Is there a place for the Dalit on the silver screen?

Does cinema reflect society or transform it into an image envisioned by a few? Akash Panday looks for Dalits in Bollywood.

Remember Kachraa (Aditya Lakhia) in Lagaan (2001, Ashutosh Gowariker)? He was Dalit. He was dark-skinned, he was disabled, his name indicated his status in the varna system. If he earned his place on the cricket team that Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) put together to defeat the British team so the drought-ridden farmers would not have to pay taxes, it was because of his twisted hand. Kachraa was marginal. 

It is time we recognise the marginalisation of Dalit characters in ‘reel’ life. It is time to ask where all the Dalits are in the greatest show on earth, the film industry that fondly imagines it represents India while ignoring the Dalit.

A history of caste representation: The Savarna Gaze

Between the 1940s and 1960s, Bollywood witnessed some attempts at making films on the caste problem. Franz Osten directed Achhut Kanya (1936) for Bombay Talkies. The film shows a brahmin man falling in love with a girl from a lower-caste family. But, they could not get  married, because of the caste system. In Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959), the protagonist Sujata (Nutan) is an untouchable orphan raised by a brahmin couple. She grows up and falls in love with Adhir (Sunil Dutt), a brahmin man, but society looks askance at such a relationship.

It is interesting to note that both films have high-caste men falling in love with low-caste women. This is the exact analogy of how Hindi cinema deals with inter-religious marriage. The high-caste Hindu man always falls in love with the Muslim woman whether it is Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara, Mani Rathnam’s Bombay or Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzade.

Achhut Kanya.JPG

Still from Achhut Kanya (1936)

Sujata scene.jpg

This is about the movement and therefore the control of the womb; it must move to a higher position in the social order, even for these transgressions to be permissible. 

No wonder then that Bahujan filmmaker Jyoti Nisha, director of B.R Ambedkar: Now and Then, says, "Both Achhut Kanya and Sujata talk about the Dalit issue and issues of the marginalised. But they don't ask the tough political question, like why caste exists, where it comes from. They never question why caste has a religious sanction, and why some people must be treated as untouchable or powerless? But apart from this, you also see the dichotomy of like, a bad brahmin and a good brahmin. The good brahmin is friends with the untouchable person. The social and political questions like why some people have less freedom and some people have more freedom are left unanswered.”

Still from Sujata (1959)


She adds, “As a filmmaker if I place a person in a position of powerlessness or in a difficult situation, I will always give them dignity, agency, and a kind of well-rounded stature, where the character's social setting, psychological setting, and political leanings are in place. The filmmakers don't go beyond the things which are already known. I don't think I would make such stories with such a simplified gaze. We have a huge responsibility besides being creative because cinema is a powerful medium that could normalize the half-baked knowledge, which is dangerous and leads to distortion and appropriation of Bahujan history, culture and themes.”

The Rise of the Angry Young Man:

Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, the famous writer duo that went under the screen title of Salim-Javed created Vijay, the angry young man who was played by Amitabh Bachchan first in Zanjeer directed by Prakash Mehra. We do not know the caste of the woman he loves but since we first meet her dancing on the road, sharpening knives, there is some reason to believe that she might be a banjaaran, a gipsy. (She has also dressed in the way that Hindi film costumers think gipsies dress.) As soon as she falls in love with Inspector Vijay, she moves to a sari, learns to drink her tea correctly and begins her assimilation into mainstream culture with some English words: Bye-bye, she says as he leaves for work one day. (Consider also the bourgeois end to which Shanno (Rekha) comes in Mr Natwarlal; from free-spirited wild child to sari-clad hausfrau.)

In Deewaar, the anger moved out of the system and into the underworld. Vijay was a warlord and once again, he stooped in love with a woman who had fallen out of the system. Anita (Parveen Babi) is a high-class hooker but once they fall in love, he discovers her secret dream: a suhaag ka joda (the red sari in which savarna women get married). When he offers her marriage, the reds of the screen are all washed away, leaving only the startling blood-red of the sari in the foreground. 

But other than in his love life, Vijay never fought a caste war. The writer duo avoids touching caste identity or caste disparity. So, Vijay was never shown fighting against the caste hierarchy. Nor did he ever play a Dalit.

As Harish Wankhede writes in Mainstream, “It was reflective of the fact that the idea of ‘Heroism’ needed a peculiar social background (upper caste) and hence nobody during this age of ‘anger and frustration’, even imagined to portray a realist Dalit protagonist fighting against social and capitalist ills.”

Still from Deewar (1975)

The Parallel Cinema of the 1980s and the Bahujan Movement

The 1980s was the period when parallel cinema found its audiences. Govind Nihalani directed Aakrosh (1980) which tells the story of a lawyer Bhaskar Kulkarni  (Naseeruddin Shah) who is clearly an Upper-caste here, fights a case of a tribal man Bhikhu (Om Puri) who is under arrest for killing his wife. As the case unfolds the lawyer learns about the harsh reality of the caste system. Prakash Jha directed Daamul (1985). The film tells the story of a bonded labourer from the lower castes and their oppression in the region of Bihar.

Satyajit Ray directed Sadgati (1984) in which Dukhi (Om Puri) goes to the village priest to fix the date for his daughter's wedding; in return, the pandit asks Dukhi to work for him for free. 

The late 1980s witnessed the emergence of the Kanshiram’s Bahujan movement and the Mandal commission. It was this time when issues related to caste were discussed and debated all over India. But mainstream Bollywood chose to overlook the whole political scenario. At that time, films like Naagin, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Maine Pyaar Kiya, Tezaab, Chandini, Ram Lakhan, Dil, Saajan, Ashiqui were released, which were detached from the realities of the country. 

