By Yogiraj Bhende
Indian cinema has a long history; spanning from its inception until today. From producing the first full-length feature film in 1913 to produce the largest number of movies in the world, Indian cinema has changed significantly since independence. We can see distinct themes in different eras: early films included Nehru's vision of modernisation, films made under the emergency criticised the state, a wave of women-centred cinema emerged in the 1980s, and cinema fundamentally changed during liberalisation. But looking at over a hundred years of Indian cinema reveals how the ‘caste reality’ of Indian society has been blatantly sidelined from films. During these years, some filmmakers did attempt to discuss caste, but it often relied on a Gandhian ideology to make its point. In this way, these films never spoke about the annihilation of caste itself and sought to preserve caste as a structure.
A study by The Hindu revealed that Bahujans, nearly 200 million of whom live in India, are actually non-existent in Indian cinema. Of the 300 Bollywood movies released in 2013 and 2014, only six of the lead characters were backward caste characters and none were Dalits.
In many ways, the exclusion of caste from Indian cinema has been deliberate. The basis of the brahminical cinema in India was set by Dadasaheb Phalke. All his films were centred around Hindu mythology and divine figures. In this way, Indian cinema became a fertile ground for ideas about 'Indian culture,' and thus began a long history of the film paying homage to Brahmanism. Most films start with images of Hindu gods and goddesses. Many of them depicted marriage according to rituals performed by upper-caste Hindus. Even the idea of the nation or nationalism itself was portrayed through Hindu gods and goddesses.
Bahujan culture in its entirety-food, music, and art have always been missing from Indian cinema. Hardly any films assert the reality of caste through the lens of Bahujan identity and struggle, free from a Brahminical lens. As mentioned earlier, with most films that discuss Caste- an inevitable Gandhian strain of thought seeped in, which is only another side of Brahmanism. In this way, the Ambedkarite discourse was absent. We never see a Bahujan as a protagonist of a film, completely embedded in all the details and texture of Bahujan culture and life. When Bahujans are portrayed, they are treated with pity and seen as being beneath the upper castes, or in service of the upper castes. The Hindi cinema has always portrayed a 'Sanskari family' as a Hindu family, a family who gives respect to each other by touching feet of elders, a family who do pooja every morning, and the most necessary a family who has a small temple in their home.
Finally, after years of the inadequate portrayal of Bahujans, we do now have films like Fandry, Kaala, and Kabali. These films are firmly rooted in an Ambedkarite perspective and show Bahujans as resisting, asserting beings. We can see the protagonist of these films is strongly denying the brahminical culture with Ambedkarite ideology. It has taken so long for even one part of Indian cinema to espouse this perspective, and proudly endorse the slogan of 'Jai Bhim.' It is high time we started seeing Bahujan culture, art, and music in films. These films broke existing tropes that Dalits and Bahujans played in films, and did not rely on Gandhian ideology. These films are truly revolutionary and tell the stories that matter.
In this article, I will be analysing these Indian films which have been instrumental for Bahujan representation, Pa. Ranjit's Kabali and Kaala, Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry and Sairat, these are few films which we can confidently say have spoken about caste realities and assertion of Bahujans and have challenged the Brahmanical and Gandhian thoughts. As a Bahujan spectator, I felt connected to these films and I found my reality reflected in what I was watching.
Pa Ranjith and Nagraj Manjule’s cinema of resistance
The most common deception of Bahujans in Indian films has been that of the victim, they have been rarely shown as champions of their resistance, challenging the system and raising voices for their rights. This is what this new wave cinema of Nagraj Manjule and Pa Ranjith's did with Bahujans stories. These films are different from all the earlier films which tried to talk about the Dalit-Bahujans of this country. In these films the Bahujans fight their own fight, heroes come from within the community, they reflect our own people and their struggle for rights with dignity. In these films, the Bahujans fight for justice on their own and do not require an upper-caste hero to 'save' them like in many other films. In the film Lagaan, 'Kachara' was shown as a lower caste, 'untouchable' man in the village, Soon the upper caste men accept it, 'in spite' of his Dalit identity. This once again centers an upper-caste perspective that the Dalit man is 'granted' dignity through the acceptance of the upper castes. If they hadn't done so, he remains without dignity in the eyes of the film. In the Marathi film Fandry, there is a scene where the protagonist of the film carries a pig with his mother and father. In the background, there are images of Sant Gadge Baba, Dr. Ambedkar, and Jyotiba Phule, and the boy is disturbed. This scene uses powerful symbols to depict how the boy was unhappy with the work imposed on him by a Brahmanical system. The symbols evoke resistance, and the boy's resistance to go against the structures reining him.
These two examples show the stark difference in how marginalised people are represented. The first is immersed in pity towards the Bahujan, resolving conflict through ‘acceptance’ by the upper castes. In the second film, the Dalit protagonist goes against the system independently. He doesn't need an upper caste person to make him realise his own realities and facilitate his upliftment. Films like this single-handedly challenge an entire history of Indian cinema.
