Not Just Bollywood: Caste and Alternative Indian Cinema

Caste is a hierarchical and discriminatory system in which people are born into a permanent social status. There are four primary castes: Brahmin (Priests), Kshatriya (Warriors), Vaisya (Farmers) and Shudra (Servants). Any person born outside the caste system is called a Dalit (“broken/scattered”), an untouchable, and part of a strata of low-caste Hindus. Caste and class are sometimes confusingly talked about in the same breath when in truth they are completely different concepts with their own set of complex historical contexts.

In 1936 B. R. Ambedkar, perhaps India’s most progressive thinker and politician of the contemporary era, was invited to deliver a speech at Lahore as part of the Society for the Abolition of Caste System. Ambedkar’s speech titled ‘The Annihilation of Caste’ directly criticised the Hindu religion for perpetuating and sustaining the caste system in India. Ambedkar was never allowed to deliver his controversial speech but his words set in motion a reform movement and a new struggle that sought to bring about the end of untouchability. 80 years later and some would argue little has changed in terms of the caste system, which has ancient ties that seem almost impossible to sever especially how casteism has been transported globally as part of the diaspora. The impunity with which atrocities are carried out in the name of caste has become a regular occurrence in Modi’s mob law India and the fight for justice by Dalit campaigners is often ridiculed in the mainstream media. The question of caste discrimination remains as pertinent as ever.

While Indian cinema has dealt with caste intermittently, caste was being critiqued as early as the 1930s in popular Hindi cinema. A notable early film is the classic inter-caste love story Achhut Kanya (Franz Osten, 1936), an expensive production from the pioneering Bombay Talkies film studio. In September at HOME, Not Just Bollywood will be exploring just a few of these issues through a series of film screenings and related events. Sanghita Sen, an international film scholar, who programmed a major retrospective of Ritwik Ghatak’s work in 2017, will be delivering a one-hour introduction on the evolving representations of caste in Indian cinema. This talk will be supported with a panel discussion on caste with a range of experts, which will accompany the screening of Masaan.

Here are some of my recommendations of alternative Indian films that have dealt with caste in critical and expressly creative ways:

Ankur / The Seedling (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1974)

One of the key films of Indian Parallel Cinema, this sharp political critique from director Shyam Benegal, looks at the relationship between a landowner’s contemptuous son and his sexual exploitation of the lower-caste servant played by Shabana Azmi in a breakout role. Although the film often comes in for criticism for its supposed lack of political radicalism, the feminist agency of Shabana Azmi’s lower caste character harks back to earlier seminal films like Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959).

Chomana Dudi / Choma’s Drum (Dir. V. Karanth, 1975)

This Kannada Parallel Cinema film is based on a classic of Kannada literature, Choma’s Drum, written by acclaimed novelist K. S. Karanth. Fusing melodrama with a pronounced Marxist address, caste discrimination is brought to light in the despondent struggle of Choma (Vasudeva Rao), a bonded labourer and untouchable who dreams of buying his own land. A relatively obscure work but essential nonetheless.

Sadgati / Deliverance (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1981)

Based on a short story by Munshi Premchand, one of India’s most celebrated writers, Ray directed Sadgati as a short TV film for Doordarshan. Bringing together many of the talented actors that Benegal had discovered including Om Puri, Smita Patil and Mohan Agashe, Sadgati is one of the bleakest depictions of the caste system committed to celluloid. The anger of this work is condensed in the final moments when Dukhi’s (Om Puri) caste ridden corpse is dumped by the Brahmin priest (Mohan Agashe) in a field of rotten carcasses.

Bandit Queen (Dir. Shekar Kapur, 1994)

This harrowing rural critique of caste exploitation adopts a transnational feminist approach whereby the narrative unfolds largely through the perspective of the real life figure of Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas), a lower caste woman, who rebels against an oppressive caste and patriarchal system. A British and India co-production, Bandit Queen is also an epic spectacle of banditry and remains one of the best contemporary imaginings of caste.

Papilio Buddha (Dir. Jayan Cherian, 2014)

Director Jayan Cherian, an experimental documentary filmmaker based in New York, tells the story of an indigenous Adivasi Dalit settlement in Kerala who are attempting to hold on to ancestral land, which is being forcibly taken away from them by a government only interested in serving the interests of larger mining companies. Papilio Buddha was initially denied a certification in India and continues to attract the scorn of the political and religious elite for its unapologetic portrayal of Dalit life.

Bandit Queen will be screening as part of Not Just Bollywood on 11 September at 8pm in a 35mm print. Find out more and book tickets here.

Words by Omar Ahmed, University of Manchester and Curator of Not Just Bollywood

Not Just Bollywood runs from Sep 11 – Sep 30. Find out more here.