Adarsh Gourav and Priyanka Chopra in The White Tiger
‘In the olden days there were 1,000 castes and destinies. Now there are only two castes,’ says Balram Halwai, a sweetmaker who wants to be a driver, in the movie version of Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger. ‘The ones with big bellies and the ones with small bellies. You eat or get eaten up.’ There are other stray observations about caste throughout the Ramin Bahrani movie which talks about two Indias, that of darkness and of light. Life here is like a ‘rooster coop’—most people know they will be eventually killed and devoured but they still strive endlessly. There is no game show here to set you free. Liberty comes, but only at a huge personal cost.
In many ways, Netflix’s The White Tiger searingly echoes the subaltern survival theme of last year’s Serious Men (based on the novel of the same name by Manu Joseph) where the Dalit hero is desperate to escape his straightjacketed life. He uses his son, a supposed prodigy, as the vehicle for his mobility; it seems a perfect embodiment of BR Ambedkar’s slogan of ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’. He sees a simulated education as a shortcut out of the cycle of poverty, not realising that caste inequality is more deeply entrenched in India than meritocracy.
The same idea is put forth in the Amazon Prime Video series Tandav which is currently in the eye of a right-wing storm for its supposed insult to Hinduism. A prime minister tells a potential minister that he wouldn’t even allow him to sit at the table with him if it wasn’t for the compulsions of democracy. Another gent says, charmingly, that Dalit men love to date higher-caste women as a way to avenge centuries of ‘atyaachar’ (oppression).
Hindi movies usually don’t like to dwell on the harsh realities of life, and caste is the harshest of them all. Jyoti Nisha, a filmmaker/scholar who prefers the term ‘Bahujan’ over ‘Dalit’, says filmmakers of post-Independence India have been attempting to portray caste and identity but from the perspective of the state. In such a portrayal, cinema serves as nothing more than the role of an ideological state apparatus, bringing a Gandhian or a Brahminical view of the nation, in accordance with Hindu dogma. While Gandhi’s view of the nation, she notes in an article in Economic and Political Weekly, is that of glorification of Indian villages, ignoring the realities of caste, Ambedkar presents a diametrically opposite view.
So, Nisha says, from Achhut Kanya (1936) to Sujata (1959), Dalits have always been portrayed as victims. Achhut Kanya was one of the first films to deal with the caste system—and both Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani (the lead actors) were adamant on making ‘socially relevant cinema’. To Devika’s credit, says biographer Kishwar Desai (The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani), despite her cosmopolitan beauty, Devika successfully carried off the role playing a teenager even though she was 28 at the time. “It was one of her most successful roles and her effortless singing, her endearing innocence and fragility in her landmark village belle attire of a long ghaghra and choli won her many admirers, including Jawaharlal Nehru, who came to see the film and sat right next to her. She was convincing because Devika wanted to make a difference with her cinema —and this role of a doomed innocent young woman—despite her plucked eyebrows, remarked upon by critics such as Baburao Patel, epitomised her desire,” says Desai.
In both Achhut Kanya and Sujata, though, the Dalit woman has to sacrifice either herself or some aspect of herself to be deemed worthy of ‘elevation’. When the marginalised Dalit woman refuses to be a victim and becomes an aggressor, as in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), are we meant to pity her or admire her audacity? Mostly though, Hindi films have tended to steer clear of anything remotely controversial. “‘Hungama’ is a word we hear a lot,” says Subhash Kapoor, who made Guddu Rangeela, a Dalit hero of his eponymous 2015 film. “Oh, there will be a hungama if we show this or do that. In Guddu Rangeela, I showed Arshad Warsi as a Dalit hero but with all the lataks and jhataks [stylistic embellishments] of a Bollywood hero. He was battling khap panchayats, but that was not his only dimension,” says Kapoor. The film didn’t work, perhaps, says Kapoor, because it was dated in its narrative, but that didn’t stop Kapoor from plunging into the world of caste politics again.
So here he is again with this week’s release, Madam Chief Minister, where Richa Chadha plays a character based on Mayawati and J Jayalalithaa. Kapoor almost landed in hot water though by giving his leading lady a broom in the film’s early poster. “We thought we were showing her empowerment, but clearly it was a misstep,” he says. Moreover, now a storm is brewing about the casting of Chadha. Two incidents sparked off the idea for Madam Chief Minister. One was the mass sacking of staff at Poes Garden in 2012 because Jayalalithaa suspected she was being poisoned. The other was the death of Murtaza Bhutto in an encounter in 1996 when Benazir Bhutto, his sister, was prime minister of Pakistan. It showed how even Teflon women had a vulnerable side.
