Watching actor Pankaj Tripathi play the role of advocate Madhav Mishra in Hotstar’s web series Criminal Justice, constantly showing off his Brahmin caste and janeu, or sacred thread, made me think about the new Bollywood phenomenon of showcasing only Brahmin stories and plot lines. This can also be seen in the trailer of the Amazon Prime series Tandav, where Saif Ali Khan’s character is seen flaunting his janeu. But things were not this way in the Amitabh Bachchan era of 80’s blockbusters, where the lead character was ‘casteless’, both in imagery and in dialogues.
Take, for instance, a scene from Manmohan Desai’s Desh Premee (1982). Amitabh Bachchan leaves the bathroom half-naked, trying to avoid Hema Malini. Neither his character’s name (Raju), nor his bare upper-torso (absence of janeu) reveals his caste in the entire film. Even his father’s name is Master Dinanath (no last name), played by Amitabh in a double role.
Caste-agnostic stories and plot lines were a default feature of that era, at least in Amitabh Bachchan’s movies. But if Desh Premee was made today, Dinanath would probably become Master Dinanath Tripathi, and his dialogues, too, would demonstrate that he is a Brahmin.
Indian cinema’s casteless era
It’s not like there was nothing to complain about in the Hindi cinema of the 1970 and 80s — the industry comprised mainly Brahmin Savarna actors, producers, and directors, and there was a near absence of Dalit stories and their social realities. Even Ambedkar’s photo appeared as a backdrop for the first time only in 1986. But one could not accuse the industry of brazenly showcasing Brahmin-Savarna characters and plot lines, with almost every story coming from a Brahmin household. Unfortunately, the Hindi film industry, and the Marathi film industry to some extent, have become a medium of portraying stories about India’s minuscule Savarna population to the masses.
Imagine if Amitabh’s hit films like Sholay (1975), Deewar (1975), Shakti (1982) were made in this era. Yes, there is a powerful Thakur in the village (denoting caste position) in Sholay, but would the two lead characters played by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra (Jai and Viru) remain casteless and without last names? Would Vijay in Yash Johar’s all-time classic Deewar remain a caste-agnostic Varma? Would Vijay in Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti remain a caste-neutral Kumar? Even the indomitable Vijay in Tinu Anand’s Kaala Patthar was just Singh, which does not indicate his caste position.
When he did not play Christian or Muslim characters, Amitabh would be a Hindu, caste-agnostic character with a last name such as Singh, Varma, Kumar, or sometimes with no last name at all. But there was hardly a Vijay Mishra or Vijay Shukla —barring very rare instances such as Chupke Chupke (1975), a recipe of today’s era.
Desh Premee’s director, Manmohan Desai, had worked on a whole franchise of films with Bachchan, including Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Laawaris (1981), Coolie (1983), Suhaag (1979), and Naseeb (1981). Yes, his films did not delve into the caste inequality that existed in society, but one thing was certain — he hardly ever explicitly showed Brahmin characters in his movies.
The same held true for films by Prakash Mehra — a rival of Manmohan Desai’s production house, which also made many successful films with Amitabh Bachchan in the lead. In Namak Halaal (1982) and Lawaaris, his character’s second name was Singh, and in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), it was Sikandar. This was the 80s’ era in which the Hindi film industry did not feel the need to show that it had an openly Brahmin lead. He could be a Christian or Muslim — Amitabh has probably played more Muslim and Christian characters than anyone else. And yet, he had higher mass appeal than any other superstar.
Rise of the Brahmin lead
Today, things have changed drastically. Whether it is Saif Ali Khan flaunting his janeu in the controversial Tandav, or names such as Batuk Tiwari (Abhishek Bachchan) and Sattu Tripathi (Pankaj Tripathi) in Ludo (2020), stories featuring only upper-caste characters — mostly Brahmins — have become the new norm in Bollywood. A study of the last decade alone will blow your mind. Salman Khan in the Dabangg series, Akshay Kumar in the Jolly LLB series, Shah Rukh Khan in Zero (2018), Ayushmann Khurrana in Bala (2019), Badhai Ho (2018) and Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), Ajay Devgn in Omkara (2006), and Rajkummar Rao in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) are just a small sample of the hundreds of recently made movies with Brahmin identity written all over their characters. After a 2014 study by The Hindu which found only two backward characters in over 300 movies in two years, no further study has been published.
