Bahujan Representation on the Big Screen: A Reading List

With the release of films like Sairat (2016) and Kaala (2018), Indian cinema is taking a step towards acknowledging stories from the margins. However, what does it mean in terms of representation and forging a path towards equality?  


Films have been an important component in India’s nation-building process with nation-pride being a popular theme since the early 1900s. In her article, "Indian Cinema and the Bahujan Spectatorship," Jyoti Nisha points out that from the 1930s to the 1950s, films played a crucial role in “developing the cultural identity of India as a nation” and the film industry was seen as a significant contributor to the swadeshi movement. 

But Nisha also notices that in the “haloed history of Indian nationalism,” B R Ambedkar and the politics and history of the marginalised has been missing. For the longest time, film-makers have excluded the marginalised from mainstream storytelling, and any representation on the big screen is usually dictated by the background and caste of the film-makers themselves.

However, a new age of film-makers has emerged who, while depicting the realities of Dalit lives by focusing on the horrors and celebrations in equal measure, resist caste by deconstructing the meanings of words, colours and images that were established by mainstream cinema and thus, create a new discourse around them.

This reading list looks at the four different forces that are at play in the making of a film—the narrative, the film-maker, the protagonist and actor, and finally, the audience—and explores the past, present and future of Dalit representation in Indian cinema.

The Film

In May 2020, Yogesh Maitreya wrote about the "Birth of the Dalit Protagonist" and observed that in literature and cinema, even in stories about caste oppression, Dalit characters have rarely been centre stage. One of the most important roles in these stories is actually the caste of the storyteller. Whether a Dalit character is a victim or a fighter in the story is decided on the basis of the sociopolitical reality of the storyteller. The development of the characters by privileged upper-caste writers who have no understanding of the Dalit struggle, Maitreya believes, render the protagonist “infertile,” “flawed,” and “bogus.”

While developing a character, the oppressor pours a bit of themself into the so-called marginalised protagonist, reflecting their own social experience. Thus, we are given an essentially upper-caste protagonist who plays saviour to the marginalised and participates in the Dalit struggle, although their own privilege and social conditions do not warrant this fight. In this process, the history of the oppressed is appropriated and manipulated, and they are ousted from their own story, reduced to being mere receivers of justice. However well-intentioned, it is the oppressor-protagonist (or writer) “saving” and bringing justice to the marginalised in our visual and literary imagination. This is Indian literature and cinema in a nutshell, produced by Savarnas. On the other hand, cinema and literature produced by Dalits is completely antithetical to this. In their art, we witness, for the first time, what Carl Jung called a complete “individuation” between story and storyteller—the two are not separate, not at odds; the storyteller is part of the story.

The Film-maker 

In his article "Anti-caste Aesthetics and Dalit Interventions in Indian Cinema," Manju Edachira notes that “the untouchables have been a touchy subject for Indian cinema.” Edachira explains how Indian cinema has largely invisibilised the presence of Dalits by either ignoring or stereotyping them in film. He analyses four movies—Pa Ranjith’s Kaala (2018), Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal (2018), and Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2013) and Sairat (2016)—and breaks down the multiple ways in which anti-caste aesthetics have been employed by the film-makers to go beyond just “representing” Dalit lives but “presenting” them while erasing the “Brahmin–Savarna” gaze.

While Dalits, like many other lower caste/class communities, have been part of the industry as labourers, they were hardly involved in formal production processes. The recent success of Nagraj Manjule and Pa Ranjith—two prominent Dalit filmmakers in Marathi and Tamil language cinema respectively—and their celluloid experiments presenting an enabling, anti-caste aesthetics warrants our attention to this context. Both the directors present an aesthetics that is anti-caste in the genre of commercial films, though their approach differs significantly. While Manjule’s films concentrate on the lives of Dalits in rural Maharashtra, especially highlighting the nuances of everyday social discrimination, Ranjith deals with Dalit ­assertion among Tamils, both inland and diasporic. Their films transcend language barriers, reaching a larger audience through different modes of production (using subtitles, remakes, and dubbing) and wider circulation (through large-scale nati­onal and international theatrical release and use of social ­media platforms). They, perhaps, have successfully ­pioneered an anti-caste aesthetics beyond the usual progre­ssive narratives of Gandhian socialism in Indian cinema ­(Margaret 2013).

