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2021 was the year of anti-caste cinema — from Jai Bhim to Karnan

Tamil films showed that it was possible to be anti-caste and not be ‘anti-box office’. Bollywood needs to catch up.

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In Mari Selvaraj’s 2021 film Karnan, a little Dalit boy furiously throws a stone at a bus for never stopping at his Dalit locality as part of an age-old ‘social boycott’, even for women in labour. What starts after that incident is the fight against injustice.

This boy is reminiscent of a Dalit Jabya, from Nagraj Manjule’s classic Fandry (2013), who also launches a resistive stone at the oppressive ‘upper caste’ mob at the end of the movie. Karnan’s drama begins where Fandry’s ends.

What a year 2021 has turned out to be for anti-caste cinema in India. Tamil films showed that it was possible to be anti-caste and not be ‘anti-box office’.

Also Read: Lagaan to Dhadak: Bollywood has a Dalit problem and it refuses to fix it

Indian cinema’s Achilles heel

Caste and casteism have been India’s Achilles heel for long but Indian cinema refused to address the elephant in the room, shrouded the obtrusive caste realities with ‘rich vs poor’ binary or showed it through the lens of pity, with a savarna ‘saviour’. Good movies also came along with Dalit leads but were few and far in between and were quickly forgotten, failing to make a deeper impact.

In that way, films in 2021 have shown something that no other year has. Not only was there a trove of hard-hitting anti-caste movies released one after another, but there was also awards/recognition for the actors and directors, and more importantly, box office success in Tamil, Marathi, Telugu and, to an extent, Hindi, films.

Let’s take a look at the list of special honours for anti-caste/social justice movies this year.

Also Read: How Bimal Roy’s Sujata and Pa Ranjith’s Kaala show changing Dalit politics in 60 years

Special accolades for Dalit movies in 2021

Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai, showing a Dalit boxer’s fight for dignity and self-realisation, received a special mention in The New York Times list of ‘must-watch international movies on OTT’. Surya-starrer Jai Bhim, inspired by Ambedkar’s faith in the judiciary to address discrimination, outranked Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Godfather (1972) on IMDB to become the highest-ranked movie of all time.

Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan starring a belligerent Dalit villager (played by Dhanush) won the Best Indian Film award at the Innovative International Film Festival in Bangalore. ‘Tollywood’ (Telugu Film industry) made the most number of films ever on anti-caste themes in 2021. Films like Love Story, Uppenna, and Sridevi Soda Center — all showed Dalit characters as leads.

Vinod Kamble’s Kastoori (2019), a Marathi movie on a Dalit manual scavenger’s quest to get rid of his smell, received the National Award for Best Children’s film. Meanwhile, Konkona Sen Sharma bagged the Asian Academy Creative Award for the ‘Best Actress in a Leading Role’ for portraying a Dalit queer character (Bharati Mandal) in Neeraj Ghaywan’s widely praised Ajeeb Dastans: Geeli Pucchi.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays a Tamil Dalit — Ayyan Mani — in Netflix’s Serious Men received a coveted Emmy award nomination. Actor Dhanush received the ‘best actor award’ at the National Film Awards for his superlative portrayal of Dalit character Sivasaami in Vetrimaaran’s directorial, Asuran. He also received the Best Actor award at the BRICS Film Festival.

Also Read: Bollywood has miles to go before it can produce Kaala, Asuran, Karnan or even a Jai Bhim

Gradual changes in regional cinema

It is interesting to see how this change actually happened. Well-crafted stories of Dalits faced a kind of ‘untouchability’ in the mainstream Indian movie industry. But incessant path-breaking by Tamil cinema industry, especially Pa. Ranjith’s Kabali (2016), Kaala (2018), and Pariyerum Perumal (2018), a movie he produced, made a much-needed impact on all those watching this phenomenon unfold and they too, including savarna moviemakers, slowly jumped the bandwagon.

If the Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi film industries have been hesitant to change, 2021 will definitely make them rethink. This year has definitely reinforced that there is not only a bigger audience but accolades for rightful portray of the downtrodden.

The Telugu film industry seems to have taken a little cue from Tamil cinema. Andhra and Telangana have seen a spurt of anti-Dalit atrocities, including the gruesome murder of Dalits Perumalla Pranay Kumar and Sankar as a result of inter-caste marriage. Yet, Tollywood had been shying away from making Dalit character-led anti-caste cinema the way Kollywood was. 2021 changed that.

