Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music and society, giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian
Recently home minister of Rajasthan government Gulabchand Kataria gave unfamiliar and worrisome information in the state Assembly. He said in the last three years in Rajasthan, 38 cases were registered of the incidents of preventing and beating of Dalit boys from riding a horse to their wedding ceremonies. This typical atrocity is equally true of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. In some cases, the Dalit youth were grievously injured or even killed.
In Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh, the police went so far as to say that riding a horse by a Dalit groom was a threat to peace in the area. This is the real and grim picture of Indian society today, when we are aspiring to become hi-tech, smart city dwellers, travelling by Bullet Trains and are being pushed towards a so-called cashless economy. The irony is, the more modern we become, the deeper we sink into our conservative shell.
Thirty-three years ago, director JP Dutta made the film ‘Ghulami’. It was a multi-starrer masala film that also pointed out to the atrocious conditions of Dalits. There was a scene in the film where police constable Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s son had been murdered by the landlord’s henchmen for daring to ride a horse on his wedding-day despite being from a lower caste. So reality has not changed in more than three decades. Casteism still remains a major problem in the core of our society, where conflict with scientific consciousness and democratic thinking is seen at all levels. But cinema, considered as a mirror of society, also ignores this reality today. There are not many films about Dalits or untouchables in the 100 years of the history of Hindi cinema. Initially, it seemed that this topic would be popular, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and other social reformers. But as the film industry moved from its original realism to romance and song and dance in gardens, such films went out of the mainstream.
When Hindi cinema started its journey, one of the earliest films to deal with caste was ‘Achhut Kanya’ (1936), starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani. After that too, there were some noted films – ‘Sujata’ made by Bimal Roy and ‘Sadgati’ made by Satyajit Ray (See Box for a larger list if Dalit-based films). But slowly this topic vanished from Bollywood. Don’t Indian cine goers have stomach for such films? I think one of the major reasons behind this is that a huge part of the Dalit community has still not been converted into a consumer community.
A majority of Hindi films’ storylines would seem to have us believe that we live in a caste-free society. Love triumphs over all. In fact, also, box office demands lay behind such an attitude ruling the roost in Bollywood. First, filmmakers of the current generation look at the business of the film worldwide, where our caste system is not understood, at least, not today; and second, they stick to the right side of the censor board.
Besides, Bollywood stars hesitate to play Dalit protagonists. Just a handful of stars like Naseeruddin Shah, Mithun Chakraborty, Om Puri or Saif Ali Khan have dared to play the role of a Dalit. Apart from yesteryears’ filmmakers, at present Prakash Jha and Ashutosh Gowariker are two known directors who have shown lower caste characters in their films.
Prakash Jha, who has made socially relevant films, have shown the Dalits’ plight through his films. He made a series of films: ‘Damul’; ‘Mrityudand’; ‘Rajneeti’ and ‘Aarakashan’. The story of Aarakshan, (meaning ‘reservation’) talks about quotas for lower castes in the government and educational institutions. But it kicked up a dust storm even before its release. The film, starring Bollywood superstars Amitabh Bachchan and Saif Ali Khan, centres around an idealistic teacher who believes quotas are meant to provide opportunities to the weaker sections of society to help them succeed on their own merits. But many caste groups complained that the film portrayed them in a negative light.
Ashutosh Gowariker has shown lower caste characters in ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Swadesh’.
But the numbers are embarrassingly low for an industry that produces over 1,600 films a year. As per statistics, if we look at the more than 1,100 films made in Bollywood last year, only four had a Dalit reference. In 2016, just two films – ‘Kabali’ and ‘Chauranga’ were made on the Dalit theme. A statistical analysis by a leading publication stated that of the approximately 3,000 Bollywood films made between 2013 and 2014, only six lead characters were shown to belong to backward castes.