The Actor

In December 2020, Goutham Raj Konda reflected on the film, The Discreet Charm of Savarnas (2020) by Rajesh Rajamani, and commented on the way Dalits have usually been represented in film. In his article, "Dalit Narrative and Dalit Representation in Indian Cinema," Konda writes about the “hypocritical wokeness” of Savarnas and highlights how the film addresses an important aspect of caste prejudice among Savarna film-makers—their refusal to cast Dalit actors (with a few exceptions). He looks at Hollywood, where film-makers have responded to cultural changes and become more inclusive in their representation of protagonists, and questions how India fares when it comes to the representation of the marginalised.

Indian cinema, especially Bollywood, has been very hostile and unwilling to engage with the caste discourse and to portray Dalit narratives. Our cinema often dilutes caste and religious marginalisation in the guise of “class divide” and poverty.

Moreover, even those movies made by Savarna film-makers that, to some extent, engage with the Dalit condition fall short as they most likely have an upper-caste gaze and a messianic Savarna lead. These movies often perpetuate casteism, perhaps even unknowingly, or misrepresent the marginalised with their lack of a nuanced understanding of everyday discrimination, deprivation, oppression, and aspirations for social mobility.

Indian cinema seemingly has a disdain for casting Dalit actors in Dalit roles: Saif Ali Khan as Deepak Kumar in Aarakshan (2011), Ravi Kishan as Sanjay Kumar in Mukkabaaz (2017), Ram Charan as Chitti Babu in Rangasthalam (2018), Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Dasharadh Manjhi in Manjhi (2015), and Zeeshan Ayyub as Nishad in Article 15 (2019). It goes without saying that neither is it interested in casting a Dalit actor for any role at all. Therefore, there is a near-complete absence of Dalit actors in Indian cinema, except for very rare cases and in which the actors have anyway disappeared without recognition. The ostentatious wokeness that Savarna filmmakers flaunt for their woke cinema on Dalits often blatantly ignore the importance of hiring Dalit actors or writers for true representation that moves beyond mere “saving.”

The Audience

In May 2020, Jyoti Nisha wrote about "Indian Cinema and the Bahujan Spectatorship." Nisha defines Bahujan spectatorship as “an oppositional gaze and a political strategy of Bahujans to reject the Brahminical representation of caste and marginalised communities in Indian cinema.” In her article, Nisha draws inspiration from bell hooks’ theories of the “gaze” and how it informed Black spectatorship in the United States and uses it to understand the “politics of caste” in India by studying the representation of marginalised women on screen. 

This gaze of “othering,” silencing, and appropriating the existence of history, knowledge, and symbols of the marginalised communities have been tools employed by the upper-caste film-makers deliberately. Evidently in that process, they have not only capitalised on such discourses but have also stripped the marginalised characters of their dignity and agency replicating the same hierarchical structures of caste on screen. 

Nisha sees Indian cinema as the Indian state’s apparatus. She believes that “Indian cinema’s trajectory of expression can be traced one way or another to the sociopolitical ideology of the Indian state” and that the ideological bent of the film-makers decides the sociopolitical view of the film.

Given this background, it becomes imperative to understand whose imagination of nation does the gaze of popular Indian cinema refer to and still caters to. How and why the popular imagination of a nation is contrary to the experience of a person belonging to the Bahujan community, especially of their identity in real and reel life? How does the grammar of popular cinema and content have a direct bearing on the politics of representation for Bahujans, not only in reel but in real life too? Whose gaze is that? 

Nisha looks at four Bollywood films—Sujata (1959), Bandit Queen (1994), Article 15 (2019) and Kaala (2018)—from the lens of a spectator of marginalised communities, and analyses the politics of caste and representation of the marginalised in them. She observes that Bahujan characters have either been victimised or exoticised by the mainstream cinema to peddle a distorted identity of secular India.  

However, it is important to emphasise that Bahujans would never fit into the popular imagination of India. If they ever do, it is to prove the state's ideological position that is Brahaminical and casteist. But, the human mind is capable of thinking beyond fundamentalism, and such ruptures of the cinematic and sociopolitical agency have been expressed in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen and Pa Ranjith’s Kaala. Films such as these restore my faith in the institution of art and cinema.


Read more:

Back to Top