Stereotypes in Bollywood Cinema: Does Article 15 Reinforce the Dalit Narrative?
IN THIS ARTICLE
‘Article 15’, released in 2019 is the first mainstream Bollywood film to focus on caste based atrocities. It depicts several uncomfortable truths about our society and has been successful in sparking conversation about caste disparities that are often unnoticed in our daily life. However, is the film simply retellin the same old narrative of an upper caste saving the oppressed and the downtrodden? This article examines whether ‘Article 15,’ a film which claims to highlight caste realities, nevertheless perpetuates existing stereotypes.
The paper aims to understand the construction and dissemination of caste stereotypes in Hindi cinema. The analysis will also try to indicate how the deep-rooted prejudice and stereotypical image of Dalit characters affect the audiences and how the repeated narrative of being oppressed with a lack of authority continue to build on the existing depiction of characters through a Savarna lens.
The vacuum created by the absence of any response or resistance from the Dalit characters elaborate that the oppressed themselves cannot speak and thus are spoken for. Having denied Dalits their voice, the non- Dalits have become a self-appointed spokesperson of the Dalits throughout history. Such depiction in Bollywood have resulted in the misrepresentation and misappropriation of Dalits experiences. The continuous stereotypical representation as submissive, dark-skinned, shabby and under-confident individuals continue in the films. There is a repeated portrayal of men and women being outcasted. In my opinion, ‘Article 15’ although created with a good intention to portray stories of subaltern struggles and reality of the marginalised fail to move beyond an upper caste gaze. Such linkages might have a relation with large cultural and political practices prevalent in the society.
In a country where caste remains an enduring identity marker, mainstream Hindi cinema has failed to embody inclusion and diversity. The paper will critically analyse the flaws that exist in the depiction of existing caste narratives in Hindi films and what influence it has on the viewer.
Caste has been justified as the basis of order and regularity by the seminal Hindu texts like the Manusmriti (4). The Indian Caste system is one of the main dimensions where people in India are socially differentiated through class, religion, region, tribe and language (Deshpande, Manali, S. 3).
The Vedas give narrative structure to the idea of the caste divide. The Rigveda further says that gods created caste by sacrificing the cosmic man. In the Purusha Suktam his mouth became Brahmin, his arms- Kshatriyas, his thighs- Vaishyas and his feet- Shudras who are involved in ritual, administration, trade and service respectively (Indiadivine.org). But in reality, there exists thousands of castes, sub-castes and communities based on both social status and occupation.
B.R. Ambedkar wrote in his book Annihilation of Caste that caste is not a division of labour but a division of labourers (16). Those born outside the caste system earlier known as “the depressed classes” came to be termed as ‘Scheduled Castes’ (The Government of India Act, 1935. 217). It was with this in mind that the Constitution included provisions to protect the rights of marginalized communities (The Constitution of India, 13-18, 48, 308-310, Eastern Book Company, 2016).1
For the purpose of this paper, I will be using the term ‘Dalit’ which was coined by Jyotibha Phule, the founder of the Satya Shodhak Samaj (Mokshagundam,2). The term was derived from the root “dal’ which means to break or split. He used this term to refer to the “outcastes and untouchables” as victims of caste based social division of the Indian society. Dalit became a self-chosen term in 1972 when a group of Bombay youths organised the ‘Dalit Panthers’, inspired by the American ‘Black Panthers’2 in an effort to encourage a more militant and united revolution among the lower caste communities. Like the word ‘Black’ in the USA, ‘Dalit’ was used proudly (Gulati). Dalits perform work that is seen as “spiritually contaminating” that upper caste communities do not want to do, like scavenging animal carcasses or preparing and tanning animal hides to make leather goods (Szcepanski).
Practices associated with caste have varied over time and place. The three areas where caste remains prominent are marriage, food and occupation (Deshpande, Manali, S. 16). Despite caste discrimination being outlawed by the Constitution, caste remains a significant underlying factor in deciding everything from family ties and cultural traditions to economic opportunities and education.
Dalit communities gain less representation in the mainstream media as their experiences of prejudice, inequality and hostility are considered as normative in the social reality. Dalit identity is overlooked and disregarded as if it does not have any function, role and responsibility in creation of knowledge, culture and history of the society (Yengde, Dalit Cinema, 1).
