Mainstream cinema brings to us a world of enchanting narratives in which heroes perform tasks that are often beyond the realm of the imaginable. However, films also reflect our social and cultural values. Hindi cinema’s dominant language overtly endorses the moral outlook of the social elites while social groups, like Dalits and Adivasis, are often depicted in a stereotypical manner.
It has been argued that the Dalit representation in Hindi cinema reflects philanthropic upper caste sensitivities. Dalit characters are often shown as powerless (Sujata and Sadgati), wretched (Paar and Bandit Queen) and dependent upon the morality of the social elites (Aarakshan and Lagaan). However, in recent times, films like Rajneeti, Guddu Rangeela, Manjhi, Masaan, Newton and Sonchariya attempted to break such stereotypes. Dalits were now no longer just victims of caste atrocities, but complex characters. The recently released Article 15 is a welcome addition to films that portray Dalit subjectivity in a nuanced manner.
In the film, the Dalit community lives under conditions of abject poverty, performs filthy jobs and faces daily violence and social ostracisation. The non-Dalit characters assert their social identities and work to preserve the feudal-Brahmanical order. Article 15 does not shy away from depicting the realities of caste society. For example, the brutal gang rape and murder of two Dalit girls does not shock the civil society. The victims’ parents are helpless against the insensitive local police. Expecting justice for the victim appears farfetched under such conditions.
Ayan Ranjan, a newly appointed IPS officer, enters the scene to bring justice to the victims. He delivers justice not through an act of revenge but by performing his job sincerely. A privileged Brahmin male, educated in the Western world and unaware of rural India’s brutal caste realities, Ranjan is disturbed by the way the feudal order dominates the social and modern state institutions.
For the first time in Hindi cinema, the narrative revolves around the Dalit caste question. The film also has four set of Dalit characters alongside the Brahmin hero. Varied social and political objectives are behind different fragments of these Dalit lives. However, in end, they remain subjects of the brutal feudal order. While the Brahmin hero emerges as ideal and messianic, his Dalit counterparts are depicted as broken, corrupt or pathological people.
The first set of the Dalit characters represent the Dalit masses. The two teenaged Dalit girls are raped, murdered and hanged by a tree because they refuse to obey the diktats of the feudal elites. Their parents are helpless victims, tortured by the police authorities. These horrifying pictures haunt the narrative.
The second set of characters is of social activists, Gaura and Nishad resembling the activist, Chandrashekhar Ravan). They remind us of the idealist leaders of the Dalit Panthers movement which shocked the political establishment with their militant activism in the mid-1970s. Their commitment to radical Ambedkarite ideas and distrust of social and political authorities is showcased impressively.
Two other important characters are Jatavji, the police inspector and Malti Ram, the apprentice female doctor at the government hospital. They are part of state institutions, with salaried jobs, but their social status has not changed much. Both function under upper- caste bosses and lack independent agency. They represent the neo-Dalit middle class that has achieved economic mobility due to the state’s affirmative action policies. However, they have failed to engage with the daily struggles of their poor Dalit counterparts.
Article 15 also comments on Dalit political leadership. The Dalit leader allies with a right-wing Hindu party that advocates Brahmin-Dalit unity to win elections. This draws from politics in Uttar Pradesh, where, in 1995, the BSP entered into a political alliance with the BJP. In current times, Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramdas Athawale have became part of the BJP-led NDA alliance.
Portraying Dalit subjectivities in a nuanced manner is welcome. However, the reformism of the the upper caste elites seems to dictate the actions of Article 15’s Dalit characters. They are burdened with sufferings, become part of radical militant outfits or get associated with corrupt political regimes. The Dalit character as an independent hero, who can battle criminal elements without fear, is yet to find a respectable space in mainstream Bollywood films. Dalits are monitored as subaltern subjects who need the upper caste saviour.
The writer is assistant professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU