Can Dalits entertain the people?
HARISH S. WANKHEDE
THE Academy Awards 2022 was significant because it provided a stage to films, film makers and characters that represented diverse communities, especially the subaltern identities. On stage, we saw African-American women anchors and others as lead performers. Black actor Will Smith won the Best Actor award. Coda, a film that presented a story of differently abled persons, won the Best Film award. Importantly, a differently abled person, Troy Kotsur, also won the Best Supporting Actor award. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story retold the classic tale of struggles and tragedies of the Hispanics and other impoverished communities in the United States of America. There were films that endorsed issues and concerns emerged around ecological wisdom (Dune), gay people (Power of the Dog), and caste discrimination (in the ‘best documentary’ category, India’s nomination Khabar Lehariyan was about the struggles of Dalit women reporters).
This change is crucial and critical. The Oscars evening suggested that by showcasing and celebrating diversity across all human and social layers, cinema could take on a more nuanced, creative and meaningful mantle. Such celebration of diversity is the outcome of prolonged struggles and multiple debates that marginalized people have initiated over decades to challenge the control and hegemony of the white world over the medium of cinema. Campaigns like ‘Black Lives Matters’, ‘Why Oscar is so White’ and ‘Where are the Asians in Hollywood’ generated a powerful discourse demonstrating the absence, relegation and even the neglect of artists and films that belonged to non-white social groups.
These movements noticed that cinema showcase social and cultural sensitivities outside of the ordinary and hardly reflect on issues of social injustice. It is required that the filmmakers must challenge social prejudices and stereotypes using the medium of art and film. Probably for the first time, the Oscars extended a dignified recognition to the socially marginalized groups and their issues within the mainstream and endorsed that the idea of ‘social justice’ shall be the cornerstone of the entertainment industry.
Indian cinema is as old as any other international film industry. It has immensely contributed in crafting the cultural symbols of young India, as a new nation-state. However, the Hindi film industry is not known for its ‘socially responsible cinema’ that engages with issues of cultural diversity, giving dignified representation to caste and gender issues and thus stands indifferent to the constitutional mandate of social justice. Instead, Bollywood cinema applauds hyper melodrama, illogical action scenes, tantalizing patriarchal emotions, laced with sensuous dance numbers on screen. The film industry has distanced itself from serious, artistic and intellectual cinema that could enhance the exposition of real issues, intrinsic to social realities.
India’s 100 year-old film industry has been dominated by the cultural values and class interests of its social elites. It has disengaged itself from the artists and performers that historically served the entertainment profession. The actors that we see on the screen often come from the upper caste strata, and those who belong to socially marginalized communities find negligible space on the screen.
Though in cinema’s early history issues related to caste and untouchability have sporadically appeared on the screen (like Achhut Kanya, 1936), they are few and far between. Even the random Dalit representation in cinema has perpetually been about their precarious class condition, violated bodies and undignified social location. Rarely have Dalit characters been portrayed as normal, ordinary people, around whom a popular narrative has been stitched. The possibility that a Dalit character can appear on screen with abilities like ‘normal’ people to tell an entertaining story, has no takers in Bombay cinema for a very long time. Instead, it is the upper caste hero who is portrayed as the symbol of people’s aspiration, whereas the Dalit char-acters are often showed as prisoners of degraded caste body.
This essay discusses the perpetual exclusion of Dalits as well as their stereotypical representation on the big screen. The neoliberal era has brought dynamic shifts in the cinema business. With this change, the Dalit character has found a new space, attire and voice on the screen. In recent times, the Dalit’s presence on screen and the arrival of a small but influential class of Dalit entertainers, artists, producers and technicians, are building a new ‘Dalit cinema genre’, hoping to reclaim their lost legacy as talented entertainers. Their stories elevate the viewers perspective, taking it beyond the banal logic of entertainment and offer serious intellectual deliberation on social and political questions. This intervention disturbs the authority of the social elites and challenges cinema’s conventional practices and ideological values.
The essay further explores the possibility of whether Dalit characters can represent the aspirations of the general public and emerge as mass entertainers. I believe it is not possible because the avatars of social elites continue to operate as ‘normal’ people on screen, whereas the Dalit characters are condemned to play stereo-typical caste roles. The social elite actors and characters represent the aspirations of the people, while the Dalit character bears the burden of being a powerless, Untouchable body.
