Cicely Tyson, the legendary American actress and Black icon passed away last year. According to Black actors in Hollywood, Tyson paved way for future generations of Black actors and characters, which is of considerable significance for Black women especially in an industry dominated by whites. Tyson, therefore, will not only be celebrated as a seasoned actress but more importantly, as a pioneer for Black women in cinema and real life. The question then arises as to why the Indian cinema hasn’t had a trailblazer of Dalit women characters and artists yet. How far on the scale of progressiveness should Indian cinema move for Dalit women to get their Cicely Tyson, both on and off-screen?
For this year’s women’s day, Netflix India assembled 40 women in entertainment to commemorate – female characters, the shift in representation of women and Netflix on playing a medium to present different shades of women. They titled this ‘Her Kahaani Hai Zaruri’. However, the Kahaanis of women on streaming platforms are becoming less relevant to Bahujan women and more relatable and presentable to women of dominant castes and classes. Netflix India teamed up with film critic Anupama Chopra under the same segment and interviewed 7 women actresses. As a Bahujan woman watching, I gazed at the caste and class positionalities of the women panelled and the kind of issues they addressed. Having provided a platform like this, I hoped for conversations on the diversity in representation among women; for the people who uphold power must actively create spaces for the less privileged. But for dominant castes and class women, especially those in public life in this context, the matter of equal rights is always constricted to the man and woman binary and egalitarianism between them alone. Ultimately, I suppose we as a country have not advanced enough yet to cast Bahujan women as main characters who are realistic and truly representative of the Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi community.
Although women have indisputably come a long way in a space long commanded by men, they are failing to extend their solidarity to Bahujan women. Apart from shattering the male-dominated industry, Bahujan women have to win through one that is reigned by people of the oppressor-castes too. This is occurring at a time when Indian women in entertainment are already on the bandwagon of making speeches on the gender pay gap and the evolution of female characters on screen.
Anupama Chopra, in an almost 30-minute-long interview, asked her interviewees about the changes they would bring to the industry if they were to possess a magic wand. While a lot of them had a platform to display sisterhood beyond their privileges, they chose to remain sealed in a box that had no place for intersectionality. Social media influencer and actress Kusha Kapila had this to say, “More diverse writer rooms, more female storytellers. We can count the number of female writers we have in the film industry and I think it should be more than that. And more storytellers from the LGBTQ community for sure.” Fair enough, but for Bahujan women, it is infuriating to watch the sheer negligence and discomfort of the upper-caste members to even having to utter the word Dalit/Bahujan in powerful spaces and recognising their privilege based on caste.
Additionally, it is also concerning how, even if diverse women are portrayed, they are done with a lack of research and empathy towards the community or worse, typecasted.
According to Bollywood, progressiveness has moved a few steps ahead, thanks to OTT platforms. Now the female characters are a lot more privileged in terms of caste and class. These women are English-speaking, cursing even more, corporate going, possessing a wardrobe that only appeals to high-end women, “hardworking”, acknowledging mental illnesses and homosexuality, love being in twisted relationships, but never navigating their caste privileges. Rohitha Naraharisetty, an Associate Editor at The Swaddle, terms this the ‘Instagram vibe’. The audience for these kinds of characters is the ones who possess resources enough to term their binge sessions on OTT as “self-care routine.” Women characters are finally being written with shades of messiness, meaning that they get to make mistakes and grow from them. Sadly, the women that possess the power to make those blunders are yet again oppressor caste and class, able-bodied, cis-gendered heterosexual women. They are termed as “hot mess”/“messy women”. Whereas, Bahujan women, who lack any lead roles, are inhibited from the ‘make mistakes and learn from them’ process. Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women characters in Savarna-led and narrated stories are usually domestic help, labourers; either way, they are not excused if they ever were to mess up.
Many popular Bollywood actresses of today who are predominantly millennials have established themselves as environmentalists, feminists, mental health advocates, and global leaders. Yet, somehow these are also the same women who are unapologetic supporters of right-wing authoritarianism or remain silent on systemic oppression in India, endorse skin-whitening products, star as dark-skinned characters and trans women on-screen, are uplifters of the Brahminical caste system and fully overlook the existence of Bahujan women. The last time a Bahujan woman challenged the Brahminical-patriarchal film industry, she was faced with harassment and exiled from the state of Kerala. Apart from being the first-ever actress to star in Malayalam cinema, P K Rosy was a Bahujan woman. Coming from the Pulaya community, which is classified as a Scheduled Caste, she was brave enough to play a Nair woman in the movie ‘Vigathakumaran’ in 1928. In an industry brimming with dominant caste characters and people, one extraordinary woman started something that couldn’t and still hasn’t reached the end line. And this is how far the representation of Bahujan women has truly come and this is hardly a thing for Bahujans.
The Indian industry needs an equivalent of Billie Eilish, for she used her positionality as a white woman and her popularity to communicate about white privilege while extending her allyship to the Black Lives Matter movement. But more importantly, we need a first. A first that kicks the door open for Bahujan women in Indian cinema both on and off-screen to champion our true essence.
Contemplates social issues through the lens of Socio-Cultural Psychology. You can find her on Instagram.