sight so much. It is difficult for them to get redress – they can’t just go to government offices to get a license or report a crime.

Why did you choose the medium of portraits to document this issue?
There were many ways I could have dealt with the subject. I could have gone to where the African students live very weekend and hung out with them and taken photojournalistic snapshots. But I chose to approach it instead through formal portraiture. In the past, I have been hesitant to make portraits – it is not easy. The motivation was right in this case.

I am not whipping out my smartphone and clicking a picture. I am making a portrait. It is a more formal relationship. It takes me half an hour to make each of these.

What do you expect the government of India to do?
Hopefully, not come up with kneejerk reactions. What we need is not a reactionary action to the systematic racism – we require a solution and not just a mere band aid.

Due to the rise in crimes against women, we now have women-friendly police stations. What are we going to do in this case? Launch an Africans-only bus service? That just doesn’t make sense.

I hope this project spreads social change like the campaigns of the '70s. By virtue of being an Indian, I have also been a racist at some time or the other. Everyone needs help in understanding this about themselves.

All images courtesy Mahesh Shantaram. Read more about the series here.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.