The modern entertainment industry is divided in layers that represent the values of the mainstream and local; the popular and folk; and the great and lesser known artistic traditions. In pre-modern times, traditional performers often belonged to the ‘service castes’, and had a distinct presence in society. Dancers, singers, storytellers, travelling balladeers, magicians (beharupiyas), circus artists, puppeteers, clowns, and more, were often itinerant and would perform for the pleasure of the spectators, and earn gratifications.
The ruling aristocracy, or the rich and powerful host, they ajman, was the patron who provided financial support for the artists. They ajman and the spectators were ‘masters’ for the performers, from whom they would receive accolades and applause. Traditional theatre performances organically created an intrinsic power relationship between the performer and the audience. It had an ecosystem that compelled the artists to entertain the master’ audience, shrota Mai-Baap, as defined in Marathi. They served the pleasure seeking desires of the audience in the temple corridor, in palace darbars and even at the street corner.
Offering pleasure and delight to the spectator is the prime motivation of an artist. With enchanting talent and magical skills, the performer can bewitch the audience. Performers have the capacity to transport the audience into an alternative world. Such allure is powerful and intoxicating. Therefore, artists were separated from the community, placed in a distinct location, and often treated with mild indignity and amusement. Though some artists were gratified with social distinctions and material assets, a majority belonged to a lowly, undignified base-class, that lived and survived outside the purview of the civil society.
For instance, in mythology and other folklore the female performers (especially the dancers and apsaras), under the patriarchal-sexual gaze are depicted as ‘nymph’, ‘seductress’ ‘tawaif’ or ‘nautch girls’, ‘Devadasi’ or the ‘muse’, who bewitch, seduce and distract the audience with beauty and charm. These dancing women were set apart from the dignified and chaste women of the household. Though they were also been called ‘apsaras’ and ‘divine bodies’ – engaged in spiritual objectives, the purpose of such distinctions was often to retain the hierarchies between ruling elites, common people and the service classes. On the conventional scale of dignity, women artists were incomparable to the virtuous wives and daughters of the social elite families.
Modernity significantly transformed the nature of the performative arts, aesthetics and their commercial relationships. Art and artistic skills are commodified in this new market that allows a new ‘common’ audience to enter theatres. The commercialization of theatre and later, the arrival of cinema, revolutionized the entertainment industry. Importantly, new ‘entertainers’ do not necessarily belong to the old ‘traditional’ strata of performers but instead represent the families and class of the social elites. Conventional performers like the Tamasha and Lavani artists in Maharashtra were relegated to the periphery as ‘folk’ or ‘local’ talents.
In the changed economy of entertainment, a new class of film and theatre performers, mainly belonging to the social elite strata, are designated as mainstream popular artists.For example, when Dadasaheb Phalke wanted to cast female actors in Raja Harishchandra, the women refused to participate as the show business was, at the time, identified as a profession for the lowly class, and therefore women from ‘good’ homes had to stay away. The first few female actors, Durgabai Kamat and her daughter in Mohini Bhasmasur, were ostracized, condemned and faced a humiliating backlash from the Brahmins. The first female actors of the silent film era were non-Indian white women (remember fearless Nadia, an Australian born-Indian) who were less hesitant to play such roles on screen. In many instances a male actor had to impersonate the woman. Interestingly, though Dalit performing artists were available, they were not cast for the lead roles.
With the rise of cinema as a business with rich commercial dividends and popularity, the profession began to attract the business castes to engage and invest in the production of films. Brahmins and other caste elites engaged with cinema claiming that it was a crucial instrument for strengthening nationalist values and was also an impressive tool to reinvent Hindu civilizational symbols. By 1947, the Bombay film industry was dominated by the powerful production houses operated and managed by social elites, including the Muslim elites, to serve the ideological goals of a newly independent nation-state and to reclaim lost and forgotten cultural assets.
The film industry at the time had a mission, to educate the vast mass of people about the merits and new goals of nation building. Unfortunately, modern cinema at the time, alienated itself from the folklore and local performative traditions. The entertainment industry post-Independence, especially the film business, brought two important changes into the performative arts. First, it made the social elites’ dominant contributors as artists, performers and producers of cinematic art. They moved from being the ‘master audience’, to become the creators and performers. Second, cinema separated itself from folklore, alienated itself from local talent of the conventional performing castes/class.
