I have always been a fan of good movies because I believe good stories influence you in more than one way.
So, when my friend told me that the then recently released “Article-15” was going to be a watershed moment for Indian cinema with its progressive plotline and hitherto untouched theme of caste discrimination, I went ahead and watched it. I stuck to my seat, along the entire duration, hoping to unravel and celebrate what others touted as an “anti-caste” movie.
That it was a well-meaning movie was doubtless but I was disappointed by the generic typecasting of characters as well as the misnomer of “anti-caste” attached to it. However, it wasn’t the first time I had fallen for a media trick.
A couple of years back, an acquaintance of mine, aware of my interest in feminist movies recommended me to watch the Aamir Khan starrer “Dangal”.
Halfway through the movie, the realization dawned that Dangal at best could be called “women-centric” because of its plot revolving around the stories of two girls who go on to become wrestling icons but the movie was hardly feminist.
Both of these movies aren’t isolated examples of the absence of any informed narrative on gender and caste in Bollywood but a smaller piece of the larger picture that shies away from talking about difficult topics.
Article-15 and Dangal, both well-made films, could easily be ranked as the two of the most progressive movies that Bollywood has produced in recent years. The former portrays the story of an IPS officer belonging to the Brahmin community, posted in rural hinterlands and his journey of exploring the caste structures in villages and how it discriminates against castes that are on the bottom rung of the perceived hierarchy.
The plot hinges around the gang-rape of “lower caste” girls by their employers for demanding a hike of three rupees in their salary. Consequently, Ayan Ranjan, the IPS officer brings to justice, the perpetrators and in the process, realizes the evils of caste-system.
I had two issues with the film. First, the protagonist and the “saviour” belonged to the same community that inflicted the horrors in the first place. Second, the character of Kishan Jatav, a constable belonging to the “chamaar” community is played by Kumud Mishra, a Brahmin. Notwithstanding the fact that he is a capable actor, movies based on issues like caste should have actors who have lived experiences of being at the receiving end of the same.
Further, the film tries to minimize the evils of caste to villages alone, assuming that it is so, because of lack of modern education. In reality, caste-based discrimination is a rampant problem in state of the art, modern-day higher education institutes too as is exemplified by the deaths of Payal Tadvi and Rohith Vemula.
Ayan, a serving IPS officer, apparently has no understanding or knowledge of the concept of caste before he arrives at the place of his posting. Where an anti-caste movie would have demanded strong characters from the oppressed communities vying for equality, all the movie manages to have is a feeble, half-hearted activist in the form of Gaura.
The problem is not only the glorified saviour complex but also the lack of empowered women characters from the marginalized communities. We see two women in the movie – Gaura, an activist from the community the girls are abducted from and Aditi, an academician and a scholar who happens to be Ayan’s wife. Gaura is portrayed as a feeble, almost too polite to be a real activist who endeavours getting justice for the wronged girls by appealing to the police despite getting snubbed repeatedly.
Aditi, on the other hand, is shown as an independent woman who is making a difference in the lives of people through her work. That Gaura’s lack of fame and success is due to her constant dehumanization is completely ignored. Both women characters are viewed through the same age-old lens of “universal sisterhood” which, in turn, pushes the narrative of any intersectional commentary out of the scene.
Where a nuanced take on the lived experiences of Gaura and her double oppression on account of being a woman from a marginalized community could have been shown, the movie chose to focus on making her an aide and interest of Nishaad, the movie character inspired by Chandrasekhar Azad ‘Ravan’.
As the movie ends, we see Ayan turning into the knight in shining armour and clinching justice for Pooja, the third girl who is missing. The film hardly acknowledges or brings into the spotlight, the institutionalized casteism or the privilege that Ayan himself has.
All the movie manages to do is show the extreme ended effects of caste discrimination in a rural setting, thus confirming the bias of privileged, urbanized, middle-class individuals that casteism is a problem that takes place where the poverty is abject and the education levels, minimum.
Contrast this with the Academy Award-winning movie “Twelve Years A Slave”. The film explores the journey of a free black man in America and his consequent abduction into slavery, his experiences throughout the 12 years when he is in captivity and ultimately, his emancipation. The lead character Solomon Northrup is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor brilliantly with equally scintillating performances by Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender.
All of the white actors in the movie are excellent artists no doubt but the lead is played by a man who belongs to the affected community himself. It’d be easier to understand what I am saying by imagining a white actor playing the lead character – absolutely unthinkable, right?
The character of Brad Pitt, who is a carpenter and staunchly anti-slavery, is nuanced as he espouses his thoughts saying while he abhors slavery, he would probably never know the horrors the system inflicts on the people of colour because of his privilege. Extrapolating the data of actors and characters belonging to “lower castes” in this single movie, it is easy to imagine what the rest of Bollywood has to offer.
Take the example of Dangal. Throughout the entire film, the agency of the two girls to choose anything for themselves is continuously ignored while glorifying their father’s choice to have them train for professional wrestling. An oft-cited excuse is that in a patriarchal society where girls are never allowed to get into male-dominated arenas like sports, their father at least encourages them to do it instead of marrying them off.
The bar is set so low for women empowerment that even basic deviance from the norm, to fulfil the father’s unfinished dream of his youth, is seen as emancipatory for the girls.
On the other hand, shows like Sex Education and Anne with an E have nuanced, well-rounded characters that discuss topics like bodily autonomy, sexual independence and kickstart an important conversation. Moreover, a majority of films produced by “mainstream” Bollywood entail casting of women as eye-candies, objectification through item songs and a good share of the movies that do not pass the Bechdel Test. The audience is to blame, too.
That a medieval film like Kabir Singh grossed crores while a good percentage of the film-goers do not even know of “Ijazaat” (consent) reflect the misplaced priorities of the largest demographic in the world.
As Om Puri’s character in the 1984 movie Party says, “Art has no value if it is not politically committed”. It is pertinent that the movies that Bollywood produces these days try to push the conversation regarding socially relevant issues like caste and gender forward.
The portrayal of transgender characters as three dimensional and essayed by members of the same community can be a good step in the direction. Intersectional issues of caste and gender and their portrayal is the need of the hour. Movies and other forms of visual arts naturally have a greater impact on the audience. Progressive filmmakers should look toward making movies with greater nuance.
In such a situation, fresh and yet unexplored ideas can help build an inclusive society. A narrative of intersectional issues such as gender being exacerbated by caste or vice versa should get the centre stage in the twenty-first century progressive world where medieval forms of institutional oppression are being protested against.
Either way, caste and gender form the core of the Indian society and pervasive ideas regarding them should make more headway than it is, currently.