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Indian Cinema and Dalit Representation
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Somnath Waghmare

Indian society is a mere collection of various castes. The division of Indian society into countless castes has to be attributed to the Hindu Varna system, which undertook this project thousands of years ago & this caste system has managed to survive till date. The caste system denies basic human rights to a large section of its own society; the most important amongst these rights is the right to knowledge–education. Generally speaking, culture. art, education, cinema may seem like different fields, but they have a lot to do with each other.

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All thanks to the social movements undertaken by the likes of Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Periyar E. V Ramasamy, big sections of the Indian society who were historically kept away from knowledge/education- such as Dalits, Tribals, Women, Shudra-Ati Shudras, experienced empowerment through education & employment, via the medium of reservations or quotas. But while this historically marginalized sections experienced some empowerment & representation in the government sector where the quota system is in place, there exists no such system in the arts or cinema etc. In other words, these artistic spaces, such as the film industry, are still “untouched” by Dalit issues, narratives or stories. Indian cinema has either been unable to represent Dalit life & concerns on the big screen or has willingly chosen not to do so.

On the one hand, we have those with a background of continuous education across generations, the savarnas, and on the other hand, there is the systematic exclusion of Dalits from education. This has resulted in the de facto hegemony of cinema spaces by the savarnas. That has naturally led to Indian cinema being ‘casteist’ at its worst & ‘caste-blind’ at the least.

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Indian film industry has now completed 100 Years of existence, creating thousands of films. But in this 100 year old history, how many instances can you recount where the lead actor/ actress portrayed a Dalit character? It must be admitted that some movies, in the ‘parallel cinema movement’, which was largely inspired by the Left-Marxist thought, do portray Dalit characters as central figures in their films, on some occasions. But these Dalit characters are based on the ‘Harijan’ understanding of scheduled castes, coming from a Gandhian framework, instead of a ‘Dalit’ understanding, coming from a Phule-Ambedkarite perspective. An example of this kind of film is ‘Achhut Kanya’.

An overwhelming number of Indian films at their core portray urban and savarna sensibilities, which then leads to the glorification of Brahmanical culture & values. The same attempt is made in Marathi films: e.g. films of Umesh Kulkarni & Subodh Bhave. The upper class and upper caste Indian filmmakers have been unsuccessful in expanding their cinematic imagination beyond their own privileged social realities. That is one major reason why Indian cinema is not considered amongst the world’s best.

Sometime back, the popular English newspaper The Hindu had issued a report on ‘Hindi Cinema and Dalit Representation’. According to this report, in Bollywood, the so-called progressive, secular film industry, between the years 2013 to 2015, 300 films were made, but only 5 of them had Dalit Heroes or Heroines. Another report published by Birmingham City University, United Kingdom, raised important questions regarding the representation of backward classes in the Indian film industry by pointing out that the share of Dalit & Bahujan (SC, ST, OBC) population in India is 85% but their representation in films is only 0.1%.

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On the whole, Indian film industry is largely in the hands of big city upper caste, upper class elites. But having said that, today, there are certain filmmakers who not only portray Dalit character prominently in their films, but also portray Dalit concerns through the Phule-Ambedkarite-Periyarite ideological perspective, and not through the Gandhian Harijan lenses. Three most prominent filmmakers on this list would have to be Nagraj Manjule of the Marathi film industry, Pa Ranjith of the Tamil film industry & Neeraj Ghaywan of Hindi film industry (Bollywood). These three have almost single-handedly created a space for the articulation of Dalit concerns in India’s elite dominated film industry.

Cinema is a very important tool when it comes to building, shaping & reinforcing public opinion & perception. In India, cinema & media have been used until now to perpetuate Brahmanical culture, values. However, all the signs point towards the fact that in the time to come, Dalit-Bahujan cinema will reign in the Indian film industry. And then we can certainly hope that Indian cinema shall reflect the concerns, ideas, aspirations & lived realities of a much wider spectrum of Indian society, will receive greater appreciation & recognition from those who set the benchmarks of global cinema.

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 Somnath Waghmare is a Documentary Filmmaker and Research Scholar at TISS Mumbai.

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