The Scattered (Dalit) Spectacles; the Narrative of Indian (Hindi) Films since 1940s to Contemporary Time

1.Saddam Hossain (M.A & M.Phil. Ph.d(pursuing)
Assistant Professor& Scholar
Journalism & Mass Communication
Netaji Nagar College, (Calcutta University)

Journalism & Mass Communication
Jadavpur University


The ancient caste system of the Hindu society is still prevalent in India as well as different parts of South Asian countries.  The people belonging to the lowest level of this inhuman and unjust caste system are known as the ‘Dalits’ meaning oppressed or broken. It is very unfortunate to know that even in today’s twenty first century this unconstitutional practice is still very much prevalent in different parts of India. This paper focuses on how Indian cinema particularly the Hindi film industry starting from Achyut Kanya in the 1940’s to Article 15(a) in 2019, have used the same discriminative casteist narratives again and again. The typical Brahmanical gaze of this ancient caste system has again and again found itself a place in the narratives of the Hindi films. The films like Achyut Kanya, Ankur by Shabana Azmi, Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat to Dhadak all have shown the inter-caste love stories between two people on numerous occasions, and the view have been always from a Brahmanical hierarchy upper-caste structure, from where this system itself started. It has been very few times when the narrative of the films has initiated from the view of the lower caste Dalit people, and their views have been sidelined.

Keywords: Dalit , Indian cinema, Brahmanical gaze, Mainstream Film , Hegemony


India’s or rather some parts of South Asia’s common discrimination towards people belonging to specific traditional social class or caste is perhaps the example of one of the ancient form of social exploitation that is still pertinent. Indian Cinema as a genre is sustained by mass approval of themes in which caste is remained untouched since its inception. A study by the newspaper named The Hindu in June 2015 revealed that just six of the main characters in the nearly 300 Bollywood movies released between 2013 and 2014 belonged to a backward caste. Elucidating the condition of Dalit film in contemporary Indian Hindi Film Industry demands to reflect some light on the key concepts involved.  The word Dalit which means ‘oppressed’ or ‘broken’ is referred to the members of the lowest social group of Hindu Caste systemwhere the social system has literally designate them  as ‘untouchables’ even denying their basic rights to be educated, to fetch water from public wells, to be allowed to enter temples. India has time and again failed to diminish the caste system for once and all. Though unconstitutionally, but it has somehow stayed afloat in the socio-cultural matrix of India. The voice which remains silent, the representation that never appeared in the mainstream, is the voice of the Dalits. Their intricated relationship with mainstream film has often been criticized for flawed representation, reinforcing hegemony, sustaining stereotypes and upholding a Brahmanical gaze, a gaze that  somehow justifies some citizen’s social position as ‘Back ward’ and never ever conventionalized their presence.  Pleasing the Savarna sensibilities has gone to the extent that a report by Birminghum City University claimed that being 85% of the population, the Dalits and the Bahujan obtains their rendition in only 0.1% films. It is crucial to locate the picture of Indian film industry which remained untouched by Dalit subjects even after extensive anti-class social movements. Even the slightest representation that the Dalits have on screen often woven on the plots of crime, violence, tragedy and the happy story seldom finds a Dalit protagonist in it. The  number of Dalit character in mainstream film is eminently low, their socio-cultural expression have stayed away from mainstream aesthetic exploration in film.  The argument that the upper-castes’ historical hegemony over education and wealth have a significant role in distinguishing the systematic exclusion of the Dalits in the medium of film cannot be invalidated. The reservation system and other efforts have improved the position of Dalits in Govt. employment and in education to some extent, but film and other art form still suffers from the lack of mainstreaming the marginalized. 

Position of Dalits in Indian Cinema

Broken Films

Leaving aside the leftist filmmakers of the last century, India has not witnessed much of its films based on issues of caste from the perspective of a person belonging to that caste. From Achhut Kanya (1936) to Article 15(A) (2019) India’s dealing with Dalit issues through the medium of film has persisted in the discriminative casteist narratives.  Featuring Ashoke Kumar and Devika Rani, Achhut Kanya, the classic inter-caste love saga telling the story of a lower caste girl in love with an upper caste boy and how their relationship ends up in nothing due to casteist societal manipulation, achieved several critical acclamations.  Ankur (1974) starring Shabana Azmi tells the story of another failed romantic relationship of a upper caste man and a lower caste woman. Veteran film maker Satyajit Ray’s creative exploration of the caste issue reflected in his 1981 television film Sadgati which deals with the matter beyond romantic relationship and unveils caste as an ancestral tool of exploitation. In the words of the director, Sadgati is “a deeply angry film… not the anger of an exploding bomb but of a bow stretched taut and quivering”. Jag Mudra’s film Bawandar (2000) experiences caste from a feminist perspective dealing with castiest gender based oppression.

