Indian Cinema and the Bahujan Spectatorship

Bahujan spectatorship relates to an oppositional gaze and a political strategy of Bahujans to reject the Brahminical representation of caste and marginalised communities in Indian cinema. It is also an inverted methodology to document a different sociopolitical Bahujan experience of consuming popular cinema.  

 

“Indians today are governed by two different ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their social ideal embodied in their religion denies them.” (Narake et al 2003)

This dual imagination of Indian nation, as B R Ambedkar forewarned, finds its manifestation even on the silver screen. India’s popular imagination of its colonial past has been that of a “haloed” history of Indian nationalism. Ambedkar has not been part of this popular imagination, and neither do the politics, history, and social movements of the marginalised. The assertion of the marginalised has hardly made it to the pre- and post-independence Indian cinema. Largely, the image of Indian nationalism in the popular imagination has been that of M K Gandhi, and Ambedkar and his social justice movements against Brahmanism have been absent from the public conscience. 

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. 

Author, feminist, and social activist Bell Hooks (1992) talks about the “traumatic relationship” with “gaze,” and how the gaze informed black parenting and black spectatorship in the United States (US). Her understanding of gaze resonated with my social position, and I began looking through the marginalised history of Buddha, Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule, Periyar Ramasamy, and others. I have observed that the history documented by Eleanor Zelliot, Valerian Rodrigues, and political scientist Christopher Jaffrelot has been markedly different from the popular discourse sanctioned by the state. 

This article is a critical reading of the Indian cinema as an institution and a site of ideological production. An “ideological state apparatus” (ISA) is basically a certain number of realities which present themselves to an immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialised institutions, such as religion, education, family, legal system, political domain, trade union, and communications systems (press, radio, and television). Cultural ISAs specifically include literature, art, sports, and cinema. As ISAs are institutions of private domain, cinema functions predominantly by ideology and impacts people at a private level (Althusser: 16–18). Thus, Indian cinema’s trajectory of expression can be traced one way or another to the sociopolitical ideology of the Indian state.   

Indian film criticism has covered major sociopolitical themes of reform, including caste and communal representation, women’s identity and sexuality, as part of its analysis vis-à-vis film theory. The popular gaze, although touched upon caste from a periphery, the depth and reason to understand the “politics of caste” have been missing from the popular discourse. In its study of representation of the marginalised women on the screen, the popular discourse remains passive on the politics of caste and its intersection with gender. The question as regards the genesis of patriarchy and the political quest of a marginalised character on the silver screen remain unexplored. Drawing inspiration from Hooks’ “oppositional gaze,” the article explores Bollywood cinema from the lens of a spectator of marginalised communities, and analyses the trajectory and politics of caste and marginalised representations in them.  

Bahujan Spectatorship 

The marginalised in India are grouped under a wider Bahujan community. The term “Bahujan” comes from Buddha’s “Bahujan Hitay, Bahujan Sukhay” formulation, which literally translates as the interest and happiness of Bahujans. Kanshi Ram transformed Buddha’s philosophy into a material political identity of Bahujan, and unified Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes of India. In popular discourse, Bahujans are also addressed as Dalits. I am refraining from using the term “Dalit” because it defines itself for being “broken people.” I am using “Bahujan” because of its inclusive identity. For convenience, let’s call this gaze “marginalised (Bahujan) spectatorship.” 
 
So, is there really a Bahujan gaze through which Bahujans engage with the Indian cinema? Or, is there a Bahujan female gaze through which Bahujan women engage with the Indian cinema? What is their experience as spectators when they consume Indian cinema? 

The Emergence of Oppositional Consciousness 

Sandra Harding’s standpoint theory which provides us with a central argument that all knowledge is socially situated can help us analyse the popular gaze and Bahujan spectatorship in a critical way.  Emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, standpoint theory is a feminist critical theory about relationship between the production of knowledge and practices of power. The theory has been presented as a way of empowering oppressed groups, of valuing their experiences, and of pointing towards a way to develop an “oppositional consciousness” as Patricia Collins (1989) observed. It insists that feminist concerns could not be restricted to, what are usually regarded as, only social and political issues but to concerns of knowledge, objectivity, rationality, and good scientific method. As a result, race, ethnicity-based, anti-imperial, queer, and social justice movements routinely produce standpoint themes (Harding 2004: 1–3). 

