Of Muscle & Macho Men: Hurdang’s Savarna Gaze Goes Beyond Just Reservation

In this lopsided, blatantly anti-reservation narrative, upper-caste men get away with violence, abuse and much more.

5 min read
Of Muscle & Macho Men: Hurdang’s Savarna Gaze Goes Beyond Just Reservation
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From denying representation to oppressed backward castes in Indian cinema, especially in Bollywood, to using the upper-caste gaze to become saviours of the marginalised and their lived experiences, it has been quite a rough journey for Dalits to finding a space of their own that is crafted by themselves, with a straight rejection of the savarna ‘saviour syndrome’. This has happened with the arrival of filmmakers from marginalised castes, such as Nagraj Manjule and Pa Ranjith, in the otherwise upper-caste dominated world of Indian cinema. Manjule and Ranjith have enormously succeeded in not only pushing to overturn the upper caste gaze in filmmaking but also placing anti-caste narratives and social justice icons at the centre of their films.

But while the audience is still reminiscing anti-caste films such as Ranjith’s Kaala and Manjule’s Jhund, director Nikhil Nagesh Bhat’s Hurdang is out in theatres. The film is prominently centred around the 1990s' Mandal Commission-era, and hence, the very first frame begins with popular anti-reservation chants of ‘Mandal Commission Haye Haye’. The metaphoric location of the movie is chosen as Allahabad – the grand old Allahabad University, to be precise.


When Protesting Outside a CM's House Comes Easy

The first few frames focus on the romance between Sunny Kaushal (as Daddu Thakur) and Nushrratt Bharucha as Jhulan in the film. Needless to say, Daddu hails from an upper caste family while Jhulan is the daughter of one SP Yadav. Director Nikhil Bhat has very subtly portrayed Jhulan, an All India Civil Services aspirant, as ignorant of the history of reservation despite her backward caste and Yadav community background.

It’s the 1990s and the atmosphere is abuzz with the impending Mandal Commission Bill. Upper caste students are fired up with anti-Mandal passions. The powerful local leader happens to be a Brahmin, who wants to exploit these sentiments.

The top student leader, Loha Singh, played by actor Vijay Varma, starts mentoring Allahabad university students to start massive agitations against the Mandal Commission report. Loha Singh finds young Daddu charismatic enough to lead the agitation, while he himself is in control in the background. This is a usual savarna template to iconise a protagonist from the upper caste.

As the film progresses, Daddu, at the advice of Loha Singh, goes on to form an anti-Mandal, anti-reservation human chain at the Chief Minister’s residence, so that the news is echoed nationally and reaches no one less than the Prime Minister himself. Interesting to note, director Nikhil Bhat has not missed the chance to use anti-reservation placards in human chain protests, which read, “Dereservation, not reservation”.


'Savage' Backward Caste Men

But the central idea of the movie evolves around the narrative of ‘Gareeb Brahmin bhi ho sakta hai’ (even a Brahmin can be poor) to reinforce the popular upper-caste calls for economic reservation as opposed to reservation based on historical oppression by dominant castes. It’s such narratives that have culminated into the general caste quotas such as the EWS (Economically Weaker Section).

Little do the Mandal haters know that the 27% reservation for other backward classes broke the centuries-old socio-political hegemony of the upper castes in every sphere of life, ensuring democratisation of the Indian republic and society. In fact, reservation as a concept has always been looked through the lens of oppressive dominant-caste Hindus. But such a narrative automatically ignores iconic democrat Dr Ambedkar’s warning: ‘’Turn any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path; you cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform unless you kill the monster."

Reservation was never meant to alleviate poverty among depressed castes and classes but to eliminate caste-based hierarchies and the hegemony of the upper strata in the Hindu society.

Unsurprisingly, no strong pro-reservation marginalised caste antagonist is given space in the film to present a counter-view to the dominant upper caste protagonists’ prejudiced understandings of reservation. This is in clear contradiction with the objectivity of filmmaking, and surely, upper caste filmmakers need to learn a thing or two from artists from marginalised backgrounds such as Pa Ranjith, who, in his superhit film Kaala, has presented a strong Brahmin antagonist (Nana Patekar as Hari Dada) in opposition to the iconic Dalit Bahujan protagonist (Rajnikanth as Kaala). Director Nikhil Nagesh Bhat has openly defied the ethics of fairness in direction.

Bhat is also the writer of the film, and it shows that he couldn’t resist the savarna syndrome to be laid bare. In a post-interval scene of the movie, he has very briefly shown a pro-reservation leader, Bablu Yadav, giving a small speech in favour of the Mandal Commission at the university campus. When anti-reservationist students storm into the meeting with anti-Mandal pamphlets, Yadav gets visibly angry, so much so that he slaps an anti-reservation female student. Daddu Thakur’s group then makes Yadav apologise to the female student and ensures that the female student slaps Yadav back.

Director Bhat has subtly tried to drive home the idea of how upper caste men ‘respect’ women, while the ‘savage’ backward castes are sexist and misogynist. Lest Director Nikhil Bhat forget, it was four Thakur men who allegedly gangraped and murdered a young Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district in September 2020.

Whitewashing Injustices

The whole plot of the movie is extremely weak and reflects the usual anxiety of dominant upper-caste Bollywood directors to prioritise romantic narratives. But in this film, love is rarely revolutionised and is mostly appropriated through the ‘macho’ male leads.

The movie also serves as a reality check for India’s contemporary Dalit and backward caste leaders such as Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, both of whom very recently went out of their way to pamper Brahmins and upper castes of the state by completely abandoning their social justice politics to gain votes.

In Hurdang, the radical Brahmin protagonist of the movie couldn’t even bear to see upper-caste Daddu Thakur’s relationship and the possibility of his marriage with a backward-caste Yadav woman, Jhulan. The movie embodies upper castes' whitewashing of evil practices such as untouchability, caste-based discrimination and Brahminical supremacy, and upholds upper-castes’ prejudiced and skewed understanding of policies like reservation.


How the Upper-Caste Protagonist Gets Away With Violence

Bhat also flaunts upper caste protagonist Daddu Thakur’s impunity even after he resorts to violence. Daddu, on many an anti-reservation protest scene, beats police officers but gets away scot-free due to protection from the upper-caste political leadership. In fact, in the last scene of the film, when Daddu is arrested by the police at a protest site, he misleads the police by exchanging an on-duty officer’s uniform with his own clothes so that he can rush to stop Jhulan’s marriage with another man. Lastly, Nikhil Nagesh Bhat doesn’t forget to showcase a Saraswati puja being performed by Allahabad university students.

Overall, Hurdang is an unexciting, unstimulating film that will fail to generate meaningful debate and discussion among the common public. It’s just another upper-caste dominated story that casually and unthinkingly denies thousands of years of discrimination and injustice suffered by the backwards castes at the hands of savarnas.

(Subhajit Naskar is Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Hurdang   Reservation 

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