Cinema offered a higher cultural purpose and nationalist objective that was closer to the heart of the social elites. On the national political stage, because of the presence of Babasaheb Ambedkar, the question of social justice and the emancipation of the worst-off communities were deliberated with sincere reformist zeal. Ironically, the post-Independence, Bombay cinema witnessed an overt absence of Dalit characters and their issues on big screen. The only major film at the time that addressed issues of untouchability was Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1957). Here, the female protagonist was presented as an agency less humble person who could find meaning in her life only by her ultimate dedication in serving a Brahmin family. The problem of untouchability is solved through Gandhian reformist logic.
Issues and concerns associated with the socially marginalized groups, especially Dalits and Adivasis, hardly found space in the new enterprise. Cinema removed them not only as the producer and performer of the art, but relegated them into an unimportant ‘subject’ in cinematic representation. The Dalit appearance on the screen and behind the camera remains sporadic and accidental, with a negligible impact on transforming cinema’s dominant ideological themes.
The higher virtues of secular citizenship, blended with the cultural values of Hindu social elites, have emerged as new symbols that define India’s post-colonial cinema. The need for a subaltern Dalit and Adivasi culture to frame new civilizational prospects was therefore unwanted. National cinema legitimized the notion of secular nationalism and socialism emphatically and separated itself from the Dalits and Adivasis concerns. Cinema thus fabricated the idea of people, culture and nation by erasing the presence of socially marginalized groups from its landscape.
The Dalit question reappears prominently in the Art-House parallel cinema of the 1970-80s. Both the popular and parallel cinema of these decades reprimanded the political class for its anti-poor behaviour, showcased the corrupt and criminal nature of the ruling elites and often proposed that such villainous order shall be uprooted by violent, heroic actions. Amitabh Bachchan became the leading mascot of youth anger and was decorated with the title of ‘angry young man’, because of his anti-establishment rhetoric. Similarly, the parallel cinema also introduced modes of realism and intellectual depth by showcasing how poor working classes are exploited by feudal authorities in villages (Nishant 1975, Mirch Masala 1987) and exposed the capitalist-politician nexus in the big cities (Jane Bhi do Yaron1983).
It was a promising and creative period as the parallel ‘new wave’ cinema brought a realistic representation of the poor Dalits on screen. These films demonstrated the problems of feudal exploitation (Nishant 1975 and Damul 1985), caste violence (Paar 1984), exploitation and Dalit repression (Gidh 1984 and Sadgati 1981) with anthropological authenticity. However it was just half the story told. The ‘realistic cinema’ remained content primarily in showcasing the popular stereotypes (Dalits being powerless and marginalized) while neglecting the fact that they are also emerging as robust political voices, challenging the authorities of the social elites.
The 1970s and ’80s was also a period when Dalits had started to refuse the dictates of the ruling classes, and on various occasions had demonstrated their free will and heroic agency to challenge the conventional social order. They showed impressive political maturity, and in states like Maharashtra (The Dalit Panthers Movement), Tamil Nadu’s anti-caste movement, Bihar (the militant Naxal uprising) and Uttar Pradesh (BAMCEF and Bahujan Samaj Party – BSP), they emerged as powerful symbols of Dalit political constituencies.
Among the literary and intellectual circles, a new radical voice of Dalit literature began to emphatically demonstrate the inadequacy of conventional literature when addressing social truths. In the post-Ambedkar period, the two decades are seen as the foundational period during which the new innings of Dalit cultural politics was being built. However, in the narratives of Hindi art-house cinema, the audience only got to see the graphic details about the poor and wretched lives of Dalits. Hindi cinema till the 1990s failed to showcase Dalits as a young and promising community that may emerge as a vanguard class to bring radical transformation in the social and political milieu.
