If we look at the history of more than 100 years of Indian cinema, we will find that Caste has been blatantly sidelined from it. Kancha Ilaiah had staid that mainstream history of India, is a history of the upper castes and there is no space for Dalits and Bahujans in it. We can easily apply this statement to Indian cinema. There is no depiction of Dalit Bahujan life in cinema. If it is there, then it is highly problematic and is seen through the eyes of upper caste directors and film makers who never face or saw any caste discrimination, atrocity in their lives and have no anti-caste consciousness at all. From the beginning of cinema itself, Dalit discourse has been neglected. And those films, whose subject was caste and caste discrimination, were made from an anti Dalit Bahujan perspective.
For example: Khuda Ki Shaan (1930, R.S.Choudhury), Achhut Kanya (1936, Franz Osten), Achhut (1940, Chandulal Shah), Sujata (1959, Vimal Roy), Sadgati (1981, Satyajit Ray), Diksha (1991, Arun Kaul), Samar (1999, Shyam Benegal) etc. In all the abovementioned films, the question of caste is there but it is important to know who is handling it and in what way? Caste atrocity, discrimination might be the central theme of the abovementioned films but they are not waging a struggle against the caste exploitation. Instead, the film makers remain neutral or consolidate caste structure by showing sympathy to the lower castes through Gandhi’s lens of the village republic. This has happened because film makers were ideologically blind to caste realities or belonged to the ideological camp which serves interest in preserving caste institutions and deriving benefits out of it.
If we do historical analysis of Indian cinema between periods of 1920’s to 1950’s, we can derive that there were two kind of ideological depictions in the films of that time. One was very religious, about hindu gods and goddess, even the nationalistic narratives were shown through gods and goddesses. There is another kind of depiction that is grounded on Gandhian ideas.
In this period, there were three main discourses looming in the country through the personality images of 1) Savarkar, Golwalkar then 2) Gandhi and then 3) Ambedkar. On the film screen, the first two discourses find place but the discourse of Ambedkar is missing from it. It took nearly 80 years for Indian cinema to depict a film character that is studying in the university, influenced by Dalit literature and Ambedkar’s thought, saying Jai Bhim on the screen for the first time; and fighting against caste atrocities through Marathi film Mukta directed by Jabbar Patel.
It took nearly 100 years to see brutal caste humilaition on the screen through the film Fandry made by Nagaraj Majule. Now, steadily, films depicting caste realities on the screen are increasing in numbers. However, just depicting caste realities on the screen is not an aim of the Dalit Bahujan or Ambedkarite discourse, though these realities were sidelined in films for a century. It aims at drastic change in the social power structure though cinematic expression. Otherwise, caste will be a commodity to sell in the neo-liberal market economy, which will make the discourse of annihilation of caste hopeless again. Sairat is a good example to illustrate this.
Truly, this much background was needed to talk about the recently released film Kaala, made by Pa Ranjith. Kaala is the aging protagonist in the film who has migrated from Tamil Nadu to the Dharavi area of Mumbai in the 1970’s. Kaala is revered the ‘rowdy’ leader of Dharavi. We can easily indentify his personality as Ambedkarite through his language, attitude, behaviour and symbolic frames — statues of Buddha, Ambedkar, Periyar, and the revolutionary Lenin abound his house instead of pictures of Hindu gods; also, books which are subversive or against the dominant narrative of hindu epics. As a viewer, we could see that protagonist Kaala is using the Buddha Vihar as a place to discuss social issues along with his people. He is outspoken about the rights of the poor living in Dharavi. Even his wife Selvi thinks the same. She supports every every social act of his and knows that her husband will always stand for the justice and equality. She even calls him as Kaala Chita (Black Panther) resonating the Dalit Pather of 1970’s in Maharashtra which in turn wa inspired by the Black Panther movement in America. Selvi’s perception of Kaala as an ideal Ambedkarite husband is reflected in the Marathi song “Asa mala Jai Bhimwala navara pahije” (I seek a Jai Bhimwala Husband) by Sushma Devi.
Here are the few translated lines of the song:
Person who stands against injustice
Who works for the justice and nation
Who breaks the doors of oppression
Oh mother I want such Jaibhimwala as my husband.
