Over sixty million Indians belong to communities imprisoned by the British as "criminals by birth." The Chhara of Ahmedabad, in Western India, are one of 198 such "Criminal Tribes." Declaring that they are "born actors," not "born criminals," a group of Chhara youth have turned to street theater in their fight against police brutality, corruption, and the stigma of criminality — a stigma internalized by their own grandparents. Please Don't Beat Me, Sir! follows the lives of these young actors and their families as they take their struggle to the streets, hoping their plays will spark a revolution.
Not only does the film show the power of art as a tool for resistance and social change, it also takes us inside Chhara society to reveal a community in transition. Made over a five year period, during which the filmmakers worked in close collaboration with their subjects, Please Don't Beat Me, Sir! exposes the tensions that exist between an older generation who did whatever it took to make ends meet and young people for whom theater offers a new world of opportunity.
In making the film we worked in close collaboration with the community. We returned year after year to show rough cuts and solicit feedback. We filmed these discussions, and some of the film's most intense moments come out of the community tensions revealed at those meetings. Collaboration was essential because of the marginalized nature of the community, but it was also possible because of the talent and insight of the young actors. We tapped into that talent by having them write short skits about topics we couldn't film directly and integrated the best of these skits into the film. In one scene Chhara women reenact their protestations when the police come to collect their bribes (in exchange for allowing the women to brew illicit liquor). Much of the film's energy comes from the unique nature of this collaboration, and the trust that was built up over five years of filming.
What is Budhan Theatre? Budhan Theatre is the name of an activist theater troupe located in the urban ghetto of Chharanagar, located on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India. Referring to themselves as a "theater for community development," Budhan Theatre is much more than just a theater. They also run an informal school, a library and community center, and make documentary films. Please Don't Beat Me, Sir! focuses on the lives of the young people who make up Budhan Theatre, and the film was made in close collaboration with them. Budhan Theatre was shown rough cuts of the film and consulted every step of the way.
Who are the Chhara? The Chhara are one of 198 communities in India—now over 60 million people—labeled “born criminals” by the British. This was done under the authority of the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act and its later revisions. The Chhara were "notified" as a criminal tribe and confined to a prison labor camp in 1933. They remained there until five years after Indian independence, in 1952, when the Criminal Tribes Act was finally repealed. When the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed all those formerly notified as "Criminal Tribes" were considered "de-notified." For this reason, they are now referred to as "De-Notified Tribes" or DNTs.
So what does it mean to be a DNT community? Although the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed at the national level, individual Indian states soon replaced it with Habitual Offenders Acts, many of which were word-for-word copies of the Criminal Tribes Act. The human rights abuses perpetuated against DNTs under the Habitual Offenders Acts continued until the 1990s, when Mahasweta Devi and others started speaking out on behalf of DNT rights. Unfortunately, the repeal of these Habitual Offenders Acts did not make the problem go away. DNTs continue to suffer arbitrary detention, torture and extortion at the hands of the police, as well as wide-spread discrimination from society at large.
But wait, aren't the Chhara's criminals? It is true that many of the Chhara continue to engage in criminal behavior. The state of Gujarat, where they live, is a dry state, and as many as seventy percent of the Chhara brew illicit liquor. But the police are complicit in this, collecting bribes from every family, sometimes whether or not they are brewing liquor. Also, about fifteen percent of the Chhara continue to make a living from thieving; but there are also many upstanding members of the community including teachers, lawyers, artists, musicians, and businessmen. There are over 120 Charra lawyers, one of the few jobs Chhara can get because, in India, you can become a lawyer just by passing the exam, so there is no need to deal with labor market discrimination. And even the thieves hope for a better life for their children, many of whom now have college degrees but still can't find good work because of wide-spread discrimination. Besides, basic human rights should guarantee that everyone has the right to equal protection before the law. Nobody should have to live in fear of arbitrary arrest, torture or extorsion.
On what basis are the Chhara singled out? The Chhara don't look noticeably different than other Indians. Although they have their own language, they all speak the regional Gujarati language fluently. What happens is that, when they apply for a job, after “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”, employers also ask “What is your caste?” Technically Chharas are outside of the caste system, but that doesn’t help. They have to answer the question. Even if there are laws against discrimination on the basis of caste, there don’t seem to be any laws against asking such questions. And it would be even worse for a Chhara if they lied and were found out. The police also distribute pictures of young Chhara men, whether or not they have a criminal record!
What is their ethnicity? Chhara is actually just one name for the larger Bhantu speaking community, otherwise known as Sansis, Adodias, Kanjhar-Bhat, etc. A formerly nomadic community, Bhantu speakers can be found all over India and in Pakistan as well. Although they share some cultural and social similarities, and sometimes refer to themselves as a "Gypsy tribe" it is unclear if there is any actual link between the Chhara and the Romani people.
Are the Chhara low caste? No. The Chhara are not part of the caste system.
Vimukta is a 501(c)3 Non-Profit to help support India's Denotified Tribes. We currently support a library and community center run by Budhan Theatre and we are raising money to help support the children's division of Budhan Theatre. You can learn more at the Vimukta website, or make a donation below.
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