Cast(e) in banality: B'wood may take a leaf out of Tamil cinema in engaging with the caste question
Over a century of its existence, Hindi cinema has dealt with very few anti-caste narratives. It has finally started taking baby steps in that direction, but there is a lot of catching up to do
In what is becoming a trend, yet another big Bollywood film came a cropper at the box office last weekend. There is no dispute that Karan Malhotra’s Shamshera failed to move the audience; but is it because it was dealing with the unpalatable caste based exploitation or because it failed to tell the story of disenfranchisement, marginalisation, injustices and oppression?
Either way, the bitter truth is that in over a century of its existence, mainstream Hindi cinema has dealt with very few anti-caste narratives. Now that it has decided to take baby steps in that direction, there is a lot of catching up to do with language cinema— Tamil film industry specifically--setting up newer artistic paradigms and shifting the goalposts with every new anti-caste narrative.
As if on cue, just a week after Shamshera came Sajimon Prabhakar’s Malayalam film Malayankunju starring Fahadh Faasil. Though a tad too neatly divided into two halves—character study of an eccentric, casteist, sociopath Annikuttan played by Faasil and a survival drama, the film frames the genres uniquely within the larger ambit of caste.
While the first half lays out Annikuttan’s bigotry, it also tiptoes around it, almost rationalising his ways by stemming them in personal betrayal and resentment.
Franz Osten’s Achhut Kanya (1936), the love story of a lower caste girl and a Brahmin boy, marked mainstream Hindi cinema’s first brush with social discrimination. In 1959, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Bimal Roy directed Sujata with Nutan playing the character of an untouchable girl growing up in a Brahmin household, being at the receiving end of prejudices in a seemingly kind, genteel, progressive and inclusive world.
Exploration of caste-based bigotry then moved to the parallel, New Wave or arthouse Hindi cinema. Films like Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974), Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati (1981), Goutam Ghose’s Paar (1984), Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985), Arun Kaul’s Diksha (1991), Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), Benegal’s Samar (1999) and of course Jabbar Patel’s Hindi-English bilingual Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000).
A few young, independent directors brought in fresh, new perspectives to the anti-caste narratives—Bikas Mishra’s Chauranga (2014), Chaitanya Tamhane’s Marathi-Gujarati-Hindi-English Court (2014) and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015). It was in 2001 that an untouchable character returned to the Hindi mainstream cinema in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan. The unorthodox spin bowler Kachra, who is part of the rag tag cricket team that wins the match against the Englishmen, doesn’t show any inner turmoil; nor does the film deal with what Kachra would have faced on the margins of society.
Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan (2011) had a far too suave Saif Ali Khan playing (unconvincingly) an educated Dalit. It started off by dealing with the issue of reservation but quickly turned into a film about commercialisation of education. More recently, Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 (2019) dealt with caste-based discriminations from the point of view of its urban, educated and privileged hero, the Brahmin saviour as some noted.
Similarly, portrayal of caste discriminations in the recent Sony LIV web series Nirmal Pathak Ki Ghar Wapsi also became the privileged protagonist’s story. Instead of going in-depth into discriminations or injustices, it was more about a politically correct individual and a self-appointed messiah of change.
Mainstream Hindi cinema does have a way of simplifying complexities of life. It makes things relatable through simplicity. However, in Shamshera the gaze turns simplistic, superficial and patronising. Its upper caste, chotidhaari Hindu villain Shuddh Singh may have riled the right wing but did little for the cause of the dispossessed. The film makes a spectacle of the struggles of the underprivileged, a soulless one at that, and cringingly brownfaces its actors to fit the parts.
In fact, this defines what’s fundamentally wrong with the portrayal of caste politics in Hindi cinema. As filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan puts it, unlike cinema from the South, “mainstream Hindi filmmaking falters in its understanding of the lived reality”. According to him, the unkempt look and bathroom slippers of Allu Arjun in Pushpa have a salt of the earth, rooted quality to them. When Bollywood tries to do the same, it ends up looking contrived.
In the South, stars do not grow, live or work in a cocoon while in Bollywood lives revolve only within the same circle. The hierarchies are understood only through class—their own staff, for instance. “It’s the only ‘different’ social space they have access to apart from their own. There is no osmosis [from the various strata of society],” says Ghaywan. Perhaps a reason why film historian Theodore Baskaran finds mainstream Hindi cinema “faceless”, bound only by the language and teeming with “rootless characters”.
Anti-caste cinema in Bollywood is largely “headline filmmaking than deep diving”, quips Ghaywan, middling stuff, superficial in content and made for the dummies. A cinema that is ‘woke’ than truly radical.
The difference shows when a film like Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund appears on the horizon. In a May 2017 interview for The Hindu, Manjule had told me: “Caste is the foundation of our society. It’s a reality that you need to have a special talent to avoid. Bollywood has that talent, I don’t.”
None of Manjule’s underprivileged characters, despite the vagaries of life, are ‘pitiable, poor things’, as had been almost mandatory in Hindi cinema. There is confidence, swag and attitude that they display, despite all the hardships. Their professor, played by Amitabh Bachchan, was their ally, not the protagonist. They owned their story. Manjule, who wears his Dalit identity on his sleeve, made his characters assert it too.
It’s such fresh windows for anti-caste representation that Bollywood must contend with. OTT platforms have exposed us to a wide variety of content beyond Hindi mainstream cinema. The seething rage of the underclass in Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, the subtle subversiveness of Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Puchhi poised beautifully on the intersectionality of caste, gender and sexuality, the grace in the brutality of Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy. Films like Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai and TK Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim forced people to engage with the issue in some way or the other.
K. Ravindran’s Telugu film Harijan and BV Karanth’s Kannada film Chomana Duddi remain anti-caste classics from the South. But these explorations have been more potent in Tamil cinema.
According to Baskaran, early Tamil films, quite like Hindi cinema, were more committed to espousing the Gandhian principle of anti-untouchability but were made by the upper castes. “It showed in the body language of actors and the camera placements of the filmmaker,” he says.
In the 1950s films produced and patronised by DMK ridiculed the caste system. “Caste issues are so well embedded in Tamil cinema because of the legacy of Periyar and Dravidian politics,” says Baskaran.
Now several Dalit filmmakers are occupying centre stage in the industry, most notably Pa Ranjith. They are telling their own stories with urgency. “Earlier they used to hide the Dalit identity, now they wear it on their sleeves,” says Baskaran. There is a diversity to the artistic expression and idiom as well evident in films like Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal and Vetri Maaran’s Asuran.
Caste may not be openly spelt out but informs the narrative through expressions that are getting more metaphoric, symbolic and sharper cinematic tools, says Baskaran. He cites films like M. Manikandan’s Kadaisi Vivasayi and Madonne Ashwin’s Mandela as examples.
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)