Yet, the picture is quite clear. In fact, today there is hardly any lead actor who has not done multiple roles as a clearly defined Brahmin character showing off their sacred thread. A story from a clearly identifiable Brahmin household, with at least one clear shot of the male lead’s sacred thread, or a dialogue that makes explicit his caste position, has become a staple of films. So much so, it appears that male actors are shown topless only to show their janeu.
Lack of Dalit representation
One can argue that unlike the Amitabh era of the ’80s, there are now more movies being made on Dalits and caste politics. But most of them have storylines about ‘honour killing’, caste discrimination, or typecast characters. Bollywood showcasing Dalit stories is akin to Savarna media houses calling Dalit panelists when the topic of discussion is atrocities against Dalits, SC/ST reservations, or some Dalit ‘controversy’. Although, here too, they are vilified on air, in the guise of being given ‘space’ on prime time.
You hardly see a lead character being a Dalit or OBC and playing an everyday person’s role in a film that is not about ‘honour killing’. Shreyas Talpade playing Mahadev Kushwaha in Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), Rajkummar Rao playing a Dalit character in Newton (2017) (although it was subtly depicted), Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing Jatil Yadav in Raat Akeli Hai (2020), Jitendra Kumar playing Prem Kumar Yadav in Chaman Bahaar (2020), or Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing a Dalit in Serious Men (2020) are extremely rare instances. Pa Ranjith’s Kaala (2018) and Kabali (2016), both of which show assertive Dalits, are notable and path-breaking exceptions for the Indian film industry.
Mind you, I am talking about the representation of Dalit characters’ names or stories, and not the representation of Dalit actors, actresses, writers, directors, which is still a far-fetched dream. The data on caste-based representation, unlike Hollywood’s racial representation, does not exist in India.
But even though Hollywood reports diversity in its industry, a 2017 study by the University of Southern California showed a mirror to Hollywood moviemakers on their lack of sufficient representation of minority groups, such as African Americans and Latinos. Can we ever imagine such a discussion in Bollywood, much less having such university-sponsored studies on Indian cinema?
One of the objectives of a motion picture is to reach out to the masses. In a country as diverse as India, one would imagine stories of fictional characters that most people can identify with will be profitable, barring examples of inspirational stories of extraordinary people like Phoolan Devi, Paan Singh Tomar, Milkha Singh, or the Dangal women.
But Bollywood’s stories about ‘everyday’ people have become stories that mostly come from Brahmin households. These days, not just the characters’ names, but the movie titles are also clearly upper-caste — Khosla ka Ghosla (2006), Bachchan Pandey (2021) and Arjun Pandit (1999). The Marathi film industry, which is also based in Mumbai, is following Bollywood in its quest to have mostly Brahmin characters as leads in nearly all its movies. It is worth noting that Marathi films, too, had actors like Ashok Saraf, Laxmikant Berde, Mahesh Kothare, and Dada Kondake playing caste-agnostic or Bahujan characters in the ’80s.
Often we hear top Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders such as Om Birla or Kalraj Mishra glorifying Brahmin castes and their virtues. If not, we hear judges saying things like Brahmins are “twice Born and have good qualities”. Whether this phenomenon in films is a direct result of the near dominance of the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP is a topic of further research.
One of the reasons Nagaraj Manjule’s Sairat (2016) became the highest-grossing Marathi film is because a majority of viewers found the lead characters more relatable, unlike city-based Brahmin characters in movies these days that fail to reach the Bahujan masses. Hindi movies, in their quest for a quick 100 crore, are forgetting that there is a huge mass of people that needs to be drawn to watch movies — a hallmark of Amitabh’s caste-agnostic blockbuster films of the ’80s. It is more surprising that today’s moviemakers continue to write stories of mostly Brahmin Savarna characters.
The author is an independent writer and critic on Indian cinema, socio-political issues and is a proponent for diversity. Views are personal.