ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Anti-caste Aesthetics and Dalit Interventions in Indian Cinema

The cinematic interventions of contemporary Dalit film-makers in India, Nagraj Manjule and Pa Ranjith, among others, represent modes of resistant historiography, employed by Dalits, against the aesthetic regime of stereotypical representation, through innovative techniques in visuals, sound, music, and cinematography. The paper attempts to evaluate and argue for an enabling anti-caste aesthetics articulated through an embodied sensibility in films. The paper argues that these film-makers not only disturb “the unconscious of caste” through an explicit anti-caste aesthetics but also produce affective, expressive archives. In other words, they bring into presence what was previously impossible through the processes of denunciation (of casteist images) and innovation (of anti-caste aesthetics).

The author is grateful to M T Ansari and Chandra Sekhar for their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts, Dickens Leonard for his intellectual and affective inputs on the paper, and Tushar Ghadage for his assistance with the Marathi language. This paper is dedicated to the memory of Muthu Krishnan.

The discourse on Dalits and cinema in India has gained academic attention recently, resulting in a range of studies from different perspectives. While some focus on the much debated question of Dalit representation in film content both as critique (Margaret 2013) and as appreciation (Tamalapakula 2018), others study the absence and presence of Dalit film-making itself (Wankhede 2013; Yengde 2018). 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.1 The recent success of Nagraj Manjule and Pa Ranjithtwo prominent Dalit filmmakers in Marathi and Tamil language cinema respectivelyand 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 Manjules 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).2 They, perhaps, have successfully pioneered an anti-caste aesthetics beyond the usual progressive narratives of Gandhian socialism in Indian cinema (Margaret 2013).

Oppressed communities, the Dalits in particular, have always engaged with aesthetics in the vernacular, in their struggles for emancipation. The resurgence of anti-caste movements in Maharashtra during the 1960s1970s and the subsequent growth of Dalit literature that challenged Brahminical aesthetics, is one such example. Those writings emerged as resistance against the caste system, rooted in the Dalit experience of oppression and angst (Dangle 1992). It was largely perceived as an epistemological and political act to establish a different category in literature (Dangle 1992; Satyanarayana 2019). However, one could note that the explicitness of the political overpowered the literary aesthetics in many cases.3 In other words, the necessity of rational epistemological questions undermined the affective expressive aesthetics of literary works. Though some writers could do both at once, Dalit literature largely remained as an alternative, if not an opposition, to mainstream literature. On the other hand, contemporary Dalit presence in film-making and the employment of anti-caste aesthetics in cinema not only critique mainstream cinema but also affect the medium itself, through an affective expressive aesthetics that is at once political and poetic. Thus, anti-caste aesthetics in cinema takes inspiration from, yet goes beyond, the already available category of Dalit aesthetics.

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Published On : 12th Jan, 2024

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