Sunday, Aug 14, 2022

Rewriting The History Of Lower Castes And Dalits Through Cinema

Films like ‘Samrat Prithviraj’ and ‘The Kashmir Files’ have been criticised for trying to take cinematic liberties while representing historical facts. But even so-called socially relevant films representing lower castes and Dalits, like ‘Quota’ or ‘Shudra’, have also tried to show a different side of history.

 A Still From 'Sadgati'
A Still From 'Sadgati' Instagram

Of late, there have been many films on Indian screens, like ‘Samrat Prithviraj’ or ‘The Kashmir Files’ that have claimed to throw light on eras that people didn’t know much about. Not many would have read about these in history books, the makers claimed, and they were trying to rewrite the history to rectify certain historical facts.

This is not a problem only with big-budget films. Even smaller films like ‘Quota’ or ‘Shudra’ have tried to show lower castes or Dalits in a different light. For example, ‘Shudra’ tells a fictional story set in the Indus Valley Civilisation that claims the caste system was invented in ancient India. The films have taken cinematic liberties to ensure that the content is appealing to the masses, while telling a story that’s different from the usual run of historical films or biopics.

A still from Shudra: The Rising (2012).
A still from Shudra: The Rising (2012).

Speaking about whether films should be allowed to write alternative histories, Sanjiv Jaiswal, director of films like ‘Quota’ and ‘Shudra’, says, “When we dare to make films like these, we are able to put the spotlight on the discriminated communities. There is a marked shift in how these movies are made today. The storylines give the communities depicted greater agency and power over the story. This is a big change from the past, when either their entire existence would be ignored, or portrayed in poor light, causing more harm than good for these sections.”

“Today's audiences are more receptive, and demand socially meaningful content. At the time of the releases of both 'Quota' and 'Shudra', and even afterwards, we saw a heightened sense of awareness and meaningful conversations taking place among the audience. This helped us cross barriers and stay strong in the face of challenges, like not getting enough theatre screens, among others. We still have a long way to go to bring change on ground and need more powerful stories on discriminated communities to be made. Only then we can talk about real change,” adds Jaiswal.

A still from Sujata
A still from Sujata

Director Prasad Kadam, famous for making films like ‘Verses Of War’ and ‘Happy Birthday’, says, “A film based on a story of a Dalit or lower caste is not new in Indian cinema. Bimal Roy directed Sujata in 1959. But for long periods, such topics were always considered to have a niche market, and most failed commercially (e.g. ‘Sadgati’, ‘Samar’, ‘Khap’). What has changed over the years is the interest of mainstream actors and filmmakers in picking up stories about lower caste protagonists.”

Popular actors like Ayushmann Khurrana and Suriya have taken up such films like ‘Article 15’ and ‘Jai Bhim’ that have actually enabled these films to gain a larger audience.

A still from Article 15 (2019).
A still from Article 15 (2019). IMDB

Kadam adds, “The Indian audience is slowly evolving and accepting these stories at a commercial level. ‘Kala’ (Malyalam), ‘Karnan’ (Tamil), ‘Sairat’ (Marathi), ‘Sarpatta Parambarai’ (Tamil)... there is a long list now, and it's a good change. Filmmakers like Pa Ranjith, Nagraj Manjule, and Neeraj Ghaywan have taken up the subjects and presented them with utmost sensitivity and sensibility. This of course has helped society to understand the deep root issues of lower caste communities all over India. It's a positive change.”

But even the so-called socially relevant movies are taking cinematic liberties to showcase a different side of history. Akshay Bardapurkar, the founder of Planet Marathi, the popular OTT channel, says, “The influx in socially relevant and impactful content today is a welcome change. There is great potential to change the narrative while giving audiences great stories. What makes me feel proud is the audience's reaction to such content, which has encouraged more filmmakers to take huge risks, and not be disappointed.”

Bardapurkar adds, “Speaking specifically of Marathi Cinema, it has always been the birthplace of quality stories which touched upon issues mainstream cinema shied away from. Our industry never failed to bring light to discrimination or evils in society. But I also believe we should not make films as a mere trend just because everyone is making them. Films like these should be made with great conviction and responsibility. Regional cinema can definitely have a larger influence on sensitive topics because they have less gatekeeping and are connected to the grassroots level. But this influence should be exerted with care.”

Actor Satyajeet Dubey, who has been part of projects like ‘Mumbai Diaries 26/11’, ‘Prassthanam’, ‘Kerry On Kutton’ and many others, says, “Cinema is make-believe. Telling stories that will entertain you, move you and sometimes educate you about certain things when done right. For instance, ‘Taare Zameen Par’ that helped raise awareness and sensitivity about dyslexia. I think history is always written by the winners and not those who lost. Having said that, if the narrative moves away from the facts, then it should be stated that it’s a fictional story inspired by true events in the past and not a biopic or a historical one. Also, the intent of the makers also plays a big part - are they making it for a quick buck or they are truly passionate about it or only favouring the political climate and riding that wave. All boils down to the intent, I believe.”

Also Read: Has The Representation Of The Caste System Changed In Bollywood Over The Years?

Actress Shreya Dhanwanthary, who has been part of projects like ‘Scam:1992’, ‘Why Cheat India’, ‘Looop Lapeta’, ‘The Family Man’, ‘Mumbai Diaries 26/11’ and many others, says, “Genuinely and generally speaking art should be allowed to do whatever it wants in terms of being able to question, being able to pander, being able to argue, being able to arouse, being able to anger, being able to make someone laugh or cry – all of the gamuts of emotions. This is a loaded topic, and there cannot be a clear-cut yes or no answer when it comes to if history should be rewritten in cinema. Although, I will always be on the side of art being allowed to always do anything as that’s the point of having art, working side by side with science. As much as I love art, science is my true religion. Having said that, I do realise the kind of impact cinema has especially in a country like India.”

So, do filmmakers need to be responsible while telling such stories with historical context? Dhanwanthary adds, “There should be some form of responsible storytelling because of, say, misogyny that actually pervades society, and continues to propagate harmful practices against marginalised sections of the society. I get all of that. But people should be allowed to make whatever they want because the audience should be able to choose what they want to see. I understand the harmful effects of showing something that may not be historically or politically accurate. But I don’t think the responsibility and onus fall on one particular medium. There are lots of books, newspaper articles, etc., too, that have erred in history. So, there should be the responsibility in all quarters. Cinema shouldn't carry that weight alone.”

Samrat Prithviraj
Samrat Prithviraj Instagram

When asked about creative liberties in such historical films, author and screenwriter Abhirup Dhar, writer of ‘The Belvoirbrooke Haunting’, ‘Ghost Hunter Gaurav Tiwari’, ‘Hold That Breath’ and many others, says, “Creative liberties are taken but it's understandable if it is done to make the movie engaging. In no way should they mislead the masses with the wrong intent. Creative liberties can come with a disclaimer but if it is done to divide people in the name of religion, it should not be done. ‘The Kashmir Files’ did it. ‘Samrat Prithviraj’ too. But ‘The Kashmir Files’ did it very explicitly. If you observe, it begins with a sensationalised scene and ends with another apart from ones in between. The intent was clearly to shake the audience and incite them. I'm not saying it was completely fictionalised. There was a truth for sure but it was misused and exaggerated. Also, if a movie like this is important, so are movies like ‘Parzania’ and ‘Firaaq’ which were banned in Gujarat when they were released.”