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Can a Dalit man and an upper-caste woman be in love? Another thing Tandav gets wrong

Tandav has landed in controversy. But it gets a lot wrong about lower-castes in India that has just flown under the radar.

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Amazon Prime Video series Tandav has landed in controversy for hurting religious sentiments. But the web series also has many untasteful dialogues that stigmatise lower castes, in general, and Dalits, in particular. Among them: “When a lower-caste man dates an upper-caste woman, he is actually taking revenge, for centuries of atrocities, just from that one woman.

[जब एक छोटी जाति का आदमी, एक ऊँची जाति की औरत को डेट करता है न, तो वो बदला ले रहा होता है, सदियों के अत्याचारों का, सिर्फ़ उस एक औरत से]. Dalit leaders and activists have demanded for the removal of such dialogues and the makers of the series have considered their plea.

A counter view is that such dialogues and scenes have been created just for the purpose of amusement, and so, their removal would be unjust. Besides, the demand for removal is also seen as an assault on artistic freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Articles 19 and 21 of our Constitution. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has also refused to grant anticipatory bail to the makers of Tandav from the multiple FIRs filled against them in different states.

In my opinion, the casteism in Tandav comes more from a deep ideological divide in India than merely an attempt to create sarcasm and entertain. Just that one dialogue is enough to prove it.

Also read: ‘Tandav’ director, others denied interim protection from arrest by Supreme Court

Against empirical evidence  

Let’s take the sweeping dialogue, I have mentioned the nature of relationships between upper-caste women and lower-caste men.

The dialogue is between Jigar Sampath (Dino Morea) and Sandhya Nigam (Sandhya Mridul), two professors married to each other. Sampath is in an extra-marital relationship with his student, Sana Mir (Kritika Kamra), whereas Sandhya is in an extra-marital relationship with Kailash Kumar (Anoop Soni), a Dalit leader. Sampath says the above line to his wife Sandhya when she plans to leave him for Kumar.

Every year, numerous lower caste/Dalit youth become victim of ‘honour killing’. The so-called ‘honour killing’ of lower caste men have not deterred them from falling in love with upper-caste women. Rational thinking requires refraining from such activities that possess a threat to one’s life and personal liberty, but lower-caste men continue to dare to fall in love. In addition to this, there are hardly any complaints from upper-caste women that lower-caste men have been alluring them so that they can take revenge for historical injustices.

Empirical evidence has been blatantly ignored while writing this dialogue. Do the writers want to convince a section of Indian society that what happens to Dalit men is the result of their fate – because they attempt to seek ‘revenge’ against historical injustice?

Also read: For OTT platforms in India, Tandav blurs the line between self-regulation and censorship

Stigmatisation of lower castes

Love, sexual urge, hunger, pain, sorrow and happiness are all considered to be natural necessities of every living being. Deprivation of these is considered to be an injustice to that living being. The above-mentioned dialogue propagates the idea that the action of lower caste men is usually guided by the experience of their forefathers (historical injustice) rather than their natural necessities as a living being. In this way, the dialogue stigmatises all lower castes.

There is a growing body of literature on the ill-effects of stigma on lower castes. Political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy argues that “stigma is socially and politically constructed which replaces the ‘sense of self’ with a stigmatised self”. The subjective perception of stigmatised castes is constructed either with self-contempt or victimhood. Stigma also creates a sense of public shame and disgust. The former (shame) results in the withdrawal of stigmatised castes from society whereas the latter (disgust) results in distancing of society from stigmatised castes. The whole process makes stigmatised castes unfit for society, which is clear in the Tandav dialogue. It portrays Dalit men as unfit for the love of upper-caste women. The practice of untouchability has been the greatest example of how castes get stigmatised, but there are other ways too. Defining love between upper caste women and lower caste men in a widely watched web series is one such way.  

Women’s body as battlefield 

The way Tandav conceptualises the said dialogue depicts both the body and mind of upper caste women as a site of correcting historical injustices and enacting revenge. And by doing so, the body and mind of women are just reduced to their social identity. One outcome of such depiction would be seeing women as a repository of family and caste honour. The normalisation of such thoughts in any society is antithetical to the liberation of women and undermines their dignity and agency.