Person who fights for equality,
Who carries the chariot of Ambedkar ahead
Who take revenge of injustice in the battlefield,
Who wins in the battlefield against enemy
Doing all this, who accomplishes my dreams
I want that JaiBhimwala only as my husband…
Looking at images of Selvi and Kaala in the film, we see that utopia created by the above-mentioned song can be visualised congruently in Kaala, scene by scene. Though the canvas of the film is set in Dharavi, and its politics revolves around Dharavi, it is not right to see film and its politics as limited to Dharavi. The film successfully engulfs territory and politics of Dharavi, then Mumbai, then Maharashtra and then the whole of India. Description of the evil character in the film Haridada Abhyankar, comes as a person who used to be a small thug in 1970’s; and then with the ruling party’s support in the time of emergency, he created riots in the city and increased his political image.
Haridada does not contest in the election but his party does. He is always talking about Mumbai city being in his palm in the past, present and future. There is a line in a scene where he is struggling to pronounce the city’s name and pronounces the three names at once: Bombay, Bombai and Mumbai, showcasing language politics as just a tool to seek power. Otherwise he would not have gone through the slip of tongue.
This image of Haridada and his politics in the film matches the real politician Bal Thackeray. ‘Born to rule’, a phrase Haridada utters repeatedly, exposes the Thackeray family of three generations, which never takes part in the election process, but holds political power in its hands, pointing out the feudal tendencies of mediaeval times. In the 1960’s, Bal Thackeray initiated politics of the son of the soil and pitted Marathi people against Tamilians by sloganeering “Lungi hatao, pungi bajao”. When the minister and Kaala sit a table, Kaala refuses to compromise. The minister says that ‘I will not tolerate you coming from outside and ruling Mumbai’, showcasing the regional chauvinism of the Shiv Sena.
A friend of mine, who is a Police Sub Inspector in Dharavi, was explaining the geopolitics of the area while watching the movie in the theatre. He said that Matosree, the residence of the Thackeray family is in Kalanagar, Bandra. From there, Dharavi falls in the line of vision. But Uddhav Thackaray, holding power today, keeps mum when it comes to Dharavi. When Haridada’s contestant loses election from Dharavi, he says, ‘Gandhagi ne muze hara diya’ (impurity defeated me). In this scene, Haridada is looking outside the balcony towards Dharavi at night and Dharavi seems to not care who stares at her. The wise need no explanation further on why Haridada wants to encroach upon Dharavi.
Haridada’s image is synonymous with the god Ram in the film; this also reflects upon Bal Thackery and his party Shiv Sena. In 1988, it demanded a ban on Babasaheb Ambedkars book “Riddles of Hinduism”, and more specifically “Riddles of Ram and Krishna”, stating it is an insult to hindu sentiments. Nevertheless, it got strong rebuttal from the Republican Ambedkarites under the leadership of Prakash Ambedkar who forced Maharashtra government to publish the book. His image can be seen in Kaala for this and many other reasons.
Haridada in the film is not just a cinematic expression of only Bal Thackeray, but it also showcases the personality and the ideological traits of Narendra Modi and Mohan Bhagwat too. Their political consciousness is based on the ideology of caste, ideology of superiority, ideology of RSS. When Haridada says, ‘I want to make this country clean and pure’, it actually denotes Modi’s superficial Clean India campaign, imposing it on the people without understanding the concerns of the majority, and neglecting caste exploitation of scavenging workers. The politician who won the general election of 2014 on the issue of development and branding himself as a patriot, his political enemies as anti-national, spends prodigious money on advertising for his election campaigns.
The reflection of this constructed larger than life image can be seen in the film, in which huge banners of Haridada occupy Dharavi’s space, encroaching on the minds of the people. The song Nikkal Nikkal tells Haridada, ‘you are snatching our land in the name of development, you are eating poor’ people’s money and increasing your own bank balance, now you get out from here’. This refers to all the doings of the BJP government: the road construction drive, such as Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, Maharashtra Samruddhi Mahamarg, many Make in India initiatives in foreign companies, mining activities in tribal pockets of central and east India where land is snatched from the landholders by the government, dilution of land acquisition act in the name of development projects which benefit the industrial lobby and not the locals.
Haridada doesn’t drink water in Kaala’s home, showcasing his sense of superiority. When he tries to break the unity of the people of Dharavi, instigating religious riots by throwing pork or beef or meat in religios places, we remember the real life modus operandi of RSS activists to divide society by instigating communal violence and derive political benefit out of it. There are news archives on internet of the last 4 years, which show how RSS activists throw beef in temples and blame Muslims for the act and resort to communal violence. This Brahmin tactics to sustain dominance over the people by dividing is seen in Haridada’s character, resonates with the RSS ideology and tactics.
