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The profiling of Dalit characters in Hindi cinema over the years

By Puja Roy

Last year on 1 January, 2018 as the rest of India celebrated the arrival of the New year, clashes over the commemoration of a 200-year-old battle at Koregaon Bhima (revered by Dalits as low caste Mahars in the British regiment had defeated the upper caste Peshwas) was followed by a crippling bandh and violent protests in Mumbai and across Maharashtra.

In such times a song by an American rock band rings through the mind, “the more we move ahead the more we’re stuck in rewind”. No matter what progress we make economically or culturally, the vitals of our society still largely remain submerged in the widespread darkness of the ‘caste system’.

Over the years, through the works of various authors, poets and filmmakers, this organized evil of our society have found expression in our literature and cinema as well. Here, Indian cinema particularly is a case in point.

Films made around this trope, more often than not, have been serious attempts at showcasing society’s evils, its hideous ways of dealing with the low caste community and how oppression and torture were a daily occurrence in a Dalit’s life. These are not films that crashed box office records and made huge amounts of money; rather they constructed a ‘voice’ of their own, carving a niche whereby audiences got a slice of the dark, grim reality of our country, the squalor lying beneath the ‘culturally rich Incredible India’.

Profiling of Dalits in Hindi Cinema

The projection of caste system on celluloid happened as early as 1934.Two films that had touched upon the caste problems were Nitin Bose’s Chandidas (1934) and V. Shantaram’s Dharmatma (1935). However, it was in 1936, that Indian cinema got its first full-fledged story based on the social discriminations against Dalits or as they were cruelly called “achhut” (untouchable).

Achhut Kannya (1936) was the first Hindi film based on the delicate theme of untouchability. Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar portrayed the two leading characters in the film. The storyline goes like this: Caste prejudice and class barriers prevented marriage between Kasturi, a Dalit girl and Pratap, a Brahmin youth, both childhood friends deeply in love with each other. Soon, Kasturi was forced into a loveless alliance with a man from her own caste. A chance encounter at the village fair brought the two lovers together again. Kasturi’s husband, inflamed by jealousy and suspicion, attacked Pratap at the railway level crossing, where he was a gatekeeper. While the two men were engaged in a fierce fight unmindful of a fast approaching train, Kasturi, in an attempt to save them, got run over and died. The Dalit here is the one who had to give it all up, a clear projection of the society back then. A Bombay Talkies film, Achhut Kanya was largely a film made on the thirties youth. Pandit Nehru and sarojini Naidu appreciated its progressive theme as it was made at a time when the vexed issue of casteism was hardly taken as the main subject of a big banner film.

Moving on, Sujata (1959) was an iconic film made by the great Bimal Roy and till date remains a classic both at national and international retrospectives of Indian cinema. Based on a Bengali short story by the same name by writer Subodh Ghosh, the film explored the then caste scene in India. Sujata is the story of an orphaned Achhut (Untouchable) girl, raised by Brahmin parents who were unable to entirely accept her as their own daughter due to her “lowly” birth. Sujata (Nutan) always craved for their love and wanted to be identified as their daughter and not “like their daughter.” She grew up, scarcely educated by her family, partly neglected. Adhir (Sunil Dutt), a young Brahmin man, who was supposed to marry her foster sister, instead falls in love with Sujata, despite knowing about her caste, and after an initial opposition, they get married to each other. Considering the fact that inter-caste marriages were a total taboo and almost blasphemous in those times (they still are a major issue even today), the film dealt with quite a crucial social issue and was extremely progressive.

Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974) dealt with the trauma of a Dalit woman reflected by the character of Lakshmi, portrayed amazingly by Shabana Azmi. Lakshmi’s deaf and mute husband was caught by the zamindar’s men for stealing tadi (a kind of liquor). He was publicly humiliated and out of utter shame the same night he left his home without informing Lakshmi. Now, a poor untouchable lady, in need of someone who could give her stability, surrendered herself to Surya (zamindar’s son), who in turn promised to take care of her. It’s strange to learn that there was no actual fight for survival by Lakshmi; rather, she chose a very easy way to become someone’s mistress for survival. Her facial expression and body language never suggested that she was uncomfortable in the relationship, alluding to the very basic fact that the have-nots know that they need to give a part of themselves to get their basics. The film is also an interesting portrayal of human psyche and its complexities, where the zamindar’s son (Anant Nag) is a liberal, who defies the prevalent caste system and eats food cooked by his Dalit maidservant (very unlike others of his caste). But when he realizes that the same woman is carrying his own child he tries every means to evade her, to save his face from disrepute and social stigma. He isn’t ashamed of eating food from a Dalit woman or developing an intimate relationship with her; however, the shame of impregnating her is something that corrodes him within. He abandons her. Again, the Dalit here is the oppressed, the one who is exploited, used and then thrown away; however, in this case, not without guilt.

Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976) by Benegal also deal with the oppression by the high castes and provide a deeper insight into the ugliness of Indian caste system, particularly visible in the rural areas.

In Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980), Lahanya Bhiku, a low-caste, poor and illiterate tribal, gets accused of having murdered his wife Nagi. She was been gang-raped and murdered by the bigwigs of the village. Lahanya, shocked and seething with pain and anger, refuses to speak in court. While on death row, he is brought to perform the last rites of his dead father, his hands and feet shackled. As he circles the burning pyre, he lets out a final cry of anguish (Aakrosh) and slays his young sister in one shot, for fear of her befalling the same fate as his wife. Such narratives brought out the anarchic and wretched social conditions in which Dalits have been trapped for centuries.

