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.
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.
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.
Friends, from hereon I’m going to introduce what is called as #DiversityMeter of Indian movies.
If movie has Brahmin Baniya Characters/ actors then then #DiversityMeter is 0. If it has good mix of Bahujans then it’s 10.
Please enhance this and show mirror to movie makers pic.twitter.com/VymSZzmrlp
— Ravi Ratan (@scribe_it) December 26, 2020
Ajeeb Daastaans’ Geeli 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.