On the other hand, regional cinema has shown more chutzpa in making Dalit-themed films. One of the original ones, of course, was the 1977 film, ‘Oka Oori Katha’ by Mrinal Sen. But makers of Marathi and Tamil cinema have frequently put casteism at the centre of their plots.
One cannot escape mentioning the superb 1980 Gujarati film Bhavni Bhavai (Bhavai being a traditional theatre form), with untouchables at the centre. As I said, nowadays Dalita theme films are not that appreciated abroad, but Bhavni Bhavai drew massive applause. New York Times described it as “Enhanced by interesting costumes and incisive dialogue, the fable combines comedy and social commentary as it moves through its classic tale.” Variety called it “A delightful didactic fable with sharp Brechtian influences that works on practically all levels.” American film critic J Hoberman called the movie “the finest film I saw in India” and described it as stunningly photographed and universally accessible.
Films like ‘Indira’, ‘Kovilpatti’, ‘Veeralakshmi’ and ‘Chithariyavar’ showcased the plight of Dalits in graphic details. In Telugu films, superstar Chiranjeevi has not shied away from playing a low caste protagonist. He played a cobbler aspiring for a better life in a Telugu film ‘Swayamkrushi’, released in 1987. Progressive Kannada films have bluntly blasted Brahamanism and its rituals in films like ‘Samskara’ and ‘Ghatashraddha’.
Last year, Karan Johar, Bollywood’s prominent and powerful filmmaker, known for extravagant entertainment with urban outlook, took the rights of Marathi blockbuster ‘Sairat’ to remake it in Hindi. He is producing ‘Dhadak’, slated for a July release, as a remake. His decision to remake ‘Sairat’ in Hindi is mainly based on its box office prospects. With a teenage love story and peppy music, it is staple Karan Johar stuff. He is introducing Jahnvi Kapoor, yesteryear’s famous heroine late Sridevi’s daughter, and actor Shahid Kapoor’s half-brother Ishaan to Bollywood with this movie. But how far ‘Dhadak‘s story will bring the focus on Dalits is a million dollar question. Purely on financial calculations, combined with his intellectual deficit, Karan Johar’s films focus more on dazzlers like foreign locales, fancy styles and the stories of rich, hip people.
On the other hand, producer-director Nagraj Manjule’s original 2016 Marathi film ‘Sairat’ is about a village love story with a harsh touch of reality. The romance of the Dalit hero and the upper-class heroine blossoms in the lush green sugarcane fields and banana groves of a village that is fast modernising. The fisherman’s son – smart and intelligent – is in love with the upper caste modern girl of a local politician who rides a motorbike and also drives tractor. Their secret romance though, is suddenly hit by the fury of family and society.
Before ‘Sairat’, 39-year-old Munjule had made another Marathi film, ‘Fandry’. It also tells the love story of a teenage Dalit boy. The boy belongs to the Kaiykadi caste, an outcast toiler class in Maharashtra, but falls in love with an upper caste girl. Kaiykadis rear pigs and donkeys for a living. A pig is called “dukkar” in Marathi and “fandry” in the dialect of the Kaiykadi community. Sairat and his lady love do not have a happy ending. In both his films, Manjule has shown the ugly reality of rabid casteism. The love between lower and upper class is not acceptable to Indian society. Both ‘Sairat’ and ‘Fandry’ were so believable and realistic that both had enraged some Maratha outfits.
But the antagonism against Dalits is deep-seated among the majority of caste Hindus. Despite the fact that ‘Sairat’ was doing marvelously in the single-screen theatres, posh, up market Mumbai businesses like PVR Juhu, going by the state government’s policy of screening Marathi films compulsorily for at least one show, allowed it to be shown for the morning show for two weeks and then simply took it off!
Nagraj Manjule himself belongs to Dalit community. He is a Wadar, previously considered untouchable. Till a generation ago, the only job available to this marginalised community was stone crushing and pig rearing. So through cinema, he is trying to shake Indian society through his hard-hitting films on Dalits. Manjule started his journey as a filmmaker with a short film ‘Pistulya’, but now he is the most renowned name on the Marathi film circuit after ‘Sairat’. It was the first Marathi film to cross the Rs 100 crore mark at the box office worldwide, is the highest grossing Marathi film of all times.