There is an increasing acceptance of lower-caste individuals but at the same time overt hostility and violence are also on a rise (Deshpande, Manali, S. 31). According to a report published by The New York Times in 2018, Dalits in India are continued to be humiliated, tortured, disfigured and destroyed (Gettleman and Raj). Dalits are continued to be seen as the ‘other’. They are dehumanized and are believed to have aspirations below others in the society. It is often displayed in the magnanimity of the upper caste in accepting them. They are seen are entering the upper caste intersection as outsiders. The depiction is in such a manner that does not reflect the reality but suggests that the Dalits should also be involved in sharing the fruits of the neo-liberal model of development as a form of tokenism to them (Vinod).
Suraj Yengde in his book Caste Matters says, “Untouchability remains a lifeline of India’s present” (15). The erasure of public caste identity has led to dehumanization of the Dalits. Missing narratives of interpersonal relationships of caste has further widened the gap. Lack of empathy has created a total disregard for caste atrocities (Ramani).
In 2019, Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 was hailed by the critics as the first mainstream Bollywood movie to focus on atrocities inflicted on Dalits (Dey). They were quick to hail the film as ‘exposing the horrors of caste prejudice’ and ‘uncloaking the reality of India’s caste system’ (Scroll). However, instead of portraying a realistic picture the movie reinforces Dalit stereotype. It goes out of its way to take the Brahminic savior route. The protagonist- Ayan Ranjan, an outsider to caste fights the system. But products of privilege cannot claim such a status in a country where most Dalit struggles have been taken up by Dalits themselves. The movie does not answer questions like who created caste or how can it be destroyed. But Given the history of lack of caste narrative in Hindi Films I agree, that confronting the issue of caste in itself is a revolutionary act. Accepting that casteism still exists, raising the issue and making a movie on it is commendable. To see the ‘monster’ is important. But is it sufficient to just mention caste atrocities or is it important to address the manner in which the same stereotypes are being perpetuated? Article 15 appears to be a movie made by an upper caste filmmaker for the upper caste audiences. As Dalit critiques have said that it is comforting for the upper caste audience to see an upper caste trying to liberate Dalits from the clutches of casteism (Mandal). However, does it excuse the upper caste privileges and the discriminatory social system?
The paper tries to interrogate the construction and dissemination of caste stereotypes in Hindi cinema by looking at ‘Article 15’ that tries to depict the grim realities of caste discrimination in India. It further analyses depiction of minority community on the screen. The politics of misrepresentation of certain communities and castes lead to failure to encapsulate inclusion and diversity.
I will be looking at Article 15 through the lens of Dalit stereotypes that are depicted in the movie. Themes revolving around ‘Brahminic Heroes’, ‘Dalit Victims and Dalit Protest Silenced’ and ‘Interlinkage of Gender and Caste Violence’ will further be dissected.
Brahminic/ Savarna heroes are presented with certain visual cues and cultural markers. This includes certain privilege, fairness, well-dressed, confidant, handsome, articulate and upper-class characters. Ayan Ranjan, an IPS officer who is the hero of the film fits in these stereotypes. He emerges as an ideal for the audience and a messiah for his Dalit counterparts. However, his cultural cluelessness makes his caste-blind. He has achieved this privilege due to caste-hegemony which does not look at other spaces. The character is not just Brahminic but urban Brahminic. The movie depicts that caste space only exists in rural India which is clearly flawed. While the movie tries to interrogate it when Aditi hints Ayan how even their mothers used to have separate set of utensils but it never addresses caste in urban spaces. Through my analysis I will depict how some scenes help in the construction of a stereotypical Brahminic hero.
In stark contrast Dalits are portrayed as dark-skinned, shabbily dressed, skinny powerless characters who are dependent upon the morality of the social elites, catering to clichés about Dalit community without questioning it. In the film, the Dalit community lives in the conditions of helplessness, abject poverty, performs filthy jobs and faces daily violence and social ostracization. Even the law enforcement is seen harassing them. Minimal Dalit resistance is shown. Even when it is shown it is shut down through upper caste violence. This serves them to the cycle of voiceless subjects who do not have any agency. And once again an upper caste Brahmin man becomes a savior.
