How inclusive is Indian cinema?

The contribution of Dalit personalities like the great music composer Illaiyaraja and lyricist Shailendra is second to none but, unfortunately, no serious study has been done on the presence of Dalitbahujans in the film industry


Ajay Devgn

Indian cinema has broken free from a range of technological, geographical, thematic and picturization-related taboos, restrictions and limitations but it has yet to free itself from the stranglehold of the Chaturvarna system. That is why, since its initial days, Savarna actors, producers, directors, writers, technicians, distributors, etc have been dominating the world of Indian films. The domination of Savarnas turned the films into vehicles for propagation of upper-caste values and mindset, and the problems and issues concerning the 75 per cent of the population were put on the back burner. Although a sizeable number of Dalits and OBCs made their presence felt on screen as well as backstage, their lives and works were never talked about much. No wonder why even cinema buffs won’t be able to list more than four or five Dalit actors and film personalities.

A pertinent question is why, in the world of cinema, the presence of the Dalit community, despite its economic advancement over the last couple of decades, is negligible. The film world is believed to be very liberal and above considerations of religion and caste. The Indian film industry has seen many Muslim superstars including Dilip Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan but there has been no Dalit superstar so far. Do Dalits lack talent? Or, does Bollywood ignore Dalit talent?


Sonu Nigam


Divya Bharti

The contribution of Dalit personalities like the great music composer Illaiyaraja and lyricist Shailendra is second to none but, unfortunately, no serious study has been done on the presence of Dalitbahujans in the film industry. And so, no records are available. Most of us don’t know which of the well-known actors or film personalities are Dalits or OBCs. For instance, the songs penned by Shailendra have been quite popular but for a long time few were aware that he was a Dalit and had to struggle to reach the position that he ultimately did.

Until and unless Dalitbahujans get adequate representation in the Indian film industry, it will not become Indian in the real sense of the term. Some argue that literature, arts, films etc should not be analyzed or studied in caste, geographical or regional terms. They say that deciding the theme of a film and selecting actors are the absolute prerogative of the producer and the director and there should be no interference whatsoever in this. They insist that the producer and the director should have the complete freedom to choose the screenwriter, music composer, singers, actors, etc. But we should not forget that films influence a chunk of the population and a large number of people emulate films in their real life. Against this backdrop, is it not the social responsibility of producers and directors to provide appropriate, adequate representation to all sections of society?

Given below is a list of Dalitbahujan film personalities of India. The list is not very long but if proper research is conducted, it may get longer.


Dalitbahujan presence in Indian cinema


Hindi Films

Name Capacity Caste / Community
Shailendra (Born Shankardas Kesarilal) Lyricist, director, producer Dalit

Kanjibhai Rathod

Regarded as the first successful director of Indian cinema, acted in Shakuntala (1920) Ravidas (Dalit)


Divya Bharti


Actress Ravidas/Charmakar (Dalit)
Ajay Devgn Leading actor Vishwakarma/Lohar (OBC)*
Johnny Lever (born Janumala John Prakasa Rao) Comedian Ravidas (Dalit)


Sonu Nigam Singer Ravidas (Dalit)


Sukhwinder Singh Hindi and Punjabi singer Ravidas (Dalit)


Kailash Kher Singer Ravidas (Dalit)


Seema Biswas Actress Ravidas (Dalit)


Rakhi Sawant (Born Neeru Bheda) Actress OBC
Shradha Arya Actress (Hindi, Tamil and Telugu films)


Sudam Waghmare Director


Muni Laal Actor (the film Shaheed, 1933) Non-Dwij**
Chirag Paswan Actor Dusadh (Dalit)


Gauri Shinde Ad and feature film director Ravidas (Dalit)


Abhijeet Sawant Winner of first Indian Idol Ravidas (Dalit)


Gopal Paswan Character actor, director Dushadh (Dalit)


Rupesh Kumar Documentary filmmaker Non-Dwij**
Trisha Karmakar Television actress OBC
Virendra Paswan


Dialogue writer (Hindi and Bhojpuri films)


Ravidas (Dalit)


Madhuroj Madhu


Bhojpuri screenwriter


Ravidas (Dalit)


Mohan Rathore


Bhojpuri singer Non-Dwij**
Ashok Lokhande


Actor (the film Brother and the TV serial Diya aur Baati)


Mahar (Dalit)
Anil Biswas Musician Dalit
Tuntun Actress Dalit
Onkardas Manikpuri Actor OBC


