Forrest Gump (1994), based on a 1986 novel by Winston Groom, coalesced historical facts with a fictional story of Forrest Gump, a character that people have theorised to be neurodivergent. From the beginning, the movie touched on uncomfortable historical facts – Ku Klux Klan, Vietnam War, JFK assassination, and the Watergate Scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's impeachment.
Forrest Gump innocently narrates all these historical events happening around him without even understanding their immense significance, making even a bigger impact on the audience.
Hollywood has time and again shown the mirror to itself while showcasing movies on racism.
But Bollywood has been shying away from showing the uncomfortable social realities of India, especially the caste system and brutality of atrocities committed against the lower castes Dalits and Adivasis.
A perfect example of this can be found in Forrest Gump’s Indian adaptation – Aamir Khan-starrer Laal Singh Chaddha (LSC), reportedly written in just two weeks by Aamir’s friend Atul Kulkarni.
According to a government statement in Parliament, over 131,000 cases of crimes against Dalits were reported since 2018. That is roughly over 120 cases in a single day.
However, Bollywood’s upper caste filmmakers didn’t want to even mention this uncomfortable fact even in passing reference, much less detail it.
Laal Singh Chaddha was released in the backdrop of the death of nine-year-old Inder Meghwal, a school student killed by his own upper caste school principal in Jalore, Rajasthan. Anyone who watched Laal Singh must have missed the movie showing any reference to caste-based atrocities at all.
Dr BR Ambedkar, in his book Untouchables or The Children of India's Ghetto, wrote, “Cruelties and atrocities practiced by the Hindus against the Untouchables were no less than those practiced by the Americans upon the black people. If these atrocities are not so well known to the world as are those practiced upon the black people, it is not because they do not exist. They are not known because there is no Hindu who will not do his best to conceal the truth in order to hide his shame.”
Laal Singh Chaddha mentions some historical events in India from the late 70s to early 2010. Like Forrest Gump, these events come in the form of chapters where the protagonist himself participates or witnesses these incidents. Here are the events that were shown in the original movie.
Vietnam War – Kargil War
Army friend Bubba (African American) – Army friend Bala (a privileged south Indian)
JFK assassination – Indira Gandhi assassination
Integrated schools and colleges – Mandal commission
Black Panther movement – No comparison
Ku Klux Klan /White nationalism – Ignore and replace with religious conflict
These events run as chapters even as the protagonist's life story progresses. Let us see how the screenwriter-director Atul Kulkarni and Advait Chandan have handled delicate socio-economic issues and showed the Indian context.
Chapter 1: Forrest Gump's friend and black soldier Bubba wants to become a businessman in search of a better life for his family, who has been serving as house helps in white families' houses for generations. Once Forrest starts the business after Bubba’s death, Bubba's family didn't have to work as maids anymore; instead, they employ white maids to work in their house. This chapter denoted the social revolution dreamed by Bubba but made into reality by Forrest.
Laal Singh Chaddha loses this opportunity to showcase India's caste social order. One would imagine that Bubba would be a Dalit in an Indian adaptation, whose generations have been discriminated against. His family could be serving as, let's say – landless labourers at upper caste people’s houses. But in LSC, Bubba is a privileged Bala who is trying to be an entrepreneur in undergarments (trivialising the important chapter of Bubba for want of some laughs that do not come).
Chapter 2: Forrest Gump shows the Black Panther movement that emerged in response to the violence against black people.
Kulkarni and Aamir's own state, Maharashtra, saw the rise of the Dalit Panther movement in response to rising atrocities against Dalits in the 70s – the exact timeframe of the movie. But Kulkarni chooses to erase Dalit Panthers completely, not even giving them a passing reference.
Chapter 3: Forrest Gump sincerely helps black students when there is opposition to integrated schools and colleges. But in LSC, there is an anti- Mandal Commission agitation shown through the savarna gaze of the "anti-merit" notion, and Laal Singh does not help the OBC students or offer any innocent commentary, like why there was an opposition to let poor people take education.
Chapter 5: When Laal Singh receives a letter at his army camp post from his girlfriend, there is a background announcement of the names of the soldiers for which there are letters received. You hear few Brahmin surnames and one Muslim surname but no Bahujan names like Jatav, Meghwal, Kushwaha, or Yadav. These simple things demonstrate how much disregard the makers have for showing social diversity.
LSC turns a blind eye to caste structure, though the screenplay of Forrest Gump offered it on a platter. The presence of Dalit characters or reference to caste discrimination, especially when there were parallels with the English version, would have corrected some flaws of the film. Even a student of sociology would have given these Indian parallels for Black Panther, opposition to integrated schools, or an underprivileged soldier.
On one hand, Laal Singh Chaddha has these glaring omissions, and on the other it has inserted enough masala to make this a film about only religious conflict, a tried and tested formula. For instance, a Pakistani Muhammed’s (Manav Vij) character is a frail addition to extending the Hindu-Muslim binary beyond the war zone of Kargil.
Bollywood's continued approach of not showing strong characters from Dalit Bahujan backgrounds is proving disastrous. It must do course correction, soon.
(This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)