While Dalit community in general is shown as victim, the body of a Dalit women is depicted as a point of sexual and economic exploitation. Rape is used as a device of subjugation by the upper caste men. Based on the 2014 Badaun gang-rape and murder case. The movie portrays the bodies of young Dalit girls to be used for upper caste violence. The framing of a brutal gang rape and murder of two Dalit teenage girls who are later hanged on a tree just because they asked for a raise of Rs. 3 in the film expose the interlinkage of sexuality and gender with caste. Although, the movie gave a clear sense of closure to the case but in reality, the story remains unsolved.
I will further look at specific scenes from ‘Article 15’ and argue how Dalit caste stereotypes continue to be reiterated in Hindi movie.
As I have earlier stated there has been caste erasure in depiction of Dalit communities in Hindi cinema. Content creators have shied away from representing caste in movies. Cultural prejudices have propelled the film-makers and viewers to look at Dalit body in a discriminatory manner. Likewise, academic writing on Dalit representation in Hindi cinema is also minimal. The existing writings are limited to Dalit portrayal and narratives. There is a little missing is a deliberate discussion about the lack of diversity in the film-making fraternity which had failed to deliver stories of Dalit communities. Since the higher castes hegemonises the film industry their ‘version’ of caste questions become the preferred tone in the movies. There is a value in looking at why predominantly upper caste academics have ignored the analyse caste representation in Hindi cinema. However, in order to understand Hindi cinema and its portrayal of Dalit communities, I will present a broad picture of how caste inclusiveness has attracted the attention of scholars around the world. The limited studies that have been carried out revolve around caste stereotype, caste politics and cultural studies in cinema which will be further discussed.
Suraj Yengde (2019) a Dalit scholar has analysed the relation between caste and caste narratives that have led to blatant caste sensibilities in his paper ‘Dalit Cinema’ as well in his book ‘Caste Matters’. He further looked at how social interactions in the films reflect the mainstream communities’ attitudes towards issues debated in the society. Continuous portrayal of dominant Hindu upper castes has alienated majority of the country’s population. His arguments explain that representation of Dalits to be limited only as victims. As a Dalit himself, he opens up about what it actually means to be a ‘Dalit’. He talks about ‘Dalit being’, ‘Dalit love’, ‘Dalit capitalism’ but most importantly talks about how upper castes continue to preserve and benefit from this system of hierarchy but rarely acknowledge it.
Prem Kumar Singh (2011) in his paper ‘The Representation of the Dalit Body in Popular Hindi Cinema’ explored the subject of Dalit oppression in Hindi cinema. He looks at selected Hindi movies over a period of half-a decade and critiques the cultural prejudices attached to the Dalit body like ‘Acchut Kanya’ (1936), ‘Sujata’ (1959), ‘Lajja’ (2001), ‘Swades’ (2004) and ‘Lagaan’ (2001). The melodramatic representation of ‘lower’ class has obstructed the thoughtful representation of Dalit characters. He says that the oppression of Dalits is not only material but cultural. He says that the treatment of the Dalit body has kept on changing in accordance with the socio-political developments, settings and discourses around Dalit identity.
Pramod Mandade (2018) argues in his paper ‘Newton: a ‘New dalit hero’ or a new stereotype of dalit?’ that a single story creates stereotypes. It robs of people’s dignity. He explains his points through the movie ‘Newton’ where social, political and economic conditions of our society do not allow the Dalits to exercise power and authority freely. He explains the new Dalit hero in Bollywood. He talks about the presence of caste in urban spaces where the ‘unknowingness’ helps everyone to believe that it doesn’t exist.
Rakesh Patel (2018) through his paper ‘Unconventional Bollywood: Constructing Cinema of Caste Pride’ explains how caste has become a medium to assert identity in Tamil films however, in Hindi cinema Dalit characters are continued to be sidelined. They are viewed with a lens of pity because they are seen as having less value. He says that South Indian films have started to show stories where voices from below are fighting against the system which is based on discrimination, atrocities and deprivation. These characters don’t need any upper caste to liberate them from thousand years of miseries and discrimination. He argues that Hindi cinema portrays caste issue in an idealistic form and depends on alteration in mind-set to erase caste-hatred. He also points that Bollywood is gradually moving towards a cinema of ‘lived experiences.’ It is necessary to represent these ‘lived experiences’ which will provide a perspective of those who are often muted in the mainstream Hindi cinema.
