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On Ava DuVernay’s ‘Origin’

Chanchal Kumar

Origin the film released in India some time back. After watching the much anticipated movie (twice) here are some of my haphazard jottings and observations.


To begin with, I’m sure Origin will renew discussions amongst movie-goers and audiences around the theme of caste and how it connects the dots of oppression around the world. It is not an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste”, it is rather a cinematic depiction of the author’s journey around how she came to pen the work. Nonetheless, it derives from many of the ideas espoused within the latter. I want to declare here that I did not complete reading the book cover to cover, but I did go through the reviews of the same, which were favorable. This essay concerns itself with the movie, not the book.


Origin endeavors to hold within its palm the intricacies in the lives of people living in places across the world, far from each other. It begins with the search to locate the ailment of diverse populations, from those residing in the US, Europe, India, the African continent. It could not have been more timely because we know times are as dire as they can be. The revealed central point of discontent is, unsurprisingly, caste. What is heartening to see here is the credit bestowed upon Dr. Ambedkar. One of his earliest works, “The genesis, mechanism and development of caste” is quoted to explain how marital and romantic relations among individuals of two warring Castes have been prevented by those in dominant positions to maintain their hegemony. It is made clear, therefore that what they stand against is love, as Suraj Yengde, appearing as himself, expresses succinctly in the brief screen time he has, but in which, his erudition shines.


We, as people living in distant corners of the world might not be aware of what urgently stings the other. For instance, in my case, I wasn’t aware of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent movement (apart from mentions in Kendrick Lamar’s music). It is important to note that the opening scene follows Travyon Martin’s unfortunate death, leading to Wilkerson’s forage into the reasons behind race relations and the questions of caste. Later in the movie, Dhrubo Jyoti’s account of Rohith’s institutional murder brings the chase full circle to the observant viewer. What I’m trying to get at, is that young people losing their lives in both these cultures, as well as in other parts of the world and the quest to stop such deaths can be said to be the vision of Isabel Wilkerson and Ava DuVernay’s work.


Towards the latter half of Origin, there’s a graphic description of manual scavenging. The cinematography then leads to a reenactment of scenes from the Middle Passage and the torment of African Americans. It then, breaks into visuals from Nazi Germany where a Jewish mother, trying to get back to her son, is shot dead publicly by an SS officer. What is clear is how the director wants the audience to feel the pain of these distinct groups of people, who are broken by one and one cause only: the fictional hierarchical grouping of people into sects of inferiority and superiority. We have all suffered, is the message, and the way ahead is not to measure whose suffering is the greatest, but to acknowledge that as human beings, we are branches of the same tree.


When Isabel’s character gropes to find the primary cause of the conflict, some of the people she meets, dissuade her. They say there can’t be one root cause of all these incidents of hate. But she is insistent in her search. Through conversations with dear ones in her family as well as with friends, who encourage her to seek out and articulate her findings in a book, she travels to India, and this is where she realizes that her intuition was correct. It isn’t just race and racism at work behind the scenes but something far more sinister. She comes across Allison Davis’s monumental work Deep South, discovers Dr Ambedkar; in her research she understands how American segregation policies and Jim Crow laws were the inspiration behind anti-Jewish laws during the time of Hitler in Germany. In a sense, as love connects all, so does its antagonist: Hate. Those who want to divide also feed on the hate of others to produce even more hatred. This is another insight revealed to us. How strange then it is to confront the fact that it is through love that we can begin to mend historical wrongs, and it is love which binds us all together.

To conclude, Ava DuVernay’s movie is a masterpiece and yet another effort to strengthen movements of Social Justice around the world. Origin should be compulsory viewing for everyone who holds that now is the time that people and nations unite to fight back the monster of hate, which is caste.


Chanchal Kumar is an award-winning poet and writer from Jharkhand and Delhi. He currently teaches at Vinoba Bhave University, Hazaribag in Jharkhand. 

Image courtesy: the internet.

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