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Shifting Cinematic Representation of the Dalit Community in Hindi Cinema, Shows

Dahaad, Kathal, and Bheed depart from the way Hindi cinema represents the Dalit community.

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Cinema is the mirror of society and its norms, structures, and values. While it can contest the existing power structures, prejudices, and regressive norms, it can also entrench and re-entrench them simultaneously. The ways in which the Hindi cinema has portrayed caste and members of the Dalit community is a particular case in point.

For a long time, Hindi cinema was caught in a trope of wretched Dalits being emancipated by the benevolent upper castes. While other parallel waves of cinema made some serious efforts, the wait for a mainstream Dalit Hero continues.

In this regard, scholar Harish Wankhede aptly claims that Dalit representation in mainstream Hindi cinema largely follows the Gandhian logic where deprived socio-economic conditions of Dalits are reformed by kind-hearted, charity-driven, and philanthropic upper-caste men. This type of representation can be seen in several films such as Ganga Jamuna (1961), Sujata (1959), Damul (1985), Swades (2004), and Article 15, among others. Hindi cinema primarily creates upper-caste male characters as change-makers and frames Dalits as passive recipients.

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In this broad context, the recent web series Dahaad, and films Kathal and Bheed depart from the way Hindi cinema represents Dalits, the question of caste, and its relationship with patriarchy.

Dahaad, created by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, is situated in a small town of Rajasthan where a Dalit woman cop Anjali Bhaati, played by Sonakshi Sinha, and her colleague, trace the murder of several women whose bodies were found in public toilets.

Kathal: A Jackfruit Mystery, directed by Yashowardhan Mishra, is a satirical comedy-drama film set in a small Indian fictional town called Moba where the story revolves around a Dalit women character, Mahima Basor, played by Sanya Malhotra.

At the same time, Bheed, directed by Anubhav Sinha, is based on the tragic events during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic where one Dalit officer, Rajkumar Rao as Surya Kumar Singh (he openly states his title many times, as Tikas, a lower caste title, and not Singh), is the in-charge of a checkpost where he has to stop migrants from entering into the state.

Heterogenous Visual Representation of Dalits

The legacy of Dr BR Ambedkar's ideas is based on the self-independent movement of Dalits, which uses political assertion as a medium to build their subjectivities around the question of dignity and constitutional rights. Films such as Guddu Rangeela (2015), Manjhi (2015), Masaan (2015), and Newton (2017) represent fresh, nuanced, and heterogenous images of Dalits, which are largely based on the Ambedkarite vision of the Dalit self. This vision is contrary to the Gandhian Harijan.

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Mahima Basor in Kathal, is educated, honest, and brave. She is a confident and dutiful police officer and never hides her caste identity. But one can still trace an upper-caste gaze in Kathal.

Her character is not assertive. Mahima does not react when an upper-caste powerful MLA, played by Vijay Raaz, asks her to get off the carpets in a disrespectful and hostile manner. Mahima's character is tilted more towards the upper-caste sense of society, and the director disassociates her from the pain and suffering of the Dalit community.

But, the character of Anjali Bhaati in the web series Dahaad departs from the stereotypical Hindi cinema portrayal of a Dalit and adopts Ambedkar's idea of representation.

She is an independent, educated, and courageous woman. This web series does not follow Gandhian logic, and builds a story on the image of a self-independent Dalit women.

Meanwhile, director Anubhav Sinha crafts a very complex and multi-layered Dalit character in Bheed. Surya, a police inspector, is still traumatised by the caste atrocities of the past, dates a Brahmin woman, and aspires to be an honest, dutiful, and sympathetic policeman. While Surya seems to be assertive sometimes, most of the time, he is shown as fearful, traumatised, and helpless.

Even though all three lead characters are not identical in the complete representation of Ambedakrite's self, it establishes them as those who can bring justice and save society from criminals, thugs, and crises.