In that respect, standpoint methodology has become a guiding force behind exploring Bahujan spectatorship. In this analysis, we will be looking at the relation between production of knowledge and practices of power, the relationship between ideology and ideological state apparatuses in understanding the popular gaze of Indian cinema’s representation of the marginalised subjects and themes. It also looks at how political context further influences film production, and its consumption by Bahujans. 

This “oppositional consciousness” and the political strategy that Sandra suggested is what the marginalised in India have been invoking since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 2014. Leading this oppositional consciousness is Bahujan leadership from the start. It began with Rohith Vemula’s student movement and then mushroomed into Raya Sarkar’s ‘‘Me Too’’ movement, Rahul Sonpimple’s Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Chandrashekhar Azad’s Bhim Army, Sanghapali Aruna’s ‘‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’’ assertion, among others. The common thread that runs through all the above instances is an Ambedkarite assertion and an “oppositional consciousness.”

Ideological Convergence between Indian Cinema and the State 

The birth of Indian cinema coincided with the nationalist struggle to overthrow the British colonial rule and the end of World War II. At that time, India was going through multiple transitions on social, political, economic, and cultural fronts. It was also the time when the nation was synonymous with the idea of Swaraj (self-rule), and Swaraj's primary image was that of Gandhi. 

“1930–50s saw cinema’s role in developing the cultural identity of India as a nation. Phalke viewed his attempts to establish an Indian film industry as a significant contribution to the ‘swadeshi’ movement, and therefore an integral element of the nationalist struggle.” (Bhaskar 1992:  52–53)

Themes of identity, nation, nationhood, nationalism, and realism have been constantly invoked in the pre- and post-independence cinema to portray a monolithic Hindu aesthetic and state’s ideological position as the cultural identity of India. Films, like Mother India (1957), Naya Daur (1957), and many of Raj Kapoor’s films, such as Chalia (1960), Awaara (1951), Shree 420 (1955), have explored the above-mentioned themes in different combinations to bring to the fore of an individual’s relationship with the state. 

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? 

In the post-independence cinema, realism has been invoked on various occasions. One can say realism has been a movement of sorts that gained currency in the mainstream Indian cinema. For instance, Indian cinema, inspired by the Victorian sensibilities, has attempted to reflect the sociopolitical themes of oppressive social conditions of the Indian society, such as caste and gender issues, status of women, child marriages, among others. It has also popularised Indian literary classics, including the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Sharat Chandra, Munshi Premchand, Banabhatta, and Kalidasa (Chakravarty 1989: 34). However, interestingly for me, the motif of how an average individual transformed based on the sociopolitical and economic realities of a particular time, and their association with the idea of nation and national identity have been my favourite realism themes in Indian cinema. They have shown a certain pattern and a commitment to an ideology which have not been part of my lived experience as a Bahujan person.  

But, what does ideology entail? Louis Althusser in his work Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses said,

“The expression ‘ideology’ was invented by Cabanis, Destutt de Tracy and their friends, who assigned to it as an object the (genetic) theory of ideas. Fifty years later Marx interpreted it as the system of the ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group.” (Althusser 1970: 29)  

For its part, Indian realism has invoked several versions of realities, such as the dilemma of urban film-makers in positioning themselves on the identity of India, urban or rural identity, especially in the decades after independence. Historians, like Barbour, B D Gargantuas, and Firoze Rangoonwalla, have documented how the Second World War impacted the business of the Indian film industry. The studios went bankrupt, and Hollywood influence did not turn out to be good for the industry. During the 1940s and 1950s, Bollywood was struggling to figure out its market and audience. In the first eight months of 1952, 68 releases recorded flops at the box office. The industry then needed a formula that was emotional at the core. In such a scenario, national identity emerged as that anchor for realist cinema saving everyone's boat in the most cathartic and financially viable way. It turned out to be a successful formula for the Indian cinema, reproducing the gaze of Indian state and aesthetics of Hindu Natyashastra (Chakravarty 1989: 34–36). 

What Is a State?

