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A new TV show on B.R. Ambedkar raises questions of responsible representation

To be launched later this month, Hindi serial Ek Mahanayak – Dr. B.R. Ambedkar indicates a mainstreaming of the leader's identity.

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New Delhi: As 26 November 2019 marked the 70th year of India’s Constitution, the book that B.R. Ambedkar is identified with was celebrated with gusto. But the politician, statesman and lawmaker, long revered by the Dalit community to which he belonged, has either largely been absent from the mainstream or has been reduced to just the architect of the Constitution or a Dalit messiah.

Jabbar Patel’s seminal film Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000), produced by the central and state government, was perhaps the most mainstream work of art in popular culture centered around the leader. But despite picking up three National Awards and getting tax-free status, the film was barely screened outside of Maharashtra.

Neeraj Ghaywan, director of Masaan (2015) — one of the few films of Hindi cinema that addressed caste with sensitivity and nuance — notes not just an absence of Ambedkar in cinema but representation of caste politics in general.

“The truth of the matter is that telling his story is the need of the hour. Not only as a social reformer, but also in terms of the visionary and the kind of leader he was,” he tells ThePrint, pointing out how his message of inclusivity and equality is still extremely relevant and needed today.

It is perhaps with this urgency that &TV, a Hindi TV channel subsidiary of Zee Entertainment, is set to launch Ek Mahanayak – Dr. B.R. Ambedkar — the first full fledged television show in the Hindi GEC space based on Ambedkar’s life.

The show, which launches on 17 December and will run daily with 22-minute long episodes, aims to break the monolithic perception of Babasaheb by not only focusing on his larger body of work as a social justice activist and organiser, but also as a scholar, educator and policy-maker.

Professor Hari Narke, Ambedkar historian and researcher for the show, tells ThePrint how the script, which is based largely on Bhalchandra Phadke’s book on Ambedkar, will explore his role an active proponent of women’s empowerment, farmer movements and labour rights.

“Ambedkar had once said that the progress of the country can only be measured on the progress of women,” he says, adding that Ambedkar’s famous call for Bijli Sadak Paani (electricity street water) is a still a fundamental issue many of today’s leaders also address in their agendas.

The show seeks to explore how everyone from people in the middle class, women, farmers, to the labour class were his allies, as were people of different communities — including Brahmins, Marathas and Jats, Narke says. “The takeaway for today’s leaders and activists should be Ambedkar’s central message — educate, organise and agitate.”

Ambedkar in popular culture

Ghaywan echoes the view that the iteration of Ambedkar’s story needs to move beyond his identity as a revolutionary Dalit leader who fought the caste system and also dwell on the kind of leader he was, the incredible foresight he had and how it is essentially because of him that we have the rights we do today since he was the main architect of the Constitution.

Ghaywan says, “While telling Ambedkar’s story, there is a certain othering which happens, where his is bracketed as a Dalit reformer. People do not speak about his leadership qualities whereas the fact of the matter is that he was at par with any other revolutionary world leader.”

Earlier this year, streaming platform Hotstar launched its own Marathi biopic titled Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, which similarly chronicles the barrister’s life from a very young age to his life as a lawyer in India, fighting for the rights of the oppressed classes. With about 174 episodes the show, which was initially on Star Pravah, also showcases intimate relationships in his life, with his mother, father, brother and wife. It seeks to show the man behind the long list of achievements and how he got there.

One can argue the fact that the show is now on a streaming platform like Hotstar is a step closer to bringing Ambedkar’s story into the mainstream and making it more accessible to people aside from the Marathi-speaking audience.

The Ambedkarite movement and the need to forge an identity and history has also spilled over the virtual platforms and Facebook groups such as as Revolutionary memes for Bahujan teens , Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes and Dalit Project- Dalit Lives Matter, which is a takeoff from the Black Lives Matter campaign in US.

The online space, with social media websites and streaming platforms has made it easier for people from within the community to highlight their truth, along with B.R Ambedkar’s truth.

Also part of efforts of showcasing Ambedkar’s story are a plethora of Marathi songs. Among them are: Dhanya Te Bhimrao Ambedkar (1972), A for Ambedkar (2003), Dalitancha Raja (1993) and Beristar Saheb Maajh (2000). Many of these songs are either on Spotify or Gaana.


Also read: Indian democracy’s big contradiction – Dalits cherish Constitution, privileged want a rethink

In 2011, a graphic novel created in collaboration of writers and traditional folk artists provided an alternate form of pedagogy about the Dalit leader.

