“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent and that is power. Because they control the minds of the masses”.
– Malcolm X
This is especially true in the use of films by the ruling establishment of India. This is a uniform fact throughout the world. From Nazi propaganda films like ‘Triumph of the Will’, ‘Kolberg’, ‘I accuse’, ‘Der Herrscher’ (The Master) to Soviet propaganda films like ‘Earth’, ‘Mission to Moscow’ and American propaganda films like ‘Birth of the nation’, the mutually beneficial relationship between the political establishment of the state and the film industry can be clearly observed.
From its very inception, the Indian film industry has always responded to the call of the contemporary political establishment: be it the national freedom struggle, Gandhian movement of addressing the issue of caste untouchability, promoting the Nehruvian socialist ideas, promoting the Congressi policy ideas of Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, the cooperative movement, the program of Green Revolution etc., the political establishment and the film industry in India have always worked hand in glove with each other. The government’s formal institutional establishments like the Censor Board, the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) and its policy measures like national film awards, government film subsidies, tax exemptions, film festivals etc., have always ensured the political establishment’s influence over the film industry. The current upsurge of state sponsored propaganda films under the BJP regime is the next chapter in the political state –film industry nexus in India.
In the current political and social, cultural climate there is a rising number of government-supported films coming to the forefront. The recent addition to such state supported propaganda Hindi film is called ‘Hurdang’ which released 8th April 2022..
Set in the backdrop of the Mandal commission proposing 27% reservations for OBCs in government educational institutions and jobs, Hurdang is an excellent example of how the state is promoting its propaganda material among the Indian masses with the help of films. After a close examination of Hurdang, any sincere student of caste and the question of education in India can easily observe how the depiction of the students’ agitation against Mandal commission and OBC reservation in this film is such a politically loaded narrative hell bent on sidelining the actual issues of caste system, social justice and equal opportunity. Hurdang illustrates how the upper caste world view and their attempts to hijack the core issues of bahujan emancipation and rob the agency of bahujans to stand up for their rights against caste exploitation.
The male protagonist of the film ‘Daddu Thakur’, played by Sunny Kaushal, is a gun-toting, moustache twirling, typical upper caste hyper toxic masculine ‘Thakur boy’ from the Hindi heartland of Allahabad who is involved in small time student politics and runs a racket leaking examination papers. He naively thinks he can become an IAS officer through leaked papers from the linchpin of the racket, ‘Loha Singh’, played by Vijay Sharma. The female lead was played by Nushrratt Bharuccha, who portrays a young Yadav girl from a middle class background. Here, writer director of the film Nikhil Bhatt plays various narrative tricks to subtly brainwash the audiences to think how caste based reservation is so unfair and goes against the spirit of ‘education for all’ and ‘right to education’.
The whole argument of the film revolves around the premise that if individuals from all castes can be ‘economically backward’ then reservation should be on ‘economic basis’ and not on ‘caste basis’. This argument made through the film is wrong not only on social, cultural and historical lines but it also shows a deep rooted savarna bias. To consider a recent case, a Dalit youth from Rajasthan named ‘Jitendra Meghwal’ was brutally murdered by upper caste men just because he grew a ‘mustache’ which is considered a marker reserved only for Thakurs and Rajputs and not for Dalits and other Bahujans. That is also the reason why even today in many rural parts of the Hindi heartland, Dalit, Bahujan communities face stone pelting if they try to take out marriage processions in which grooms sit on horses carrying swords in theirs hands. Such social cultural markers— riding a horse, growing a mustache, and carrying weapons like swords—are considered a direct threat to upper caste power. It is also the reason why honour killings happen just because some individuals dare to love and choose their partners from other castes. All these types of caste exploitation and harassment have nothing to do with the ‘economic position’ of the caste oppressors and the victims. It depends exclusively upon the caste identity of the society. The film’s writer director Nikhil Bhat very shrewdly tries to sideline this fact and tries to settle the argument of reservation on ‘economic lines’. Here he forgets the fact that if atrocities are committed based upon caste, then ‘affirmative action’ in the form of reservation should also be based upon the caste identity and not economic lines.
The filmmaker also very shrewdly sidelines the fact that 27% caste reservation for OBC community is not ‘blanket reservation’ given to the OBC castes. In fact, the rule of ‘creamy-layer’ and ‘non-creamy layer’ was introduced to exclude economically well off individuals among backward castes from the quota. If this is the truth, then it becomes very clear that maligning the Mandal commission and OBC caste reservation is typical upper caste propaganda to confuse the common masses about the philosophy of caste based reservations and idea of the social justice. The filmmaker also forgets the fact that caste based reservation is a program of the ‘social justice’ and about representation of ‘socially and educationally’ backward castes and not an economic program like the ‘Garibi Hatao’ yojana . The 27% OBC reservation in places of educational institutions and jobs through Mandal commission is an important instrument for ensuring the right to education for those socially educationally backward OBCs communities who are being excluded till now due to social disabilities imposed on them by the caste system . Today approximately 31.5% students of SCs and STs are dropping out from the IITs and IIMs. As far as the representation of OBCs is concerned, the less said the better. Not just the number of OBC students, the OBC faculty strength is abysmal too. Only 9 OBC professors are teaching in central universities across India against 313 quota posts. The position of OBCs in central universities is clearly illustrated by one example: OBC students are even today struggling to get the National Law Universities (NLUs) to acknowledge their rightful claim on 27% of seats in those institutions, nearly 15 years after Mandal 2!