Here let's discuss a scene from Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 as it too talks about caste. The story of film is based on the real incidence of two ‘Dalit’ girls raped by the so called upper caste men wherein the protagonist of the film, Ayushman Khurrana, a brahmin cop puts efforts to realise the caste system and successfully gives justice to the case at the end. And the film ends with Mahatma Gandhi’s bhajan to tell us that Gandhi has been the inspiration to fight against the caste system. Besides this, there are many other elements of the film which do not motivate to annihilate but justify the system. Hence we can clearly find out the very brahmanic gaze of the filmmakers.
Whereas Pa Ranjith’s film Kaala, is clear about the Ambedkarite ideology and breaks the Brahmanical practices and mindsets of the people. The climax of the movie is very powerful as after the death of Kaala, Haridada (antagonist) finds Kaala in every face of the Dharavi people, and this is how Bahujan power in each individual is portrayed through the scene.
A very biased notion of the filmmakers is observed when it comes to showing the Bahujans and the slums, they are always shown as violent, dirty, uncivilised and immoral. But in this film, this very biased and stereotypical depiction of slums and Bahujans is challenged. Pa Ranjit used this film to show the message of Dr. Ambedkar for the Bahujan which is Educate, Agitate and Organize. There were images of Dr. Ambedkar, Periyar and Gautam Buddha, In the history of cinema we will barley find a movie showing images of Dalit-Bahujan Icons, although Buddha’s statue is used in many films as a decorative item, but this film shows it as a symbol of revolution and anti-Brahmanism; By portraying a Buddha Vihar, the film topples the supremacy of the temple in Indian cinema, and indirectly in society itself and at the end of the film we see a Blue flag. It is very clearly challenging the Brahmanical way of making a cinema.
Similarly in Kabali, we see pictures of Buddha, Dr Ambedkar and Nelson Mandela, creating a visual landscape of resistance, and legitimising the politics of these leaders. Throughout the film, we see Kabali dressed in a three-piece suit, which borrows from Ambedkar’s ideology that clothing is essential to upliftment, and imitates Ambedkar’s own dressing style. Clothing is political, because often only upper-caste people are seen donning suits and clean clothes, while Bahujans are always portrayed as dirty, wearing tattered and unclean clothes. The film shatters this imagination, and Kabali is always seen reclining in luxurious sofas, a symbolic representation of power. Moreover the women in the film are strong and ideologically clear. Neither are they inferior, nor submissive to men. Instead, they are furious, bold and tackle the system head on. The women in Kaala do not need to be fair to be beautiful. In Kabali, the lead women are strong, educated, important to the story and plot development and highly adaptable to socio-economic changes, thus demonstrating their will and resilience.
The film is revolutionary because we hear Jai Bhim in the film, with dignity, as resistance and proclaimed without any fear or shame. The film Kabali depicts the rivalry between two large gangs, where one gang consists of subaltern folks. Like Kaala, the title of this movie itself is an indication that the movie is about subaltern people. The term Kabali has often been used against the so-called lower classes, referring to the Bahujan. But this film breaks these stereotypes. The protagonist of the movie is no longer a slave who merely obeys orders. Instead, he emerges as a new Kabali who strikes back. While Kabali usually refers to those who indentured labour, Pa Ranjit’s Kabali is determined to uplift himself in every aspect- socially, culturally and economically.
This new, fierce Kabali resists the existing brahmanical structure and asserts his identity.
There is a prevalent notion that only the upper castes produce culture. Kabali denies this, and emphasises on the culture, food and practices of Bahujans. Culture and food are intertwined, and become a force against the brahmanical hegemony over culture.
We see their struggle for education and a desire for a more sophisticated life. The film shows us as people who are capable of doing more than just physical work- they can adapt, run businesses and become rich. Kabali who starts out as a labourer becomes a wealthy man towards the end of the movie. AFinally, he emphatically states that he may not come from a ruling clan, but he was still born to rule. A single sentence that goes against centuries of oppression. And if this is a problem for you, then I will surely progress he declares. ‘I will progress more than you, get educated, I will wear a coat and suit and I will sit with my legs crossed before you, stylishly.’ Kabali isn’t just about one man’s resistance. It is about imagination- about reimagining Bahujans as people with culture, power and resilience. Movies like Fandry and Asuran talk about caste by emphasising the importance of education for Bahujans while fighting against the system and oppression. In the final scene in Fandry, the protagonist flings a stone at the screen and the movie ends. This emphatic ending is a statement about how he is ready to fight against discrimination, and unwilling to back down.
In these films are significant because they come from Bahujan filmmakers themselves, freed from the brahmanical gaze.
Yogiraj Bhende has completed his MA in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and currently he is working as Media and Communications associate with Jansahas at Dewas, Madhya Pradesh.