The police machinery’s affiliation to the ruling party portrays how they have forgotten that their power is derived through the constitution, making them puppets in the hands of authoritarian leadership like Haridada, and serve the interests of Savarna, suppressing the Avarnas. When constable Shivajirao Gaikwad is shot dead by the police machinery it reveals this police-politician nexus. tries to kill Kaala, reminds us of Bhima Koregaon one sided attack by fringe hindu organisation on innocent Ambedkarites gathered to pay homage to Vijayastambh. Role of police machinery by not arresting culprits but branding Dalits as naxalites and giving free hands to hindu fringe elements to perpetuate violence over Dalit bodies and targeting Prakash Ambedkar by any means who is real life ‘Kaala’ standing tall against ruling trio of BJP-Shivsena-RSS in maharashtra’s politics can be reflect in the film.
One may feel that we have spent so much time decoding Haridada Abhyankar but less on Kaala. That’s true but one needs to understand that those who seek equality should identify those who create inequality. Those who seek liberty, which is the essence of human development, should identify those who don’t like to be questioned, who don’t like democratic dissent. Those who seek a just society need to identify those who perpetuate injustice. Those who seek fraternity in society need to identify those who throw pork and beef in the Masjid, temple and divide people. Those who seek annihilation of caste should identify those who look down upon other human beings and uphold superiority.
Those who seek women’s emancipation should identify those who show male chauvinism in their personal and political behaviour and try to compartmentalize women. Those who seek dignity of individuals should identify those who humiliate human beings on the basis of atrocious spiritual texts. Those who seek material well-being of the people should identify those few who accumulate prodigious wealth depriving the majority, leaving them in ruins and displacement. This is a crucial time to identify and understand our enemy to wage the war, not to defeat but to win against it.
The cinematic construction of Pa Ranjith, ‘Kaala’, does the same and fetches victory for Ravana against Ram by subverting the hindu epic Ramayana. Hence it is very important for those who belong to the discourse of annihilation of caste to sense and feel Kaala rather than decode it. Pa Ranjith has brilliantly constructed the image of Ambedkarite leadership through his protagonist Kaala, bringing in symbols of Asura descendancy, Bhim chawl, Bhimnagar locality, Buddha Vihar etc against the immoral forces, Ram and Krisna. Kaala wins, dedfinitely, but Pa Ranjith must be expecting such win in real life politics in the country. I also strongly wish that such real life Kaalas should come out from Bhimnagar, and unlike Kaala they should shine in the parliament. Let me tell you this Kaala’s gender neutral definitely. If you have not yet watched the film, go and watch it first! I would not decode further on how Kaala is an Ambedkarite.
After so much of write-up, Pa Ranjith deserves words of praise. There are very few directors in this decade who portray caste realities in their films. Rest of the history of Indian cinema is all about caste blindness. One name among few such directors is Nagraj Manjule. After the release of Kaala, many people started comparing Pa Ranjith with Nagaraj Manjule. To me there cannot be a comparison, but there are differences. As I said earlier, merely portraying caste realities on the screen contributes nothing to the discourse. But, we were very much euphoric seeing caste realities on the screen through Fandry and Sairat and forgot to critique them. Can there be rebellion against caste when negating anti caste heros?
In both the films, the director has used anti-caste imageries as a sub text. In Fandry you will find images of Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule, Jotibha Phule, Shivaji Maharaj, Gadge Maharaj, poem of Chokhamela. Their images in the films, give us a feeling that they are present in the film itself. In front of them, Jabya is getting humiliated; in front of them, his family is carrying pigs which is considered as inhuman, untouchable work to do. In the school, the teacher is preaching the poem of an untouchable saint who happened to be stirrer of anti-caste consciousness in Bhakti movement of the mediaeval era, Chokhamela. The poet says the worth of a human being does not depend on external appearances but it depends on her/his qualities. The teacher is continuing the poem and Jabya is getting humiliated for looking at Shalu by an upper caste boy in the class.