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Moving Towards an Assertive Portrayal of Women

Scholar Harish Wankhede writes that like it did with the Dalit community, mainstream Hindi cinema presented women too as docile, humble, and powerless. It shows women from the male gaze. They need protection to find meaning in their life.

The representation of a Dalit women in mainstream Hindi cinema always echoes Brahminical patriarchal notions.

This requires women to submit their sexual autonomy and individual desires to their husbands and families. Women must perform this sacrificial rite every day for a happy and peaceful life.

Controlling female sexualities and the practice of endogamy are two prominent ways to maintain Brahminical, casteist societies. DahaadKathaal, and Bheed create characters who break these Brahminical notions one way of the other.

Dahaad breaks the stereotypical representation of women, specifically Dalit women. The character of the Dalit woman cop enters the domain of wrestling and rides a Bullet motorcycle, disrupting the notion that certain things are made only for men. The pitch of the voice by which Bhaati communicates with her male counterparts shows the confidence she embodies as an educated Dalit woman.

She dates a man entirely of her choice without indulging in long-term commitment and submission to oppressive monogamy. She shows her claim on bodily autonomy and freedom of choice. Bhaati argues and dissents with her male counterparts on several issues while working on the murder case of 29 missing women.

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While Kathal tries to move in the same direction but fails to reach the stage where Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti reach in Dahaad. Mahima Basor is the most talented police officer, unlike her other upper-caste colleagues, who are corrupt, ignorant, and submissive. She also breaks and exposes the incompetence of her senior male police officers. Without giving away too many spoilers, let me just say that it looks like her character aspires to live a normal life in a casteist family without challenging their deep-rooted Brahminical notions.

Meanwhile, the character of Surya in Bheed is in a relationship with a young Brahmin woman, discards the notion of endogamy, and presents an image of a possible casteless society.

Presence of Marginalised Shaping the Institution

The public institutions of India are overly represented by dominant upper-caste men and lack adequate representation of India's majority marginalised communities such as Dalits, women, and the OBCs.

The three films discussed above beautifully shows how institutions like the police, which mostly act like alliance partners with dominant castes in violence against the marginalised, can be sympathetic towards the same when the assertive presence of the majority marginalised communities is available.

The proportional presence of all communities can inform these institutions with empathy -- as Bell Hooks says, "a unique way of seeing a reality."

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Mahima Basor in Kathal uses her intelligence to divert other people's attention to find a missing Dalit girl. She stops her boyfriend from beating up a poor person, and she behaves sympathetically with the Dalit father who comes to the police station to file a missing report, unlike her male counterparts.

Dahaad bravely shows that an upper-caste male constable at Mandava's police station always uses incense sticks to purify the space whenever Bhaati or any Dalit touches it. The presence of Bhaati as a Dalit woman shapes the police as an institution in two dimensions.

First, it establishes how a presence of a single Dalit officer brings discomfort to the deep-rooted casteism of ill-minded dominant castes. Second, her presence in a male-dominated profession depicts a sympathetic and dedicated approach to solving the mysterious death of 29 women. She consistently invokes caste as an essential category to understand the psyche of the main accused, who is an upper-caste man.

Bhaati does not hide her caste identity, and this vantage point gives an analytical edge to solving the murder mystery of missing women.

The character of Surya in Bheed also shows how a Dalit officer, even though everyone is discriminating against him, can act for the community's more significant interest.

Under the limited autonomous space, he behaves sympathetically with the people who ask for food and other help. Surya even fights with his senior police officer to save an upper-caste person even though he abuses him several times. This establishes the notion that the assertive presence of marginalised communities will inform the institution with a sense of justice for the poor, powerless, and lower castes.

These complex, heterogenous, and well-informed cinematic representations of Dalit bodies in Hindi cinema is a celebratory trend. Content like this need to be created more. Cinema will only strengthen the marginalised's ongoing struggles toward a more democratic, casteless, and just society. 

(Nitish Kumar is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. Kishan Kumar has an MA degree in Political Studies from JNU and works as a research associate at Ashoka University.)

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