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Caste in Indian Cinema – New voices but not enough noise

“There have been very few mainstream Dalit stories and characters in the more than 100 years of Indian cinema.” Pictures show stills from Masaan.
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“There have been very few mainstream Dalit stories and characters in the more than 100 years of Indian cinema.” Pictures show stills from Masaan.

The corpus of caste narratives in Indian cinema is growing but is still not enough

Young Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule’s sophomore feature film, Sairat (Passion), has been picked as one of India’s official entries for Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival 2016. It is a passionate love story set in a village in Maharashtra and makes you wonder if it will also deal with caste issues like Nagraj’s acclaimed debut feature film Fandry (2013) — which was about an oppressed family of pig catchers in rural Maharashtra — did. “Caste is the foundation of our society; discrimination is in the air we breathe. These are our realities,” says Nagraj. “I didn’t include them deliberately, but could not have avoided them either.” These were ugly realities that Nagraj had to contend with while growing up in a poor, backward family in Jeur village of Solapur district, Maharashtra. These are biases that are too deeply entrenched to go, he says, and his exploration of them will be an ongoing process.

Nagraj is one of the rare contemporary filmmakers who doesn’t just wear his Dalit identity fearlessly on his sleeve but is committed to the issue in his aesthetic explorations as well, be it in poetry, writing or cinema.

Dalit stories in cinema

This is a welcome stand to take considering there have been very few mainstream Dalit stories and characters in the more than 100 years of Indian cinema. The more powerful explorations of caste issues have been in parallel films and in the south, though there too they come intertwined with larger themes of poverty, rural feudalism and exploitation. “There is a tendency to mask the caste issue with subaltern imagery,” says cultural commentator Sadanand Menon. For him, the best film in the genre, if one may call it that, was K. Ravindran’s Telugu film Harijan.

According to a study done by The Hindu in June 2015, just six of the lead characters in the nearly 300 Bollywood movies released between 2013 and 2014 belonged to a backward caste. In contrast, a substantial number of popular Tamil movies have had lead characters from backward castes. For Menon, the predominant presence of Dalit culture in Tamil cinema has been through the heavy use of the popular musical form, the “gaana pattu”, but most often without direct acknowledgement of its roots in oppression. He finds that caste also comes up in comic tracks as slurs or as part of scatological humour.

(A scene from “Chauranga“)

According to film historian Theodore Baskaran, silent films and early talkies were more committed to espousing the Gandhian principle of anti-untouchability. Later films began to avoid frontal confrontation with caste issues. “Entertainment became important,” says Baskaran. Says Masaanfilmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan: “Cinema is an escapist, aspirational, larger-than-life world. In that sense, it is too Brahminical in its ethos to give good space to caste narratives.”

There has also been a perennial lopsidedness in the portrayals. Baskaran points out how Madurai Veeran, the folk tale about a cobbler turning hero, was given a twist when made with M.G. Ramachandran in the lead. The film doesn’t show him as a direct descendant of backward parents. “He is shown as a baby born in the royal family who is left in the forest and brought up by a Dalit couple,” says Baskaran. This was done to keep the fans happy. In Lagaan, when Kachra was made part of the team as a spinner, it was all about the magnanimity of the upper caste in accepting him and using him to snatch victory from the British. “The inclusions have been self-conscious, to get applause. They have been about the person who includes rather than the one who is getting included,” says marketing veteran Santosh Desai. For him, caste is not overtly signified in mainstream cinema and often comes with class connotations.

In the last couple of years, however, there has been an interesting crop of films coming from young, debut directors that has added new layers to the caste narratives. These include Chauranga (2014), Court (2014) and Masaan (2015). Gurvinder Singh’s Anhey Ghore Da Daan (Punjabi, 2011), based on Punjabi novelist Gurdial Singh’s novel, captures the humiliation and discontent in the lives of the downtrodden. Jayan Cherian’s English-Malayalam film Papilio Buddha (2013) is about displaced Dalits in the Western Ghats who embrace Buddhism and become Ambedkar’s followers in order to escape oppression.

