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Indian Cinema & Caste: Can Coming-of-Age Content Change the 'Victim' Narrative?

Netflix's latest series ‘Class’ may open caste-class register to reveal engagement with poverty and discrimination.

5 min read
Indian Cinema & Caste: Can Coming-of-Age Content Change the 'Victim' Narrative?
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Cinema has been a powerful instrument in the hands of the ruling classes that often utilise it to manufacture the national culture. With its deep association with middle-class aspirations, the film industry has unapologetically reproduced and legitimised social elites’ religious values and promoted their cultural interest.

For a long time, meaningful representation of life stories belonging to the marginalised communities, especially the Dalits, had no takers in the Hindi entertainment industry. Even occasionally when the Dalit body is presented on screen, he/she gets portrayed as the powerless and victimised person, overtly dependent upon the mercies of the social elites for justice and empowerment (remember Bimol Roy’s Sujata or Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati).

Within the intellectual discourses, there was a comprehensive agreement that caste and class are overlapping structures that legitimise the oppression of the poor Dalits by the minority social elites. Its counterparts within the cinema industry, however, remained unaware of this discussion for very long.

The recently released web series ‘Class’ on Netflix, may bridge this gap and open the caste-class register to reveal its engagement with poverty and discrimination.


Evolution of Dalit Representation in Mainstream Cinema

In the last one decade, the Dalit representation in Hindi cinema has slowly improvised, showcasing that they are more than just struggling or victim bodies. With the huge box office success of films such as Sairat, Kabali, Masaan, Jai Bhim, Article 15, and recently, Kantara, it appears that the cinema-makers have adopted the Dalit-Bahujan narrative as a mainstream mode of storytelling.

The OTT platforms have further elevated the creative and realistic aspect of storytelling and introduced bold and sensitive subjects to its audience, including impressive Dalit characters. Though caste atrocities and social discrimination often defines the background of these stories (like in Maharani), the new Dalit representation is also about their middle-class aspirations (Serious Man), demonstrating their wishes to live a normal dignified life in the city (Pareeksha).

The Dalit characters are now presented as a robust claimant of dignity and upholder of heroic credentials, ready to survive in the cities on their own terms. Ashim Ahluwalia’s web series ‘Class’ is a landmark entry in this discussion.

The film is promoted as a ‘thriller murder mystery’ that eventually reveals the wretched and corrupt underbelly of Delhi’s elite junta. In the abundance of dull and banal Hindi content on the OTT today, ‘Class’ rises as a much-needed thriller that uses realistic language and brilliant screenplay to tell a gripping story.


'Class' Addresses the Caste Question Deftly

The show opens with a cop investigating the murder of a girl student that periodically reveals the extreme power and privileges of the elites, the atrocious and precarious lives of the underprivileged sections, especially the Dalits, and the absence of any moral institution (like the school) to address the everyday maladies.

‘Class’ is an impressive saga that uncovers the corrupt and criminal side of the urban elite class. It is a contemporary tale about psychological traumas that teenagers often suffer because of parental neglect and excessive freedom. Importantly, the show deals with the excruciating complexities when the caste, religion and gender questions (mainly, the gay issues) are intermixed to examine the social crises and class problems.

The director has achieved a tremendous success in meticulously weaving these segments together to tell an extremely bold and radical story. Especially, his handling of the caste and Dalit question needs special mention, as there are very few instances when it is presented with such nuanced layers.

‘Class’ courageously introduces three Dalit-Bahujan-Muslim characters as underdog protagonists. Their life histories churn and dominate the narrative and offer vibrant social realism, truthfully depicting the darker sides of urban culture.

It is a bold addition to the neo-realism genre (earlier, Paatal Lok can be one such web series) that reflects upon the question of social oppression sincerely and makes the Dalit characters its leading protagonist.

Film Exposes the Facades of Elite Education Centres

One major subplot of the web series revolves around the two Dalit brothers Neeraj (Gurfateh Pirzada) and Dheeraj Kumar Valmiki (Piyush Khati). Dheeraj, the younger one, managed to get admission in the most elite school of Delhi and wanted to become an IAS officer. He faces humiliating verbal abuses, violence, and discrimination in school and only in the company of his female love interest, Suhani (Anjali Sivaraman), he finds little solace in that alien space.

We witness that below the glitter of elite educational institution, there exists a dangerous world of drug abuse, cringe sexual appetite, corrupt and compromised establishment.

On the other hand, we see his elder brother Neeraj as an angry young man that struggles to get justice for the poor habitants of his locality. He is portrayed as a vagabond, a negative hero that finds no harm in adopting illegal means to achieve his objective.

Though he is heroic and courageous, he falls a victim to the powerful system that overtly serves the interests of the elites. It is showed that the contemporary Dalit lives are messed up with vivid aspirations and there are perpetual obstacles that halt their progress.


Can Hindi Films Portray Intersectional Caste & Class Discourses?

Films that often claims to be closer to the darker urban realities, seldom decided not to speak about the parallel tragedies and traumas that engulf the Dalits in the city. For example, in Madhur Bhandarkar’s recently released film ‘Lockdown’, we see struggles of various social and professional identities as the part of the narrative, however, he decided not to reflect on the caste question, as if the urban society is divorced of it.

Many other films around the city also bring the social and class question in their narrative (like Page 3, Life in a Metro, Shor in the City, Ugly, etc.). However, the required intersectionality between caste and class was often missing.

Hindi cinema overtly highlights the class characteristics while denouncing the possibility that the protagonist can also emerge from socially deprived backgrounds. Ahluwalia’s ‘Class’ reflects over the problems of city by centring the ‘caste’ question and thus, brings an impressive shift in the narrative style.

The ’Class’ has raised the bar of noir-fiction drama with its brave portrayal of urban tragedies, showcasing immoralities of rich elites and the vulnerable locations of the socially marginalised groups.

Though it also utilises certain popular stereotypes and prejudices while depicting marginalised communities, it can be legitimised as it serves the longer objective of the narrative. More such stories are required to elevate the stature of Hindi cinema not only as the space for popular entertainment but also to make it a responsible artform, sincerely connected with social maladies and can contribute in bringing substantive social change.

(Dr Harish S Wankhede teaches at Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He writes on identity politics, Dalit questions, Hindi cinema and the new media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Dalits in India 

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