Shubhra Gupta Posted online: Sun Aug 21 2011, 00:12 hrs
New Delhi : Bollywood has never had space or power for Dalits — or
anyone who does not belong to its Hindu happy family
He's not a Musalmaan or a Christian, is he? That was the deeply
reductive way my then-to-be spouse, neither of the above, was welcomed
into my large Hindu "kunba". To my grandmother's mind, it was, then,
something she could live with. It didn't strike her as ironic that her
granddaughter had been sent off proudly to a convent school where the
Irish nuns were big on Catechism. Or that the small UP town we lived
in had a large Muslim population, which meant shared classrooms and
chatter and tiffin boxes.
But it did not even occur to her to ask if the prospective threat of a
groom not from her "samaaj" could be Dalit. If you called her
prejudiced, she would have laughed in your face. She was just a
product of her times. Some people just did not exist, or if they did,
it was well below her sightline.
Hindi cinema's sightlines have had much in common with my
long-departed grandma, who, till the end of her days, lived in a world
blithely her own. The predominantly middle-class sprawling Hindu
(north Indian) joint family has long been Bollywood's universe du
jour: everyone else — people of different caste, creed, and colour —
has been accorded Dalit status. Stay right there, in your designated
corner, till we need you. Then come, finish up quickly, and go. Back
to that corner.
At the opening job interview, the Dalit hero of Aarakshan is asked his
name. Deepak, he says. Deepak what? Deepak Kumar. Aha, a man with no
significant surname. The interviewers instantly assume that "gotcha"
look as they continue to grill their candidate who's got where he has
through merit and hard work, not through graft or, that extremely
pernicious Indian word, "pull". You know the moment he opens his mouth
that first instance, he's done for. And that sets the tone for his
character's fate: he gets to romance, yes, and spout a couple of
incendiary dialogues, yes, but soon after, director Prakash Jha pushes
him to the edges of the film, where he cools his heels till the
How different is Deepak's present-day trajectory (even though he gets
his girl, and a job, presumably, at the end of the film) from that of
Kasturi in the 1936 film Achhoot Kanya? The stunning Devika Rani plays
the "untouchable girl" with whom the Brahmin hero, played by Ashok
Kumar, falls in love: their pastoral romance is spiked by venomous
comments from the villagers about the lower castes; and a tragedy is
prevented solely by fate, not human agency, at the very end.
Loud affirmative action, and speech, is usually confined to a
character who's not central to the story. One of my favourite
flagrantly "lower caste" characters in Bollywood has to be Pannalal
Chohar, a cop who is unafraid of his future, because his present is
what he makes of it. Sanjay Dutt was terrific in this little role in
Eklavya, but it was a small part that made up the parcel of Vidhu
Vinod Chopra's film. This edifice, says Chohar, pointing to the castle
where the nobles live, has been made on the dead bodies of my
ancestors. That speech, which Dutt delivers with bravura flourish,
requires confrontation, but, in good Bollywood style, is used just as
a provocative nudge, before being shoved aside.
Lagaan's magical team has a spin bowler who has a big part in the
match win, but he's called, yes, Kachra: literally, garbage. The
lowered eyes of Nutan's lower caste leading lady in Sujata are almost
apologetic that the "savarna" Sunil Dutt has fallen in love with her.
In one of those forgettable '80s movies, in which Tina Munim calls
Rajesh Khanna home for tea on mummy's invitation, she refuses to share
the table with Shriram Lagoo, who plays a dark-skinned lower caste
And it is not a question only of caste: other religions, and faiths,
too get short shrift. Hindu heroes are allowed to fall for Muslim
women (not the other way round) but not without hectoring speeches.
For the longest time, Muslim heroes and heroines were cloistered in
Muslim socials, where they could play their "nawabi" games: the Hum
Aapke Hain Kaun type family doesn't need any pollutants, thank you.
Not only are there no other religions to be seen in most Bollywood's
monster blockbusters, other than in the almost insultingly peripheral
ways, the poor and the not-so-privileged have to be shown their place.
Sidekicks, usually from a less-affluent background, can share the
screen with us, but they are always them. South Indians have to be
dark. Or nerds. Or both. Other Indians, if they are not of
fair-and-lovely-mainly-Punjabi-descent-or-persuasion, may as well just
And don't even get me started on free-spirited women, who are
practically invisible in Bollydom. What, you've got an opinion? Get
thee behind that pallu.
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