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HomeOpinionIndian cinema's C-problem: When an upper caste gets to play Jyotiba Phule

Indian cinema’s C-problem: When an upper caste gets to play Jyotiba Phule

Marathi cinema had phenomenal success with Sairat, and yet the industry could find only Brahmin actors to play Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule.

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The Marathi film industry and the Maharashtra government should be lauded for planning to produce a film like Satyashodhak (Truth-seeker) on the life and times of 19th century social reformers and educators Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule.

It is only apt because we are now in the middle of what can be called a nascent self-affirming boom in owning and celebrating Dalit history. And who will play the Phules in the 21st century is as important as the belated act of making a film on them. And this is where the upcoming film Satyashodhak falls short.

Phules were known for their anti-caste struggle, fight for the rights of women and for establishing what is claimed as ‘first’ all-girls’ school in India. 

Satyashodhak, chronicling their life and struggles, is funded by the Maharashtra government, and the film’s ‘muhurt’ in 2016 was attended by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and many of his cabinet colleagues. Kept under wraps since, the film’s lead star cast is now known — Marathi actor-producer Sandeep Kulkarni in the role of Jyotiba or Jyotirao, and Rajshri Deshpande as Savitribai Phule.

While it’s the prerogative of the film’s producer and director to decide whom to cast for which role, things aren’t sometimes as simplistic and benign.

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

When news about who will play what role in the film came out, noted OBC writer and intellectual Tejas Harad sarcastically commented, “Kulkarni as Jotiba and Deshpande as Savitribai… Waah!” His same post on Facebook invited varying degree of comments.

— Why are you doing “identity politics”?
— Identity politics pe bhi serial banayenge ye log.
— Which will still have Savarnas played (sic) the role of Bahujans. And later winning all the awards
— Yes

India and the West

Is it problematic if upper caste actors play the role of Dalits or Adivasis? Why should someone object if a white person plays the role of a black character? Do we need actors of same caste or religion or race to play the role of characters of these identities?

Does this sound absurd for Bollywood which, in its attempt to act secular, has kept this practice going on for long? Priyanka Chopra played the role of Mary Kom in the world champion boxer’s biopic of the same name. Even the legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray cast Simi Garewal in the role of a Santhal Adivasi girl in his film Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) and painted her black so that she would ‘look like’ a tribal. Environmentalist and filmmaker Pradip Krishen had Arundhati Roy essaying a tribal girl in his 1985 film, Massey Sahib. India’s film industries anyway do not make many movies about the lives of, or in which the characters are, Dalits, tribals or subalterns, so the question of our filmmakers facing issues like diversity or representation doesn’t arise. Unlike the West.

Also read: When was the last time a Bollywood superstar played a Dalit on screen?

For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the American entertainment culture in general, and Hollywood in particular, followed the tradition of ‘blackface’, a popular phenomenon of painting non-blacks with grease for roles of black characters or for live performance shows. Films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) employed such tropes. But the West has to a large extent become more diverse and is increasingly casting actors from the same racial or ethnic background as the characters. Even though #blackface — the act of white people painting their faces black as a party prank — is making an unseemly comeback in American politics these days. 

Consensus on caste

So what is the big deal if two Brahmin actors play the role of Phule couple in a film? Let me point out three reasons to explain why such a  ‘choice’ is not so innocent and innocuous, after all.

1. Marathi film industry, like any other film industry in India, is mostly dominated by the upper castes. As Ashwini Kamble, an assistant professor in IIMC, Amravati, says in her research paper, “The situation of Marathi cinema is not better than the mainstream Hindi cinema. Most of the Marathi cinema shows the dominance of ‘Brahminical‘ or Pune-Mumbai urban culture.” She lists all the Marathi movies that has dealt with the topic of caste and concludes that filmmakers do not want to talk about caste as the masses are “not comfortable” with this issue. She is quite hopeful, though, that things will change for better after the success of Sairat (2016).

2. The standard reason given for not allowing inclusion in casting in Indian movies is that it will affect the market of the movie if it does not have a commercial star name. But Sairat busted that lazy mythology. Sairat, an inter-caste love story, is the first Marathi film to enter the Rs 100 crore club. Film critic Hari Narayan says, “This is not parallel cinema; this is the new mainstream”. But the truism to note here is that Sairat is an exception, because there are not going to be more Sairats.

Also read: Kaala tells Bollywood to wake up and smell the caste

3. Sairat proves another point. Its director Nagraj Popatrao Manjule, and lead couple Aakash Thosar and Rinku Rajgure, all belong to lower castes. Several other members of the film crew are also from underprivileged backgrounds. So, a Dalit filmmaker with a Dalit star cast depicting the plight and struggle of a Dalit becomes the highest grossing film in Marathi cinema and yet when the same industry decides to make a film on the life and times of Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule, it fails to find any actor from the Dalit-Bahujan background.

What about the Dalit scholars and activists, opposing the phenomena of silent subalterns? One may call them paranoid, reductionists or casteist, but they are raising some valid questions. Similar questions led Hollywood and University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to produce the annual Hollywood Diversity Reports, in which we see some of the best and worst of practices in the Hollywood in terms of representation and diversity.

Should we hope to see Bollywood Diversity Report or Marathi Movie Diversity Report in the near future?

But casting is just about entry-level representation. Portrayal is another milestone. One without the other is neither possible or progressive.

The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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