Caste is a central fault line of modern India. Indian Social Science has a tendency to study it as a displacement of more fundamental identities like class or ethnicity, despite the fact that the public spaces of modern India are inflected by violence against Dalits and subordinated castes and its domestic spaces structured by strict discrimination against caste miscegenation. Portrayal of the conflicts of caste has rarely been part of the commercial mainstream cinema in India. Pitching my argument in this context I’d like to discuss about caste as dealt with in Indian cinema. Taking off from a more recent and popular cinema, Swades is a film which directly addresses the Dalit problematics.
The main story revolves around the protagonist, Mohan Bhargav, played by Shah Rukh Khan, a scientist in NASA. Mohan decides to come back to India in search of Kaveriamma, his namesake mother. The director plays upon the contrast that the location causes: from a highly clinical environment of the NASA research centre, to the Indian capital, to one of the remotest of villages in India. Within the filmic structure the director plays subtly with the obvious. We may fail to register first time, this social condition that we are dealing with, and which, though seems to be “far away” is hardly a few kilometers from the modern spaces we are moving in. The film tries to hit home the fact that modern India is not very far away from the “reality”, which it tries to hide behind the garb of “liberal thinking” and outlook. As we arrive in the village, we become aware of the lack of electricity, telephone connection, a proper school, etc., all of which comes as a stark contrast to the air conditioned caravan, which the protagonist drives, the fancy watch, the electronic foot massager, the expensive brand of cigarette.
The first encounter with the issues of caste and caste-based oppression takes place when we hear the village Head frowning down upon Mohan for having had food cooked from a lower caste. The urban individual is distanced from how the government legislation works at the grassroot level. He is fascinated to watch a Panchayat in progress, behaving like an outsider, only highlighting the fact how distanced an urban individual is from the grassroots, which forms the bulk of the country’s population. The film raises the question of how the governmental policies are being implemented and whether they are reaching all and reaping the benefits for which they were formulated. At the same time it comments on the role of every citizen in nation building, doing away with their differences and reservations. It talks of education and the increasing trend of dropouts which the government is struggling to cope with.
While the film tried to pin down the lacunae of the government to meet these teething problems that are standing in the way of development, it also emphasizes the need for personal awareness of each individual. Education is caught in a thousand year old orthodoxy that leads to children not getting proper education so that they can aim for a better life.
The character of Birsa is an archetype of the caste oppressed populace of modern India. For him when the village is a forbidden territory, how ca he even think of sending his children to school there. Another future crushed under the foot of evil custom. The rampant practice of child-marriage is also an issue that the film has tried to capture by focusing on this one family.
The scene where the entire village is assembled to watch a popular film is another instance of the practice of discrimination. The Dalits and the higher castes sit on either side of the makeshift screen, the Dalits watching the entire movie in the opposite direction. The narration brings home the fact that we as a nation need to unite, doing away with our differences. The director brings this notion together when they show how if the entire village could pool their energies, they can make a huge difference to the life. The film, commercial as it is, plays within the rules of it but makes a strong statement. It makes the point explicit through the use of the visual media as well as the presence of a strong star cast. Swades is one of the few instances when Indian commercial cinema dares to take a bold stance against a wide social condition that has been in existence for over a millennium. However, Indian cinema can boast of a number of such films that deals with this issue.
Mathamma is a documentary capturing a peculiar but exploitative practice of the Arundhati community in Tamil Nadu. It is about the tradition of offering female children to their deity Mathamma, similar to the practice of offering cattle. Then the offered female child becomes a property of the temple and the village. And she is called the Mathamma thereafter. As she becomes a God's consort, the girl is forbidden from marrying anyone else. But she can live with any person whom they wish to, as Devadasis do. Men exploit them sexually and then desert them. The documentary tries to find out the root causes for the tradition being alive today.
In Arohan we witness the continuing struggle, symbolic of the endless battle of the underprivileged and the landless, for justice. Parai reveals the status of Dalit population in India with the South Indian village Siruthondamadevi as a classic example. "An injury to one is an injury to all" (Martin Luther King) is the baseline of the film. Siruthondamadevi, a village in Cuddalore, Tamilnadu, continues to live with the "official" lie that atrocities against minorities are a thing of past. Here 600 odd Dalits are under assault everyday by 6000 strong Oppressor caste. Untouchability, sexual harassment, rape, assault, exploitation of labor against the SC population are shockingly prevalent in this village. Almost 90% of the women are subject to sexual violence with their men helplessly acknowledging the oppressions. The documentary leaves the question on the constitutional concept of "Justice to All". After 56 years of self rule and independence, a major section of the Indian society still lives oppressed in the name of caste.
Break the Shackles challenges the new economic policies posed before Dalits in India. The film focuses on how the three-track policy of globalization, privatization and liberalization, without the interest of social justice in a highly unequal social structure of country like India, becomes more discriminative to the Dalits.
Similarly, Bimal Roy’s Achyut Kanya and Sujata sought to alert public opinion about the ill effects of caste distinctions. Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati is the story of Dukhi,an out-caste, who approaches the village Brahmin requesting him to set an auspicious date for his daughter's upcoming wedding. The Brahmin promises to perform the task in exchange of Dukhi slaving over household chores in return. Already ailing and weak due to a recent fever, Dukhi agrees and begins with cleaning the Brahman's house and stable. Working in scorching sun, hungry and malnourished, the he dies. The corpse lies close to the road used by the Brahmins to go to the village well. The untouchables shun it for fear of police investigation. What can be done with the corpse of an untouchable that no one will touch? Late in the evening, when no one looking, Brahmin ties a noose around its ankle, slides it out of the city limits and sprinkles holy water on the spot on the road to cleanse it of the untouchable’s touch.
Thus, as Saikat Bhattacharya (director) aptly says, “I believe that cinema and cinema alone can bring about the desired emancipation of the masses by awakening them to the maladies of our society.”