The poster of Richa Chadha’s upcoming movie, Madam Chief Minister, stands out for its crudity in a world of political correctness. The movie apparently narrates the story of an “untouchable” woman, who becomes the chief minister of a state. The filmmakers decided to communicate their theme of a Dalit woman’s success in the poster by depicting the protagonist holding a broom with the tagline “untouchable, unstoppable”. The poster has aroused the indignation of many for amplifying a stereotypical portrayal of Dalit identity.
The cognitive structures of upper-caste filmmakers, unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, seem unable to think beyond a broom as a fundamental symbol of Dalit identity. The usage of the word “untouchable” in the poster hints not only at the moral bankruptcy of the overrepresented upper-caste folk in the show business but reveals the marketing strategy as one that sells dehumanising words for profit.
The poster has only vindicated the premise of Rajesh Rajamani’s The Discreet Charm of Savarnas, a satire on upper-caste prejudices against Dalits. In the short film, the characters embark on a desperate search for an actor who “looks like a Dalit” and, thus, fits into their imagination of a “Dalit”. Rajamani’s film calls out the deep-rooted, often normalised, caste prejudices and stereotypical attitudes against marginalised communities. By reducing Dalit identity to a broom, the makers of Madam Chief Minister prove Rajamani right.
In contrast, mainstream filmmakers represent upper-caste protagonists bereft of any caste prejudices and stereotypes, and as figures with authority and agency. That’s not a coincidence. It is because caste consciousness conspicuously shapes the imagination. Case in point: The Brahmin hero of the movie Article 15. Similarly, the poster of a biopic on former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, Thalaivi, depicts the subject of the biopic with respect and authority.
The Dalit imagination of their own identity, undoubtedly, is different from how the upper castes perceive them. They seek their identities in the portrayal of gallantry, virtuousness, and sacrifices of Dalit leaders and assertive symbols of resistance. Badri Narayan’s 2006 book, Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India, Culture, Identity and Politics, explored how Mayawati’s image as a Dalit leader was built up by identifying her with a long line of historical women figures known for their valour, like Jhalkaribai, Udadevi, Mahaviridevi, Avantibai Lodhi and Pannadhai.
In any of the Dalit imaginations, Udadevi and Jhalkaribai can never be seen with a broom nor can the valour of the Battle of Koregaon be undermined by untouchability imposed on Mahars. The portrayal of a Dalit character in Pa Ranjith’s Kaala displays the intrepidity of the hero. In films such as Ranjith’s Pariyerum Perumal and Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, both stories of Dalit-savarna love, you will never find Dalits depicted with degrading symbols.
More importantly, the upper-caste imagination appears to promote a culture of gaslighting Dalit voices. It is unfortunate that Chadha dismissed the criticism against the casteist poster as “cancel culture”. Instead of defending the stereotypical portrayal of a hitherto marginalised community and gaslighting the voices of criticism, the actor and others associated with the movie must commit to a genuine introspection.
The content of the poster can’t be insulated from criticism citing the transformative content of the movie. The Discreet Charm of Savarnas could serve as a reference for all those who venture into creative spaces, to unlearn their preconceived notions. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination should be mandatory reading for filmmakers.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 11, 2021, under the title “The Savarna Gaze”. The writer taught political science at Delhi University