The First Dalit Chirag in Bollywood

Evidently, Chirag is ready to be anointed as the “first Dalit hero”, and that’s the reason he thought it necessary to enter the industry with his Dalit surname “Paswan”

The laws of the caste order ensured that for thousands of years Dalits remained excluded from almost all the centres of power (economic, political, religious and cultural).  But due to the efforts of Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar, they received constitutionally given rights in independent India, and that prohibited their exclusion in many areas. This brought opportunity to many Dalits to mark their achievements in politics, medical science, engineering, literature and journalism, etc., besides business and commerce, and thus amaze the nation. But there are many other areas where they have continued to be excluded as before. One such area is Hindi cinema, where Dalits are almost entirely untouchables. In this area, there’s not a single face that has Dalit identity.

I have been associated as a writer with the Bahujan movement for the last decade and a half and it is only for the second time that I have seen fellow writers and activists, who otherwise are indifferent to films, become excited about a particular film. The first time it was for the Jabbar Patel-directed film Dr Ambedkar. But the film that was produced with collaboration of the Government of India and the Maharashtra government, did not have a proper commercial release and we had to be content watching it on CDs. That was a different case altogether. Dalits were eager to offer their tribute to Babashaheb by watching that film. But the only reason they were fascinated by the film Mile Na Mile Hum (MNMH) was because of the hero, Chirag Paswan. They did not care much about Chirag’s acting skills. It was enough for them that looks-wise their “Dalit hero” is second to none, and he romances not one but three heroines. Meanwhile, many newspapers carried the reviews of the film. Reviewers have given two or two and a half stars to the film that seeks to explore the hardships in a child’s life caught between estranged parents. As far as Chirag Paswan’s acting is concerned, reviewers have appreciated it. According to them, despite this being his first film, his acting seemed natural. He’s got a good voice and he has immense star potential, but he must concentrate on dialogue delivery and body language. Over all, it was judged to be an average watchable film.

Going by the prevalent critical perspective, this may be an average film but in terms of social representation it presents a historic documentation. This is the first film in which a Dalit plays the lead character. A Dalit may have worked before also, as a hero, director, lyricist, music director, etc. In the countless movies made in various Indian languages, there must be some Dalits. Born in 1911 and author of 35 novels and more than 100 plays and short stories, famous Marathi Dalit writer Anna Bhau Saathe left his imprint on Bombay films. Hit films like Fakira were bases on his novels, in which renowned actors like Balraj Sahni and Nargis acted. Producer of national-award winning film Teesari Kasam and writer of countless unforgettable songs, Shailendra too was from a Dalit community. But such people, either because out of fear of the Manuwadi dominance in films or because they wanted to prove themselves to be caste-free, never used caste-indicating surnames such as Tiwari, Dubey, Vajpayee, Jha, Gupta, Singh, Khan or Khanna. So their caste remained hidden and Dalits continued to have a complex that in the glamourous world of films is completely bereft of Dalits. Thus, in this sense, MNMH has created history. In this film, Chirag retained the surname “Paswan” and made his entry, not as a sidekick but as a hero.

Meanwhile, one big reason that Chirag Paswan has succeeded in making an entry as a hero is because he is son of a huge political figure like Ram Vilas Paswan. When he was asked in an interview if it was easy to gain entry in Bollywood because of his family’s political background, Chirag said, “I have no hesitation in saying that if one comes from a political family, it is becomes easy to gain entry in any area not just films.” Evidently, Chirag is ready to be anointed as the “first Dalit hero”, and that’s the reason he thought it necessary to enter the industry with his Dalit surname “Paswan” and in various interviews called this surname his “identity”. His father too warms up to the idea. He says, “All over the country, weaker sections will feel proud at the rise of a superstar who has made it without concession or reservation.” However, Chirag says, “Eventually it all boils down to talent. I don’t believe in caste and religion. Talent is all. …The industry has accepted me with open arms.”

However, riding on the shoulders of such political figures, very few Chirags can enter the film industry. In such a scenario, if a Dalit, hurt by his or her exclusion from films, wishes to see the industry lit with Chirags [literally, lamps then there is no better option than to take inspiration from the changes seen in Blacks of America. There are a lot of similarities between the Blacks of America and Dalits of India and Blacks have successfully made a mark in the field of cinema.

In the 1970s, a diversity policy was implemented in the USA, which meant that the proportionate share of the “coloured” minority (29 per cent of the total population, which includes Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asia-Pacific origin peoples) was ensured in government and private jobs, as well as in supply, dealership, contracts and knowledge industry, etc.  After a while, this policy was implemented in TV and other entertainment fields.

With the implementation of this policy in films, the coloured population begin to find opportunities in various different genres like script writing, technicians, direction, editing besides, of course, acting. One can find the scope of opportunities they received by merely glancing at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Report. The 2001 SAG report tells us that in the year 2000, the minorities bagged 22.9 per cent of the roles. The number of these, both big and small roles, was 11,930. In the previous year, i.e., in 1999, a total of 21.2 per cent roles were bagged by coloured people. According to SAG’s casting data, in 2000, out of the 22.9 per cent roles, 14.8 per cent were for Blacks alone, whose population is 13 per cent. This means that 20 to 25 years after diversity was implemented in films, Blacks got more than their proportionate share.

When Blacks started getting into films in huge number, no doubt via diversity programme, the results were seen within 15 to 20 years. In the 1990s, 19 Blacks were nominated for Oscars in various categories such as best actor, best actress, best supporting actor and actress. In 2002, two Blacks, Denzel Washington received best actor award for the film Training Days and Halle Berry got the best actress award for Monster’s Ball. Since then the colour black continued to spread on the Hollywood canvas. Today, many of the white-skinned stars envy the heights scaled by American Black actors such as Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding Jr, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Christ Tucker, Richard Pryor and others. At the root of it is the diversity policy. In April 2007, Newsweek magazine called Will Smith the most powerful actor in Hollywood.Now, if India’s Dalits want to see a Chirag Paswan enjoying the same status in Bollywood as Will Smith in Hollywood, then they must find a way to light up many more chirags in Bollywood. And then out of them there will emerge a Dalit Will Smith.

Published in the January 2012 issue of the Forward Press magazine

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The Case for Bahujan Literature

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The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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