Invoking Marx and Lenin, Althusser said, 

“The state is explicitly conceived as a repressive apparatus. The state is a ‘machine’ of repression, which enables the ruling classes (in the 19th century the bourgeois class and the ‘class’ of big landowners) to ensure their domination over the working class, thus enabling the former to subject the latter to the process of surplus-value extortion (i.e. to capitalist exploitation). The state is thus first of all what the Marxist classics have called the state apparatus. The police, the courts, the prisons, but also the army, which (the proletariat has paid for this experience with its blood) intervenes directly as a supplementary repressive force in the last instance, when the police and its specialized auxiliary corps are ‘outrun by events’: and above this ensemble, the head of state, the government and the administration.” (Althusser 1970: 11)  

Imagining Althusser’s perspective of the state apparatus for India, I have taken the liberty of substituting the bourgeois ruling classes with 15% Brahmins in India who have been controlling state apparatus since independence.

The belief in scientific progress had been another hotshot theme explored in the 19th century realist cinema both in the West and its colonies. Satyajit Ray burst onto the international film scene with Pather Panchali (1955). Ray used railways as the symbol of modernity in Pather Panchali and matched appropriately with the European realist movement. However, as per Chakravarty realism in Indian cinema has raised a number of problems:  

“While realism has a specific place in Western philosophy, a history (as an artistic and literary movement) and a critical tradition (it is the subject of endless debate), its status in the Indian philosophical and classical aesthetic traditions has been marginal…Scholars of Indian aesthetics have stressed non-mimetic view of art, which posits an essentially autonomous artistic world and as elaborate rasasutra (theory of aesthetic enjoyment) of depersonalised emotions. Important filmmakers whose films earned awards, notably, Bimal Roy, Zia Sarhady, V. Shantaram, Nitin Bose, and Mehboob, Satyajit Ray—all issued statements or made claims regarding their realist intentions. For filmmakers, the broader cultural question of identity was a concern for authentic portrayals of village life (the true India) in view of their urban backgrounds.” (Chakravarty 1989: 31–35)  

In 1983, film-maker Girish Karnad said, “If you want to know real India, you cannot get it from an Indian who lives in the city. It is the village Indian who is the real Indian.” (Chakravarty 1989: 34) 
 
The film-makers of post-independence India have been attempting to portray caste and identity from the ideology of the state. In such a portrayal, cinema serves nothing more than the role of an ideological state apparatus, bringing to the fore at times a Gandhian or a Brahminical view of the nation, in accordance with Hindu dogma.  

While Gandhi’s view of the nation is that of glorification of Indian villages, ignoring the realities of caste, Ambedkar presented a diametrically opposite view. 

In Gandhi’s own words, 

“The Indian village communities are little republics having nearly everything they want within themselves and almost independent of foreign solutions. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. This union of the village and communities, each one forming a separate little state in itself … is in a high degree conducive to their happiness and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence.” (Gandhi 1962: XI) 

But, Ambedkar presented an entirely different vision of the villages, as opposed to that of Gandhi. To him, Indian villages are nothing but a domain of despair and injustice, exploitation, discrimination, and dehumanisation. Indian villages are not a single social unit as often claimed, but constituted mainly of castes, he said (Beteille A 2002). 

It is interesting to notice that how the popular gaze of Indian cinema romanticises and replicates the idea of village just as Gandhi normalised. Karnad and other film-makers recycled over and over again the same view through their films. 

For instance, in Franz Osten’s Acchut Kannya (1936), caste as a social evil is a normalised reality from the film-maker’s gaze. One cannot miss pointing out that 1936 was the year when Acchut Kannya was released and Ambedkar published his controversial speech Annihilation of Caste, which demanded the renouncement of all Hindu shastras (scriptures) as a way to annihilate the caste system. But, Osten’s imagination of nation, reflected in Acchut Kannya, represents untouchables as the victims of a casteist gaze. It also notes that Ambedkar’s sociopolitical revolution and his people have never been part of popular imagination: the Bahujans who protested for basic human rights under the banner of Mahad Satyagraha (1927), the Temple Entry Movement (1936), and Ambedkar’s newspapers Mooknayak (Mute Hero)  (1920), Bahishkrut Bharat (India Ostracised) (1927), Janata (Masses) (1930) and Prabuddha Bharat (Awakened India) (1956). The narratives presented by these Bahujan newspapers have been markedly different from the mainstream cinema and popular imagination they have created over time.   

