Cinema and Caste: Examining Marginalised Narratives in Film

Bollywood’s representation of Dalits in film fails to move beyond an upper caste gaze.

Anubhav Sinha’s recently released  film, Article 15, has been largely well received by film critics for its focus on caste–based atrocities. However, a section of critics have voiced displeasure at the film for its upper–caste gaze on the subject matter: the film is broadly based on the 2014 gangrape case in Baduan, Uttar Pradesh, where two minor girls from the Maurya community were raped and hung from a tree. Ayushmann Khurrana’s role, that of a Brahmin Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who investigates the case, has been criticised for portraying a Brahmin “saviour” who comes from the city—where caste supposedly does not exist—to save the persecuted. The film seemingly ignores the prevalence of caste structures in urban India, and absolves the audience watching the film of being complicit in perpetuating such structures. Sinha also addressed the absence of lower castes employed for the film, saying that it would be casteist of him to hire on the basis of caste.

Article 15, however, only adds to the debate on representing subaltern struggles and reality for the marginalised on screen. Another 2019 Bollywood film, Gully Boy, which traces the rise of a rapper from a lower middle class Muslim neighbourhood in Mumbai, uses the rap genre to speak out against religious discrimination—the protagonist Murad, played by Ranveer Singh, raps about lynchings in the film. Further, Marathi films of the recent past, such as Fandry and Sairat, look at inter-caste romance, and the 2018 Rajinikanth-starrer Kaala looks at land rights of the marginalised. 

This reading list looks at representation of caste and class in films, examining how upper caste traditions are reinforced, and assesses rights of the marginalised within the current development narrative.

1) Representation in Malayalam Cinema
Sathyaraj Venkatesan and Rajesh James write that mainstream Malayalam cinema has neither adequately represented the teachings of Buddha nor acknowledged violence perpetrated by the Hindu elite. Instead, Brahminic traditions and Savarna virtues have been favoured on screen. The authors analyse K Cherian’s Papilio Buddha, which they argue is rare for its attack on Gandhism and left politics for failing to address Dalit issues.

The film is an intensely political and iconoclastic film which provides a bleak vision of how the contemporary nation state and dominant political class/discourse have collectively betrayed the lower castes in Kerala. At another level, the film critiques new forms of inclusivity, which echo the earlier mechanisms of oppression even as they provide a vision for liberation. 

The authors argue that Papilio Buddha demonstrated how, in the name of protest, Gandhism was used to suppress marginalised and dissenting voices in India during the freedom struggle, and counters the narrative that Gandhi was a champion of the Dalit cause.

The film finds triumphalist narratives about Gandhism beguiling the reality of the Dalit experience of social segregation and severe brutality. In ideological terms, the movie exposes how Gandhism implicitly perpetuated and collaborated with caste-based racism … the film appropriates as well as exposes the Gandhian affinity with mainstream Hinduism which treats Dalits as the “other” and, in so doing, Papilio Buddha illustrates how the discourse of Gandhism facilitated and promoted a culture of segregation based on caste. Cherian not only dismisses but also contests the idealised and normative image of Gandhi to unmask the racial/caste foundations of Gandhism itself. This viewpoint is dramatised towards the end of the film when the Dalit rights activists station a Buddha idol and conclude the meeting by stating that they are not anybody’s Harijans.   

2) Reinforcing Caste Identity through Cuisine

In the 2018 Marathi film, Gulabjaam, the protagonist, after tasting gulab jamuns looks for its maker in order to learn how to cook “authentic” Marathi food, never mind that gulab jamuns were brought to India by the Mughals. Madhuri Dixit, in her critique of the film, argues that Gulabjaam projects vegetarian food in a manner that supports an upper caste, Hindu right-wing agenda—the consumption of vegetarian food decides whether a person is “good” or “bad.” 

Food is directly held responsible for personal attributes like piety of character, tenderness, roughness, sensitivity, bravery, passion, violence, and evil, especially in case of vilification of Muslim characters. It gets classified accordingly into Satvik, Rajas and Tamas categories, pertaining respectively to qualities of goodness, passion, and dullness in a person … Visual and aural clues in the film are observed to certainly evoke such enveloping ideas mainly because Radha never talks about ingredients, their qualities and proportions to be used, or the order and kind of processes involved in cooking tasty food.

3) A Marginalised Experience of Romance

Hrishikesh Ingle writes that Nagraj Manjule’s films Sairaat and Fandry showcase inter-caste romance as inherently tragic. Romance in these films is juxtaposed to the feudal structure of rural maharashtra. In Fandry, this structure disallows the male lead, Jabya—who comes from a lower caste—to even make contact with Shalu, an upper caste girl.  

The rural space where these romances unfold are poignant as they are markers for locating social marginality in present times. The villages of Akolner and Bittergaon are real spaces, and as such, provide the topography to bring out the subdued but observable caste relationships. This gives a certain corroborating relevance to the stories in terms of locating the tales in lived realities. Manjule has carefully unravelled the negotiated coexistence of higher and lower castes … Both Fandry and Sairat thus move beyond their premise of depicting marginal narratives. Their popularity and critical response were foreshadowed by a contestation over legitimising a certain social discourse, which sought to discredit these narratives as depictions against a dominant class in Maharashtra.  

4) Questioning the Development Narrative

What does “development” mean for the marginalised? Swagato Sarkar writes that Pa Ranjith’s Kaala discusses the centrality of land to humans, and looks at how capitalism and a Hindutva agenda seek to dispossess the downtrodden. According to Sarkar, the film questions the kind of development offered: one is capitalistic, it offers wealth and corresponding social mobility, but entails voluntary displacement and migration, while the other is a demand for an improvement in the basic standard of life. 

The film (unconsciously) advocates the Gandhian practice of controlling one’s desire and remaining rooted, while capitalism keeps returning as an epidemic of desire and aesthetic experience …  This (John) Lockean normative argument that land is owned by those who have worked on it is pitted against the claim of cultural heritage and political inheritance of the Maharashtrians. The nativist Maharashtrians want to grab the land to dominate the immigrants and non-Hindus and to convert it into a commodity to be sold in the market, whereas for the Dharavi residents, it is a means of livelihood and identity. The land gets fused with the questions of labour, community and modernity. The film explores the connection between these and the foundation of Dalit identity: is it founded on land and labour?

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