Caste though not completely exclusive in films has somehow been a theme that is hardly dealt with. Other than delineating tragic inter-caste (often tragic) love stories, Dalits have been muted throughout the evolution of film industry. Dalit-feminist perspectives have been narrowly discussed in the space of what we called is “art film” by completely embargoing the possibilities of mainstreaming other Dalit issues e.g. Dali Queer etc from Dalit perspective.  Their cultural emancipation never brewed in Indian films.

Neoteric Indian Films Pertaining with Casteism

Othering existence; creating new casteist hegemony

Indian film though does not consider Dalits on screen to be filmed; whenever it does the result is even more problematic. The factor that the characters of Dalit films are often shown as poor, disempowered is extremely humiliating. Infused for upper caste taste, Indian Hindi films is obsessed to frame Dalits as gullible. The films which does not consides caste politics or caste to be its theme or subtheme continues to satisfy the views of castiest upperclass by excluding or dogmatically stereotyping lower caste characters. While Jolly L.L.B. (2013) shows an inefficient judge to be Dalit in contrast to an efficient Brahman judge, Lagaan(2001) names its Dalit character “Kachhda”(garbage). Manikarnika;The Queen of Jhansi (2019),the biographical adaption of Rani Laxmi Bai, fades the powerful character of Jhalkari Bai to a five minute’s role.  And all these adaptions are not exclusive to these examples given, this is a trend India’s Hindi film maintains perhaps consciously.

Indian Hindi film’s dealing with romance often centers round love against societal approval which somehow brings the nations obsession with caste system on screen. But the upper-caste narrative remains. Dhadak (2018) which is a bollywood production dilutes the key issue of the film Sairat (2016) with which it shares the plot.  Unlike Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, Dhadak turns out to be just another love story set in a patriarch-conservative society where a woman’s choice to get married is thought to bring ruins  to the family’s honour. Ironically, the film though takes care of the aesthetical potraryal of love against the odds, transforms the factor of caste which is crucial to any honour crime in India. Caste as showcased in Dhadak is definitely  creating problem in the union of the duo but the film never ever exhibit the bigger caste politics that is undercurrent in the society. Dhadak suffers from a flawed gaze of an upper-caste person who denies caste to be an everyday existence and overturns the communities, institutions and cultures born from the caste system. The escape of the leads in Dhadak to sustain their lives away from home remains untouched by the hardles that a caste-striken society creates. The film has never ever tried to voice the love story from the perspective of a person from a backward caste, the view of caste from the oppressed has been ignored absolutely.

Anubhab Sinha’s film Article 15(2019) emerged  initially as an endevour to deal with the caste issue on screen but ended up as being an upper caste narrative to counter castiest culture.  The story that is loosely based on a Brahmin (upper caste) police officer striving to give justice to Dalits by upholding the constitutions is extremely vexed to the idea of equal rights by emphasizing the Brahmanical hierarchy from where the caste system initiated.   Though the film stepped out of the stereotyped caste-based theme centering round love relationship of two people, the film cannot be a stand alone in its genre. The film sets in a rural landscape away from hobnobs of the city people gracefully brings poverty on screen which reinforce the notion that casteism exists away from cosmopolitan city life which is again paradoxical to the reality.  The story let the audience assume that caste is a deep rooted tradition which exists beyond the urban space, beyond the educated people and to some extent caste is an alien who came from some other world. This ‘othering’ of existence is extremely troublesome because it questions the rights of urban space that the Dalits are also stipulated to claim.  Though the very narration without showing the narrator “Mein aur tum inhe dikhaye nehi dete”(You and I are not visible to these people) rightly indicates the absence of voice of Dalits in the socio-political space, the film does not brings out a hint of change. The line continues, “Hum kabhi harijan ho jate hain, kabhi bahujan ho jate hain, bas jan nahi ban pan parahe hain”(Sometimes we become Harijan, and sometimes Bahujan, but we are never able to become just people) indicating the sheer absence inclusivity that remain the need of the hour till the date.   The film is obviously a subtle but sure venture to illuminate the oppression that exists but what it fails is the fact that it remains a voice of an upper caste. Showing the oppression of caste with a privileged protagonist is itself a contradictory stand in the space of dealing the ‘othering of existence’ which exploits the Dalits.