Gandhi and Ambedkar’s identity struggles were diametrically opposite. Gandhi was hailed as a poster boy of nationalism, and he symbolised through public consciousness a casteist behaviour. While commenting on Ambedkar’s methods of annihilation of caste, Gandhi in his newspaper Harijan on 18 July 1936 responded as:

“Caste has nothing to do with religion. It is a custom whose origin I do not know and do not need to know for the satisfaction of my spiritual hunger. But I do know that it is harmful both to spiritual and national growth. Varna and Ashrama are institutions which have nothing to do with castes. The law of Varna teaches us that we have each one of us to earn our bread by following the ancestral calling. It defines not our rights but our duties.” (Ambedkar 1936: 80) 

Responding to Gandhi’s remarks on caste and varna, Ambedkar said, 

“If Caste and Varna are convertible terms and if Varna is an integral part of the Shastras which define Hinduism, I do not know how a person who rejects caste, i.e. Varna can call himself a Hindu? (Ambedkar 1936: 94) 

While Gandhi subscribed to and glorified casteism and village life of India, Ambedkar encouraged his people to move to cities to escape caste hierarchies, violence, and atrocities that are practised in villages. It is significant to describe these two separate imaginations of the nation while thinking of a new film theory, because they have a direct relationship with two separate ideologies of the state. 

As mentioned above in the article, different kinds of ISAs help in manifesting the ruling ideology of the state, and it ultimately becomes the narrative of popular discourse. From 1947 to until the late 1980s, the Congress party enjoyed a majority in Parliament. As a result, cinema was its “ideological state apparatus,” which defined the idea of nation through a popular discourse. Gandhi was presented as a “glorified saviour” of the anti-caste movement. The state and state apparatuses responded to the ruling ideology, and the state in public consciousness was governed by Gandhi, the poster boy of the Congress party and Indian nationalism. 

Exploring Identity and Nationality in Indian Films 

In this section, we will be looking at films from the pre- and post-independence era where caste as a social theme has been explored within the trope of identity and nationality. So, it is important to understand the relationship of an individual with the state, state apparatus, and how the kinds of state apparatus contribute in forming a popular discourse. 

Furthermore, this section also engages in the analysis of the concept of gaze and the traumatic relationship of popular gaze with Bahujan spectatorship. A combination of various themes, including identity, nationalism, gender, Brahminical patriarchy, among others, will be explored through some of the well-known films below. These films bring to the fore a dynamic trajectory of caste and gender discourses, and charts the evolution of political messaging in cinema and film theory.  

Sujata (1959): A Conventional Upper-caste Gaze

Bimal Roy’s 1959 film Sujata brings to the fore the relationship between poverty and wealth, renunciation and worldliness, dharma and adharma, among other contrasting elements. These themes have been “worked out in terms of the allegory of the family as nation/nation as a family, and utopian vision of modern bourgeois family” (Chakravarty 1989: 43).     

Cinematically, Sujata is a rich expression of mise en scène, casting, production, design, music, and also clearly demonstrates the mood of post-independent India. The basic storyline is centred around Sujata, an untouchable orphaned girl, adopted by a couple from a modern Brahmin family. While everything appears working for the family, a conflict emerges in the film when Sujata falls in love with a Brahmin man, who is also viewed as a suitable match by the couple for their biological daughter, Rama. An underlying caste conflict, evident from the hatred towards Sujata by Rama’s mother, is resolved in the film through an instance of blood transfusion from the former to the latter. It is only after that Sujata is “accepted” by her foster family. 

As per Bahujan spectatorship, the film is made from a Gandhian gaze that romanticises and normalises the problem of caste as it exists in the Indian society. It follows Gandhian ideology, presented as an ideal cultural identity of India, which is narrow, casteist, and only resonates with the ideological state apparatuses.  

The Brahmin family—the ideological positioning of the film-maker, who resolves the caste conflict through a tragedy and blood transfusion—and the idea of a modern nation are all ideological state apparatuses operating through the film.

