Art cinema in India began as a movement partly in order to intervene in social injustices by propagating the right attitudes among the public, although popular cinema had also done it much earlier. Dalits and caste discrimination have frequently been the subjects in Indian cinema from Achhut Kanya (1936) to Sairat (2016) and the general consensus about these films is positive, that they are courageous attempts to deal with a burning issue that has stubbornly refused to be resolved, and will probably continue to resist resolution for a long time to come. Still, it would be useful to look at the representation of Dalits in Indian film as it could tell us something about dominant perspectives on social victimhood in India that could well stretch beyond film, perhaps into every aspect of culture.
If one were to consider international films dealing with social conflict and victimhood, one could place them under several political categories like Colonialism (Battle of Algiers), Fascism (The Great Dictator), Capitalism (Wall Street, Erin Brockovich), Stalinism (Man of Marble), Maoism (To Live), Patriarchy (The Life of Oharu), the films coming usually from countries (or set in countries) where the particular form of political oppression is pertinent. An aspect common to the above films is that while they all deal with victims they try to present well-rounded pictures of the situations they engage with. Much of The Great Dictator is taken up with life before the spectre of Fascism gains ground, with the barber’s dealings in the ghetto. They pursue mimesis in that they try to base their political discourses on social observation and the victimhood of the protagonists by forces without is only an aspect in their lives, although an extremely important one. This gives them a degree of complexity that might have been elusive if bare victimhood was all the films were about.
When we come to Indian cinema we find victimhood treated differently and this is true of the portrayal of Dalits as well. The tendency is to show the Dalit victim as belonging to a monolithic category transacting only with those outside. A common issue here is that of the forbidden inter-caste romance in which one of the lovers is Dalit. There are a series of films which work by this formula which, when analysed, yields the sense that ‘Dalithood’ gains significance only in relation to caste society. One does not, for instance, find romances between two Dalits from different strata which might also have been opposed. Films about Dalits appear to proceed from social preconceptions rather than unbiased observation and this is apparently because Indian cinema has not favoured mimesis.
Mimesis is a critical and philosophical term pertinent to the arts that carries a wide range of meanings – including imitation, representation, mimicry of life, and the presentation of the self. To paraphrase the general understanding of the notion, art was considered to be an imitation of the world that also allowed for individual expression, i.e.: the subjectivity of the creator of the work of art was accorded a due place. Cinema, because it begins as an imprint of reality is ideally placed to pursue mimesis and the earliest films (by the Lumière brothers) were recordings of events – like workers coming out of factory and train coming into station. A little later, a magician named George Meliès understood that since what was projected on the screen was taken to be reality by the spectator, cinema could also promote illusion or the imagined. This then became a way of introducing subjectivity into film and that is what cinema has broadly been – a recording of reality with subjectivity as a constituent element.
In India, however, film took a different route when the first films by DG Phalke were neither documentaries nor fantasies but mythological films. Phalke insisted that his films based on themes from mythology were ‘realistic’ because they were bringing known ‘truths’ to life. Even when Indian cinema moved out of the genre of the mythological film it continued to purvey familiar truths from the epics and puranas, though most of them were nominally set in contemporary times. Unlike films from world cinema that pursue mimesis (including fantasy films where inner reality often becomes the subject) Indian popular cinema has been preoccupied with transcendental truths not reliant on empirical knowledge but on traditional wisdom and beliefs. If films follow mimesis, complexity and ambiguity become virtues – since the world itself is complex – and their interpretation by critics becomes pertinent. Indian films, because they purvey truths that precede experience, rarely permit/provoke interpretation. This is not true only of popular cinema but also of art cinema where the truths from social texts replace puranic truisms or truths pronounced by tradition. As an instance, working class solidarity and the deceitfulness of the powerful would be ‘truths’ preferred by Marxist filmmakers.
Why Indian cinema takes this separate path can only be speculated about but one recollects a popular maxim heard within India from the school level onwards – that ‘knowledge is within us.’ The question to be put here is what kind of knowledge this might be, since it cannot pertain to agriculture or industry; the answer that presents itself is that it is received knowledge handed down and /or realized by our traditional wise people. To all appearances this would be ‘Brahminical’ knowledge since the Brahmins were custodians of the theoretical propositions underlying most Indian beliefs.
To all appearances the portrayal of Dalits has been ‘theory down’, victimhood made the essence of Dalit life. This is evidently a view from above since a Dalit would be aware of more aspects of his/her experience – while someone from above would only take note of what his or her own class has inflicted upon the Dalit. Most films about Dalits has come from upper-caste filmmakers and one could cite a series of films where Dalit /Adivasi portrayals are patently unconvincing: Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya, Shabana Azmi in Ankur, Smita Patil in Aakrosh, Nutan in Sujata; still, there is more to it than unconvincing character portrayals.
Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2013) is much more convincing because Manjule is himself a Dalit but there is an aspect to Fandry that merits specific comment here. This has to do with the portrayal of the family’s vocation which is pig catching or breeding and the members are shown to be unable to go about it effectively. For instance, when their task is the capture of a pig, they throw stones at it, which only drives it out of reach. The argument offered here is that when people are tied to a vocation they would develop some expertise in it and the film is portraying the Dalits thus because of its disdain for the vocation itself. A Lithuanian film Miracle (2017) seen in recent film festivals (like GIFF) deals with pig farming without fixing such a disrespectful gaze upon it and my proposition here is that the gaze in Fandry is ‘Brahminical’ – since it would be a Brahminical view that Dalit vocations are ignoble. It would seem therefore that Brahminical ideology is all-pervasive – ‘ideology’ used here in Engels’ sense of ‘false-consciousness’, i.e. the motives in the representation once historically engendered now seem autonomous .
Pushing the argument further one could propose that the tendency of Indian cinema to see the Dalit experience only in terms of its relationship to caste society stems from Brahminical ideology. Dalit communities (like all other communities) would have conflicts of their own and also be rich in interpersonal relationships within, but this is not given expression to. A comparison here would be the African-American experience in Hollywood films where people from within the community are shown to transact with each other. Where African-Americans are shown to wield some power (as in gangster films) Dalits are consistently shown to be powerless. One supposes that a Dalit activist as in Court (2014), performing in an urban centre, would find political patronage, which the film does not allow; its apparently Brahminical viewpoint is that unrelieved victimhood is the essential condition of the Dalit.
It is difficult to recollect an Indian film in which diversity within Dalit communities is acknowledged, so monolithic are they seen to be because of the gaze being consistently from the top. Such essentialization – although it may be the product of a ‘liberal’ outlook – is consistent with Brahminism itself, which proceeded by essentializing the jatis as varna categories and placing them within a hierarchy. The varna system was the result of classifying and hierarchizing various vocations – but it can be argued that any kind of vocation would be better placed than that of ‘victim’ since the latter category is not even allowed to take pride in its work, the skills it has developed doing whatever it has been doing.
It is in this context that mimesis becomes a necessary way of portraying social conditions since it relies on observation and experience rather than apriori ‘truths’. Eschewing mimesis in order to be ‘politically correct’ and taking acceptable positions may be a safe alternative for filmmakers today but in such a course can also be detected a ‘hegemonic’ Brahminical perspective – that places preconceptions over empirically derived knowledge. A ‘hegemonic power’ is one that defines the rules of the game and Brahminism has apparently defined the rules for Indian cinema in its portrayal of the Dalit experience.