Pa Ranjith’s Kaala is flooded with Dalit symbolism. And even that is an understatement. Yet several, predictably savarna (upper caste) film reviewers, just couldn’t see the caste in Kaala. Note: this isn’t a rant saying that every reviewer missed the plot in the movie, it’s an article exploring why so many did.
Incidentally, this article is being published on a day that Karan Johar released the trailer of his latest production Dhadak, a remake of the Marathi hit Sairat. Except, with one crucial difference. Sairat was a love story centred around caste discrimination, Dhadak has reportedly chosen to do away with the caste bit entirely. More on that in a bit, but let’s get to Kaala first.
Caste: The Crux of Kaala
In case you’re reading this without having watched Rajinikanth’s latest, here’s a really tiny sample of the caste symbolism in Kaala so that you get my point.
It’s not just the car number.
- Villainous politician Haridev Abhyankar’s Brahmin credentials are underlined in his political slogan and catchphrase ‘Born to Rule’. Typically enough, Hari Da (played by Nana Patekar) even refuses to have a glass of water in Kaala’s Dalit household.
- The real estate group trying to grab land in Dharavi is called Manu Realty - an explicit reference to the casteist author of the Manusmriti. If you just got offended, here’s an actual quote attributed to Manu - “In no situation should men from the other castes marry a shudra woman. If they do so, they would be responsible for the degradation of their family.”
- The colours of celebration in the phenomenal climax scene are black, red and blue. Kaala (black) – the colour of the proletariat, as the movie’s teaser proclaimed. Red – the colour of the Left and the socialist working classes. And blue – for the Ambedkarite protagonists of the movie.
- When Kaala makes an impassioned plea to his community to protect their land, the backdrop shows Kaala’s physical location and the film’s political one – Bhagwan Gautam Buddha Vihar.
I could go on and on. But you get the point. Caste is not incidental to Kaala, it isn’t a minor accompaniment to the plot. Dalit assertion is the bedrock of the movie, its strongest theme, the crux of its politics.
Reviews Without Context
Do you think this would work as an elevator pitch to a Netflix or Amazon Prime executive? “Presenting a series of film reviews that completely ignore the context of the movies being reviewed – Reviews Without Context!”
Don’t get the joke? It’s what a lot of Kaala reviews were like. Sample the reviews by some of India’s most-read media houses.
Run a simple Ctrl+F on the pages and on many of the articles, you won’t find a single mention of the words ‘caste’, ‘Dalit’, ‘Brahmin’.
Look, I’m not disputing the stuff written in the reviews themselves. I’m just pointing out that one, big, crucial, elemental theme that these reviews missed out on – caste.
Even during the days of the Kabali craze, the English news channel I was working at had an intense amount of coverage around the Pa Ranjith-Rajinikanth film. Reporter lives, anchor chats, special video reports, you get the drift. Yet, in ALL of that, I didn’t hear one single mention of the caste angle in Kabali.
Why are we so caste-blind? In my opinion, our ignorance and society’s failure begins in the classroom.
The Fault in Our Schools
I studied in one of the most well-reputed schools in Kolkata. Yet, in my entire school life, and all those years of ICSE-approved syllabi, caste found only two mentions. First, when we were taught about the concept of caste in class 6 – as a four-tiered system of differentiation in the Vedic age. And the second and last time was in class 9 or 10, when we read that after independence in 1947, casteism was abolished in India. That’s it. Period.
It was only much later, in college, that the documentary ‘India Untouched’ opened my eyes to the realities around me.
Our education system is definitely one of the reasons that so many (might I mention, privileged) Indians can afford to be caste-blind. It’s not because caste doesn’t affect them – it’s caste that they owe their privilege of “caste-blindness” to.
Forget schools teaching students about the caste realities of 21st century India, they’re generally not taught anything about caste at all. Barring those two almost-in-passing references, of course.
The lack of a counter from our education system, in even the so-called “good schools” underscores why we need to generate more conversation around caste in popular culture. Our directors and stars could just do what our textbooks and teachers have failed to.
Maybe it’ll be a movie at a time. Maybe it’ll be the few articles about a Kaala that acknowledge and inform readers about caste realities. Maybe then, the kids sitting in the multiplexes and the single-screens today, some of whom will be the film reviewers of tomorrow, will know better.
And when the next generation’s Pa Ranjiths, Nagraj Manjules and Neeraj Ghaywans infuse subaltern politics into the heart and soul of the films they make, hopefully there’ll be an audience that understands the symbolism, and with whom anti-caste politics resonate.
And hopefully, India will add more soldiers in the fight to annihilate caste.
But before you tell me I’m a hopeless optimist out of touch with reality, here’s what got my feet back firmly on the ground – the trailer of Dhadak, a Hindi remake of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat.
The Journey From Sairat to Dhadak
At 1:15 in the trailer of Dhadak, we hear an unintentionally ironic line from a song in the film, “Jo meri manzilon ko jaati hai… ” (roughly translates to, “She who goes to my destinations”). It may be the only mention of jaati we’ll see in the film. Jokes apart though, there’s a serious caste-blindness at work in our films.
In October 2017, The Asian Age quoted a source close to the project saying,
It (Sairat) worked like a charm in Marathi because the story of a forbidden love affair across caste lines was anchored to the Maharashtrian milieu. Karan Johar wanted to relocate the plot to a more upmarket milieu and make it more Romeo & Juliet than play on caste. In doing so, the plot has become like any other love story.Report in The Asian Age
(Note: @beemji is the Twitter handle of Pa Ranjith, director of Kaala and Kabali.)
Here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote after watching one of the exceptions to the norm, Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz.
“Watching how prominently caste is woven into the narrative in Mukkabaaz made me reflect on how Bollywood generally washes its hands off any reference to caste. It does not make Hindi films caste-neutral or casteless, it merely shows that the industry actively ignores the issue of caste.
After all, if ever there was a collective CV for all of India, and our billion plus population, the skill of pulling wool over our own eyes would feature prominently on it. It is an art we have mastered. It’s what makes adult upper caste men and women go around town proclaiming things like “caste discrimination is a thing of the past.”
Despite the reality being something like this.
The same can be said of our moviemakers too. Take for example once-threatened-twice-shy Karan Johar, who is reportedly set to remake the Marathi hit Sairat, but minus the caste equation. It’s like remaking Lagaan without the cricket. Because Bollywood biggies are more likely to open up about the casting couch in the industry than the caste divide in society.
On the plus side, he won’t have to deliver another cringeworthy apology begging for his film’s release. No caste, no problem.”
Well, the optimist in me will argue that the Asian Age report on Sairat is wrong, that Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions hasn’t chosen to exclude the theme of caste from its remake of Sairat after all, and that more films like Masaan and Kabali will emerge thanks to a newer crop of bolder directors who are unfazed in taking on subaltern themes.
And the realist will argue – will the reviews of their movies ignore caste too?