Mayank Shekhar: Can pop-cinema address caste?

Jun 13, 2018, 07:17 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Yes, if the voice is from those who can feel the subject from within

Mayank Shekhar: Can pop-cinema address caste?
A still from Acchut Kanya (1936)

Mayank ShekharThe dazzling, hazel-eyed Devika Rani plays the 'untouchable' girl in Acchut Kanya (1936)—widely considered the first film to directly address caste-discrimination in Indian or, at any rate, Hindi cinema.

You might be aware Ashok Kumar — no, he was not born a geriatric —played her young, upper-caste love-interest in the film, produced by Himanshu Rai's legendary Bombay Talkies studio, written by the elite, influential freedom-fighter Bipin Chandra Pal's son Niranjan, directed by the German Franz Osten, who probably had no clue about caste, let alone Dalits, Brahmins, or 'untouchability'.

Since everyone's heard of, but hardly seen the landmark Acchut Kanya, it isn't exactly a romance in a real sense. That would be too far-out for 1936. It is essentially the story of the unconditional bond, and close friendship, between the girl's Dalit father, and the boy's Brahmin dad, whose life the Dalit man had once saved.

This explains how their children grew up so close. While the Brahmin mother is okay with her son mingling with the girl, she takes strong objection to him eating food cooked by her. Likewise, the Brahmin father, equally fond of the girl, wishes the two children could wed; they'd be perfect. If only they belonged to the same caste.

The young girl herself is resigned to the destiny of a "kanya" (girl), which is to get married: "Apne jaat wale ke saath, aur kiske saath [with someone from her own caste, who else?]." This is quite in line with Gandhi, unlike Ambedkar, who seemingly saw caste-system as very much a fact of Hindu life; his issue being with the complete exclusion of 'Harijans' (or untouchables) from the same social hierarchy.

The Brahmin father in Acchut Kanya is an impossibly good, non-violent Gandhian, willing to pardon his neighbours for burning down his house, because he brought his ailing Dalit friend over to live with him.

Why does everyone, chiefly led by the local 'vaid' (doctor), gang up for a smear campaign against this harmless Brahmin shop-keeper? Because he prescribes modern quinine to cure malaria in the village, rendering the traditional jadi-booti as totally useless. Old-guard is up in arms. Sub-text is complete. What is so significant about Acchut Kanya? That ever since, popular Bombay cinema, rarely if ever, directly touched upon caste as a massive social conflict. It's a common complaint, with stray exceptions, like Bimal Roy's Sujata (1959), only proving the rule.

Does this obvious neglect have anything to do with the means of film production having been traditionally in the hands of the upper-caste? Kapoors, the most dominant surname in Bollywood, for example, are Punjabi Khatris, or Khshatriyas, at the top of Hindu varna. Most others you survey appear similarly positioned.

To be fair, being from an upper-caste doesn't automatically make one casteist, or caste-blind; but for the fact that caste may not be the foremost conflict in your own mind. Discussions in a lot of such homes centre on whether quotas for jobs/colleges further entrench caste, rather than displace it. In Indian cities, rich children became most aware of their classmates' surnames first with Mandal Commission (1990), which coincided with the rise of politics around Ram Mandir and Hindu supremacy. The Maithil Brahmin Prakash Jha's Aarakshan (2011) looked at reservation with the 'Nawab' Saif Ali Khan cast as a Dalit.

Not sure if the film got too dull, it didn't do well commercially, which is just as well. Caste (with its sickening history, complex back-story) is an uncomfortable beast to confront. It could interfere with popular entertainment, which has been populated instead by heroes with the generic Kumar for both off and onscreen last names, eulogising customs, altogether upper-caste, that one assumes as universal.

Also with Mumbai (the place of production) being India's only truly cosmopolitan city, by definition a place where people (dyed in caste at birth) would merge for their individual castes to die (for good), could help people, and therefore characters in stories, avoid being defined by their caste-identity alone. Like the Dalit government-servant Newton (2017), perhaps.

This is not true for the village. But nobody makes films in a village. What if the person from the village made films in the city? Would they be able to ignore caste, and its oppression? Impossible. What if s/he had the serious chops for mass entertainment: song, dance, drama, the works? That's precisely what happened with Nagraj Manjule's Sairaat (2016), a massive eye-opener in terms of both the subject (caste), and its box-office earnings, that uniquely united the sahib, mem-sahib and maid, across Maharashtra.

And I see people similarly waking up to several symbolisms and strong anti-caste statements in Kaala, by Pa Ranjith (also a Dalit filmmaker from the village, working out of Chennai), with Rajnikanth, no less, being watched across India. Some are terming the film revolutionary. Yes, it's a new mainstream voice, they're right. Think there'll be more.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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