In the third phase, the post-liberalization period, cinema witnessed the arrival of a nuanced Dalit representation. This period also witnessed the maverick rise of the BSP in national politics. Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya (2007) and later, Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan (2011), were the few films that carved out a crucial space for the aspirations of a new generation of Dalits. Later Hindi cinema also brought stories about Dalits living in the cities and mofussil towns. Films like Rajneeti (2010), Guddu Rangeela (2015), Manjhi (2015), Mukkabaaz (2017), Sonchariya (2019), Masan (2015), Newton (2017) and Jhund (2022) portrayed Dalit characters representing the emerging socio-economic changes and introduced the heroic Dalit. In Article 15 (2019), Dalits are presented as heterogenous, segmented people based on class and ideological considerations, including the Dalits as being part of a revolutionary party as well as a corrupt establishment of the state.
Now the stories of urban Dalits are distinct from the stereotypical portrayal of Dalit lives that we have seen in the parallel cinema. The new Dalit character is portrayed as an aspirational being with the same basic desires and dreams as normal people. He is picturized as a robust claimant of dignity and an upholder of heroic credentials. He is ready to contest the degraded social and class conditions. Though such imagery has improvised a positive definition of Dalit characters, it is not equivalent to the mainstream Bollywood hero. The Dalit has to operate within the given rationale of a caste based society and must perform within the established, dominant ethical and social codes. The possibility that the Dalit can creatively alter his social role and emerge as an alpha male hero, or even serve the mainstream logic of entertainment, remains outside the imagination of filmmakers.
A dynamic shift in the portrayal of Dalit characters emerged once films produced and directed by Dalits like Pa Ranjith (Madras 2014, Kabali 2016, Kala 2021 and Sarpatta Parambarai 2022), Nagaraj Manjule (Fandry 2013, Sairat 2016 and Jhund 2022), Neeraj Ghaywan (Masan 2015), Mari Selvaraj (Karnan 2021 and Periyerum Perumal 2018), hit the screens. These films have introduced a vibrant and powerful Dalit character, one who understands his deplorable social location and is ready to contest it with revolutionary zeal and passion. Often these films subvert, mock and challenge the dominant forms of cinema and provide a critical reflexivity to the audience. They reintroduce the Dalits as enlightened entertainers who can tell serious stories and can escape the coercive gaze of the master class and its ideological imperatives. This development promises the arrival of the ‘Dalit genre’ in Indian cinema.
Dalit representation in cinema has improved with this new module called the ‘Dalit genre’. Here, the Dalit characters are nuanced and heterogenous, showcase the dreams and desires of marginalized communities and are bestowed with mainstream heroic credentials. These films are also loaded with popular entertainment quotients like dance, music, drama and action. There is the possibility that Dalit character may emerge as a ‘mainstream popular hero’, and their stories can become inspirational for the general mass. The Dalit actors and artists may also become popular cultural icons.
On the flip side, one can also witness that the Dalit presence on screen creates a complex cinematic experience. His arrival does not amuse or entertain the audience, but disturbs the viewer and creates a sense of anxiety, unease. The Dalit body is not expected as ‘hero material’ as the credentials required to perform the role of a legendary protagonist continues to be reserved for the social elite character. The mainstream hero often wears the upper caste social identity and acts as an alpha male. The social elite hero can fall in love with anyone, can sing and dance, can challenge and defeat the powerful villainous class, and can emerge as a superior agent of change.
It may be noted that the Dalit character is divorced from such fundamental cinematic fiction, entitlements and credentials. Instead, in conventional cinema, the Dalit presence reminds the audience about his precarious, unfree and wretched condition. Therefore, to see a dancing Dalit hero, one who can defeat the mighty super villain with his fist of fury and emerge as the victorious legend, is still an alien subject for filmmakers and audiences. Because of Dalit caste identity, their artistic talent will be scrutinized with critical apprehension and will not be allowed to become the representative voice of the entertainment business. Films produced in the ‘Dalit genre’, though have challenged such an order, have witnessed commercial success and are also celebrated as fine artistic expressions; these films too castigate the Dalit characters in particular caste location, disallowing them to play the role of an abstract individual.
The Dalit protagonist’s actions on screen are determined by his caste subjectivity and he is not free to operate as a normal-average person. The manner in which Hollywood has presented Black characters and their stories as a growing part of popular mainstream culture, that includes offering them roles of superheroes and saviours of the universe, in the case of Dalits in Bollywood, it is a distant possibility. Though Dalit filmmakers and new characters have begun to create a niche space in the film industry, they are far from becoming mainstream entertainers of the people.