Vishal Chauhan (2019) in his research paper ‘From Sujata to Kachra: Decoding Dalit representation in popular Hindi cinema’ argues that Dalits have been stereotypically and retrogressively represented in line with dominant culture. Popular Hindi cinema which portrays them as meek, docile, shabby and under-confident has naturalized the stereotype in line with Hindu caste sensibilities. However, the continuous struggle of Dalits against caste oppression is usually ignored in cinematic narratives. He suggested that such representations have linkages with cultural politics and power discourses.
Surinder Jodhka (2012) in his book ‘Caste’ studies caste covering economic, political and cultural aspects in contemporary rural and urban India. He breaks new grounds by exploring caste in urban spaces. He also admits that due to various sectarian political influences and gains caste system continue to live in the country.
Since limited academic work revolve around Hindi cinema and its relation with Dalit communities, direct work on caste cinema and discussion amongst Dalits communities brings a meaningful and socially engaged narratives. Therefore, it becomes important to look at platforms like Round Table India which asserts a Dalit space and aim to build “an informed Ambedkar age.” The platform tries to strengthen Dalit movement and engage youth around the world without the need of an upper caste mediator. Interviews of Dalit filmmakers like Nagraj Manjule and PA Ranjith explain how deep-rooted casteism is in Indian cinema and how challenging it is for them to bring out Dalit narratives to their audiences.
Caste in Bollywood
Bollywood is seen as the primary narrative space for the expression of Indian landscape. It is one of the most popular sources of entertainment in India and henceforth it also reflects upon socio-cultural practices, discourses and sensibilities at large (Yengde, Dalit Cinema, 2).
Popular Hindi cinema constructs, disseminate and naturalizes the stereotypes in line with Hindu caste sensibilities. On the other hand, the continuous struggle of Dalits against the caste oppression is usually ignored in cinematic narratives (Chauhan,2). The representation of Dalit reality is largely melodramatic, which obstructs a thoughtful representation of the reality (Singh, 13). In an interview to The Print, Harish Wankhede, a political scientist, says, “The experiences of caste discrimination and exclusion have a negligible presence in the narratives of the Bollywood cinema.” He adds that Hindi films are written, directed and produced by people who largely have upper castes sensibilities for an upper caste audience. Even the films based on small towns hardly see any Dalit characters. Films like ‘Dum Laga ke Haisha’ (2015) set in Haridwar (Ayushmann Khurana as Prem Prakash Tiwari), ‘Bareilly ki Barfi’ (2017) set in Bareilly (Ayushmann Khurana plays Chirag Dubey and Kriti Sanon play Biti Mishra) or ‘Badhaai Ho’ (2018) set in Meerut (Ayushmann Khurrana plays Nakul Kaushik) have one thing common among Khurana’s characters that they are all Brahmins. The repeated mundane plot focusing on Savarnas3 has failed to cater the socio-cultural diversity of India (Yengde, Dalit Cinema,1).
A 2015 study by ‘The Hindu’ revealed that Dalits, who comprise of nearly 200 million in India, were non-existent in Hindi cinema. Out of 300 Bollywood movies released in 2013-2014, only six of the lead characters were characters who were visibly from ‘Other Backward Classes’, and none were Dalits. Marathi and Tamil cinema on the other hand have been successful in portraying Dalit stories. The specific history of these regions with vehement Dalit movements and activists such as Phule and Periyar have embedded Dalit art and agency in their social fabric. But even in both Marathi and Tamil cinema these changes have happened in the last 5 years. Audience in these regions is prepared to negotiate with these changes which center the Dalit gaze. However, in North India resistance to Dalit gaze is much more as these regions lack Dalit mobilization and resistance. Things have come to such a pass that a Dalit filmmaker- Nagraj Manjule’s seminal Marathi take on caste ‘Sairat’ (2016) was remade into a Hindi film ‘Dhadak’ (2018) which sanitized caste into a politically correct rich poor conflict (Jha). Through Bollywood, Brahmins and allied castes have actively imposed their hegemony on the medium of mainstream cultural expression. By obscuring Dalit narratives, these films evoke an imagined utopia that does not speak to the majority of population (Yengede, Dalit Cinema, 4).
