In debutant director Gurvinder Singh’s national award winning film Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse) the faces of the protagonists tell the story. The roughness, wrinkles, deep lines and blankness allude to the years of unspoken repression and torment. It’s a stark, fragile existence, be it the relentless drive through the dehumanized city as a rickshaw puller or seeing the demolition of your own home in the feudal village. While capturing a day in the lives of the downtrodden, the camera also reveals their minds--the alternating humiliation, discontent, dissent, anger and resignation. The restless calm on the surface harbours a simmering violence within. Here the oppressed are too helpless to bring about a change and the only explanation for their condition is: “God overlooked us a little”.
Based on Punjabi novelist and Jnanpeeth award winner professor Gurdial Singh's novel, Anhey… focuses on the subordination of the Dalits with immense dignity and depth and is a landmark in Dalit cinema in the way it steers away from conventional story-telling and overt propaganda. In fact, the power lies in not spelling things out. “I haven’t verbalized the caste issue. There’s a sensation, a restlessness, a movement, but I don’t clearly define anything,” says Gurvinder. It was while doing ethnographic research work in Punjab that he met and lived with the Dalit villagers, the balladeers from subaltern classes like the Mirasis and Valmikis and they have all become a part of the film to make it real and persuasive.
Hindi films may have boasted of a reformist Achhuut Kanya (1936), the love story of a Harijan girl and Brahmin boy, very early on in its life but there have been few Dalit stories and characters down the 100 years of cinema. Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959) tugged at our heart strings with its portrayal of a the pain and dilemmas of an untouchable girl growing up in a Brahmin family, the untouchable Kachra spun the ball to our fascination in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan and last year’s slapdash Aarakshan had an utterly unconvincing Saif Ali Khan as the Dalit fobbing off caste biases despite being educated and empowered.
However, the more credible and sustained explorations of caste issues have been in off mainstream, parallel films like Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975) and Samar (1999), Satyajit Ray’s TV film Sadgati (1981), Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985), Gautam Ghosh’s Paar (1984), Arun Kaul’s Diksha (1991), Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994) and Gulzar’s Hu Tu Tu (1999). The crowning effort has been Jabbar Patel’s 2000 biopic Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar with Mammootty playing the lead. And in the world of documentaries Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bheem Comrade and Ajay Bhardwaj’s Kitte Mil Ve Mahi are seminal discourses on the issue.
In the South the situation has been relatively better though the caste issue has also often come intertwined with larger themes of poverty and rural feudalism. According to film historian Theodore Baskaran the silent films and early talkies were committed to espousing Gandhian principle of anti-untouchability. In the 30s and 40s at least three Tamil films, all titled Nandanar, were made on the Dalit saint. Tyagbhoomi (1939) had a revolutionary shot of a Gandhian priest opening the doors of a temple to a Dalit to offer him refuge from storm. Harijana Singham (1938) was another pathbreaking film on the issue. “In the post Independence years films began to avoid frontal confrontation with caste issues. Gandhian ideals were not saleable, entertainment became important,” says Baskaran. However, Cheran’s Bharathi Kannamma (1997) did portray a love story between a lower caste worker with his zamindar’s sister. And references to Dalits and Ambedkar can also be seen in films as recent as Naadodigal (2009). In the art house cinema circuit Malayalam filmmaker K. Ravindran’s Telugu film Harijan and B.V. Karanth’s Kannada film Chomana Dudi (1975) have been mileposts.
According to cultural commentator Sadanand Menon the predominant presence of Dalit culture in Tamil cinema has been through the heavy use of the “gaana pattu”. “The musical form has entered the popular consciousness but without the lower caste associations. It’s roots have been severed. It’s a cultural robbery, doesn’t acknowledge the source and the conditions of deprivation within which the music has emerged but exploits it for commercial purposes,” says Menon.
Forget the cinematic themes the presence of Dalits in the film industry itself has been thinner than any film’s plotline. Whatever talent exists is in the backend operations, not in front of the camera and only recently have we had a Dalit hero in Ram Vilas Paswan’s son Chirag who made an unsuccessful debut in Miley Naa Miley Hum.
Why such an insignificant presence? Most are not embracing filmdom because not all of them have awareness about the industry and its intricacies. Those who have money and education opt for more conventional careers. “They would opt for IAS instead,” says writer-director Birendra Paswan, himself a Dalit.
A lot of them inhabit the film industry inconspicuously often hiding behind a pseudonym. “Actors who use Gautam as a surname are from backward class,” says Paswan. Even in the South where the upward mobility has been more pronounced in the field of art and culture the Dalits in the film industry are not as vocal as their literary counterparts. “You and I wouldn’t know that the person working with us is a Dalit,” says filmmaker Sashi Kumar. “There are many Dalits in the industry but they don’t want to stand up and identify themselves,” says Baskaran. One case in point has been iconic composer Illayaraja. “There is an intrinsic fear that people would come to know,” Paswan. Like in other fields a few Yadavs have made strides in Bollywood but here again an actor like Raj Kumar Yadav, seen in LSD, Ragini MMS and Wasseypur... has now dropped Yadav from his name.
Also, to people living in deprivation and penury, Bollywood glamour is intimidating. “Someone who hasn’t even been on a bicycle does get overwhelmed by the BMWs and Pajeros,” says Paswan. But he thinks film industry is still much better than any other sphere of work. “Discrimination is in every field. In Bollywood they value success and creativity and are not as discriminating,” he says. No wonder he is gearing up to launch a new Dalit hero in his next film Sawaal. His name is Sanjeev. Without the Paswan.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print