Punjabi Films

Daler Mehndi Singer Mirasi (Dalit)
Hans Raj Hans Singer Mirasi (Dalit)
Jassi Gill Singer Jassi Gill Sikh (Dalit)
Dev Diwana Director and actor Ravidas (Dalit)
Amar Arshi Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Amrita Virk Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Bhulla Ram Chann Poet Ravidas (Dalit)
Chamkila Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Gurmeet Kaur Bawa Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Kaler Kanth Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Kuldip Rasila Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Lal Chand Yamla Jatt Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Lakhwinder Lucky Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Manjeet Roopowalia Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Manmohan Waris Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Master Saleem Singer Mirasi (Dalit)
Mika Singh Singer Mirasi (Dalit)
Pooja (born Gurinder Kaur Kainth) Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Sudesh Kumari Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Surinder Heera Singer Ravidas (Dalit)
Yuvraj Hans Singer and actor Mazhabi Sikh (Dalit)
Ranjit Mani Singer Ravidas (Dalit)


Bengali Films

Chhabi Biswas Actress Ravidas (Dalit)
Satabdi Roy Actress and member of Parliament Ravidas (Dalit)
Goutam Halder Director Non-Dwij


Marathi films

Anand Shinde-Milind Shinde Music directors


Non Dwij**
Usha Jadhav Actress Non-Dwij**


South Indian Films

Illaiyaraja (born Isai Gnani Ilayaraja) Tamil music composer Dalit
M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavadhar First superstar of south India Lohar (OBC)*
Archana Actress (Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam films) Dalit
Jaladi Raja Rao Screenwriter (Telugu cinema) Non-Dwij**
Madhavi Actress (Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Bengali and Hindi films) Dalit
M.N. Rajam Tamil actress Lohar (OBC)*
Venkatesh Prabhu Kasthuri Raja (Dhanush) Tamil actor and singer, producer and lyricist Dalit
Deva Music director (Tamil) Dalit
Jai Tamil cinema star Dalit
Babu Mohan (born Kasturi Babu Mohan Rao) Comedian (Telugu films). He was the social welfare minister in the TDP government Non-Dwij**
Arya Tamil actor, producer Dhobi (Dalit)
Bhavatharini Playback singer (Tamil) Non-Dwij**
Boyi Bheemanna Telugu screenwriter Non-Dwij**
Brahmanandham Telugu and Tamil star, comedian Non-Dwij**
Cheran Director, actor (Tamil films) Non-Dwij**
Kasthuri Raja Actor (Tamil films) Pariyar (OBC)
Gangai Amaran Tamil director Non-Dwij
Kadhal Bharath Tamil cinema star Lohar
Kalabhavan Mani Actor, singer (Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu films) Non-Dwij**
Karthik Raja Music director (Tamil films) Non-Dwij**
Karunas Tamil actor Non-Dwij**
Lawrence Raghavendar Tamil actor, dance choreographer and director Adhidravidar (Dalit)
Leena Manimekalai Tamil filmmaker and actress Non-Dwij**
Livingston Tamil actor Non-Dwij**
N. S. Krishnan (born Kalaivanar Nagerkoyil Sudalaimuthu Krishnan) Tamil comedian, drama artist, playback singer Non-Dwij**
Naramalli Sivaprasad Telugu actor and member of Parliament Ravidas (Dalit)
P. K. Rosy (Rosamma) First Malayalam actress Dalit (Christian) labourer, possibly grass-cutter caste)


P. S. Keerthana Tamil actress Non-Dwij
Parthiban (Screen name: Ra Parthiepan) Tamil actor, director, producer and writer Lohar (OBC)*
Pillelli Sunil Telugu producer Ravidas (Dalit)
Poonam Mehmi Miss India UK, a well-known model in Britain Ravidas (Dalit)
Premji Amaran Supporting actor (Tamil films) Adidravidar (Dalit)
Reema Kallingal Malayalam actress Dalit
Sabesh-Murali Musical duo (Tamil Films) Non-Dwij
Santhanam Tamil actor Lohar (OBC)*
Selvaraghavan Tamil director Non-Dwij**
Shankar Malayalam actor Dhobi (Dalit)
Srikanth Deva Music director (Tamil films) Non-Dwij**
Stalin K. Documentary filmmaker Mirasi (Dalit)
Sudhakar Betha (born Pichha Kottudu Sudhakar) Famous comedian (Hindi, Telugu and Tamil films) Dalit
Sukanya Tamil actress Lohar (OBC)
Uday Babu First Dalit hero in Tollywood Dalit
S.V. Subbiah Tamil actor Lohar
Thol. Thirumavalavan Tamil actor Non-Dwij
Venkat Prabhu Tamil director Non-Dwij
Vijaya Nirmala Telugu actress Dhobi (Dalit)
Yuvan Shankar Raja Music director (Tamil and Hindi films) Non-Dwij
V. S. R. Swamy Cinematographer (Tamil films) Non-Dwij



Bhujhangy Group & Anari Sangeet First UK Bhangra band (70s) Ravidas (Dalit)
Sahotas Group A-list UK music group led by Mukhtar Sahota and his brothers Ravidas (Dalit)
Usha Rajak Nepali film actress Dhobi (Dalit)

 *In some states like Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal, Lohars are SC

** Non-Dwij has been used for artistes whose exact caste could not be determined but who are not from any of the Dwij castes


Published in the October 2015 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine

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