Bollywood has elided caste by subsuming it within categories of ‘the poor’, ‘the common man’ and the hard-toiling Indian. Themes of marginalised narratives preferred by the Hindi cinema revolve around peasants, disenfranchisement, poverty, corrupt government officials, police violence and evil landlords which flesh out class prejudice and conflicts (Yengde, Dalit Cinema, 4, 12). Films such as ‘Awara’ (1951), ‘Deewar’ (1975), ‘Zanjeer’ (1973)- provide a fitting example in which caste might be extrapolated but is rarely overt. Characters socio-economic standing, physical untidiness, complexion, emotional weakness, submissiveness or repeated subjugation are some of the traits which might lead the audience to believe that they are apparently ‘low’ birth. However, it never really seems to acknowledge caste as a construct. Caste has remained on the margins of mainstream film narratives and has rarely been tackled in movies. Such movies never suggest that the primary cause for the protagonist’s oppression was the caste system.
Exceptions do exist. Movies like ‘Aarakshan’ (2011) and ‘Chakravyuh’ (2012) talk about caste but only with respect to the upper caste political discourse. Issues relating to reservations and upper castes notions of merit are discussed while the possibility to battle against the social ills and other criminalities of casteism is not explored beyond a certain set of boundaries.
Vishal Chauhan, whose work questions caste representation in selected Hindi films in an interview to the New Indian Express says, “Most worrying is the stereotypical portrayal of the Dalit people- when they appear as intellectually inferior and are only able to survive on the goodwill of Savarna generosity.” In movies like ‘Lagaan’ (2001) and ‘Swades’ (2004) Dalit characters only exists to make the upper caste hero look better, caste exists only as a semi-fleshed sub-plot in the broader scheme of things. Their caste is only hinted as a reason for their exclusion from the society, derailment and subjugation.
Even when films like ‘Masaan’ (2015) and ‘Manjhi: The Mountain Man’ (2015) makes an active effort in engaging with caste issues deliver a limited alternative narrative around caste like inter-caste relations, the burden of Dalit identity and the hope to escape caste prison. These films look at Dalit individuals rather than a Dalit community. There is no sense of Dalit space that is depicted in these movies. So, there are still reasons to question if caste identity has been truly represented in mainstream Hindi films or not.
Synopsis of Article 15
I will be speaking about the movie ‘Article 15’ within the framework of earlier research that I have cited. Article 15, a fundamental right, enshrined in the Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination on several grounds including caste. The movie has laudable ambitions to expose the unsettling reality of caste discrimination. According to the latest statistics provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (2018) crimes against Dalits rose by 5% within the past three years (509). Despite constitutional safeguards, rising caste-based crimes indicate grim reality of the country. Untouchability is a daily lived reality that dictates people’s jobs, living conditions, where they worship, how they eat and much more. ‘Article 15’, a mainstream Hindi film confronts this horror. It sets out to at least start a conversation about caste if not bring about a complete change.
Inspired by the 2014’s Badaun gangrape and murder case, the film features Ayushmann Khurrana as an upright IPS officer, who investigates the rape and murder of two Dalit girls, both minor, who are found hanging on a tree in a fictional village of Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh. The London-return officer is seen grappling with the strong presence of caste discrimination and societal inequalities looming over the village. At one point he even tells his partner Aditi that it’s like ‘The Wild Wild West’4. The movie is meant to open the audience’s eyes from what they have always been sheltered from. There is a scene where a man is lowered into a clogged manhole. He is then seen emerging with sludge all over him. Though the scene has no dialogues but it is powerful enough to make the viewers feel uncomfortable and showcase the division and hypocrisy in the society. The film also subtly indicates caste privilege when Ayan asks his colleagues which caste they belong to. Ayan is constantly reminded that he should not interfere in the caste dynamics of the village and disturb the balance that holds the social hierarchy. Another interesting aspect is the portrayal of an alternative hero Nishad, who is a fugitive. His intelligence gets redirected to fight against the system. The short-lived character leads the audience thinking if the character’s destiny would have been different if he was not born in a lower caste family.
