In an industry dominated by the upper caste elite, director Pa Ranjith said his latest film Kaala starring Tamil superstar Rajinikanth is an attempt to redefine the Dalit representation in Indian cinema.
Caste as a theme is not common in mainstream Bollywood cinema. However, the existence of films like Kaala suggests that the world’s largest film industry could stand to gain from films which talk about caste.
So why hasn’t Bollywood tried its hand at films with better Dalit representation? And when was the last time a mainstream hero openly played a Dalit character?
In the ’80s, apparently.
Caste in Bollywood through the ages
Films have always tried to depict characters and stories that people can identify with, so that audiences are drawn to watch them, said Mihir Pandya, film writer and lecturer at Delhi University.
Pandya said films made in the pre-Independence era, particularly the 1930s and 1940s, had storylines with marginalised characters because it captured the colonial Indian context. Shoma Chatterji, a film critic, cited Acchut Kannya, an Ashok Kumar-starrer film from 1936, as an example of this. Bimal Roy’s 1959 release, Sujata, was another such film where a popular actor, Nutan, played a Dalit character in a mainstream film.
“According to me, the milestone films all belong to another era,” Chattejee explained, saying that the last films with Bollywood stars playing Dalit heros were all in the ’80s.
“Aakrosh (1980) stars Om Puri and Smita Patil as a Dalit couple and is about how difficult it is to break from that identity,” she said. Other films include Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati (1981), again with Om Puri in the lead, and Gautam Ghose’s Naseeruddin Shah-starrer Paar (1984).
It’s worth mentioning, though, that Puri, Shah, Patil, and the likes, were stars of the parallel cinema movement, just at the fringes of the mainstream.
Hindi cinema, which had few Dalit characters to begin with, had even fewer post-liberalisation, said Pandya.
“Bollywood is very caste-conscious. Films don’t mention caste at all, and if they do, they mention it in a very generic way,” said Pandya. Bollywood has several films with what he refers to as “daku characters”, or bandits, which are assumed to be lower-caste.
“You can identify that characters are probably Dalit, but you can’t confirm that they are,” he added.
Professor Hariharan, a film critic and lecturer at Ashoka University, agreed. “Mainstream cinema functions on the binary of ‘upper’ and ‘lower’. Characters are either upper-class or lower-class,” he said. “Going into the nitty-gritties of the marginalised is never done.”
In Bollywood, actors of the stature of Rajinikanth have never played an openly Dalit character. The last commercially successful film that had an identifiably low-caste character was Highway, in which Randeep Hooda played a Gujjar.
Chatterji also mentioned Ajay Devgn in the 2010 film Aakrosh as a Dalit hero.
While popular Bollywood stars have acted in films about caste, like the Amitabh Bachchan and Saif Ali Khan-starrer Aarakshan, they have never exclusively been about Dalit issues and have instead been pegged to issues like affirmative action and political elections, said Hariharan.
Why aren’t Dalit heroes more mainstream?
Hariharan said that screenplays, when they are written, usually don’t allude to caste-status because defining a character’s identity in this way requires extra time and skill. Unless it is central to the storyline, filmmakers settle to just indicate where the character stands in the caste and class hierarchy.
Newton, which was one of India’s most critically acclaimed films in 2017, is one such film. Rajkummar Rao’s titular character is lower-caste, but the film was criticised for deliberately making an attempt to portray his character as a “caste-free” Dalit that doesn’t have to navigate the structural oppression that comes with his identity.
However, Hariharan said that cinema in Indian languages set in smaller towns or in more rural settings explore these dynamics more than mainstream cinema.
“Mainstream Hindi cinema has been so much in the urban sphere that caste has never overtly been an issue,” he said. “Regional cinema, on the other hand, explores these dynamics more.” Hariharan said regional cinema has to compete with Hindi cinema in urban spaces, which is why several filmmakers go into more unexplored rural or small-town spaces in search of stories.
Regional films like Sairat, directed by acclaimed Dalit director Nagraj Manjule in Marathi, Kammatipaadam in Malayalam, and Kaala are some successful ones.
Pandya added that the Dalit discourse is not as mainstream in north Indian cinema as it is in south India. “In the so-called Cow Belt, Dalit discourse became mainstream with Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, while it has been more definitive in states like Tamil Nadu,” he explained.
Amitabh Bachchan as a Dalit hero?
According to Hariharan, Bollywood as an industry was modelled on Hollywood, which does not have the caste system as an issue. Instead, stories in Hollywood are centred more on class differences. Even race as an issue has only recently entered the mainstream Hollywood narrative.
However, Pandya said mainstream Bollywood will definitely have Dalit protagonists in the future.
“Regional cinema is affecting Bollywood cinema,” he said. “So many films are being remade into Hindi films, so these kinds of storylines will definitely be there.”
Nagraj Manjule’s breakout smash Sairat, a classic love story between a low caste boy and upper caste girl, has been remade in Hindi under Karan Johar’s banner as Dhadak.
In fact, Manjule is set to direct his first Hindi film, Jhund, starring Amitabh Bachchan in the lead role. Pandya speculated that given Manjule’s track record, his new film is certain to be about caste and have a Dalit hero.
At the risk of being presumptuous, to see a national icon like Bachchan in the role of a Dalit character may turn out to be far more radical than it may seem.