Dalit portrayal in the Indian subcontinent has brought forth various arguments, debates and movements into the fray; the most famous and influential of these being the Dalit Panther Movement of the 1970s.

The Dalit Panther movement drew inspiration from the Black Panther movement in the USA, and promised a great change in not just Marathi literature and arts, but Indian literature and arts as well. This change indirectly affected the Indian cinema, a change which in order to be understood, must be related with the idea of the subaltern.

A subaltern identity can be thought of as an identity which does not relate to the hegemony and hierarchical colonial structures. As such, India has a subaltern identity, which is often represented in films. Films combine the political and social outlooks of their creators, and cannot, under any circumstances, be considered as a collection of images to satisfy the need for entertainment. They are not just artistic endeavours, but also a representation of the prevailing socio-political ideologies in the country. When it comes to Dalit portrayal in Indian cinema, however, very few examples can actually be exhibited; especially bearing in mind the past one hundred years of Indian cinema.

Bollywood’s content creators have never shied away from representing caste in their movies, whether they hinted at it or the representation was blatant on the screen. After India’s independence in 1947, the filmmakers decided to take a bold step and bring about a so-called modernist outlook into their films. The main theme of movies such as ‘Awara’, released in 1981, was that of rich versus poor. The wealthy and affluent were shown to be indifferent to the pains of the less fortunate, whereas the people stricken with poverty and hunger were depicted to have a heart of gold. Although many might not consider this as a strict portrayal of casteist behaviour, many of the poor personnel were shown to belong to a lower caste. Other films following this line of thought were ‘Ganga Jamuna’ (1961) and ‘Kala Bazar’ (1960).

The hate surrounding the representation of Dalits in the Indian government is evident when one considers the aftermath of the Rohith Vemula incident. A student and author, his suicide sparked outrage in the Indian community. The discrimination against the Dalits was showcased with the ABVP activists claiming that the Ambedkar Student’s Association (ASA) members (which included Vemula) was engaging in activities deemed to be “casteist” as well as seditious. This discrimination and rage spooled over to a district called Naguur. Dalits fled their homes as upper caste domination and destruction took over, with the Jats killing Dalits at will.

A politically volatile scenario such as this becomes a fertile breeding ground for filmmakers, and content creators in general. The bigotry lodged into the system becomes a bone of contention for filmmakers to depict accurately and provide their own takes, or solutions to the same. Let us have a look at a few films from different periods of Indian cinema, in order to understand how the representation of Dalits in Indian cinema progressed.

‘Achhut Kanya’, released in 1936, was the first film in the Indian film industry to portray the evil of untouchability, bringing it to the big screen. The story brings forth the ideas of class barriers, as well as cateist practices. The marriage between a Harijan girl, Kasturi, and a Brahmin youth, Pratap, is disallowed, and the former is forced into an arranged marriage. They reunite per chance, years later, into each other at a fair. Kasturi’s current husband, suspicious of Pratap’s motives, attacks him at a railway level crossing. Kasturi attempts to save the two from being run over by an oncoming train. However, she loses her life in the act. Achhut Kanya was the first film to actively encourage the society in discussing caste issues, and created a template for future films with a similar story.

A story by the Bengali writer Subodh Ghosh was adapted into a film for the big screen, by the name of ‘Sujata’(1959). Bimal Roy was at the helm for this film, and his visions ensured that the movie became a classic. The plot is based on the life of an Achhut girl, by the name of Sujata. She is adopted by an upper caste family of Brahmins, who treat her like their daughter; but not as one. Sujata grows up, desperate to be recognized as a daughter of the family. Her foster sister, meanwhile, is set to marry a Brahmin boy by the name of Adhir. Adhir, however, falls in love with Sujata instead. This creates the scene for an inter-caste marriage, a topic which is still heatedly debated upon even in today’s India. The film set the stage for discussion about a subject which was, and to an extent, still is considered taboo.

A film which had a very clear depiction of the situation of Dalits was ‘Aakrosh’, a film by Govind Nihalani. The film, released in 1980, told the story of Lahanya Bhiku. Lahanya is a tribal man, belonging to the lower castes. He is framed for his wife’s murder; the latter was raped and tortured by the upper caste and more powerful goons of the village. As he refuses to cooperate with his lawyer, and is sent to the gallows. Before this, however, he has to perform the last rites for his dead father, and after letting out a cry of anguish, he decides to kill his younger sister. He does this as he fears that his younger sister would succumb to the same fate and circumstances as his wife. This movie brings to light the various injustices that the Dalits had to endure, as further details of their plights were brought on to the big screen.

As Bollywood proceeded to understand and educate their audiences through the medium of their films, regional cinema had also begun to imbibe such ideas from their larger counterpart. Malayalam cinema had cast the first Dalit woman as the lead, whose name was Rosy, and the movie ‘Neelakkuyil’ dealt with the conditions of the lower castes. Films such as ‘Kammattippadam’ and ‘Kismath’ illustrated the dilemmas faced by the Pulaya community and inter-religion marriage respectively, the latter of which outlined the problems faced by a Muslim boy and his love for a Dalit woman.

Fast forwarding to newer pastures, the independent film ‘Masaan’, released in 2015, had also hinted at the caste system and the discrimination that the lower castes face. Vicky Kaushal plays the lead as a Dalit man, trying to escape the stigma surrounding his identity as a “Dom”. As per his caste, he has to work at the ghats of Varanasi, burning dead bodies and cremating them. This is a profession only handled by people belonging to the lower castes. His attraction and affection for a woman of the upper caste, named Shaalu is rewarded by her unwavering loyalty to him, despite Deepak’s (Vicky Kaushal’s character’s) profession and caste.A promise of marriage, despite the difficulties an inter-caste marriage proposes, is made. This shift in escaping one’s social condition, and the desire to climb the social ladder, mingling with people of the upper castes, represents a change in the mentality of Dalit personnel. Shaalu’s decision to marry Deepak in spite of the hard truth facing her shows that the mentality of upper caste personalities is changing as well.’

Films such as the ones mentioned here have started to challenge the norms set by societies of old. Reality and accurate depictions of the hurdles faced by the downtrodden have started to take precedence over mindless cinematic storylines, employing action over the story or screenplay. With films such as these, and their visionary content creators, one can only hope that the plight of the lower castes are truthfully brought forth to educate the tormentors on the injustice faced by the former.

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