Even, Bharat Ratna B R Ambedkar had to wait 39 years after independence to appear in a Bollywood mainstream cinema. Akhir Kyon directed by J Om Prakash, released in 1985, had a picture of Dr Ambedkar in the protagonist's room.

Still from Akhir Kyu (1985)

Failure of Dacait- A turning point?

The 1980s saw another rise of the angry young man but this time it centred around Sunny Deol.

Film historian Gautam Chintamani says, "The representation of Dalits might have improved had the Dacait (1987) directed by Rahul Rawail, starring Sunny Deol been successful.” 

Rahul Rawail had directed Arjun (Sunny Deol) before that. This was an action film based on a young man’s angst. Arjun Malwankar (Sunny Deol) is clearly a savarna although his family lives in a chawl. He is a well-educated young man, frustrated by the corruption of society, and driven to violence. The film was a hit. 

By contrast, Dacait tells the story of Arjun Yadav (Sunny Deol) whose life is savaged by the constant oppression by the Zamindars (belonging to the upper castes) of the area. As a Yadav, Arjun was located clearly this time in the Ahir community that comes under the Other Backward Class. In this film too, Arjun takes up arms against the chakravyuha he finds but the film flopped. 


Perhaps this was why mainstream directors silently decided to stay away from the caste complexities and the harsh realities of society. They left these issues for discussion to parallel cinema makers. The big budgets that mainstream directors craved tied their hands; the risks made them unwilling to take on ‘difficult’ stories. Better to please everyone by being regressive and catering to the status quo. 

Still from Dacait (1987)

The NRI world of the 90s

India liberalised in the 1990s, opening up its economy to foreign investment. We no longer talked of the brain drain. The NRI was not someone who had wasted the country’s investment in him by studying at IIT and then running off to Silicon Valley but he was someone to be feted and welcomed home when he chose to come.

The canvas of the films made by Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra and Sooraj Barjatya was vast indeed. But the themes were dwarfish and comfortable. It was all about whether Daddy would let Pappu marry Pinkie. 

Pappu and Pinkie were all upper castes, all upper class and the entire cast got to travel all across Europe to sing songs. 

You weren’t going to see any Dalits here; even the extras had an upper-caste background!

The 21st century Bollywood

Are Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi people writing their own stories for the silver screen? How representative is the Hindi film industry with respect to the crew who works in the production of a film? In 2010, Prakash Jha directed Aarakshan which starred actor Saif Ali Khan, where he plays a Dalit protagonist; he was deliberately darkened to fit the ‘image’ of a Dalit. 

Source: T-Series

The ‘saviour’ trope has become the norm. Anubhav Sinha directed Article 15 (2019). The film centres around the theme of sexual violence; a brutal assault is inflicted by a group of upper-caste men on a Dalit girl. Then a Brahmin cop Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurana) brings justice flowing down like a river.

Several Dalit rights activists question the film's overall message. It seems the creators believe the community cannot fight its battles.

The film Madam Chief Minister (2021) revolves around a Dalit woman rising to power. Actor Richa Chaddha features on its poster with the broom in her hand, wearing torn clothes. This offended the Dalit community. Dalit activist Shruti says, “The poster was problematic. It showed the character wearing torn clothes and carrying a broom. Richa Chaddha and the film’s core team claim that their film is not based on Mayawatiji. For once, I would agree with them. It isn’t based on her because it doesn’t tell her life story at all. But then how many women Dalit chief ministers have there been in the country? How many with short hair? The slogans she uses are based on Mayawatiji’s. The slogan used to demean her was based on one the Bharatiya Janata Party coined and I do not want to give it any further mileage by repeating it. So if you have to represent a Dalit, you must show them as dirty, you must show them as carrying a broom. Or else how will anyone know it’s a Dalit?” 

Masaan and Newton- Non-upper-caste as Protagonists

Masaan (Neeraj Ghyawan, 2015) was hailed by critics and the audience alike. It tried to depict the caste complexities in society in a more accurate manner, but perhaps that was understandable. It had a Dalit filmmaker at the helm.

Shruti adds, “Masaan was the only Bollywood film in which the actual struggle faced by Dalits is shown. It does not seek to mock the Dalit. It rightly shows how Savarna (upper-caste) woman suddenly drowns in a dilemma after knowing her boyfriend’s caste, and that's what happens in real life." Newton (Amit V. Masurkar, 2017) was India’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film at the 90th Academy Awards. It revolves around a government servant Newton (Rajkumar Rao) who is sent to a politically sensitive area in Central India for election duty. Newton belongs to the non-upper caste and hence stands out from the industry's stereotypes. Shruti adds, "and talking about Rajkumar Rao, he belongs to the Ahir caste, which belongs to the Yadav community, and if you see his graph, he's mostly received either side roles or low-budget films. It’s all about his skills which makes low-budget films also a hit. The struggle of Dalits in Indian cinema is endless.”

Jyoti Nisha says, “ Dalits shown in a stereotyped manner has a lot to do with the ideology of the film-makers. They are shown as marginalised, without dignity, and with no knowledge. Because, that is how the savarna sees the Dalit. There’s also a lack of representation of Dalit artists, writers, and filmmakers in the film industry. A Dalit character is written without consulting and studying their actual lives.”According to a survey by The Hindu, in approximately 300 films over two years (2013 and 2014), only six lead characters belonged to the backward caste.

Several decades and tens of thousands of films later, there is a continuous portrayal of Dalits being submissive to their upper-caste 'rulers.' It is high time we watch the stories of people who have lived them. 

Still from Masaan (2015)