Regional cinema tends to be truer to reality, discarding euphemisms and clichés. When the Marathi movie Sairat (2016), which told the story of an upper-caste girl who elopes with a lower-caste boy, was adapted into a Hindi movie, Dhadak (2018), caste was removed from the equation. In The White Tiger, caste is mentioned repeatedly but the focus is on class, the haves and the have nots. At its heart, says Mukul Deora, its producer, is a simple question: What does a man have to do to become free?
There are many stray observations about caste throughout The White Tiger which talks about two Indias, that of darkness and of light. Life here is like a rooster coop—most people know they will be devoured but they still strive
Share this on
In Article 15 (2019), Anubhav Sinha’s dramatic retelling of the rape and murder of two girls in Uttar Pradesh, the urbane police officer is played by Ayushmann Khurrana. In a memorable scene, he asks his team their castes and learns of the distinctions even among Brahmins (which he is, though he is barely aware of it). The Dalit student leader who is trying to force the police to take note of the rape and murder of two Dalit girls is killed, the Brahmin hero lives on to fight another day. Tamil movies, in contrast, celebrate and elevate the Bahujan gaze. Take Pa Ranjith’s Kaala (2018), starring Rajinikanth. Here Kaala is the overlord of Bhim chawl, which takes on Hari Abhyankar’s Manu Builders. ‘Bhim’ refers to Ambedkar whereas Manu refers to Manusmriti, the ancient Hindu text which delineates the varna system. Kaala inverts the good-versus-evil dynamic, owning the Kaala of the title, in the colour scheme of Rajinikanth’s character (all black), and dressing Nana Patekar’s character (Hari Abhayankar) in all white. As Nisha Susan writes: ‘Kaala consolidates the Bahujans in the Dharavi slum against an upper-caste politician, Abhayankar, who wants to occupy their lands. The film plays out in binaries, of white and black, of pure and impure, clean and dirty, national and anti-national.’
Audiences are ready now to embrace all sorts of colours, all sorts of reality, feels Kapoor. It is filmmakers who are too timid. After all, Jimmy Shergill’s character Bhagwandas Mishra says in Anurag Kashyap’s boxing saga, Mukkabaaz (2017): ‘Hum saudaa nahin karte hain. Brahmin hain, aadesh dete hain [We Brahmins do not negotiate, we order].’ Told with vim and vigour, Mukkabaaz stood out for its politics—of caste and sport. ‘Kisko salaam thokega? Kisko mukke se rokega? [Whom will you salute? Whom will you stop with a punch?],’ asks a song in Mukkabaaz. In many parts of India, the answer is still an accident of birth.
When filmmakers do break out of the tyranny of coyness and shoot from the heart, they can stand apart. Like Ankit Kothari, whose short film on casteism, Paanchika, was picked up as the opening film for the Indian Panorama (non-feature category) at the ongoing International Film Festival of India (January 16th-24th). “Society imposes its ideas on an individual and rewards the ones who follow it. When one cannot express individual will, it defeats the purpose of any type of society or structure. In Paanchika,the parents force their ideas about casteism on the two little girls. Deliberately staying away from the specifics of the incident, I was interested in exploring the individual will of these girls. How parents and society force them to follow the norm but friendship is what they truly stand for.”
They are not to play, talk or even touch each other’s shadow. The girls obey their parents yet find ways to follow their heart and reveal their true humanity. The absence of compassion comes through in Netflix’s Tamil short-film anthology Paava Kadhaigal, where custodians of honour lie in wait for their offspring to err from the path designed for them. Caste and gender identities may have been imagined in a superficial way in the short films, but at least they are represented.
As of now though, diversity in Bollywood remains mostly an imported word. In 2019, Masaan director Neeraj Ghaywan put out a call on Twitter for assistant directors from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) backgrounds. In 2019, actress Niharika Singh started a three-month internship for DBA candidates. But when filmmakers rise above what aspiring politician Anuja Dharve calls the ‘Dalit woman victim card’ in Serious Men, true change would have begun.