A few weeks ago, I was addressing a bunch of students in Hyderabad. We had just finished watching a couple of recent films (Fandry and Masaan) which topline Dalit characters, and we were discussing the gamut of troubling issues surrounding caste, and being permanently defined by the fact of your birth, not your ability, or skills.
I asked if any of them had Dalit friends. In a preliminary chat, a few of the students had hinted at their OBC lineage, but reluctantly: They were clearly and understandably chary about putting their background out in public. Only one girl raised her hand. I asked her if she had ever invited the friend home. She shook her head. I asked her why, and she said, her tone a mix of truculence and shame, “you know why”.
Yes, I do know why. We all do. Because the biggest elephant in the room — in our drawing rooms, class rooms, court rooms, and all the other scores of rooms which constitute the nation state — is not religion, though that causes plenty of problems of its own. It is caste, whose boundary lines are indelible, like an ugly birth-mark which refuses to rub off despite all the trying. It is the awareness of being the “other”, and being permanently shamed into keeping quiet about it.
The stoppers that we have used to keep all those damaging emotions in check have finally begun gaining visibility in cinema, not the parallel cinema that no one, or very few of us, got to see in the ‘70s and ‘80s when caste and identity politics began showing up in storylines across India, in films made by Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, K. Jyoti Pandian, Jabbar Patel, and others. We were finally talking about what we did not talk about, and cinema became the perfect medium for it, because it gave us distance as well as immediacy.
But it was short-lived, and got taken over by other compulsions.
This is the second coming of that socially-conscious cinema. But it is now demanding mainstream privileges. You can see that this time it will not be confined to small pockets of cineastes: It will go out and roil the waters; it will force us to confront that elephant in all its enormity.
Sanalkumar Sasidharan’s Ozhivu Divasathe Kali is one such. It takes an everyday sort of occurrence: A group of friends using a polling day as an “off day”, to have themselves a booze-filled holiday, and turns it into a film of enormous significance and power. One of the friends, who is being picked on right from the start, slowly and painfully “comes out” as being Dalit: Dasa (the name is heavily symbolic) is dark, much darker than his companions (the complexion is symbolic too), with their “sacred threads” gleaming across fair chests.
The friends wield their power with a great deal of unstated but evident entitlement. They treat the working class woman who has been hired to cook for them in the same way, their casual sexism filling you with dread, which is justified by the shocking end.
Sasidharan’s second feature won top honours at the Kerala state awards, and is readying for release. Can a film that plays out like a chronicle of a death foretold prevent another Rohith Vemula, or a Dalit law student being raped and murdered? You cannot draw these parallels, but hope and pray for more visibility leading to more awareness, in turn leading to more accommodation.
Another second feature, which has taken viewers (even, happily, non-Marathi speakers) by storm is Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat. His debut Fandry, one of the most wrenching films on Dalit oppression, is followed up by an equally impressive act, more polished but as much of a sock-in-the-gut. Sairat features a pair of young lovers — the girl from a wealthy upper caste family, the boy poor and low caste, uses the convention of song-and-dance, and turns everything on its head. It is what is called an explosive love story, and if it is running in a theatre near you, run, don’t walk, to it.