When a Bollywood ‘hero’ is not stalking women on screen or treating them like inanimate possessions, he can be a larger-than-life character who is charming and fun to watch. While we know they are playing fictional characters, there’s a way that a good actor embraces them and makes them look almost real. While there are dangers to it, say if they are playing glorified harassers aka Kabir Singh they can end up normalising and romanticising harassment in a country where gendered abuse is rampant. On the other hand, when they play characters that show courage and determination (like Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De! India) or leadership abilities (like Aamir Khan in Lagaan), they both entertain and inspire the audience. The ‘hero’ in a Bollywood film is often bestowed with superhuman skills, grace and humanity. However, such gracious credentials are often unavailable to the Dalit characters. The possibility that a Dalit character can be imagined with similar heroic attributes or can be presented as a popular alpha hero- are yet to find respectable space in the mainstream Hindi cinema.
Director Prakash Jha’s recent release Pareeksha on Zee5 endorses the conventional archetypes of the Dalit lives and presents a stereotypical picture of Dalit depravity. The story is about a poor Dalit rickshaw puller, Buchchi Paswan (played well by Adil Hussain), who becomes a petty thief only to make his prodigious son study in one of the most prestigious schools of Ranchi. The plot is interesting and pregnant with thrilling possibilities; however, the director has treated the story with minimal imagination and unapologetically endorses the stereotypical cultural values and moralities by which the social elites imagine the Dalit world.
The Dalits are often invisibilised in Hindi cinema, and even when they appear on screen, they are shown as powerless, wretched or dependent upon the patronage of the social elites. We all remember the realistic ‘parallel cinema’ of 1980s, especially films like Damul, Nishant, Paar, Sadgati, that presented heart wrenching narratives about Dalit exploitation and marginalisation in feudal village societies. Though, Pareeksha is set in contemporary urban context, however Buchchi’s social and class location emulate the conditions portrayed in the ‘parallel cinema’ mentioned above. He is wretched, powerless and a petty criminal. The only improvisation it offers is that it presents Bulbul (actor Shubham), the son of Buchchi as an extremely talented, nice and hardworking student. Otherwise, the narrative is a monotonous tale of poverty, discrimination and state violence against the poorest working classes.
The depressing narrative of the film is close to the social reality of a majority of Dalits who have been perpetually living under brutal Brahmanical exploitation. While this narrative is necessary and important, as it holds perpetrators of caste violence accountable, we often also crave the larger-than-life, fascinating, entertaining depiction of a ‘hero’, that has been forever denied to Dalit characters. It is important to show Dalits as heroes and not just sad, passive beings in popular cinema too.
A lopsided representation such as this neglects the fact that a new educated Dalit class has entered into the corridors of power in India. In electoral politics, especially in Maharashtra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, Dalits have emerged as influential participants. Dalits are increasingly becoming a part of civil society activism, enthusiastic and valuable voices in intellectual and artistic circles and have offered meaningful leadership to social and political causes.
In the post-liberalisation process, a new stage for Dalit representations in Hindi cinema is visible. Films like Aakrosh (2010) and Aarakshan (2011) had showcased the changed social and political spaces and portrayed the Dalit characters as self-conscious beings with middle class aspirations. Subhash Kapoor’s Guddu Rangeela (2015) breaks the stereotype and improvises the passive narratives that dominates the depiction of Dalit characters. Inspired by the infamous Manoj-Babli honour-killing case, the film revolves around Rangeela (Arshad Warsi) who falls in love with the woman from the dominant caste and responds to the feudal caste violence and atrocities with mainstream heroic logic. The film allows the Dalit characters to use the traditional tropes of Bollywood revenge dramas to acquire justice for himself. He annihilates violent, oppressive feudal lords in a gun battle. Rangeela is a subversive and an original character, almost like a Tarantino-esque version of Dalit hero.
Similarly, in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015) Deepak (Vickey Kaushal) is a dom by caste that works in cremation ghat and burns dead bodies. However, Deepak is an aspirational man with desires to cross the borders of a caste-based society. He studies engineering and falls in love with Shaalu, an upper caste girl. Importantly, when Deepak tells her about the perils of his caste’s profession (including that he also burns the corpses), Shaalu remains firm and tells him that she will be with him even if her parents refuse. Masaan’s narrative is one of hope. It shows not only the courage of the Dalit protagonist, but also the evolution of a handful of upper caste people like Deepak’s partner.
Masaan presents a Dalit hero that wishes to fall in love, one that cries after the heartbreak and reignites his life like a normal person. Exploring the Dalit body as an ordinary emotional being was a fresh experiment in Hindi cinema.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui starrer Manjhi- the Mountain Man (2015) is another love story, based on the biography of iconic activist Dasarath Manjhi. Manjhi survives in extreme poverty and exploitative caste based feudal order. After the accidental death of his loving wife, Manjhi dedicates his life to an emotional cause and single handedly builds a road —cutting a huge mountain, so that people can reach the city hospital quickly. To operate according to self-passion and intent is not a conventional Dalit role in the scheme of Hindi films, which Manjhi’s story breaks and subverts. He is presented as a man that possesses raw sensations and deep passion — attributes that are often reserved for the upper caste characters.
Earlier films, like, Rajneeti, Eklavya and recently Sonchiriya, and Mukkabaaz, have presented nuanced versions of contemporary Dalit lives in the post-liberalisation era. These films have negated the conventional stereotypes of Dalit representation and shifted the focus towards the new aspirational Dalits that have emerged in cities and mofussil towns. He is picturised as a robust claimant of dignity and an upholder of heroic credentials, thus endorsing a Dalit individual’s triumph in social and political spaces. With recent films like Newton and Article 15, it appeared that Bollywood is now slowly getting ready to play with heterogeneous Dalit identities.
Pareeksha on the other hand, reintroduces the conventional attributes of Dalit life without bringing the changed economic and political context in to the discussion.
In the narratives of contemporary Hindi cinema, only on occasion the Dalit is picturised as a robust claimant of dignity or an upholder of popular heroic credentials. For example, Rajanikant starrer Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018) has substantively redefined the Dalit protagonist in Tamil cinema. It portrayed them as powerful and inspiring, walking shoulder to shoulder with characters belonging to the dominant caste. In Hindi cinema, similar possibilities have mostly been avoided. To imagine the Dalit person as a liberator, icon or a role model, even in the fiction, has cursorily been denied. The hero perpetually remains a custodian in the upper caste body.
A Dalit character as an alpha male/female popular hero is still a distant dream. The possibility that the Dalit character or a person from marginalised social background may enter to transform the terrible social structure by ‘fist of fury’ or by philanthropist grace is not an admissible topic for Bollywood narratives. Such transgressive and superhuman capacities are allowed mainly to the social elites. The upper caste character is the perpetual vanguard or philanthropist, and only he can only fulfil the aspirations of the poor, but similar power and space is unavailable to the Dalit characters.
The Dalit is still waiting for a bold Bollywood drama that would radically transform the passive Dalit subjectivity and would confirm the arrival of a populist Dalit hero.
Harish S. Wankhede is a film enthusiast and teaches Political Studies at JNU.