As the recent social media commentary on the trailer of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus film Padmavati shows, like our lives, our films are seeped in structures of caste. Caste informs the composition of the film industry; the themes of the films; the names, mannerisms and treatment of characters in the film.
So while Bhansali’s film trailer seems to find nothing problematic about its leads mouthing supremely casteist dialogues that cement upper-caste pride, it is part of a structure. An industry structure dominated by those who have never seen or experienced marginalization owing to their caste, and hence are oblivious to how perpetuating existing caste-dynamics can make life difficult for real and everyday people who do not enjoy such caste privilege.
And yet some films stand out for doing things differently: for acknowledging caste, for portraying its twisted ordering-logic, for giving voice to the experience of those caste groups who have been silenced and looked through, and for challenging the trappings of the trope of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasis as victims.
The following is a list of films which have done exactly that:
1. Fandry (Marathi)
Nagraj Manjule’s 2014 film stands out for giving us a non-dominant caste protagonist who is interested in carving out his own identity and space. Far from being a mute object of study, Jabya is a character who thought, felt and resisted. Come as he did from a family of pig-catchers, he recognised the forced work which was handed down to him generation after generation, by the village economy (and villagers) as oppressive. Jabya wanted to study and do well in school.
But as the forces of caste start straining these hopes and aspirations Jabya has for himself, they also drive home the near-fixity of his caste identity as even the upper-caste girl he is ardently in love with sees him as nothing but a source of entertainment.
2. Sairat (Marathi)
This Marathi blockbuster was also directed by Manjule. Many read this film as a continuation of the journey of Fandry’s male, lower-caste protagonist i.e. as a story which traces what happens to a Jabya once he crosses the threshold from adolescence into adulthood.
While the fact that the film barely mentions caste and also brings in the element of class—as protagonist Parshya falls in love and elopes with the upper-caste Maratha daughter of a wealthy, local politician—was seen by some as a dilution of Majule’s anti-caste stance in his film narrative, others commented on how the film showed the workings of caste without ever having to use the word ‘caste’.
3. Madras (Tamil)
Similar to Majule’s work, Pa Ranjith’s films succeed in showing the every-day working of caste even while it throws light on the superstructure of the caste system. The narrative of this particular film has at its centre a power struggle between two political factions. As this piece says:
“Two warring factions of a political party are desperately trying to establish their supremacy by taking control of an insignificant building wall at a housing board apartment complex. The wall previously displayed the picture of the two powerful leaders together, but with their split, there is a huge tussle as to who owns the wall.”
Most mainstream reviews of the film in fact missed the film’s engagement with questions of caste, but through little details and snippets about the lives of its Dalit protagonists, the film succeeded in telling a story from a point-of-view that is close to non-existent in cinema.
4. Kabali (Tamil)
As one of our older pieces outlines, “Kabali is an action-packed movie with Malaysian gang wars as its backdrop. Malaysia has a sizeable Tamil population. Kabali, played by Rajinikanth, is a common tree plantation worker who rises to the top fighting for workers’ rights. But Kabali’s leadership is challenged for his working class background and low-caste status.”
As Rajesh Rajamani observes in this piece, the film undoes the trope of the oppressed community as a prop, and it humanizes them.
5. Court (Marathi)
This Marathi film by Chaitanya Tamhane chronicles the court battle a Dalit protest singer has to endure, as he is accused of driving a sewage-cleaner to suicide. While many applauded the film for being a clever satire on the crippling helplessness the legal and state machinery imposes on the disadvantaged citizen, the film has also been criticised for showing elements of a Brahmin-saviour complex as it merely shows the legal machinery populated by upper castes without critiquing such disproportionate representation.
6. Masaan (Hindi)
Like Manjule’s film, this Hindi film also has as one of its central plot devices an inter-caste romance. The female, upper-caste lead Shaalu falls in love with Deepak, who is from the Dom community: a community which “tends funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganga”. When Shaalu finds out about Deepak’s lower-caste location, it comes as a shock and yet she comes around and promises Deepak that she will stay with him. The film has been criticized however, for it resolves this plot complication a little too neatly and this seems to be in deference to accepted caste notions and related notions of love.
Is there any film that you think we have missed out on? Please let us know in the comments.
Disclaimer: this is not an exhaustive or a representative list.
Featured Image Credit: SKJ Bollywood News