In Hindi films, Dalit-Bahujans are almost always portrayed as pitiable creatures. This is as true of old films like Achoot Kanya, Sujata, Boot Polish or Sadgati as of newer ones like Lagaan, Welcome to Sajjanpur, Rajneeti or Aarakshan. The characterisation of Sujata, the untouchable, Dalit woman character of the old film Sujata is enough to illustrate the point. In the entire film, not a single scene portrays a struggle between the Brahmins and the Dalits. The film is all about the clash between two Brahmins –one of whom is merciful, giving and modern and the other, conservative and mean. No one is able to identify even a single admirable quality in the Dalit girl; her acceptance is merely a matter of fulfilling a social obligation. Even today, in almost every film, in the end, the Dalit character has to succumb to social pressures; whereas we all are aware of the successes being notched by the community in the real world. In the world of Indian cinema – which claims to show a mirror to society – the image of the Dalits remains unchanged and they are never shown as getting the same respect as other sections of the society.
Dig a bit deeper and it becomes evident how deeply entrenched casteist prejudices are in the film world. In keeping with the ‘Cultivation Theory’ of media, the films are forcing a particular worldview upon us. Even their names indicate that the Hindi films are in the firm grip of upper-caste mentality. Mr Singh Versus Mrs Mittal (2010), Mittal versus Mittal (2010), Rocket Singh: Salesman of the year (2009), Singh is King (2008), Mangal Pande (2005), Bhai Thakur (2000), Arjun Pandit (1976, 1999), Rajput (1992), Justice Chaudhary (1983), Pandit Aur Pathan (1977) – are just a few examples of the so-called creative expression of the filmmakers. Why did no filmmaker ever think of naming his “creative expression” after any Dalit-Bahujan caste? Why no film was named Dagdu, Gheesa, Chamrin, Dewaar, Dalit, Dusadh, Mandal or Paswan? If Dalits are a part of our society, why are they not visible in the films? And whenever they are, why are they always shown as being persecuted and harassed? Why is no Dalit shown as a self-realising, self-respecting individual with human dignity and self-esteem? Why are they never portrayed as revolting against their humiliation? All this, when the Dalits of today are not at all helpless or vulnerable. They are getting united politically and are resisting their humiliation and neglect, using their Constitutional rights. The last two or three decades have been decades of resistance for the Indian Dalits. Still, Dalits are described as Kachra (refuse) in Lagaan. Even kids make fun of the lady sweeper in Delhi 6. They could well have ridiculed a priestess, but that was, obviously, out of question.
In Rajneeti, Dalit leader Suraj (Ajay Devgn) takes on powerful upper-caste men openly but in the end it is revealed that he was himself born to an upper-caste mother (and possibly even his father was an upper caste). And it is back to square one. The implied suggestion is very clear. Suraj could become a messiah of the Dalits because the blood of an upper-caste family of politicians was running through his veins.
The film Aarakshan may have viewed the question of reservations from a new angle but the Dalits and their issues are nowhere in sight in the film. Similarly, Aamir Khan’s Peepli Live has raised many issues but missed the most important one – that of the caste of Nattha. Remember, the village leader whom Nattha approaches for monetary help is called Bhai Thakur. The netaji could well have had a different name. This is only one instance of how deep caste prejudices run in our society and in our films. So far, the most powerful portrayal of resistance against castesist mindset and caste-related injustice was in the film Bandit Queen, based on the life of Phoolan Devi, who turned a dacoit from an ordinary Bahujan woman and went on to become Member of Parliament. Besides it, there is hardly any film which presents the Dalit-bahujan issues in their proper perspective.
Barring a few exceptions, Hindi films have never attacked the caste system. The question is how can our film industry – which produces the highest number of films in the world – ignore the biggest chunk of our population? Only using advanced technology won’t make our films better. The Hindi film industry has a long way to go, as far as Dalit-centric themes go.
Published in the September 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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