Hindi Cinema’s Fight For Caste Empowerment

Hindi Cinema’s Fight For Caste Empowerment

Hindi cinema has played an increasingly important role in the empowerment of persecuted individuals. 

Since time immemorial in India, there has existed a social practice that has only grown increasingly corrupt over the past few thousand years. What began as a job-assignment system based on the merits and qualities of every different individual, eventually turned into a hereditary caste system that brought centuries of misery, despair, and an avalanche of social injustices upon those at the very bottom of the pile.They have been given many names through the centuries. The Hindu ‘varna’ system classified them as ‘Shudras’, Mahatma Gandhi gave them the name Harijans (children of god) and B. R. Ambedkar, the man who drafted the constitution of India, called them (what is most commonly used today) Dalit, which in Sanskrit means ‘one who is scattered or broken’. It is a sad irony, then, that the lower castes have broken away from Hinduism to seek refuge in Christianity, Sikhism and Islam, only to have found that these other religions also impose upon them the same foul practice of ‘untouchability’ – intolerance based on the notion that the Dalits are somehow ‘unclean’. Human rights abuses against them today are legion. Hindi cinema has, however, played an important role in the empowerment of these persecuted people. From its inception, it focused heavily on films concerned with social issues, which makes perfect sense, I suppose, in a country that was under the thumb of British rule for almost two centuries.


The Early Years: 1930s – 1940s

Perhaps the most important lm of the 1930s was Achhut Kanya (1936, ‘The Untouchable Girl’). The film, which had a class/caste clash at its centre in the form of a high-caste Brahmin man and a Dalit woman who fall in love, pioneered the criticism of caste in Indian cinema. Indeed, the film was produced by the lead actress Devika Rani who herself belonged to an upper caste landlord family of Bengal, but nevertheless dared to be self-critical of her own privileges and the system that awarded them to her.

The 1940s was a more robust decade for Hindi cinema; it had gained technical momentum, and lm output became more prolific. At the premiere of the anti-discriminatory Acchut (1940), Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (who would later go on to become the first deputy prime minister of independent India) stated that this lm could help rid India of the curse that is untouchability, and went on to make the then bold claim that it was one of the biggest

obstacles on the road to India’s true freedom. Arguably, the most politically charged year in the history of Indian cinema was 1946, just a year before the Partition. It arrived with not one but three landmark films with socially-conscious statements to make about discrimination, which included Neecha Nagar (‘Lowly City’) the first and only Indian lm ever to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. But the groundbreaking 1950s were still to come.


Neo-Realism in Bollywood: 1950s – 1960s

After the end of the Second World War, Europe was in shambles. Destruction had been wrought, and the burgeoning Italian Neo-Realism movement built on raw human stories in turn. Many great Indian filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy introduced this cinematic style to Indian audiences, creating groundbreaking films like 1953’s Do Beegha Zameen (‘Two Acres of Land’) which told the tale of a poor lower class villager, who travels to the city to provide for his family after being tricked by his rich landlord. Roy’s other lm was, in my opinion, the single most efficient takedown of caste discrimination in the history of Indian cinema, and that was Sujata (1959), in which a lower caste orphaned infant is taken in by an upper caste family, but is never truly ‘accepted’ by the mother; she grows up always being reminded of her ‘lowliness’ and inherent inferiority.

It is no coincidence that the socially conscious cinema of the 1950s is also commonly considered the golden age of Bollywood. Caste- conscious films were tremendous commercial successes that could actually hope to influence society on a tangible level. One of the biggest successes was Shree 420 (1955), a love letter of sorts to communism; political preferences aside, it is hard to deny that communism has some very applicable ideals to teach Indian society. Another masterpiece, without which the mention of 1950s Bollywood would be incomplete, is Pyaasa (1957,‘The Parched Man’), depicting with the bleakest cynicism how the state had failed its citizens after independence.

The 1960s offered fewer films with the critique of the caste system at their heart, but plenty of mainstream titles were still hostile towards the class divide. Some pointed at the exploitative nature of the upper class and corruption; others argued that not even lower class yet upper-caste peasants are safe from such exploitation. But ultimately, the 60s ended on a high and secular note with Saat Hindustani (1969, ‘Seven Indians’) which went beyond the class, caste and even religious divides to offer a much-needed message of universal inclusivity.

