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12th Fail Movie and Hidden Caste Privilege: Questions from a Dalit

Akhilesh Kumar

People are talking about the movie 12th Fail and its emotional scenes. As a Dalit, I felt the need to write and raise some critical points about the portrayal of the movie. Emotionally, this movie tried to connect with the audience. This movie depicts the struggle of a person to crack the UPSC examination. The main characters in this movie are Manoj Sharma, Pritam Pandey, Shraddha Joshi, and Gauri Bhaiya. Manoj Sharma was shown as a person who came from a poor family; his father was in a job but was later suspended. He moved to Delhi and struggled a lot to crack the IAS Exam. As he traveled to Delhi to become an IAS, his belongings and money were stolen. Then he got help from Pritam Pandey, who helped him travel to Delhi; in Delhi, he also got help from Gauri Bhaiya. It appears that he was getting help right away from everyone he met. With help, he was able to gain immediate admission to a coaching institution.

What is it? It is his caste privilege because he received help from everyone, with whomever he came into contact. If the character had been a Dalit, would he or she have received such kind of help instantly? I do not think so. It is hard for a Dalit to get the type of help that Manoj Sharma received in the movie. Does the movie’s main character face discrimination at school because of his caste? Did he drop out of school due to caste discrimination and humiliation? Is he beaten or humiliated due to his caste? Does Manoj’s father face humiliation because of his caste? Do Manoj’s father and grandfather put human excrement on their head? Is Manoj not allowed to mingle with others due to his caste?  Does he have to hide his father’s surname because of his caste? Does his mother get humiliated because of her caste? This was the caste privilege of the hero in the movie, who doesn’t go through all that a Dalit aspirant goes through. This is the caste privilege, which caste-privileged people haven’t acknowledged yet. This movie does not show the hidden privileges that he got because of his caste. In this movie, it is shown that Manoj gets a chance to give an interview twice; if he had been a Dalit, he would not have got the chance to face an interview twice. We can see the case of Tina Dabi, a topper, for whom even today, people use casteist slurs and question her merit only because she comes from the Dalit community. The so-called question of merit is always connected with a Dalit.

This movie looks like a glorification of a person who comes from a caste that is regarded as superior in society to show how hardworking he was. There are many Dalits who want to have a better career. Still, no one comes into their life and provides support like Manoj Sharma in the movie was getting because of a lack of money, a lack of resources, a lack of social capital, and obviously because of his caste. Many Dalits have to leave their studies and have been compelled to drop out of school because of a lack of resources. In this movie, it has also been shown that, while searching for coaching, Manoj found Shraddha Joshi; he gradually fell in love with her and proposed to her. Shraddha also accepted his proposal, and Shraddha told him that even if he did not become an IAS, she would love him. Shraddha was his support throughout his entire journey. Does this thing happen if a character is a Dalit? Probably no, because caste would have become the barrier.

Both Manoj and Shraddha came from a family that is regarded as superior in society. So it became easier for both of them to marry in a society where everything is decided by caste. If Manoj had been a Dalit, his love would not have been accepted, and it would not have resulted into marriage. One needs only to Google, and one will find what price a Dalit pays for loving a person whose caste is regarded as superior in society. You will find many cases where a Dalit gets killed, or the girl who loves a Dalit gets killed merely for loving. Love for a Dalit, or affection for a Dalit, is not accepted in society. They are prohibited from loving or being loved. Dalits bear the burden of caste like no one else. Love makes each other evolve into good human beings. Touch, the touch of love, the touch of affection, and the touch of acceptance—Dalits have been deprived of all of this because their touch becomes untouchable to others.

Whatever is shown in the movie 12th Fail may occur in the life of a person from a caste regarded as superior in society; in the life of a Dalit who is subjected to the worst of the caste atrocities, no one will come forward at random to help them.

The movie failed to acknowledge the benefits that privileged people enjoy. Being born into a caste that is considered superior in society is a privilege in itself. Because they do not have to face untouchability or discrimination, they do not have to hide their parent’s name from others, they do not have to live in fear as children that if others find out about their caste, they will beat you, refuse to talk to you, refuse to sit with you, teachers do not make fun of them and question their credibility in school, teachers do not laugh and make fun of them in front of the entire class because of their caste, and they do not have to face any of this. All of this is being experienced by Dalits. The struggles of a Dalit. The struggle of a Dalit starts the moment he is born. The struggles, sufferings, and pain of a Dalit have never been acknowledged by mainstream Bollywood movies or society; instead, struggles and sufferings of Dalits have become normalized in society. When atrocities are committed against Dalits, people react as if nothing unusual has happened.  This shows how the pain and suffering of Dalits have been normalized.

Upper caste people enjoy unseen privileges from birth, such as not being segregated or separated in society, and not living on the outskirts of the village. Do upper-caste people acknowledge the privilege they enjoy? Dalits have been deprived of the social capital that privileged caste people were born with. For thousands of years, people from privileged castes have had access to education. But Dalits had been deprived; it was only through Babasaheb’s Constitution that Dalits gained rights and fought for their place in a society where they are still beaten for minor offences, where they are still otherized in universities, and where they are often forced to take their lives.

Privileged castes also enjoy the benefit of no one questioning their so-called ‘merit’. They were always considered meritorious, but Dalits were labelled as ‘meritless’. Merit is a vague concept; how can there be so-called ‘merit’ when you were denied the right to compete, receive an education, and have been deprived of everything for so long? In the film, the hero’s father shows slippers to the officer when he is suspended; his brother shows slippers to MLA workers; and he himself shows slippers to library staff. This privilege of showing slippers is due to the caste into which the movie’s hero is born, which is considered superior in society. Can a Dalit ever do this? No; if he does, society will beat him brutally.

We have seen cases of caste atrocities in which Dalits were beaten when they raised their voices, from Khairlanji to Hathras. Recently in Gujarat, a woman allegedly forced a Dalit to hold footwear in his mouth, and in Tamil Nadu, 60 Dalits recently broke the pre-independence era discrimination and walked with slippers; one only needs to Google to see how many cases where Dalits are garlanded with slippers and beaten with slippers for raising their voices. This is the privilege with which Manoj is born, as depicted in the film, which allows him to show slippers to others.

Dalits are hit with slippers, garlanded with slippers, placed slippers on their heads and forced to apologize, and urinated on; does this happen to a caste that is considered superior in society? Beating others with slippers is also a caste privilege. Do people who were born into privileged castes question themselves? Power derived from unseen privilege can appear to be strength when, in fact, it is permission to dominate. Caste-privileged people must understand that the caste into which they are born provides them with advantages that Dalits are deprived of. We do not choose which home we will be born in, yet this is an unseen privilege that a person born into a caste that is regarded as superior in the society should acknowledge. It is critical that they reflect on their advantages and acknowledge the disparities faced by Dalits. Recognizing privilege is a crucial step towards creating a more equitable society. Dalits did nothing to deserve the unequal treatment that they receive. The onus is not on Dalits to establish a casteless society; rather, it is on the castes that have benefited from their caste privilege.


Akhilesh Kumar has completed his M.A. in Political Studies and International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is now a PhD Scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University (Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies), doing his research on Babasaheb Ambedkar and the question of marginalization.

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