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HomeOpinionDalit History Month 2021A Dalit lead who isn’t honour killing or inter-caste love victim. It...

A Dalit lead who isn’t honour killing or inter-caste love victim. It takes a Neeraj Ghaywan

Bollywood is now comfortable with portraying drugs, gender parity, crime and sexuality, but still finds Dalit characters too hot to handle.

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Drugs, gender parity, crime, sexuality have become easy to handle on camera, but one fails to understand why Bollywood still finds Dalit characters too hot to handle. In their absence, Bollywood stories have been boringly monolithic, if not imaginary. Bollywood’s unwillingness to showcase clearly defined Dalit leads, even when the storyline suits it, has been appallingly clear.

Geeli Pucchi, part of Netflix’s latest anthology Ajeeb Daastaans, is very real. It has a clearly identified Dalit woman, Bharati Mondal (Konkana Sen Sharma), as the lead, alongside a Brahmin Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari). Bharati faces caste discrimination at her workplace while she grapples with her own sexuality. More importantly, unlike others, Neeraj Ghaywan’s film lays bare both extremes of caste locations.

Bharati isn’t a namesake Dalit character added as pinch of flavour. She is the main lead, a blue-collar worker on the shop floor in a private manufacturing company, deserving of the vacant white collar position in the same firm. But a certain Priya Sharma gets the job due to her last name and “palm-reading” skills. This is a perfect example of how privilege works in the private sector in the form of quota. Amid all this, Priya and Bharati are both in search of their true sexuality.

It takes a Neeraj Ghaywan to show us that you don’t need Dalit characters only when the story is about inter-caste love or honour killing, but even when you talk about sexuality and gender.

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Also read: New Dalit women autobiographies are opening up private, intimate spaces, rewriting history

She who can’t be named

Watching Ajeeb Daastaans, I couldn’t stop wondering what would have happened if Ghaywan had directed other recent series such as Netflix’s Bombay Begums or She. The directors appeared hesitant to call the female leads of the two shows —Bhumika (She) and Lilly (Bombay Begums) — Dalit despite the storyline suggesting that they are. Did they believe showing Dalits would ‘muddy’ the plot?

If showing well-defined Brahmin/Savarna characters doesn’t alter the story, why would Dalits or OBCs?

Take, for instance, Sanya Malhotra-starrer Pagglait, released in March on Netflix. It is about a woman finding her purpose in life. The protagonist’s name Sandhya Pandey, along with the visuals and dialogues of the film constantly, remind viewers that it’s a story about a Brahmin household. Compare Pagglait with the crime drama She, where cop Bhumika Pardeshi (Aditi Pohankar) goes undercover to unearth an underworld gang. Bhumika’s character has everything that ‘suggests’ that she is a Dalit. She has an under-privileged family whose only source of income is one government job (possibly thanks to reservation), the desperation to save that job, colleagues who make fun of her at work, and most importantly an ex-husband named “Lokhande” (a common Dalit surname). And yet, the show does not clearly establish Bhumika’s social position. Her last name is the vague-sounding Pardeshi, and whether she is Dalit or not is left to the viewers’ imagination. Granted, the aim of the movie was to explore Bhumika’s sexuality and one can argue that caste would have complicated the issue. Well, why don’t Savarna characters complicate subjects?

In Bombay Begums, Lily (Amruta Subhash) is ‘underprivileged’, poor, but we are not told whether or not she is Dalit. Her last name is Gondhali, an unusual name to keep her caste identity guessing. Directed by two women — Alankrita Shrivastava and Bornila Chatterjee — the series is very open about issues like the sexuality of middle-aged women and loads of extramarital affairs. But when it comes to showing the caste location of Lily, the show shies away.

Mind you, the mere portrayal of Dalit characters in movies doesn’t make the movies about caste. Directors like Neeraj Ghaywan, Pa. Ranjith, and Nagraj Manjule don’t ‘bring caste’ into movies. Indian cinema always has caste in it, but it’s almost always centred on the Savarnas, whether the movie demands it or not. Dalit characters are greyed out while the oppressor castes are coloured. Comparatively, Muslim characters find an easy place and colours in Savarna narratives, but Dalits remain nearly invisible.