Manjule is clear that he doesn’t want to ignore or hide the ugly truth called caste. “If you have to find a cure for an epidemic, it has to be brought out into the open. I grew up with a strange sense of fear and a realisation that I was born into an underprivileged life. I was made aware of my limits since my childhood,” writes Manjule in Maharashtra Times. The inexorable truth is that no matter how highly educated one is or how wealthy, if you are a low caste, people will denigrate you.
Like Manjule, another noted director, Pa Ranjith, who made two blockbusters, ‘Madras’ and ‘Kabali’, has also experienced the horrors of casteism. They know what mayhem caste plays in the lives of those who are on the wrong side of it, and therefore these filmmakers are using art to challenge it. They have used movies as a political tool. As Ranjith states, “Many people ask me why I talk about caste. They have even taunted me about my caste. But that’s not a problem for me. I am used to this from a young age. I stick to the thoughts and ideas which Ambedkar has taught me. My aim is to get back the dignity of the marginalised through my films. Only art can bring some change to this society.”
Ranjith makes action-packed films, but these do showcase the plight of Dalits. He made ‘Kabali’ in the backdrop of untouchability. With superstar Rajinikanth in the lead role, the film narrates the story of a common plantation worker who rises to the top fighting for workers’ rights. But ‘Kabali’s leadership is challenged for his working-class background and low-caste status. In its opening shot, Rajinikanth is shown reading a book in his prison cell, titled ‘My Father Balaiah’. Written by Professor YB Satyanarayana, Director, Centre for Dalit Studies, the book talks about the discrimination his grandfather and father faced as Dalits. The book also delves into the conflict between landowners and labour in the backdrop of untouchability. He once said in an interview that he will take up caste issues till the last vestige of the malaise is not wiped out.
Interestingly, the production crew of Kabali was predominantly Dalits — from director Pa Ranjith to cinematographer G Murali, from art and costume director Tha Ramalingam to lyricists Uma Devi, Arun Raja Kamaraj and M Balamurugan.
However, these experimental directors started a fresh journey in Indian cinema adding new layers to the caste narratives. In Marathi, Chaitanya Tamhane made ‘Court’ which narrates the story of a Dalit protest poet and a manual scavenger. In 2015 Neeraj Ghaywan made ‘Masaan’ in Hindi. It was an interesting film that explored the burden of Dalit identity post Mayawati era and the hope of the protagonist to escape the bludgeoning of caste. A young, bright engineering student Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) is a Dom by caste. Doms are the ones who handle the burning of a human dead at crematoria. Deepak’s family is employed as Doms in the Manikarnika Ghat at Varanasi. However, filled with aspirations and desires to cross the borders of caste society Deepak falls in love with Shaalu, an upper caste girl. But their relationship ends when Shalu dies in an accident. Similarly, in the film Guddu Rangeela, released in the same year, the hero Rangeela (Arshad Warsi) is a Dalit but dares to fall in love with a woman from a dominant caste. Bikas Mishra, the director of Chauranga, belonging to privileged Brahman class also witnessed caste dynamics closely in his village. In Punjabi, Gurvinder Singh showed the harsh struggle of Dalit Sikhs in his internationally acclaimed film ‘Andhey Ghorey Da Daan’.
There is a new generation of film makers, especially in regional films, who are daring casteist Hindu society to come to terms with their centuries of discrimination. But in Bollywood, the ‘Achhut Kanyas’ are no longer the order of the day. Even Gowariker’s Lagan and Swadesh is of 2001 and 2004 antiquity. And given the majoritorian ‘Manuwadi’ ‘social organisation’ dominated by Brahmans ruling India through its political outfit, a revival of the Dalit narrative seems quite distant!