A Streak of Realism

Amid all these negative portrayal, there are films which deal with caste without glorifying or reinforcing it. Masaan (2015) is a film which fades in to the bitter truths of life reflecting enough light on caste and how it is undercurrent in post colonial India. The vicious cycle of life and death through which the film flows, connects Deepak, a lower caste brilliant student with Shalu, a upper caste college girl. Set in one of the culturally richest city of India, the duo knows the futility of their relationship. They do not deny the reality that caste has predetermined their do’s and don’t’s; but they define their lives on their terms. The film neither rejects Deepak’s views nor portrays him as gullible.

Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaz, primarily a film based on boxing between two upper class people connects the caste issue more subtly. It addresses the reverse casteism and frames how power and money creates new ‘upper class’. Remember how Kashyap shows a rich lower caste who is apparently happy because his peon belongs to upper class. Which the film tries to substantiate is the fact that the oppression remains in the name of caste.

The change of Dalit characterization also remains in Newton. Unlike upper caste privileged protagonist, the film’s hero is a non-upper caste educated young person who nullifies the Bollywood’s mainstream characterization of people from backward castes as patriarch, drunkard or vulnerable.  Newton is a character who believes in constitutional rights and duties and also resists his family’s traditional orthodox thoughts on dowry, child marriage etc. Amidst all oppositions, he grows up as a new hero of his own way.

Lost Paradise

The basic story line of Achhut Kanya and Sairat falls in the same line, tragic inter-caste relationship. 70 years passed but there is no hint of change in the depiction.  All the story lines discussed here have abided the same. It upholds the difficulties faced by inter-caste relationships, it speaks of violence, put light on the vulnerabilities but also raises the question tha,t is there no change in the situation of Dalits in society in last seventy years? Introduction of reservation system, effective anti-caste movements have helped to acquire improvement in the Dalit representation in education and empowerment. But even today, if a Dalit comes on screen, it never ends with comedy. Since Jyotiba Phule;s educational aspirations to Vithal Palawankar’s sporting legacy, optimistic and positive stories about Dalit people never find a mainstream position in Indian Hindi films.   Currently, none of the most famous actress or actor in Hindi films are Dalit. The Indian Hindi films have seen no Dalit superstars after Divya Bharathi and Ajay Devgan. For Directors, screenwriters too, the statistics goes in the same way in contemporary times. Except Nagraj Manjule, Indian Hindi fim Industry has no Dalit film producer currently. This advert situation perhaps worsens the environment where a Dalit film faces tribulations to be mainstreamized.


Scopes, Possibilities

The paramount perturbing tendency in Dalit representation in recent time’s Hindi films can be summed up in two levels, one being the absolute absence while the other is lack of mainstreamisation.  The infinitesimal space that Dalit perspective holds in contemporary Indian Hindi films is presented in a nuanced manner which is undoubtedly apathetic to a Brahmanical narrative of caste-system but refuse to adjudge caste based complications to be a relevant part of so called cosmopolitan urban educated space. Indian Hindi popular films unequivocally lack prominent characters from backward castes, but what makes the situation more muddled is its rendition of Dalit characters as vulnerable entities who are often affected by corrupt political ideologies and never ever emerge to be a hero who is capable enough to wave away the discriminations without any fear. The popular narrative subalternizes the Dalits by creating a so called liberal yet extremely castiest characterization of an upper-caste savior who will somehow help the Dalits to acquire equal rights and social designation. This sheer sense of authorization, of speaking for someone else who is not entitled to have a voice of its own is of absolute intricacy and shame.  The Dalit women or Dalit queers experiences these discriminations more intensely. In the hindi popular film, we still find that dalit women are in oppressed position and we are unable to find they revolt. The argument is that slowly and surely the things are changing, cannot be nullified though.  With films like Massan, Mukkabaz, Faundry etc may be the scenario will be altered in near future. With the outlook of a philanthropic privileged towards an under privileged can result in to ‘charity’, the idea of which is poles apart from equality; it is undeniable that an equal and inclusive depiction is still a way too far and difficult to be trodden. 


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