Also read: Amitabh Bachchan was once ‘casteless’ Hindu. Tandav, Ludo now flaunt loud, proud Brahmins

Fiction or prejudice

One common argument in favour of such dialogues is that they are just fiction and have nothing to do with reality. However, fiction is a product of the imagination of writers. In this case, the dialogue is not completely a product of one writer’s imagination. Ever since Tandav‘s release, there is a buzz on social media about the genesis of this dialogue. Gandhian writer Ashok Kumar Pandey traces its origin to a Hindi novel named Peeli Chhatri Wali Ladki (The Girl with the Golden Parasol), written by Uday Prakash. Inspired by J.M. Coetzee’s 1977 novel based in Africa, In The Heart of The Country, the Hindi novel is about the relationship between a lower-caste man named Rahul and an upper-caste woman named Anjali. Both realise at the end that they were using each other as instruments to further their cause.

The debate on the genesis of this dialogue reveals how upper-caste writers are probably bringing stories that originated in other countries and force-fitting them on lower-castes in the Indian context. Although the dialogue writers of Tandav have not publicly accepted the source of their inspiration, but a bird’s-eye view of Peeli Chhatri Wali Ladki reveals that this dialogue is just reproduced from the page 145 of the novel.

राहुल के भीतर तेज आंधी और किसी हिंसक बनैले पशु की उत्तेजना एक साथ जाग उठी थी।

और अब वह पूरी ताक़त के साथ, दबी-कुचली जातियों की समूची प्रतिहिंसा के साथ, शताब्दियों से उनके प्रति हुए अन्याय का बदला ले रहा था

उसका हर एक आघात एक प्रतिशोध था, उसकी हर के हरकत बदले की कार्यवायी थी

अंजली की आँखे अंधमुधी हो गयी थी, उसका मुँह खुल गया था, उसका चेहरा अंगारों की तरह दहक रहा था।

The depiction of the mental status of an lower-caste man, Rahul, during intercourse with his upper-caste girlfriend, Anjali, in Uday Prakash’s Peeli Chhatri Vali Ladki (2005). Vani Prakashan, New Delhi, pp. 145.

This kind of novel writing has less to do with fiction writing and more with prejudice. Prejudice, as explained by Hans-Georg Gadamer in his Truth and Method, refers to the judgement one makes about someone before consciously/objectively judging them. Taking his own example, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that prejudice is what “we imbibe from the earliest phase of our childhood, as we come into the symbolic order and as grown-ups explain the world to us and guide us into it, as they necessarily have to”.

Since the prejudice comes from habitus, making it intertwined with knowledge, when upper-caste authors write about lower castes, they fail to throw out their prejudice, which they have inherited from childhood. They are also prone to fall into the trap of their prejudice if even an iota of evidence serves their purpose. The story writing tradition of India seems to have fallen into the trap of ideological biases and prejudices of feudalism and castes.

The upper caste prejudice and bias that Dalits ascend to public offices not because of their own hard work and merit but through reservation gets reproduced in another dialogue of Tandav. When Kailash Kumar tries to speak in a meeting, Devaki Nandan Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia) mocks him by saying, “Oh! So now you will also speak. His father was a cobbler who used to make shoes. He was a good artisan and a very hard-working man. We have done injustice to you for centuries, so you have got the lathi of reservation. We also need to improve our image. Without that, you could never have been able to sit in front of me and talk.” [अच्छा! आप भी बोलेंगे, इनके जो पिताजी थे, जूते टाँकते थे, बहुत महीन कारीगर, बेरी हार्ड वर्किंगमैन, अबे हम लोगों ने तुम लोगों पर जो सालों-साल आत्याचार किए न, उसी की वजह से तुम लोगों को आरक्षण की लाठी मिल गयी। उसके बाद हमें भी अपनी छवि ठीक करनी थी। ये सब नहीं हुआ होता, तो साले तुम्हारी औक़ात थी हमारे सामने बैठकर बात करने की]।

Besides, Kailash Kumar is also shown to be passive who never replies despite being humiliated multiple times. Such depiction of Dalit characters is common in Bollywood and is only getting pointed out now.

