Written by Ramendra Singh
Article 15, starring Ayushmann Khurana, is an incisive statement against the caste system. At least that is how upper-caste audiences, or anyone who has not been at the wrong end of the caste hierarchy, would feel after watching the film. Still, a few voices have come forward against the logic of having a Brahmin hero as a torchbearer against the system that Brahmins created. But as expected, not many seem disposed to accept this argument.
That this kind of argument has always been less favoured among a certain section can be seen from the clear preference of the privileged urban upper classes (easily interchangeable with upper castes) for Mahatma Gandhi over B R Ambedkar, and the parties like the Congress and BJP over the BSP and RJD.
“It’s the privileged who should challenge privilege,” argues the film’s director, Anubhav Sinha. Now, this could be read as a fair argument or a condescending one, depending on which side of the debate you are on. As we know, politics and culture shape one another. And Bollywood can work as a guide to Indian politics, at least on caste.
Bollywood, for all its progressive appearances and stances, has remained an industry by the upper classes and for the upper classes (and upper castes). There is no need to point out that Sinha and his co-writer, Gaurav Solanki, belong to upper castes as do Khurrana and most other actors in Article 15. This is one of the reasons why the understanding of caste in Bollywood remains limited. For the most part, the film industry has been happy to keep any reference to caste at bay. Historically, heroes have been upper castes (both Muslim and Hindu) in real life as well as reel life. Kumar, Khanna, Kapoor, Sharma, Singhania were some of the “casteless” surnames for most characters. Article 15’s Ayan Ranjan is in that mould. With the exception of some attempts in parallel cinema, surnames like Jatav, Pasi, Kori, Kushwaha, Yadav, Nishad are hard to find both among characters, and in the opening credits.
In the last few years, some attempts have been made to tackle caste, but often through an upper-caste prism. In Sonchiriya, a film released earlier this year, there is a sequence in which dacoit Phuliya (apparently inspired by Phoolan Devi), who stands against Thakurs helps the Thakur gang that is on the verge of elimination, having lost its leader and gotten divided into two factions. In this encounter, Phuliya asks a Thakur woman, Indumati Tomar, who is travelling with Thakur gang, to join her group. Tomar, who is running away from an abusive family, reminds her that she is a Thakur, a reference to the caste of Phuliya’s enemies. Phuliya retorts that the caste of a woman is separate from all other castes and sits at the lowest position in the caste hierarchy.
This dialogue seems to be aimed at showcasing that women across the social strata face atrocities and discrimination. But this entire episode also looks a little farcical because the women from the so-called lower castes face not just more atrocities but also harsher ones. What happened to Phoolan Devi was as much, if not more, about feudal upper-caste violence as it was about misogynistic patriarchy. Women from the dominant castes do face similar issues but not the same issues. Dalit women are not just victims of their gender but also of the social status of their fathers, husbands and brothers.
Any expectation of change in this approach largely depends on how diverse and inclusive the film industry becomes. While it is not impossible for an upper-caste filmmaker to deal with the issue of caste in a realistic manner, their attempts till now have not been able to reach the maturity that films like Fandry and Sairat, by Dalit filmmaker Nagraj Manjule, have.
About 50 per cent of Indian population consists of the people who are categorised as Other Backward Classes(OBC), and this includes backward Muslims. Yet, in a nearly century-old film industry, we have perhaps just one OBC star — Rajkummar Rao. One can only guess how long we will have to wait for a Dalit star.
This article first appeared in the July 4 print edition under the title ‘Art from above’. Singh is a Mumbai-based screenwriter