So, the filmmaker’s attempt to put forward the argument that caste-based reservation should be replaced by the economic reservation under the excuse of ‘education for all’ is a classic example of savarna anti reservation propaganda which comes from a biased understanding of the Indian social and caste reality.
One must understand that the central problem of the Indian film industry is the social, cultural, economic capital— or overwhelmingly brahminical caste capital— on which it is built and which in turns fuels its brahminical aesthetics. The filmmaker also tries to create confusion among the OBCs about caste-based reservations by making them feel guilty of benefiting from them. This can be seen in the scene where the Yadav character Jhulan argues with her father about why middle class OBCs should need caste-based reservations. Here the filmmaker does not seem to be aware of the fact that economically well off OBC are excluded from the ambit of the quota. Then why did he make the OBC female character spout such lines? The reason seems to be simple. He wants to create a certain guilt consciousness in the hearts and minds of OBCs. The film also wrongly tries to put forward the idea that through OBC reservations, 50% of educational places will directly go out of the reach of upper caste students and hence it is a great injustice towards the upper caste students. This is another wrong argument from the writer director of the film.
In the aftermath of the Mandal commission agitation, the Supreme Court set the 50% upper limit to reservations for the OBC, SC, ST students who constitute approximately more than 80% population of the nation. That means remaining 50% seats are open for the upper caste students who comprise around 15 % of the population. In addition, after 103rd constitutional amendment, now even ‘economically weaker sections’ (EWS) from the upper castes can benefit from 10% reservation in educational institutions. By understanding this, one can easily say that the fear of upper caste students who think that their 50 % seats are ‘wrongfully’ taken by Bahujan students is a flawed argument based upon a shallow understanding of how distribution of seats works in the caste-based system. However, the propaganda film Hurdang seems to increase this unfounded ‘Bahujan phobia’ of upper caste students through such wrong arguments.
The real upper caste gaze and shrewd propaganda of the filmmaker becomes very much clear when he tries to portray that savarna students’ agitation against the Mandal commission and OBC reservation as the only legitimate and valid, ethical movement, whereas the agitation supporting the Mandal commission and OBC reservation is ‘immoral’. The scene in the film where he intentionally maligns the position of the OBC Bahujan students’ agitation supporting the Mandal commission. It shows the how OBC student leader misbehaves with an upper caste girl student leading to public beating of that OBC student. Here no one can support the ill treatment of any woman of any caste. But simplifying and stigmatizing the OBC students and students’ agitation supporting Mandal commission and OBC reservation by showing them as ‘harassers of upper caste women’ is a classic brahminical blame shifting propaganda tactic.
Hurdang also does not expose the true nature of the anti Mandal agitation of the 1990s and tries to create sympathy for the upper caste student movement. The main bone of contention was that it gave ‘political agency’ to more than 50% of the marginalized sections of society which by itself was revolutionary. That is the reason the BJP started the ‘Ram Janmabhumi/Kamandal Andolan’. However, Hurdang hardly scratches the surface of this political reality.
When the male protagonist feels cheated and used by the political brokers, he resorts to age old rants of ‘how it is all dirty politics’. With this argument, film tries to sideline the political mobilization and ethical agency of OBC masses. This kind of argument comes from a savarna worldview where Bahujan empowerment is ridiculed as ‘dirty political tricks’. This is the same argument which thinks that recognizing the caste system and uneven caste privilege and caste atrocities will break India and create possible partition of Indian society. This is the same brahminical upper caste unfounded fear as that of Congress leaders like Gandhi who tried to oppose separate electorate for the Dalits demanded by Dr. Br. R. Ambedkar at the time of the ‘Poona Pact’.
Hypocritically, it is the same film which at its end shows the OBC female protagonist supporting the savarna students leader’s (Daddu’s) so called ‘ethical fight’ for the right to education for ‘all students’. Here, the filmmaker makes the mistake of showing the agitation of savarna students against the Mandal commission as the agitation of ‘all students’. Same way, hypocritically, the film shows the historical fact of Maharashtra state making female education free. Here, writer director Nikhil Bhat comfortably sidelines the fact that it is in the same Maharashtra that Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Shahuji Maharaj and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar had developed strong support for caste-based reservations. The director-writer Nikhil Bhat also intentionally sidelines the fact that it was Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj of the princely state of Kolhapur who had first introduced flat 50% caste-based reservation in educational institutions and government jobs for the Dalit Bahujans in 1902. However, Nikhil Bhat shrewdly remains silent on this historical fact.
