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Cinematic Chronicles of Casteism

Jai and Veeru from the iconic film Sholay were caste-less in the 1980s, and then, with ‘progressing’ times, we acquired ‘class’ in Indian cinema: the ‘Upper Class’. From Raj Malhotra in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge to Srikant Tiwari in Family Man, we take it for granted that all our heroes are of Upper Caste, never once reflecting on the centuries of casteist violence implicit to this ‘normalization’.

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It is said about films that what cannot not be explained by months long conversations, they manage to clarify in a jiffy. In the picture palace, or cinema hall as it is more commonly known, people leave more than just their three hours; they leave their apprehensions behind to realize and appreciate new things. This is why cinema has the power to change the vistas of people's mindset, the way they think, their perception of society, and bring to light those issues which go unnoticed due to ignorance and/or privilege. Growing up in India, we are exposed to many inequalities and injustices, and it won't be wrong to say that the film industry, which supposedly reflects on its society and narrates its story, is ‘untouched’ by the deeply pervading issue of casteism. Dalits, being a marginalised caste, have had their stories and representation cast off into obscurity.

Diving deep into the caste-culture of India we find that it has its roots way back in history and has been gravely problematic because it defines the occupation of people on the basis of the families they are born into. This casteism over different periods of history has been preserved by the Upper Castes or Savarnas to hold their top positions firmly. But since India became independent the government has implemented several constitutionally mandated affirmative policies by virtue of which the situation has somewhat turned for the better. The discrimination, however, still prevails, despite considerable number of marginalised people taking big strides in Civil Services and other high profile jobs, and putting spotlight on their year of tussle and triumph without succumbing to their oppressor castes.

The Indian film industry is over a 100 years old. But its representation of a large chunk of Indian society is gravely problematic and obfuscating in many ways. Firstly, marginalized sections are either not represented or unabashedly stereotyped. Secondly, when (and if) they are represented, they are depicted as subjugated, oppressed, weak, and under the domination of ‘Upper Castes’. Their strength and political mobilisation is erased to create and perpetuate a cultural specter of their alleged ‘helplessness’ for future Savarna generations to imbibe. Thirdly, there is a lack of actors, actresses, writers, and directors from marginalised sections.

Dalit Characters in Cinema: Subverting Stereotypes?

One movie that came close to winning at the Oscars, Lagaan, had its only dalit character named ‘kachra’ which means 'garbage' in Hindi. This is how most of the Indian film industry has defined almost 150 million marginalised people of India all these years. The Indian cinema has had a long journey downwards from addressing the socio-political issues surrounding caste in the 1950s, to clearly using the sacred thread, the Janeu, to postulate and reinforce Brahmanism and Hinduism, where they are not even demanded by the storyline as seen in the posters of the movie Zero. Zero is not an exception in a culture like ours that is brewing upper class identities.

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While we were not 'Caste sensitive' back then, by now we have become 'Caste insensitive'. Discrimination on the basis of caste is a criminal offence in India since 1951, but we continue to do it in many ways, one of them being the kind of roles that Dalits are portrayed in, which in the long run inevitably enters the social fabric by way of audience perception.

There was a period of hope when ‘parallel cinema’ emerged in the 1980s and tried to throw light on the Dalit exploitation and marginalisation. But their representation over there was also very narrow. In those movies, too, from Ankur (1974) to Damul (1985), Dalits were represented as poor, weak, impaired, alcoholic, and toiling for their upper castes.

From Kachra in Lagaan to the iconic Jhalkaribai in Manikarnika, it seems as if the marginalised communities have an altogether different war to fight. Manikarnika was a grand tribute to the warriors of the Battle of Jhansi. But the tribute to Jhalkaribai was reduced to a minor scene that can go unnoticed, and an item song. Along with Rani Laxmi Bai there were many others who fought with valour, but history is written only by and has mentions of the dominant caste and it is in this process that many stories go unheard. Jhalkaribai, along with many others such as Mahiviri Devi, Asha Devi, and Uda Devi, is one such story reduced to dust of obscurity. In between we have numerous examples, with inefficient employees, the poorest, the dumbest, being portrayed as belonging to a certain caste by Bollywood.

Who Portrays the Dalit Characters?

Indian cinema is having a new dawn, and is turning new leaves to bring on screen many unheard and unconventional stories from the past that offer different perspectives. One such story is that of the 19th century reformers and educators Jyotibha Phule and Savitribai Phule, which can be considered one of the biggest celebration and owning of Dalit identity in recent cinematic history. So can we now think that our industry is on the right track? The answer is a big No. The problem doesn’t end when we start hearing and showing Dalit stories, only a part of it is resolved here.

Phules are known in history for their massive anti-caste struggle, women empowerment, and for setting up the first all-girls-school. For the upcoming film, which will prove to be a watershed moment for Dalits in Indian cinema, the main leads are Sandeep Kulkarni (as Jyotiba) and Rajshri Deshpande (as Savitribai Phule). The people coming from the castes that subdued Jyotiba and Savitribai, the ones they fought against their whole life, their oppressors, will represent them and narrate their stories after almost two centuries. Appalling is the only word that comes to mind.

This is not the story of just this one Marathi film, neither is it an event of no note due its commonality, but it does hold behind itself a bigger picture of Indian society. We have already read that it was not very long ago that Dalits were usually pictured as vulnerable and ousted, who needed an upper class saviour, as we recently saw in the movie Article 15, which perpetuated the ‘Brahmin saviour’ stereotype. What the movie is perpetuating then is an infiltration of Dalit identity itself by Upper Castes: how can Indian society uplift them when the identity of saviours from their own community is being appropriated in subtle and insidious ways.

Let us go 90 years back to a very big step forward that raised the issue of caste-based inequalities, Achhut Kannya (1936), that showcased a love story that remained unfinished because of caste differences. But the role of the girl from the untouchable community was played by Devika Rani, who was herself from a dominant caste.

Sairat was a path breaking Marathi movie for the Dalit community in many ways: its main leads along with its director were marginalised and it became the first Marathi Movie to cross the 100 crore grossing mark. Through this it broke many stereotypes and set a precedent for a more inclusive industry in which the onlookers do not only want to look at the upper castes on the big screen. But years later its remake has main leads coming from big bollywood houses, thereby desensitising the gravitas of the storyline, and making it less convincing.