My experience of watching Sujata has been that of a “distance” as well as “trauma.” As a woman from a marginalised background, the “distance” denotes a stereotype of the conventional upper-caste gaze for the projected Bahujan character in the film, and the “trauma” relates to the second-hand citizenship existence of a marginalised woman in a casteist nation. The position of an untouchable character in the film is that of a victim, and that has been the imagination in the popular discourse. Such representations have been accepted both in real life and on-screen, where casteism is justified under the garb of Brahmin dharma. So, Althusser is correct in recognising religion and family as one of the ideological state apparatuses of private domain, which dictate the state's popular discourse and imagination of the nation. 

Chakravarty (1989) notes that “in a middle-class, upper-caste ethos in the film, it is Sujata who is “elevated” in the caste hierarchy by her induction into a Brahmin family rather than the other way around” (Chakravarty 1989: 43). If this is the moral position of a modern family, it is nothing but a casteist representation of Sujata in a victim gaze. As an adopted untouchable daughter, Sujata’s treatment in a Brahmin family is nothing less than that of a caretaker, and it produces a sense of sadness and a casteist gaze. She is loved, but with a difference, constantly reminded of othering in “my daughter and like my daughter” references by both Brahmin parents. This marks a rude distinction between the biological Brahmin daughter, Rama, and an adopted untouchable daughter. 

Although it is commendable on the part of Roy to use human blood in the film to resolve caste conflict, it is equally tragic for humanity at large as he does not raise pertinent questions. He does not ask political questions, such as: Why caste exists in the first place? Or, why are parents casteist to their adopted daughter? As an Ambedkarite woman, the film does not connect with me, and more importantly, I am repulsed by the casteist Brahmin ideology operating through the film. 

Reviewing what has been portrayed in Sujata, Roy says, 

“The very nature of photographic art invites belief in the actuality of what is recorded. As a result, the film developed most consistently and successfully in the direction of realism, that is, reconstruction of life in such a way as to give its environment and psychology the effect of complete authenticity.” (Chakravarty 1989: 35)  

He further makes it clear that, 

The goal of realism is not the ‘scientific’ understanding of the human condition at a particular time and place but a knowledge of self (atmanam buddhi), not interpretation but the creation of a mood, realism becomes a ‘rasa.’” (Chakravarty 1989: 35) 

Therefore, Roy’s interpretation of realism lives up to a cultural identity of India that is grounded in the aesthetic of Hindu Natya Shastra and ideological state apparatus of the Congress party, which was in power at that time. 

Bandit Queen (1994): The Politics of Bahujan Body 

“Caste pogroms feature two main forms of hate: collective humiliation and economic destruction. In the first case, the women are stripped, paraded naked, raped and molested in public, and two, the basis of their livelihood or survival are attacked—qualified /employed youth are targeted and killed, economic assets like household goods and vehicles damaged, houses burnt, and wells poisoned by pouring in kerosene.” (Stephen 2012) 

Bandit Queen (1994) is a biographical film, inspired by the life of a poor lower-caste woman Phoolan Devi who endures repeated sexual assaults and violence throughout her life, because of her assertive agency in an upper-caste patriarchal society. 

Through the film, director Shekhar Kapur explores the nature of caste pogroms prevalent in India and the materiality of a Bahujan woman’s body. 

“If we try to understand ‘body’ as a ‘site’ representative of a community, this system works to perpetuate the terrorizing of the Othered population – the ‘Untouchables and the poorer; Most Backward Castes (MBCs)’ essentially a ‘Bahujan body’ – by targeting the body of the woman as representative of the community, which needs to be “taught a lesson.” (Stephen 2012) 

The rationale behind analysing Bandit Queen is to explore the nature of caste pogrom vis-à-vis  a Bahujan woman and a man. Kapur’s gaze is distinct from that of the ideological state apparatus of India, which was then represented by the Congress party in 1994. Away from all its subtleties and niceties, the film comes across as a sincere attempt to reflect India’s caste dynamic for what it is. 

The film presents a rivalry between upper-caste Thakurs, on the one hand, and Phoolan Devi and Vikram Mallah, on the other. Unlike other entitled upper-caste men of the lot, Vikram is a soft-spoken, spiritual, and a democratic person, who understands the consent of an abused woman. He inspires Phoolan Devi to make a mark. The solidarity emerged between lower castes and Muslims in this film is a true reflection of the marginalised solidarity, which exists between Muslims and Bahujans in India. This expression, however, has not been part of the ideological state apparatus, which usually represents it as Hindu–Muslim communal rivalry in the mainstream cinema. 