For years, these characters were always projected as the marginalized, the ‘other’ who lived in different localities, ate different food and wore a certain type of clothing. They never went to school or work; they were never ‘one of us’. They always looked different or had some flaw, far from the normal imagination of a civilized person. They have been depicted as dark and timid (Damul, 1985), primitive and scantily dressed (Mrigaya, 1977), alcoholic (Ankur, 1974), and sometimes, even physically challenged (Lagaan, 2001). A happy, cheerful Dalit character doing normal things that others do has hardly been shown on screen.

Films post 2000

However, the political change in India and liberalization instilled confidence in filmmakers of the later years. With the changing times and improved socio-political status of Dalits, the stories too began to be told differently. Directors like Prakash Jha, a Brahmin himself, cast a mainstream hero, Saif Ali Khan, as a Dalit protagonist in his film Aarakshan (2011). Aarakshan remains a film that depicted a Dalit character for the first time as an educated, hardworking, self-respecting youth who is capable enough to respond to abuses hurled at him with equal fervour and confidence. But again the character is shown being ill-treated and is belittled by the high caste Vice Principal of the college (Manoj Bajpai) and the film then becomes a battle between the college principal (Amitabh Bachchan) and the corrupt Vice Principal, with the Dalit character (Khan) being reduced as a mere supplement to the main lead (Bachchan). Somewhere the voice of the Dalit is lost in the cacophony of a surcharged socio-political drama. Nonetheless, Hindi cinema saw its major shift in terms of the projection of a Dalit character in this film.

One cannot help but mention the phenomenally successful Marathi film Sairat (2016), which made significant commentaries on social prejudice and caste discriminations through its narrative.

Chauranga (2016) by Bikash Ranjan Mishra is another amazingly real portrayal of a 14-year-old Dalit boy who is killed by upper caste men because he has the ‘gumption’ to write a love letter to an upper caste girl he likes.

The changed face of the ‘Dalit’ on celluloid

It was only in Masaan (2015) that this voice that could never rise above the powers that be was finally heard. Masaan is an interesting film that explores, in a very sensitive way, the burden of a Dalit identity and the hope of the Dalit protagonist to escape the stigma that comes with this burden. Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) is a ‘Dom’ by caste and as per the conventional rule of practicing caste-based profession, his family burns dead bodies in Varanasi’s cremation ghat. However, Deepak, an engineering student, has aspirations for a brighter future with desires of crossing the rigid borders of a casteist society. He falls in love with Shaalu, an upper caste girl. When Deepak tells her about the work he and his family does, i.e. of burning corpses, Shaalu remains unperturbed and tells him that she will stand by him even if her parents oppose this match. Such a narrative showcases a changed social psyche not only of the Dalit characters but also of the people surrounding him. The shift here is a major one and showcases how the Dalit aspirations have changed over the years with ‘education’ as the major tool of social elevation. The age-old slavery of the upper caste has now been replaced by the hope of a ‘good job’ in big cities. The Dalit has now risen above the caste lines and is portrayed with dignity and confidence onscreen.

For centuries, our films have projected the upper caste cultural values and privileges. In dialogues like “aache ghar ki ladhkiya aisa nahi karti” (women from reputed households are not supposed to do this), we know who are the ones who are supposed to cross the lines. Dalit men and women have been far removed from the normal imagination of a protagonist.

However, Newton (2017) release took the entire narrative of the Dalit protagonist to a different level altogether. Directed by Amit Masurkar it offers a new look at the subject and depicts the Dalit as a casteless freeman who disrupts conventional norms and stereotypes. Indian cinema for the first time sees a new Dalit hero (Rajkummar Rao) whose identity is projected through the subtle use of certain symbolic gestures and social codes (a B.R. Ambedkar photo hangs on the wall, tangentially suggesting that it’s a Dalit household) and absolutely nothing more than that. His behavior with others and the way he is treated by others is normal, just like anyone else. A far cry from the oppressed and tortured treatment in the films of the earlier years!

“It now seems that Bollywood is finally ready to present a nuanced Dalit identity in its films,” wrote Harish Wankhede of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University on The Wire website. Unlike earlier films which depicted social discrimination and caste atrocities, Newton doesn’t discuss any such social realities and rather focuses on the protagonist’s role as a state official. There is no mention of the protagonists’ caste as has always been in movies prior to this. Irrespective of his caste identity, here is a man who performs his duty with righteous rigour. The story drives the message that caste should remain a meaningless category when the protagonist becomes an agent of change himself.

Whether mainstream or pure art house, the Dalit characterization has changed with times as has their own elevation in the society from being a poor weakling to an educated self-respecting person, from an oppressed to a real winner, from being a dark and pale looking man to being a fair (to denote the spectrum, if nothing else) and confident hero.

With directors like Masurkar, Bikash Mishra and Nagraj Manjule upping the ante, one can only hope for a better and more real projection of the Dalits rather than the archetypal one which has been served to the audiences all this while. The question is: will these directors continue to make such epoch making-movies that make solid statements on significant social issues? Or are these just one-off films? Well, hope they are not!

Puja Roy
studied Comparative Literature (Hons) from Jadavpur University and has a Diploma in Film Studies. She holds a Master’s degree in Advertising and Public Relations and is a writer by profession. An avid reader, Puja loves to research on history, cinema, art and culture.  Currently she is working on her debut book of short stories.


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3 Responses to “The profiling of Dalit characters in Hindi cinema over the years”

  1. anawadhboyspanorama

    Your analysis of this transformation is outlooks is a very well written one and expressive. I am happy to point out that I have seen many of these films and noted their realism and social embers. However, true change is still staring at a void.

  2. Sourav Sinha

    Movies, like other forms of expressions, are the reflections of the society we live in and indeed this analysis shows we have moved in our times (in these 85 years) from Chandidas to Newton. However, we still have a way to go. Well written!


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