Constructing an Anti-Caste Aesthetic: Emerging Negotiations on Silver Screen
Partly due to its own lack of ideological sharpness, as well as succumbing to post-Independence pressures of portraying the Indian state as flawlessly plural, the caste question has historically been dealt with in a lukewarm fashion in Indian cinema. Films rarely brought caste to the centrefold, and if they did, then it was through an abstract global humanist lens, awfully limited in dealing with a problem with clear stakeholders. On the rare occasion it chooses to converse with caste issues, Hindi cinema has shown very little spine in providing an incisive lens to the violence of caste relations, and its onus-bearers.
Going all the way back to Achhut Kanya (1936), with its template to dilute the complexity of inter-caste relations to merely a plot focused on the story of star-cursed lovers, to Article 15 (2019) with its savarna saviour complex, or Dhadak (2018), with its erasure of caste references in its adaptation from the original Marathi film Sairat (2016) - a web of problematic approaches mar the growth of caste-driven cinema in the Bombay film industry.
While caste-based atrocities are not limited to any particular region, the lean towards socially aware cinema is strong in Kollywood. Tamil cinema has often been touted as especially progressive in this domain, owing to its tradition of the self-respect movement and regional peculiarities that place intermediary castes in dominance. This in no way means there are no parallels to its Hindi counterpart in providing cover to reactionary tendencies by way of making caste-critical cinema. Take for example the tradition of elevating the Thevar identity and reinforcing caste-based characteristics by showcasing them as dominant, lordly, aggressive but generous people.
Exploring these creative choices in discourse and essentialist portrayal and its effects on public consciousness, the documentary ‘The Invisible Other: Caste in Tamil Cinema’ gives a good lay of the land by delving into the rise of identity representation post the 1990s through a regional lens. The speech by the landlord protagonist in Bharathi Kannama (1997) boasting about traits of a ‘real Thevar’' man; the martial image of the community as shown in Thevar Magan (1992) to evoke caste pride bear an all-too-familiar paternalistic gaze. In Sophie Fiennes’ 2005 documentary, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Zizek lays out the unconscious hopes and reflections that guide the art of storytelling: “We need the excuse of a fiction to stage what we really are.”
In Karnan (2021), religious symbolism is captured as a space to reshape power in the village setting. In its titular reclamation of the demi-god warrior from the Mahabharata, the name Karnan complicates the mythical canon and infuses the narration with a mystical power.
Director Mari Selvaraj represents Podiyankulam’s oppressed community, where the use of a bus stop is prohibited for the villagers, owing to their lower-caste status. The film opens with the fatal tragedy of a little girl succumbing to epilepsy on the side of the road, as buses pass her by. What ensues is an eruption of a violence: self-immolations, beheadings, merciless beatings. Karnan is a film that visualises its exhaustion, and says: we are tired of toning it down for you.
In the last scene, the grandmother looks at Karnan and says in a hard-hitting liner that disrupts the pity narration that follows most top-down approaches: “Our people must never cry again.”
Similarly, Vetrimaaran’s Asuran (2019), is a stellar addition to this new tradition of shifting narrations. The story follows the life-drama of Sivasamy (Dhanush), a Dalit man who avenges a death in his family in a gripping tale of caste-violence that powerfully brings into focus the hegemony of land-owning caste groups in Tamil Nadu’s villages. Based on Sahitya Akademi award winner Poomani’s novel Vekkai, the movie deals with panchami land rights — allotment of land to lower-caste groups during colonial rule, that could not be re-classified or transferred to others.
The centrality of land in film has slowly been picking up traction, especially in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telangana. This is helpful in evolving a much-needed material perspective to the more abstract discrimination in cinematic works, exposing the socioeconomic structures that act as a backbone to caste-pride and semi-feudal hierarchies in India.
Instead of adapting the family-drama novel as a boilerplate revenge thriller, the director takes the creative liberty of infusing caste atrocities in the dynamic. It shows the character arc of a patient, peace-loving father who believes in legal means of justice, pushed to the brink in the aftermath of his son’s murder, having exhausted the righteousness at his disposal. By tilting the film ‘Asura’ - Vetri Maaran also harkens back to Ambedkarite reclamation of the misrepresented histories of asuras and rakshasas, analogizing the depressed classes, the dispossessed tribes. By reversing the aesthetics of the creatures deemed as the embodiment of evil, the film makes an effort to invent an aesthetic that would spur semiotic reinterpretation of the perennial fight between good and evil in dominant religious discourse.
Constructing an oppositional aesthetic angle also means to convey the full force of unadulterated emotions on camera, not trying to overlay unification of antagonist forces for the sake of ‘resolving’ plotlines. The unforgettable Fandry (2013), which marks Nagraj Manjule’s debut in Maharashtrian cinema, shows Jabya’s character hurling stones at his tormentors and blacking out the camera lens in the end. The twelve-year-old protagonist, belonging to the Kaikadi community (who are expected to tend to pig-rearing work) explodes in anger against the humiliation borne by his people. In the unflinching climax to the film, his outburst emotes generational anger reaching a breaking point.
Another hidden gem is the short film Sadgati (1981), translating to Deliverance, that tells the story of Dukhi (played by Om Puri), who is a tanner hoping to get the village priest to bless his daughter’s wedding. After extracting free labour from him all day in exchange for this ‘favour’, without so much as a lunch break, the Brahmin Priest Ghashiram finds the untouchable lying dead in front of his house porch, having collapsed under the strain of woodcutting for hours on end. Satyajit Ray’s masterful direction, involving little to no dialogues, with prolonged and detailed camera focus, creates a rawness that is both spectacular and haunting.
There are several films that have pushed the envelope in a no-holds-barred approach to caste-critical filmmaking. Names such as Pa Ranjith, Manjule, Neeraj Ghaywan have helped in foregrounding Dalit filmmaking in the production end, but attitudinal shift needs to be an pan-industry effort. However, there are several typecast practices that need to be abolished for more rooted portrayals of the DBA experience. These include avoiding direct references to caste backgrounds in films, not giving proportionate screen time for the lower-caste characters in favour of agency or more layered character developments, and very commonly: bringing in class as a stand-in for a problem that isn’t simply economical but involves social humiliation. Representation is not a checklist that will automatically resolve issues which need to go through a thorough revision in aspects such as: the vantage points we take, the cinematic choices we employ, the aesthetic decisions we take while devising an anti-caste script. Cinema helps in constructing identities and structures, it can be equally powerfully as a site of resistance and demolition of the unjust burdens being carried on a select few shoulders.
Yusra Khan is a writer and digital policy enthusiast based between Lucknow and Delhi. Her interests are versatile, but she is particularly fascinated by the intersection of politics, labour and technology studies.
Currently, she works at Nvidia as a prompt-writing specialist, bringing human creativity to AI-generated outputs. A film addict since childhood, she is rumored to have rewatched Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na over sixty eight times till date, and doesn't plan to stop.