At personal level, the experience of watching this film has been that of trauma, and also of finding agency. The trauma here denotes a searing awareness of caste pogrom as existent in the Hindu society. On the other hand, it also relates to that of finding agency because Kapur chooses to give reel-life Phoolan Devi the agency and cinematic justice, as was due to real-life Phoolan Devi, despite all the injustice meted out to her on multiple occasions. Phoolan Devi, who is married off as a child, redeems her honour later in her life by punishing her husband, who raped and sexually assaulted her when she was just a nine-year-old child. 

Unlike the popular gaze of cinema, which victimises and sensationalises sexual assault of a Bhaujan woman, Kapur gives Phoolan Devi the cinematic justice and dignity that she deserves. Through the film, he has sent out a larger message for humanity, and has not shied away from portraying the casteist prejudices in the Indian society. Drawing inspiration from Vikram Mallah, Phoolan Devi fearlessly fights for honour and self-respect. 

Despite the force of various state apparatuses (the police, courts, government, and religion), Phoolan Devi, both in real and reel-life, kills 22 Thakurs who dishonours and punishes her, because of her Bahujan identity. Through Phoolan Devi’s story, Kapur demonstrates how state apparatuses have played a role in contributing to caste violence. The film does not underscore the upper-caste hegemony of the Indian state, as usually peddled in the Indian cinema, but it rather triumphantly uncovers the ideological state apparatuses of the police, panchayats, and the media.

Article 15 (2019) and the Convenient View of Caste   

Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 (2019) is loosely based on a gang rape and murder of two lower-caste teenage girls from Katra village in Budaun district of Uttar Pradesh. A “casteless” Brahmin Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Ayan Ranjan, played by Ayushmann Khurrana, goes to a village in Uttar Pradesh, and gets a shocking introduction to caste. He is portrayed as a modern, urban, and a “good” Brahmin who is leading the cause of bringing justice to the victims, but never really addresses the genesis, mechanism, and the ways to annihilate caste.  

A poignant scene in the film which could have become an important site of inquiry for caste genesis is wasted in a mockery of caste divisions in general. In the film, when a character named Jatav, a Dalit, updates Ayan Ranjan about Mahant Ji, Ayan is really concerned and tries to understand the issue of caste. Ayan’s subordinate Mayank’s gesture reveals that Mahant Ji is a Brahmin. At this point when he tries to understand caste, Ayan asks Jatav if he and other boys there belonged to lower castes? To this, Jatav distinguishes himself as a Chamar from the boys who belong to the Pasi caste, another sub-caste among Dalits. This further confounds Ayan Rajan. Curious more than ever, Ayan asks Mayank his caste to which the latter responds as Kayastha. When Ayan tries to pose the same question to himself, Mayank reveals that Ayan is a Brahmin too. The protagonist Ayan, who is far removed from caste identities and hierarchies, tries to equate his caste with that of Mahant Ji. To this Mayank responds as: “No sir, he is a Kanyakubja Brahmin, a higher Brahmin and you are Saryuparin Brahmin (implying a lower stature in the hierarchy).” At this point, Ayan exclaims in rage and says: “What the hell is going on here?” 

It is when the people in the theatre enjoy the sarcastic take of the film-maker on the question of caste identity and its divisions the trauma of Bahujan spectatorship doubles as an uninformed opinion of caste hierarchy is generalised and normalised. The only point where I could relate to Ayan’s rage in the film is when he is visibly enraged and asks what the hell is happening. However, the protagonist does not ask why caste exists, or how we can annihilate caste. He is upset at the hierarchical nature of caste, and leaves the issue there. What is romanticised, however, in the movie is the conditioning of casteist behaviour in line with the ideology of the Indian state, which is currently represented by the BJP. Thus, Sinha’s portrayal of caste in the film serves the state apparatus.  