Bhimayana, written by Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand with illustrations by award-winning Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, chronicles Ambedkar through various stages of his life — as someone who did not understand the caste system, but had to live by it; someone who then understood it, hid his identity at times and did his best to not be reduced to his immediate identity. And finally, someone who despite being extremely successful was still subjugated by the caste hierarchy and iteration of anger with it.

Bhimayana goes beyond Ambedkar as the father of the Constitution or a political figure.

It shows a young innocent Ambedkar at the tender age of 10 years, a determined and idealistic Ambedkar of 26 who has just come back to India after his education at Columbia University in New York, and finally a more mature and sombre Ambedkar of 43 trying to make a change, fighting against the caste system. Novelist and poet John Berger in his foreword to the book writes that it “offers a prophetic answer and it is this: replace the stage of History with the Body of a community”.

Representation and responsibility

Hari Narke feels the &TV show, which aims to represent a historical figure in an entertainment format, has the prime responsibility to “stay true to history, be objective about what happened, while showing a new society with communal harmony as the main message”.

But activist Sanghapali Arun, on the other hand, feels pop culture can only make a true impact for the Ambedkarite movement and society at large “if stories are coming from the [Dalit] community and are told by members of the community”, citing examples of Marathi director Nagesh Manjule and Tamil filmmaker Pa Ranjith.

“When Article 15 was made, Anubhav Sinha spoke about the burden of breaking down the oppression of caste falling on the upper castes who created the caste system, but there should also be responsibility in how we represent these roles in the mainstream”, she tells ThePrint.

“Non-Dalits can be represented as being allies and supporters, but they should not be shown as leading our struggles,” she explains.

Smriti Shinde, the &TV show’s director, points out that the creators made no attempts to focus on any specific caste or creed while casting or building out the team. “Our team consists of only those individuals who could do justice to this show so, a person being Dalit or Brahmin becomes inconsequential here.”

But representation, Sanghapali says, is crucial and recalls the controversy Article 15 ran into for casting an actual manual scavenger for the very same role in the film, while all other Dalit characters were played by upper-castes.

English Professor Anurima Chanda, who was first introduced to Dalit discourse while she was a student in JNU and channelled what she learned into her children’s book on Ambedkar for DK Books, realises the responsibilities of dealing with Ambedkar and Dalit politics, especially from a non-Dalit position.

“It is a discourse of resistance. Any failure in getting across that word can lead to its dilution,” she tells ThePrint.

Chanda recalls how during a Dalit Translation workshop in Bengal she had to work to gain the trust of Dalit authors through constant dialogue between as for them their texts were not just “pieces of literary creation but modes of political resistance”. “I realised that while dealing with the Dalit discourse, I had to listen more than speak.”

Beyond Ambedkar

In Ambedkar’s very last speech in 1949, he spoke about how hero-worship was a “sure road to degradation” — not only an assessment of the times, but perhaps a warning for others to not create a cult around his own identity.

Hence, there is a need to go beyond visible figures like Ambedkar and Phule and cull out histories of people, especially women.

Sanghapali, who had earlier made waves with her organisation’s radical “Break the Brahmanical patriarchy” poster, has set out to correct this gap with her project Dalit History Month. Inspired by America’s Black History Month, the project looks at creating a documentation of Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan history and culture in order to “wrest away scholarship from traditional Brahminical academic institutions that study us involving us only as subjects and not in the research itself”.

Feminist scholar Sharmila Rege once wrote about how invisibilation of Dalit women could be attributed to the “masculinisation of Dalithood and a savarnisation of womanhood”. Chanda, too, agrees with this and feels Dalit women have been “doubly oppressed” by existing in “margins within margins”. “It is important to break the notion of caste as this single monolithic structure where ‘caste’ and ‘gender’ are mutually exclusive of each other,” she explains.

Arun points out that while there is scholarship on women like Eshwari Bai, T.N. Sadalakshmi and Dakshayani Velayudhan for their association with the Constituent Assembly, there are countless other names that need to be brought to the fore.

Jhalkaribai, the Dalit soldier who served in Rani of Jhansi’s women’s army, Uda Devi, the 19th century warrior who was part of the Dalit Veeranganas of the 1857 Indian Rebellion, and Mukta Salve, one of the first Dalit feminist writers who wrote radical essay ‘Mang Maharanchya Dukhavisatha (About the Grief of Mahar and Mangs)’ at the mere age of 14, are just a few of such names.

“There are so many powerful Dalit women voices that have always remained under the shadow of their male counterparts. I feel like their voices should be brought to the mainstream,” says Chanda.

Also read: Dalit activists call for Patanjali boycott after Ramdev’s remark on Periyar, Ambedkar

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