One also has to understand the release of this film in the background of the recent victory of BJP in the Uttar Pradesh state elections. It is because of the social engineering that BJP managed to achieve in Uttar Pradesh through mobilizing the Hindi speaking OBCs under the Hindutva political, cultural social fold. To achieve such social political mobilization and to maintain power in UP, BJP needs to keep OBCs engaged with Hindutva and that can only be achieved when it destroys the independent social, poltical, cultural, historical consciousness and identity of the OBCs as Bahujans. This can be achieved by destroying legitimacy of the caste-based reservation for OBCS. One crucial reason why these films could be released in the year 2022 in the backdrop of Hindi belt student agitation against OBC reservation is that 2022 is the year of the ‘national population census’ and and the demand for an all India caste census is growing in every state, especially in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh , Bihar , Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. To sideline the demand for the caste census, the propaganda proposing income-based reservation instead of caste-based reservation is being produced.
Silence of the savarna liberal, intellectuals and film critics over ‘Hurdang’
When ‘Kashmir files’ came out, various savarna intellectuals from the secular, progressive, liberal, Congressi, Gandhian, socialist, communist schools of thought came forward to condemn and criticize the propagandist nature of Kashmir files. Most of these savarna liberal, intellectuals analyzed the film as spawning hatred towards religious minorities and creating the Hindu Muslim divide in current political times. However, one can see the same secular, liberal intellectuals and film critics are not openly criticizing the Hurdang as a propaganda film. It is because most of such secular, liberal intellectuals consider the ‘communal question of India’ under the lens of the ‘Hindu-Muslim binary’ but rarely realise the ‘caste question’ inherent in this Hindu-Muslim binary. The savarna secular, liberal, intellectuals seldom oppose the brahminical, casteist nature of communal propaganda. Hence, it is important that the upper caste secular, liberal intellectuals should come out of their myopic understanding of the communal question through the ‘Hindu Muslim binary’ and actually tackle the real fountainhead of this issue as stemming from brahminical social, cultural, political, economic hegemony.
The Way forward
One has to understand that filmmaking is an act of ‘content creation’ which ultimately is and will be a deeply political process with stakes in the social, cultural, political and economic relations in society. In India, mainstream culture and aesthetics of filmmaking, of Hindi films in particular, are a byproduct of brahminical savarna sensibilities and aesthetics. Its narrative power and point of view is derived from upper caste social experiences and worldview. The caste economy of the film industry flourishes on using the viewership and patronage of the Bahujan masses as ‘voiceless passive audiences’, where the narrative builders, story tellers, lead performers and profit makers are invariable savarna caste groups within the film industry . Even the division of labour in the production of any film, TV, theatre drama is along the lines of caste system, where manual, physical, unorganized, low paying and hazardous jobs are mostly done by Bahujan labourers whereas the the upper castes dominate the profit making professions like film production, film direction , main actors, camera work. Editing, music production, animation, VFX, film distribution are overwhelmingly in the hands of upper castes. This caste inequality must change if we want to have more egalitarian content in the film and entertainment industry. For this reason, I propose a few points to consider:
- It is high time that every language film industry, including the Hindi film industry, form its independent Bahujan actors’, artists’ and film employees’ unions. Such unions should have strong commitment to the Bahujan social, political, cultural emancipatory ideas and should hold their respective film industry accountable for social justice and representation of Bahujan artists in decision-making places in the film production processes.
- On the lines of examples set by African-American actors, national level Bahujan screen actors and artists’ guild must be formed to ensure rightful representation of the Bahujan artists in the film industry. Social diversity and equality of opportunity should be ensured not only based on gender but also caste.
- Universities like TISS , Delhi university, JNU must come up with yearly ‘annual media diversity index’ of Indian and regional TV, Film, social media platforms, social media influencers, OTT platforms which will create strong data sets about the inequality of representation of individuals from various castes, gender, ethnicity, languages, regions and religions in the crucial media and cultural platforms.
- Nurturing and development of institutions as ‘incubation labs’ for Bahujan writers, cameramen, editors, film distributors, film producers, film critics, film journalists in Bahujan social, cultural, historical , political perspectives is an important step. Film appreciation courses will also help Bahujan audiences. This will ultimately empower Bahujan viewership transforming them from voiceless passive consumers of savarna culture to more assertive and confident voices.
All in all, one must understand that when we say art is an ‘individual expression’ then it is an inherently ‘political expression’ because every personal expression is political expression in its nutshell, articulating the political awareness and understanding of the reality by that person. Culture is the ‘live wire’ and the ultimate arena where larger social, political, cultural, economic ideas are created, destroyed and subjugated. Bahujans, and especially OBCs, cannot afford to turn a blind eye to it. Only widespread dissemination of the truth can defeat propaganda which is derived from vested interests. Gautam Buddha was right when he said –‘Win over lies by speaking the truth’.
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Anand Kshirsagar has completed M.Sc in Microbiology from Fergusson College, Pune and M.A . in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He has also done PGDHRL from National Law School of India University , Bengaluru. He regularly writes about the issues of OBC communities and the caste census.