The Backward Class (2014)
Editor’s Note: The Backward Class is now open in limited release
For all the gasps that may fill the cinema as Mala, one of the more prominently featured members of the eponymous group in The Backward Class, describes a vague recollection of an argument between her parents that left her mother ablaze, it’s the quiet moments of half-held gazes and forlorn looks that leave a far deeper impression. In chronicling the final year of these students’ journey to sit India’s university entrance exams—the first of their caste to do so—Madeleine Grant’s film finds far firmer success in silence than sensationalism. It is an oft-observed aspect in documentary cinema for a worthy story to triumph in spite of its telling; here we have the curious case of a telling whose inadvisable eccentricities serve only to heighten the subject’s inherent import.
…the fact that Grant takes a writing credit is testament to the sense of triumph-over-adversity orchestration that makes this intermittently seem more narrative than naturalism.
It’s not only in such emphasised anecdotes of lower-class chaos that the film feels curiously beholden to those same tenets of social stratification against which it ostensibly rails, and the fact that Grant takes a writing credit is testament to the sense of triumph-over-adversity orchestration that makes this intermittently seem more narrative than naturalism. Whether the over-abundant wealth of expository on-screen text or the peppy post-script that seems to champion changing class rather than transcending it, much of The Backward Class’ making falls prey to a problematic sense of ascribing to these kids idyllic identities that treat them less as unique individuals than as stereotypes and stats through which a prominent point is to be made.
And yet in spite of itself and its less auspicious approaches, the film fulfils an ironic function in attesting the enormous pressure under which these students do well not to cave. There’s a touching moment where they talk of the rumours that reached them when they were accepted to their school—a charitable institution—twelve years earlier: no child who went in ever came out; the school is an elaborate front for child organ harvesting. That such fatalistic fairytales could corral even a little credibility is sadly indicative of the extremity of their situation, in a position of educational opportunity far beyond that which they had the right to even dream of.
Grant is nothing if not a wholly competent filmmaker, and her and her team’s soft-focus shooting of their subjects has the grace to contextualise them in a way the film’s forced structure scarcely can.
In affording them the spotlight, then, The Backward Class excuses its own insufficiencies; if the film may falter in fronting these few as the sole hope for their caste, it’s interestingly in allowing them to express the enormity of such pressure that it finds its feet again. Grant is nothing if not a wholly competent filmmaker, and her and her team’s soft-focus shooting of their subjects has the grace to contextualise them in a way the film’s forced structure scarcely can. It is the force of the subject’s own emotion—albeit aided by an admirably reserved yet evocative original score—that drives the film toward fulfilment of its aims, to present these people and the wider opportunities they represent for all the world to see.
Only once, in allowing the camera to linger on Mala’s sad face after the dream of being a designer is shot down as less worthy than becoming an engineer, does Grant ever indicate a real appreciation for the student’s own wishes as opposed to the film’s own ostensibly altruistic aims. It is a peculiar picture, perhaps—much like Dr George, the often-unseen founder of the school—too focused on the necessity of change to question the kind of change, exactly, necessitated; it is in opposition to its intentions that the movie’s most admirable qualities arrive. But there are far more fatal flaws to have, and for all the socio-political strife inherent in its conflation of this class with their class, The Backward Class at least gives them berth to prove themselves in a way it never can itself.
In affording its subjects the spotlight, The Backward Class excuses its own insufficiencies.