On the other hand, the representation of Guara, Nishad’s love interest, is that of a ground-level Bahujan activist, and her portrayal is problematic. Her portrayal on the screen is reflective of a stereotype that lower castes are poor, dark-skinned, and unclean with tattered clothes, and is tantamount to Brahminical upper-caste victim gaze. Viewing such a representation on screen  does not bring any validation to my experience as a Bahujan woman. Rather, it exposes the disconnect of the film-maker with the real world who easily buys into the casteist gaze of the state. 
The upper-caste gaze finds privilege in branding, stereotyping, and thus, affirming the victim positions of Bahujan characters, especially that of women. Evidently, Article 15 also touches upon the theme of caste pogrom, but the sensational representation of sexual assault, the way the director manipulates animalistic rage of a rapist in exposing gender violence is disturbing. The way the camera gazes at the tied-feet and gagged mouth of a lower caste victim and a patch of hair lying around shudders the spine. It completely shifts the focus to the trauma of gang rape. The question is do we necessarily have to sensationalise sexual violence for the sake of addressing it on screen? Could Sinha not find another way, or is it the demand of the genre?  

The setup of a leaking sewage as a plot device is commendable to shed light on the problem of manual scavenging in India, but to really hire a manual scavenger to replicate the trauma of working in such a caste-based occupation such as this should be condemned. Ambedkar said, “Caste system is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers” (Ambedkar 1936: 28). Sinha by default has replicated that division of labour, and has locked the image of manual scavenger in that high-speed motion shot with that of pity, repulsiveness, and distance. He does not question anything about the nature of such labour, or even the state’s role in eradicating this problem. Sinha rather uses this tragedy as a plot device to invoke pity in a slow motion shot supplemented with a tragic background score aggravating the violent nature of this expression. It seems he has tried to dub all possible sites of Bahujan assertion⁠—whether it is Rohith Vemula’s institutional death, Una’s brutal caste violence, or Bahujan retaliation during Una Asmita Yatra, assertion of Bhim Army⁠—but all in a very twisted way to align with a Brahminical state apparatus and ideology, which accepts Bahujans for their large numbers in democracy, and the same goes for Sinha as well. What does the film-maker want to achieve by this depiction of trauma? Viewership, perhaps. But, the way the self-respecting anti-caste movements of Bahujans have been undignified on screen amounts to stereotyping Dalits, which is disrespectful, and also a result of the Brahmin gaze.  

The character of Nishad, which is inspired by a mix of Rohith Vemula, Jignesh Mevani, and Bhim Army Chandra Shekhar Azad, is killed in an encounter by the state police. What does it imply? The end of a Bahujan leader even metaphorically on screen is a death orchestrated through a casteist state apparatus, and performed through even more casteist cinema while a Brahmin policeman part of the same state apparatus is hailed as a hero in the film. Such a choice is obvious to understand. Sinha exploits Ambedkar’s iconography, but fails to follow his anti-caste methods. He invokes Ambedkar at opportune moments in the film, but the film-maker’s gaze largely remains Brahminical.  

Kaala (2018): Bahujan Assertion on Silver Screen 

The most significant contribution of Pa Ranjith’s to Indian cinema is how he has reversed the gaze of marginalised representation on the silver screen. The upper-caste conventional gaze has been representing Bahujan characters as victims, which involved stereotyping. Ranjith’s cinema has given marginalised characters, especially the Bahujans, the integrity that has been missing in mainstream films. 

Kaala (2018) is a story of Karikaalan, played by Rajnikanth. He consolidates Bahujans in Dharavi slum against an upper-caste politician, Hari Dhada Abhayankar (played by Nana Patekar), who wants to occupy their lands. The film plays out in binaries, the binary of white and black, of pure and impure, clean and dirty, national and antinational. It brings to the fore two ideological positions—one that is popular in public imagination and other in tune with the thinking of the marginalised—and also two different imaginations of the nation.  

Kaala is a dark-skinned hero who speaks of rightful ownership of his land, while his nemesis is a white-kurta-clad purist and casteist politician, Hari Abhayankar. White often signifies purity, but Ranjith reverses the gaze by characterising the purist obsession as evil in the film. Black represents the proletariat, who toil in the slums of Dharavi. He also reverses the narrative of Ramayana, the way Ram and Raavan are portrayed. While Hari Abhayankar is a devotee of Ram, Kaala’s Raavan avatar is personified in the strength and solidarity of his people.

