Indian cinema, in general, has neglected issues and characters related to the Dalit-Adivasi and Bahujan identities. The transgressive and superhuman capacities of a ‘hero’ are allowed to be portrayed only by characters that represent the identity of the social elites. Upper-caste characters in films are shown as heroes, vanguards or philanthropists, and as the only people who can deliver justice in personal feuds and social problems or can demolish the criminal class.
Similar power and space are not available to Dalit-Bahujan characters in cinema. That a character from a marginalised social background can transform the terrible social structure by the fist of fury or by philanthropist grace is not an admissible narrative.
Mainstreaming of Dalit Cinema Has Only Begun
Even on the few occasions where Dalit characters are depicted on screen, they are portrayed through degraded stereotypical roles, mainly as poor or wretched people with no agency and power to change their precarious conditions.
The early Hindi cinema, in particular, presented Dalit characters as humble and docile (Bimal Roy’s Sujata), physically challenged and drunkard (Shyam Benegal’s Nishant) or with belittling adjectives (Kachra in Lagaan). The possibility of presenting a Dalit-Bahujan character as an alpha male and popular hero who is socially conscious, amicable, and dignified is rare.
Interestingly, stories around the centrality of lower castes and Dalit identity are slowly gaining significance in contemporary Hindi and Tamil cinema. They have brought substantive nuances to their representation.
Recent films like Guddu Rangeela, Masan, Manjhi: The Mountain Man, Newton, Sonchiriya, Mukkabaaz, Article 15, Pareeksha, and Madam Chief Minister showcased a range of Dalit characters, who were also mainstream heroes in many of the movies. Though it is still too early to say that the ‘Dalit cinema’ genre is finding traction in Hindi cinema, the seeds for it are perhaps being sowed.
Films Like Jai Bhim Bringing Forth Subaltern Discourses
Popular Tamil films by Pa Ranjith (Madras, Kaala, Kabali, and Sarpatta Parambarai) alongside Vetrimaran’s Asuran and Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan have opened new avenues for examining social realities and for understanding the political visions of marginalised sections of society.
Recently released Tamil superstar Surya’s Jai Bhim enhances this genre. It brings issues concerning subaltern Adivasis to the mainstream discourse, supplementing it with the Ambedkarite perspective on social justice. These films have forged a rich conversation on the caste and Dalit questions in Indian cinema, and have provided them with a mainstream stage.
Marathi Cinema and Dalit-Bahujan Characters
Though recent Tamil and Hindi films have shown some promise in this regard, Marathi cinema had been waiting for a long time for a bold drama that would radically transform the passive subjectivity attached to Dalit-Bahujan characters.
Conventional Marathi cinema has so far remained attached to the cultural values of social elites and has failed to bring creative nuances to ideas and issues related to the Dalit-Bahujan mass. This even as Maharashtra is heralded for its radical anti-Brahmanical movement, progressive social reformism, and Dalit social struggles.
Jayanti, A Bold Story With Sincere Ambedkarite-Bahujan Values
Against this background, Shailesh Narwade’s Jayanti is a refreshing chapter in Marathi cinema. The film focuses on the Dalit-Bahujan’s ideological merits and announces the arrival of a hero who is unapologetic about his non-Brahmanical social identity.
It is a bold story with sincere Ambedkarite-Bahujan values and is supported by technical and artistic teams that can present cinema with an alternative social and political vision. It supplements the promises that are made by the powerful Dalit movement in the state.
Jayanti narrates the story of a small-time goon, Santosh (Ruturaj Wankhede), who works for the local MLA (Kishor Kadam) and has no qualms about his communal and patriarchal behaviour. However, he is transformed into a hardworking, socially conscious entrepreneur after receiving education from a Phule-Ambedkarite schoolteacher (Milind Shinde).
Santosh learns about Shivaji Maharaj’s life, and Babasaheb Ambedkar’s writings motivate him to become a socially conscious person. While building his own personality, he doesn’t forget his responsibility to fight for an Adivasi rape survivor.
The film invites socially marginalised groups (including Muslims) to reflect upon their precarious social habitat and motivates them to build progressive, collective aspirations.
Jayanti Takes Caste Beyond Personal Crises & Social Struggles
Though the film lacks in technical finesse and production quality, and on occasions, the writing appears a bit loud and preachy, it scores better on other elements. Lead actor Ruturaj’s presence on screen as a dominating and rustic admirer of Shivaji is impressive.
The dialogues in the Nagpurian dialect offer an earthy taste. The female protagonist (Titeeksha Tawde) is not given much screen time, but her character as a powerful and conscious Dalit girl is another new for Marathi films. Mangesh Dhakde’s background music elevates the tempo of the film and the song ‘Bhim Sainika’ gives an inspiring social message. Importantly, the film offers a social message from the ideological perspective of the Dalit-Bahujan movement, a rare feat for Marathi cinema.
This is an interesting time for Indian cinema. Historically deprived sections are now making legitimate claims over elite cultural spaces. Already, Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry and Sairat have established a greater milestone for creative excellence and box-office success.
Jayanti extends the question of caste beyond the logic of personal crises and social struggles. It suggests that Dalit-Bahujans do have heroic potentials and can challenge and defeat criminal conservative elites in legal and social battles.
Jayanti presents a dynamic Bahujan hero who wages a difficult struggle to deliver justice against the powerful class and political elites. He overcomes class odds and redefines his personality as a youth committed to bringing social change.
A Bahujan-Ambedkarite Lead Protagonist is a Courageous Attempt
Within the entertainment industry, cinema is a very expensive medium. The field is also nurtured by social elites and operates under their exclusive cultural logic or social vision. Indigenous stories about Dalits’ historic and heroic contribution to socio-political change have only a few takers in the cinema world.
Indian cinema largely sees Dalits as a social problem, whose upliftment is dependent upon the philanthropic virtues of the upper caste. Even in critical reviews of the recently released Jai Bhim, such allegations have come up, suggesting that Chandru, the hero, is contaminated by a ‘saviour complex’.
Portraying a Bahujan-Ambedkarite character as the lead protagonist in Jayanti is a creative and courageous attempt, and it will only advance the path of Dalit cinema.
Cinema remains an elite enterprise. Dalit-Bahujans have very limited access to big capital, institutional infrastructure, technical requirements or networks in the industry, which are essential for making mainstream commercial films.
Without historic legacies or networks, entrepreneurs, artists and technicians from Dalit-Bahujan backgrounds rarely become an influential part of the cinema industry. Jayanti surely offers a strong rebuttal to such hegemony.
(Harish S Wankhede is Assistant Professor at Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)