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

Hollywood has begun to address the issue of diversity but Hindi films continue to fare poorly on representation of caste.

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Nobody was surprised when Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions turned the Dalit-upper caste lead couple in Nagraj Manjule’s seminal Marathi film, Sairat, into an upper caste-upper caste couple in its Hindi remake, Dhadak, last year.

Brushing a character’s Dalit identity under the carpet or reducing it to a stereotype is typical of the Hindi film industry. After all, Lagaan, which came close to winning the Oscars in the best foreign language film category, called its Dalit character ‘kacchra’ (garbage).

Bollywood’s show of hands in terms of Dalit representation — both on and off the camera — is negligible, or at least that’s what one is forced to say in the absence of any data on diversity.

Contrast this with Hollywood, which is responding to the findings of the annual diversity report, with some actors demanding an ‘inclusion rider’ in their contracts. The Hollywood Diversity Report, brought out by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is in its fifth year now and tracks the inclusiveness in the industry.

Also read: Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika fails Dalit warrior Jhalkaribai with 5 min role and ‘item’ song

Hollywood’s course correction

From showing a similar apathy towards people of colour on celluloid, Hollywood today has reached a point where the community has come to claim 28 per cent of the lead roles for the new scripted broadcast shows that debuted across all platforms as per the latest diversity report.

Among broadcast reality shows, the representation of people of colour is 26.6 per cent.

Most of the data, collated by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA’s department of social sciences, was provided by the industry itself.

Although the minorities (Blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans) continue to be underrepresented – Hollywood had 13.9 per cent lead actors, 12.6 per cent directors and 8.3 per cent writers in 2015-16 – the fact that the industry has this information (which it itself has helped produce) places it in a better position to bridge the diversity gap.

For instance, a study conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in 1969 had reported that only 3 per cent people of colour and other minorities worked in different capacities in the film industry.

But as the latest diversity report suggests, the Hollywood entertainment industry has over the years changed for good, although much more remains to be done, given that people of colour account for 40 per cent of the US population.

At the very least, the availability of such data seems to suggest that the white majority in the US wants to rectify years of propagating racial segregation.

The untouchables

India, in effect, legally abolished untouchability, practised on one-sixth of its population, in 1955, but its dominant upper castes continue to discriminate against the Dalits and tribals in various ways.

This never-ending display of such open and obscene levels of prejudice against Dalits was always going to find its way into the cinematic narration at some point, seen and told from within the confines of Hindu upper caste/Ashraf Muslim domain.

Also read: How Bimal Roy’s Sujata and Pa Ranjith’s Kaala show changing Dalit politics in 60 years

Several decades and tens of thousands of films later, what emerges is a caricature – a repeated portrayal of men and women being subservient to their upper caste ‘rulers’, who are often shown as ‘saviours’ (Achhut Kanya, 1936; Sujata, 1959). What rarely got reflected was their victories from the struggle, their oppressors being held accountable, or how they reclaimed their agency.

“The experiences of caste discrimination and exclusion have a negligible presence in the narratives of the Bollywood cinema,” says political scientist Harish Wankhede, who has provided a comprehensive critique of the depiction of Dalit characters and caste issues in Indian movies. “Hindi films are written, directed and produced by a dominant set of people who celebrate the tastes and values of upper class-upper caste sensitivities. Even the film critics, historians and scholars have studied cinema as an art aloof from the rugged conflicting social realities.”

Even under the lens of filmmakers whose work revolved around socio-political conditions, which came to be known as the new wave or parallel cinema, the Dalit protagonists continued to play a subjugated role (Damul, 1985); or were portrayed as impaired, alcoholic and poor who toiled for their upper caste landlords (Ankur, 1974). The latter, a Shyam Benegal film, which won three National Film awards including the best feature, is still regarded as one of the greatest art films of Indian cinema. Everyone seems to love a gullible, meek, disempowered Dalit!

In Akshay Kumar-starrer Jolly LLB (2013), the inefficient judge is a Dalit and the upright judge (played by Saurabh Shukla) a Brahmin. This year’s Kangana Ranaut-starrer Manikarnika reduced a strong Dalit character, freedom fighter Jhalkaribai Kori, into a 5-minute role and an item song.

Indian Washington 

Barring some exceptions, Bollywood has largely failed in portraying a Dalit character as the lead in a movie. In such a scenario, it is too much to expect the industry to give us a Dalit or a tribal superstar – our very own Denzel Washington, or Will Smith, or Morgan Freeman, or Samuel L. Jackson, or Jamie Foxx, or Oprah Winfrey. As and when a Neeraj Ghaywan (director of Masaan, 2015) does make a name for himself, at some point he may have to point out his Dalit identity in response to an upper caste filmmaker’s casteist aspersions.

Forget about giving the country a superstar from a discriminated background, the Hindi film industry doesn’t seem to be even anywhere near acknowledging the elephant in the room – not least like actor Frances Mcdormand, who ended her last year’s Oscar acceptance speech with an ‘inclusion rider’, which is a call for making racial and gender diversity a part of contracts in Hollywood projects. Her call prompted several A-listers to rally behind the cause, and at least one CEO has made the rider a part of his company’s policy.

But even if Bollywood finds Hollywood diversity reports a tough ask, the Hindi film industry could do well to look towards the south.

Also read: Kaala is a brilliant cultural response to Brahminical ideology: Jignesh Mevani

The Tamil film industry has taken a contrarian path in this regard. As film critic Bharadwaj Rangan points out that “It makes sense to target the ‘other’”. In Tamil films, it is the upper-middle or upper classes and the ‘higher’ castes, he says. “We saw this recently in Velai Illa Pattathari, where the villain was named Arun Subramaniam and was super-rich, sneering at the middle-class character played by Dhanush, who represented the majority, the “masses”. David needs a Goliath. The character of Dhanush needs an Arun Subramaniam to vanquish.”

The Tamil industry has a director like Pa. Ranjith, a Dalit who proudly displays his Ambedkarite ideology and makes blockbuster films like Kaala (2018) and Kabali (2016). Sairat’s director Manjule, also a Dalit, is a hugely successful filmmaker in the Marathi film industry.

In Bollywood, though, Dalits are still Kacchra, and Django is still chained.

So, while its upper-caste characters sing and dance for a ‘Ticket to Hollywood’, the Hindi film industry is in no mood to give Dalits a ticket to Bollywood anytime soon.

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