The film evokes many political responses and themes: of  capitalism in the garb of Brahminism, and of the binary of class and caste. Kaala’s youngest son Lenin brings in the class perspective for upward mobility, but Kaala asserts his ownership of land from the position of caste. Images and statues of Buddha, Phule, and  Ambedkar are shown dotting the premises of a Buddha Vihar in Dharavi. He implicitly conveys that Buddhism as an ideological state apparatus distinctly different from the casteist ideology of the Indian state, currently represented by the BJP.  
 
The number plate of the jeep, MH 01 BR 1956, used by Kaala is meant to send a point across that Bhim Rao (Ambedkar) embraced Buddhism with lakhs of Indians in 1956, before his demise in the same year. The Buddhist ideology of liberty, equality and fraternity, the embracing of Buddhism, “BR,” and 1956 have a symbiotic relationship with Ambedkarite people’s consciousness, which has not been explored in a mainstream narrative. 
 
Ranjith’s political ideology is visible in the sociopolitical position of assertion that he gives to Kalaa’s character, the underdog of the marginalised Tamil community residing in Dharavi slum. 

Kaala's relationship with the state is that of a Bahujan hero taking on a casteist antagonist Hari Abhyankar representing the larger Brahaminical state apparatus. In doing so, Ranjith has reversed the semiotic relationship of Bahujan symbols and heroes with that of the popular casteist ideology of the Indian state. In the film, the conflict is between “Beema Chawl,” represented by Kaala and his supporters, and “Manu Builders,” represented by the antagonist. While “Beema” refers to Ambedkar and his social justice movement, “Manu” relates to the ancient Hindu text of Manusmriti, from where caste has its origins.   
 
The treatment of female characters in the film is also refreshing, and it does not come across as run of the mill. These are women who have agency, who are assertive, who know their political rights, whether it is Kaala’s wife, Selvi, college student and Lenin’s girlfriend, Stormy, or the representation of a Muslim single mother, Zareena. In one particular scene, Selvi asks the revolutionary Stormy to come sit with her boyfriend, and adds that there is no need to show deliberate respect to your in-laws. Stormy asks, “how should I show you respect? Should I lower my eyes and act all demure,” ridiculing the subservient nature of women often replicated and recycled for the role of a Hindu daughter-in-law. 
 
When Zareena’s construction project falls apart, she reaches out to Hari Abhayankar for help. He questions her identity, her single motherhood and mocks her womanhood, and then promises to help her if she falls at his feet in order to show her respect. Ranjith chooses not to show Zareena falling in his feet, but redeems her honour later in the film when she ridicules Hari Abhayankar during an election defeat. She offers to shake hands with him and speaks of the correct way of showing equality. 
 
The experience of watching Kaala has been that of affirmative validation for an assertive, educated, modern Bahujan person in this country. It validates Bahujan culture, struggle for land, space, dignity, self-respect, and the everyday struggle of caste politics in India. Bringing “an aware Bahujan political being” into the centre of a protagonist's life has fulfilled the wishful dream that every Bahujan across the country must have dreamt of; an expression that has been missing from the imagination of an upper-caste gaze. 

The Need for Bahujan Perspective in Indian Cinema 

Indian cinema is Indian state’s apparatus.  The state is sometimes Congress or the BJP, but it is the ideological bent of a film-maker that decides the sociopolitical view of a film. I have taken a personal and political interest to study and fill the gap of caste representation that Indian film theory has missed so far. Bahujan characters have been either 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 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.

I would like to end my analysis with Adivasi rights activist and poet Abhay Xaxa’s (2011) revolutionary poem which calls for the rejection of the state’s apparatus. 

I am not your data, nor am I your vote bank,
I am not your project, or any exotic museum project,
I am not the soul waiting to be harvested,
Nor am I the lab where your theories are tested.
 
I am not your cannon fodder, or the invisible worker,
Or your entertainment at India habitat center,
I am not your field, your crowd, your history,
your help, your guilt, medallions of your victory.
 
I refuse, reject, resist your labels,
your judgments, documents, definitions, 
your models, leaders and patrons,
because they deny me my existence, my vision, my space.
 
Your words, maps, figures, indicators,
they all create illusions and put you on a pedestal
from where you look down upon me. 
 
So I draw my own picture, and invent my own grammar,
I make my own tools to fight my own battle,
For me, my people, my world, and my Adivasi self! 

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