This year, three big-budget Telugu movies were made on anti-caste themes. Buchi Babu Sana’s Uppena showcased an intercaste love story involving a Dalit Christian fisherman and an ‘upper caste’ Hindu girl. The film garnered one of the biggest openings in 2021, though it had debutant Vaishnav Tej as the lead. Apart from Uppena, there was Sekhar Kammula’s Love Story and Karuna Kumar’s Sridevi Soda Center that reflected the caste realities of India.

Kollywood, meanwhile, moved from just showing caste discrimination to showing assertive Dalit characters. Director Mari Selvaraj produced a masterclass Karnan. Here, Karnan (Dhanush), an assertive character hailing from a small ‘backward-caste’ village, fights back against the establishment and awakens the villagers content with being subjugated.

Pa. Ranjith returning to direction after three years gave Sarpatta Parambarai a classic showing. It was not just a dexterous period film reinforcing the social assertiveness of the lead boxer Kabilan (Arya), but also showed his fight with himself— Buddha’s teaching of “atta deep bhav” (be your own light) — which is reiterated in one of the film’s songs, Neeye Oli. One of the lasting images of the film is when Kabilan is advised by his Dalit friend, with a backdrop of Ambedkar on the wall, “This is our chance. Make your enemy tremble in fear.”

Jai Bhim followed, shattering all records on Netflix and becoming the highest-ranked movie on IMDB. The BBC, The Independent, and Khaleej Times — all covered the movie and its impact. Surya, who played Ambedkarite (Chandru), gives his all to bring justice to poor tribals incorrectly held by police. “Jai Bhim” and “Jaibhimwallas” hitherto referred to Dalits and their salutation, but the movie has magnificently transformed the term to refer to anyone who fights for human rights. The portraits of Buddha, Ambedkar and Periyar, Ambedkar’s voice, and Justice Chandru’s credits to Ambedkar’s writing and speeches were the first of their kind and will go a long way in drawing more people towards Ambedkar’s writings and speeches.

At the end of the year, Jayanti was released, becoming the first Marathi film to be released upon the reopening of theatres after Covid-induced lockdowns. In this movie, Santya (Ruturaj Wankhede) is transformed when he reads the life and works of Ambedkar, Phule and Shivaji Maharaj. The film also makes a reference to Ambedkar’s prominent work Who Were the Shudras? and Govind Pansare’s Who was Shivaji?

Also Read: Lights, camera, caste – An Ambedkar photo made it to Bollywood after 38 yrs of independence

Box office success

Nearly all anti-caste films with Dalit lead characters have made good box office collections. Tamil movie Karnan gave Dhanush his best box office opening despite a 50 per cent theatre occupancy limit. The film collected Rs 10 crore on the opening day — the best opener in the actor’s illustrious career.

Critically acclaimed Sarpatta Parambarai was viewed across150 countries on Amazon Prime, according to a report. Jai Bhim also enjoyed similar success. Jayanti was running successfully in its fourth week despite a 50 per cent occupancy limit in Maharashtra.

2021 has seen Pa. Ranjith has been at the epicentre of this change in Tamil Cinema. Most recently, actor Vikram announced that he was teaming up with director Pa. Ranjith for his next film titled Chiyaan 61. The director also announced his next production, Writer.

While Tamil, Marathi, and now Telugu film industry to an extent have come out of the mould to show social realities and Dalit assertion, Malayalam, Hindi, and Kannada film industry is lagging much behind.

The success of Jai Bhim, Jayanti, Uppena, Karnan, Sarpatta Parambarai — all released in 2021 — has definitely changed the narrative. Bollywood can no longer ignore this sea change and must consider moving away from fairy tale fiction of savarna stories. Nagaraj Manjule’s Hindi Debut Jhund on underprivileged children, featuring Amitabh Bachchan, which will see its release in 2022, could be a starting point.

In Jai Bhim’s soundtrack ‘Power’, we hear Ambedkar’s actual voice as rapper Arivu pens the most striking song of the film. The voice is from his BBC Radio interview in which he says: “We want untouchability to be abolished. We have been carrying on with untouchability for 2,000 years, nobody has bothered about it.”

Director Pa. Ranjith tweeted: “It is the community that seen [sic] anti-caste and pro-caste balance. Here are the stories coming out like the story of the hidden and denied Rasa Kannu. It will change our generations”.

Indeed, if movies on stories of ‘the denied’ continue, then it will definitely change the outlook of the future generations. In the real world, 2021 has been a tragic year due to the Covid-19 pandemic but the ‘reel world’ has definitely given us something to cheer about. It has proved to be an accelerator of real change — one that will last us for a long, long time.

Ravikiran Shinde is an independent writer and columnist. He writes on socio-political issues and is proponent of diversity. He tweets (@scribe_it). Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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