Diversity in the Dalit experience 

But these films are too varied to be clubbed together as a watertight category. There is a diversity to the Dalit experience and its artistic expression as well. So, while Nagraj considers reservations necessary till everyone reaches the same stage of equality, for Neerajmuch of his student and work life has been about skirting the so-called privileges and entitlements. “The stigma attached to quota cripples you in another way, it takes away your confidence. There is latent, unsaid discrimination in the peer group,” he says of the casual casteism he faced. There could be a lot of Neeraj then in his hero Deepak: the tendency to compensate for his insecurity and fear of coming from a lower caste by trying to excel, and yet a shyness that always holds him back.

(A scene from the movie “Court”) 

For writer Varun Grover, Masaan is not angry like Fandry because it emerges from a different zone of reality where friends from different castes hang out together, where discrimination may not be as visible. “It comes from a post-Mayawati Uttar Pradesh,” he says. But he saw biases at another level in college. “There was a sense of stigma attached to those who came from the SC/ST/OBC quota, which created a lack of confidence in them,” he says.

Though Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court had the figure of a Dalit protest poet and a manual scavenger, he consciously decided to use them as springboards for his film. “I didn’t want to go deep into an ethos I don’t understand. My idea was more to scrutinise the middle class and its hypocrisies,” he says.

Anhey… steers away from conventional storytelling and overt propaganda. In fact, the power lies in not spelling things out. Gurvinder, while doing ethnographic research in Punjab, met and lived with the Dalit villagers, the balladeers from subaltern communities such as like the Mirasis and Valmikis, and they all became a part of the film to make it real and persuasive.

Bikas Mishra, the director of Chauranga, also witnessed caste dynamics at close hand in his village, albeit from the privileged side. “I may not have lived that life but my film comes from a deep empathy and association with the issue,” says Bikas. His closest friend was a Dalit. “I went to his house, shared meals. My parents were liberal but the extended family often raised a finger,” he recalls. In fact, as an act of defiance, he once touched his friend’s father’s feet to seek his blessings and the poor man fell at his feet instead.

The politics of identity — caste and gender — were central to him and they still are. No wonder then that the most crucial scene in the film is that of a shocking act of defiance against such practices. It is like the culmination of a journey. “Things have to be destroyed and demolished for a new world to emerge,” says Bikas.

Caste in cinema 

Achhut Kanya (Hindi 1936): Love story of a lower caste girl and a Brahmin boy

Thyagbhoomi (Tamil, 1939): A Gandhian priest opens the doors of a temple to Dalits to offer them refuge from storm

Nandanar (Tamil, 1942): A popular saint has a Dalit farmhand who wants to worship in a temple

Madurai Veeran (Tamil, 1956): A cobbler through his valour becomes a much-worshipped commandant

Sujata (Tamil, 1959): the pain and dilemmas of an untouchable girl growing up in a Brahmin household

Ankur (Hindi, 1974): A Dalit couple is exploited by the village zamindar

Chomana Dudi (Kannada, 1975): A bonded labourer is not allowed to till his own land because he belongs to a backward caste

Sadgati (Hindi, 1981): About village shoemaker, a priest and the caste dynamics

Paar (Hindi, 1984): A labourer kills the oppressive brother of the landlord and is forced to turn a fugitive

Damul (Hindi, 1985): On caste politics and bonded labourer in rural Bihar

Diksha (Hindi, 1991): A low caste boy dreams of learning the scriptures

Bandit Queen (Hindi, 1994): Phoolan Devi’s transformation into Bandit Queen has all to do with the exploitation she has to face for being lower caste Mallah

Bharathi Kannamma (Hindi, 1997): (1994): A love story between a lower caste with his zamindar’s sister, both die

Samar (Hindi, 1999): Two communities fight over the installation of water pump

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (English, 2000): Biopic on Ambedkar

Lagaan (Hindi, 2001): The magical spinner in Bhuvan’s rag tag cricket team, Kachra, is an untouchable

Kitte Mil Ve Mahi (Punjabi documentary, 2005): On Dalits and Sufism

Jai Bhim Comrade (Hindi and English, 2011 documentary): On the killing of Dalits in Ramabai colony in Mumbai

Aarakshan (Hindi, 2011): On caste-based reservations, the film had Saif Ali Khan playing an educated dalit who still can’t fob off the caste biases



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