Also read: How Instagram reels is a mirror to modern casteism in India

Bollywood needs a diversity meter

It takes someone like Neeraj Ghaywan to show society the way it is. He normalises having a Dalit woman lead character. His characterisation of Bharati in Geeli Pucchi is a strong counter to a hesitant Lily of Bombay Begums and Bhumika of She. There is no second-guessing when it comes to the social location of Bharati. Aren’t Savarna characters chosen to showcase anything from hair loss (Bala) to stuttering (Hichki) to queerness (Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan)? A movie like Newton had a Dalit as the lead even though the story was about India’s election process — an extremely rare phenomenon.

Earlier this year, I tweeted about starting a #DiversityMeter for Bollywood movies and OTT series. Having written extensively about the abysmal lack of diversity of characters, this was the only way to hold writers, producers, and directors accountable.

Ajeeb DaastaansGeeli Pucchi scores well not only on the diversity meter, but also in terms of its rich content. I only wish that this was a full movie, not a short-film cramped third in the sequence among three other average anthologies. Another hour and a half, and we could have seen so many facets of the world of Bharati and Priya.

With this short film, Ghaywan has begun to normalise the phenomena of a well-built Dalit woman lead character in a fictional story, not the haplesss imagary of the second-fiddle Sujata in Bimal Roy’s 1959 film, or Radha in Souten (1983) that Bollywood has been showing through its Savarna gaze. Imagine if there were atleast a dozen more Ghaywans, how many real colours of Indian society we would be able to see on reel!

The author is an independent writer and critic of Indian cinema, socio-political issues and is a proponent for diversity. Views are personal.

[Edited by Fiza Ranalvi Jha]

This article is part of the Dalit History Month 2021 series. Read all the articles here.

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  1. It is really disturbing that how Bollywood portrayals of so called Privileged Upper Castes and the unrealistic appraisal by such journalists is indulged in widening the gap in society in the name of religion and caste.
    The story track of GeeliPucchi, is nothing but shows the dark character of manipulative herds, irrespective of any caste.
    Also, the unneeded hype in the story in the name of caste bears no resemblance with the real world.
    No company hires a person based on his/her caste.
    The darkness portrayed by the character of Bharti, cannot seek refuge under the garb of caste victim, because ultimately she played over the innocence of Priya.
    This story widens the gap and breaks the trust.
    But again, what can be expected from unneutral mindsets, who just believe in earning degree/money/name/fame by victimising the wrongs of the past.(dat too, which I don’t believe in its entirety)

  2. Anil Jee, I quite liked your article and the reasoning of yours in topic of Dalit characters, but you forgot to mention the recent web series Tandav directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. In it director portrayed a dalit political character of Kailash Kumar played by Anup Soni. In the entire series it was shown that how because of Dalit origin he has to face discrimination or humiliation from upper caste politician.
    In the movie Mukkabaz Tigmanshu Dhulia mentioned another important topic or aspect which is reverse castism. Will request to write something on this prevalent topic also.

  3. What about other kinds of diversity?

    How many times the lead has been shown to be from Bihar/Jharkhand- despite having 20% of the population of the Hindi Heartland? Why the lead is always Punjabi?

    If you start slicing and dicing, it will never end.

    Furthermore, while no one denies that Dalits still face discrimination, it is absolutely rubbish to talk about jobs when they get a lion’s share of the most coveted jobs of all- the government jobs. The same set of SC ST families have been taking advantage of it generation after generation or multiple times- but no one bothers.

  4. Wish there is a study in greater depth 9n the subject of Dalits. Nearly 75 years of reservations have not solved the problems. The real issue is their lack of money and access to education. The current reservation has created an elite within them who keep getting the benefits while others struggle. However, all the blame is sought to be at the door steps of the Brahmins who get no special favours constitutionally.
    In Tamilnadu, the Dravidian movement , supported by the British, was essentially an anti Brahmin movement. Their only crime was that they did well academically and gained the benefits of modern education. This saw Tamil Brahmins move out and today the community has more people outside India than in India. Dalits continue to languish but other castes have become dominant. Stalin still campaigns on an anti Brahmin platform. Stalin and others have gained but the state has certainly lost
    Unfortunately, we see shallow articles about a film and also a lot of articles lamenting the plight of the Dalits but no serious studies which factually study the root cause of the problem

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