Collective Disillusionment: 1970s

The 1970s went all out with frustration at the establishment. Several filmmakers (most notably the screenwriter duo of Salim-Javed) captured the disillusionment amongst the young and unemployed in particular.There were numerous potboilers, undoubtedly now in line with popular tastes, pushing the message of religious inclusivity and reduction of class disparity, the most prominent ones being Amar Akbar Anthony and Parvarish (both released in 1977) and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978). Even ‘nationalist’ filmmakers like Manoj Kumar were critical of the struggles faced by the nation’s youth in films like Roti, Kapda Aur Makaan (1974, ‘Bread, Garb and a Shelter’).There were also titles like Bobby (1973) that addressed socio-economic disparity, but with a gentle overarching theme of juvenile romanticism. But there is one crucial omission inherent in most of these films, and that is a direct and passionate confrontation of the caste system.


Decline: 1980s – 1990s

There is near-universal acceptance of the claim, among lm academics as well as industry insiders, that the 1980s brought a sharp decline in the quality of mainstream Hindi cinema. Its main trigger was the introduction of VHS which drastically reduced cinema footfall, and a decline in quality reflected strongly in the selection of scripts being produced.The general focus shifted from producing ‘issue-based’ films to B-grade exploitative cinema, which could be churned out quickly with less burden of return on investment.

This gap, however, was filled magnificently by Hindi arthouse cinema, for which the move to home media was almost a boon as they no longer needed to compete with the mainstream for screen time. Films such as Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986, ‘Chameli’s Wedding’) and Aakrosh (1980, ‘Cry of the Wounded’) directly critiqued the caste system after cinema had long hit pause on the issue. It would, however, be unfair to reduce the contribution of the mainstream to nil, as some displayed criticism of social evils. The year 1985 specifically stands out for its socially conscious films. Ram Teri Ganga Maili (‘Rama Your Ganges is Impure’) brilliantly pointed out the hypocrisy of a society with high moral values but little to no self-awareness, followed by Arjun, which took the baton from the angsty- youth films of the likes of Deewar and Ghulam (‘Slave’) by attacking the landlord-peasant divide in rural India.

Post-1991, due to changes in government regulations regarding foreign investments, there was a major influx of American pop culture, reflected in glossier, more materialistic cinema that also started pandering to an emerging new audience: the non-residential Indians living in America and Britain. This NRI-pandering is generally seen as a low phase in Indian cinema because the focus shifted from any domestic issues to simply telling escapist stories that depicted an abundance of happy upper-class people who never seemed to have or need jobs.


Revival: 2000s – 2010s

The 2000s sparked a slow progression towards what is, in my opinion, the second golden age of Hindi cinema. The biggest hit was probably Lagaan (2001), despite only its subplot honing in on caste injustice, by depicting how untouchables are forced to live on the village boundaries and forbidden to assimilate with the general residents. A huge box-of ce success, its message managed to reach out to a much larger diaspora, unlike the documentaries or state- produced films that beat the same drum, while in 2006, Shakespeare’s Othello was adapted into a rural north Indian setting, where race was replaced with caste.

All this has culminated in the present decade, perhaps the most socially conscious era in Hindi cinema’s history since the 50s. Great voices have emerged from all over the country, including that of Nagraj Manjule, who directed two Marathi language films that dealt with caste.And even in new-age Bollywood, films like Masaan (2015, ‘Crematorium’) again showcase an astute understanding of caste-politics in India. Although the latter may be classed as ’Indie’, there have also been a fair share of star- studded films like Aarakshan (2011, ‘Reserva- tion/Af rmative Action’) that tackle caste-based discrimination head-on, and most recently of all Mukkabaaz (2017,‘The Brawler’) that addressed the rampant casteism in northern India.

The future looks somewhat bright for social issue films in India. It’s been over 80 years since an inter-caste love story in the 1930s first addressed the injustice of untouchability. Although untouchability was abolished in the 1950 Indian constitution, even today caste repression is still a living reality, present in nearly every sphere of life. Cinema is a key ally of emancipation for all in India, but we still have a long way to go.As Hindi cinema’s history has shown, this is an ongoing, hard-fought battle that not just lm, but other modes of Hindi culture must continue to fight. The empowerment of India’s oppressed communities is like a dwindling lamp at the moment, one which needs to be repelled with the oil of our collective conscience as a nation.

This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine.

Illustration by Carol Bartlett