Bollywood "untouchables" film sparks controversy
By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI | Thu Aug 11, 2011 7:35pm IST
(Reuters Life!) - An Indian film over caste discrimination against
"untouchables" has been mired in controversy with protests from caste
groups forcing the producers to cut parts of the film, highlighting
deep-seated social tensions in the rising economic power.
"Aarakshan," which means reservation, explores quotas for lower castes
in the government and educational institutions, affirmative action
which upper caste, often wealthier Indians see as squeezing them out
of jobs and college places.
The film, starring Bollywood super stars Amitabh Bachchan and Saif Ali
Khan, centers around an idealistic teacher who believes quotas are
meant to provide opportunities to the weaker sections of society to
help them succeed on their own merits.
But many caste groups complained the film portrayed them in a negative
light because of certain scenes in which characters say untouchables,
known as "Dalits," are dirty and fit to polish the shoes of their
Behind India's modernization and growing cosmopolitanism, driven by
accelerating economic growth, caste is a constant presence, playing
roles as diverse as determining governments to denying access to
common facilities like water and schools.
"While the overall theme of the film is not objectionable, it is
loaded with anti-Dalit and anti-reservation dialogues," P.L. Punia,
the chairman of the national commission for scheduled castes and
scheduled tribes told local media.
"Aarakshan has failed. It is likely to create communal tension," he added.
After threats of protests in Mumbai and the ban of the film in two
states, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the director Prakash Jha agreed to
alter the film for its release on August 12.
Police have arrested protesters in the past few days, according to
local newspapers, while both of the film's main actors have beefed up
their personal security.
"Reservation is a sensitive issue but we have kept that in mind.
Political reasons could be behind the ban on the film. I will make
appropriate cuts in the film as per suggestions," Jha, who is known
for his controversial films on themes such as corruption and dynastic
politics, told reporters Thursday.
Nearly 65 years of democracy since independence in 1947 have eased
some of the worst forms of caste discrimination in India, outlawed by
the constitution, but even educated, well-off Indian families still
draw the line at inter-caste marriages.
Caste adds force to much of the politics in India, with a rash of
political parties championing the cause of particular groups turning
king-makers in a time of coalition governments. About 160 million
Indians, or 16 percent of the world's second biggest population, are
Dalits, according to a 2001 census.
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Paul Casciato)
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