Also read: The only thing offensive about Tandav is its simplistic, tacky portrayal of politics

Sharpening social division

The last objection to the Tandav dialogue is that it attempts to deny the possibilities of a common meeting ground between marginalised communities. It tries to depict the contradictions between two communities as permanent. For example, in the web series, Sandhya Nigam realises in the end that her husband was ‘right’ about lower caste men.

However, this situation could have been reversed, but doing so would have not fulfilled the objective of projecting the contradiction between upper caste women and lower caste men as permanent. Methodologically, this kind of idea comes from the Marxist school, where the contradiction between the bourgeoisie (working class) and the proletariat (industrialists) is argued to be permanent, and authors of this tradition are tasked with sharpening the contradiction for a revolution. This idea gets reproduced differently in various forms of literature, and Tandav is just the latest.

Arvind Kumar (@arvind_kumar__ ), PhD Scholar, Department of Politics & IRs, Royal Holloway, University of London. Views are personal.

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  1. Disclaimer: Not a political comment

    Hurting religious sentiment is a misnomer. Please don’t throw bricks at me. What I say applies to ALL religions. Sentimentality is an emotional state disproportionate to the situation, and thus replaces extreme and generally unthinking feeling for normal ethical and intellectual judgment. Psychologically sentiment is an abnormal condition. While there can be a condition of religious sentiment, being abnormal it cannot be hurt but only aggravated. Being abnormal it is better for the society (all religions) to ignore such situations, especially any depiction in ANY art form – in print (Not The Print), screen or spoken. In time, the abnormality will all go away on its own.

    Can India as a Nation, with its diversity, progress emotionally and evolve, if there are no debates on the pros and cons of ALL religions, beliefs and faiths?

    Tail piece: Is religious freedom more empowering than freedom from religion? Does your religion restrict your thinking rather than free it?

  2. your last paragraph has the bourgeoisie and the proletariat defined incorrectly, it’s actually the opposite, the bourgeoisie are the industrialists/royals/nobles and the proletariat are the working class.

  3. Basically Tandav producers and script writers were looking to create controversy to gain publicity .

    Well a stint in jail under current laws for purposefully creating disharmony will give them and their rabid SUPPORTERS in media a picture what free publicity with extra benefits means

  4. Some good lines from the article

    “Besides, Kailash Kumar is also shown to be passive who never replies despite being humiliated multiple times. Such depiction of Dalit characters is common in Bollywood and is only getting pointed out now.”

    “For example, in the web series, Sandhya Nigam realises in the end that her husband was ‘right’ about lower caste men.”

    I wonder,
    Even after 70+ yrs of Independence and all the education, Why SC,ST,OBC failed to form a Political Party to represent their cause and dominate country politics?

    • “Why SC,ST,OBC failed to form a Political Party to represent their cause and dominate country politics” — because SC, ST, OBC are just categories created by government, on ground, there are thousands of endogamous jaatis with each major jaati wanting to control power. Only a stupid would look at these thousand of endogamous, heterogenous groups through a binary lens of oppressor abd oppressed. Besides, there are caste based parties which have dominated state elections.

  5. Guess this is what a PhD does to an otherwise sane human being. Overthinking on silly statements from irrelevant social dramas, movies etc. and converting it into this long dirge. Guess common sense is rare. Having just spent a part of my life reading this guess I am equally senseless.

  6. The author of this article forgets about the freedom of expression a writer/script writer is entitled to…

  7. Both Tandav and Mirzapur are examples of bad TV in all respects. Both are entirely lacking in any creative energy and are crude and stale imitations of 1980 Bollywood movies. I am surprised that Amazon backed these ventures.

    • Mr Raghu: Whilst you are absolutely entitled to your opinions, I guess, by the same token, Amazon is equally entitled to place its financial bets on whatever entertainment projects it feels might give it a return on investment. And the more the Hindutva monkeys scream about hurt feelings and so on, the more the publicity for the series.

      Correct me if I am wrong Sir !

  8. Now liberandus are twisting facts since their argument saying mocking Hindu god is all fine ,has no takers .Now they are trying to build a narrative that caste is the problem and trying devide Hindu

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