In Sairat as well, a professor is teaching English poetry. He refers to radical Dalit poets like Namdeo Dhasal. He recites the poem of Keshavsut (V. V. Shirvadkar). On the blackboard we can see the text written as ‘African American poet, social inequality, black white together’ etc. He talks about revolutionary traditions in literature and gets a tight slap from ‘Prince’, son of the Patil. The film maker has shown ‘Anti-caste symbols’ as sub text and ‘caste operation’ as text. Both Sub-text and text are contradictory to each other and text overrules the sub text showcasing anti caste struggle is failure.
Brutal caste is superimposed over the powerful sources of resistance. Hence all people and ideas like Ambedkar, Savitribai, Jotiba Phule, Gadge Maharaj, Shivaji Maharaj, Chokhamela, Afro American Poetry, modern Dalit revolutionary poets are failures. And what persists is the victory of caste. What does this convey? Superimposition of caste on the screen gives rigidity to caste, leaving hopelessness over annihilation of caste. Ambedkarites who quest for annihilation of caste, must look into ambiguity of a film before supporting it blindly. They should keep in mind that ‘one stone thrown’ by an individual cannot alter anythingby subsuming the potentialities of alternatives. Potentialities of alternatives are nothing but what has shown as sub-text of the film.
Now Looking at Pa Ranjith’s films, Kabali and Kaala, what can we observe? Though Kabali is a mundane film, it gives heroship to the protagonist whose presence on the screen remains throughout the film with sub-text such as Kabali reading a book, ‘My Father Baliah’, the Dalit family biography by Y. B. Satyanarayana, pictures of Ambedkar, in the institution where he visits for lecture, his explanation on why he wears suits, pointing to Ambedkar’s stand. Here, the sub-text is not in conflict with the protagonist Kabali, rather it explains his personality.
In the film Kaala, sub-text or symbols used in it are the ideological power centres for the protagonist Kaala to act in a particular manner. Sub-text such as pictures of Ambedkar, Periyar, Lenin, statues of Buddha, Buddha Vihar, Hip Hop rappers, blue flags, books on the table etc. showcase the protagonist, along with other social realities. If we wiped out this sub-text for a minute, then what does Kaala mean to viewers; nothing but a routine Kollywood hero. All these symbols are not stagnant, they are very much active and director Pa Ranjith has shown them winning through the protagonist in the film, unlike Nagaraj Manjule. This shows Pa Ranjith’s ideological commitment to the discourse of annihilation of caste in the art craft, unlike Nagaraj Manjule.
Outside the art craft if both need to judged, then I would refer to an interview of Nagaraj Manjule taken by journalist Nikhil Wagle ahead of the release of Sairat. He was criticizing the Dalit movement for being too rigid and narrow on ideological grounds. Further, he says, ‘if my idol is Ambedkar, why cannot it be Savarkar? Sometimes our movement completely brands Saint Ramdas as casteist. Why can’t we take a little good from Ramdas, omitting the bad?’ He stated that he doesn’t like to be part of any movement (the interview on YouTube is here).
From this we may arrive at the conclusion that though Nagaraj has Dalit consciousness, it seems to be a cocktail of ideologies, hence problematic. He is not willing to stand for the movement as well as the discourse. Otherwise, he would not have been part of Jalyukta Shivar Abhiyan, a state sponsored programme where villagers asked to work voluntarily without any pay to construct water reservoirs. On the other side, the government is providing free water to the industrial class from the river basin. Has anybody seen or heard Pa Ranjith saying ‘why Savarkar cannot be my ideal?’ Instead, Pa Ranjith stands firm on the grounds of Ambedkarite discourse, on the side of oppressed, to represent their lives and struggle on the screen. He is standing lonely and shining bright!
To sum up, I would sincerely thank Pa Ranjith for constructing an image of Ambedkarite leadership for the first time ever in the history of Indian cinema. It will be the success of Pa Ranjith if his cinematic construct inspires many Ambedkarites and is reflected in real politics. And the corollary is, it will be the failure of Pa Ranjith, if this film helps Rajinikanth to benefit from it in his political career.
Last note: while writing this article, a friend called me. I did not pick up the call. Later he texted me saying, “I miss you so much while watching Kaala in theatre. I could see you in Kaala.” I text him back, “OK. Thanks, but I am not Jignesh Mevani”
Mahipal Mahamatta, from Maharashtra, has completed his Masters in Media and Cultural Studies, TISS Mumbai. He had done textual analysis of the films ‘Fandry’ and ‘Sairat’ as Part of his MA Thesis.
Picture courtesy: the internet.