The movie has opened up to acclaim as well as criticism. On NDTV’s debate show- ‘The Big Fight’ Rahul Sonpimple, a student activist criticized Article 15 to be an upper castes imagination of the caste system. Sinha, the director and producer of the movie responded by saying that there are 200 way of depicting caste but what is more important is that his film tries to ignite a conversation around caste. He argues that this narrative was chosen purposely because he wanted to highlight upper class ignorance and inadvertent complicity. He emphasized for the need of privilege to speak (19 July 2019). On the other hand, Ayushmann Khurrana who plays the protagonist in the movie, on being asked about lack of caste narratives in Hindi cinema with respect to Tamil and Marathi cinema, says that it is all because of commercial gains (Film Companion, 16 June 2019) which seems to imply that the industry doesn’t acknowledge Dalit viewers as a legitimate audience, and caters overwhelmingly to upper caste paying audience who would prefer to see the status quo of upper caste dominance maintained. Since every producer wants their film to make money, most of them create narratives which cater to the upper caste audiences, who pay to watch the movie. Idea of films revolve around what is acceptable by the audience rather than what the filmmaker’s personal artistic vision is. I would argue that ‘Article 15’ is a reality check for ‘urbanized’, ‘educated’ people who live in a glass bubble and chose not to see what does not affect them.
I am further going to situate ‘Article 15’ with films in the past which also look at caste. The following Hindi movies portray similar caste stereotypes as ‘Article 15’.
‘Lagaan’, a highly acclaimed film which was nominated for Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language film in 2002 portrays a stereotypical Dalit body. The film is mainly about colonial oppression than caste oppression, where the villagers of a princely state are challenged to defeat the British team in a cricket match. However, during the team selection, Bhuvan the protagonist discovers Kachra, a lower caste village outcast who can bowl leg spin with his paralyzed hands. When Kachra is invited to join the team, many people are hesitant and even threaten to leave the team. However, the upper caste protagonist gets everyone to accept him by appealing on the principles of oneness and humanity. The portrayal of Dalit character who is named ‘Kachra’ which literally means ‘garbage’ is neither problematised nor dealt in a comprehensive manner. ‘Kachra had bought Bhuvan’s attention because he could spin the ball, prior to that there was no mention of Dalits in the village affairs. The literally deformed Dalit body in this case is a mere tool to serve the interests of the upper castes. In the film ‘Kachra’ only speaks twice otherwise he is seen silently following the instructions. His voice is a voice of fear.
Similarly, ‘Swadesh’ which talks about selling American Dream to the rural India hides the faces of lower caste crisis in the village, choosing to substitute it with an uncritical version of development. Birsa, a poor Dalit living on the outskirts of the village is depicted as mentally unstable, dirty who is incapable of worthwhile contributions. These movies illustrate that only through the actions of a Brahmanical savior, Dalits can be uplifted. This kind of depiction does not reflect reality but portray Dalits as a ‘liability’ to the society.
The depiction of a Brahmanical savior and of a Dalit victim is clearly portrayed in ‘Article 15’ as well. The IPS officer, who earlier was ignorant about caste discrimination becomes the savior for the Dalits. His dialogue “I will unmess it” further claims this, while Dalits, who have been waging relentless struggle against caste atrocities have little agency or assertion. The movie does not place Dalit characters and their experience at the center. It depicts that Brahmins are the liberators and Dalits community cannot fight for themselves. A brahmin savior is seen as the one who solves the case, apprehends the criminals as well as finds the missing girls. While others are seen folding their hands in gratitude. Dalit character are carved in such a way who are first torn apart first by the murder of girls and then by the false cases against the deceased girl’s fathers.
The Brahmanical perception of the Dalit body as an untouchable and contaminated does not apply to sexual oppression. Dalit women face the paradox of being regarded as impure and getting exploited at the same time. They are weighed down by the oppressive hierarchies of caste, gender and class. ‘Sujata’ (1959), revolves around the struggle and dilemmas of a Dalit girl who is brought up in an upper-caste household. The storyline then follows caste prejudice and barrier which hinders marriage between Sujata and Adhir, a high-born. Despite, their love for each other Sujata recoils in fear when Adhir touches her. She is compelled to become conscious of her identity as an ‘untouchable’ who would contaminate the ‘high-born Brahmin.’ Eventually, Adhir can be seen as a savior whose marriage proposal to Sujata is finally accepted. Marriage becomes a tool to liberate Sujata from the clutches of casteism.
Another film that portrays caste and gender dynamics is ‘Bandit Queen’ (1994), based on the life of Phoolan Devi, a dacoit who was born to a ‘lower-caste’ family of fishermen. The movie portrays her child marriage, torture by her pedophilic husband, exploitation at the hands of upper caste Thakurs, subsequent humiliation and revenge. The representation of repeated rape scenes and assault portrays not just gendered violence but also caste-based construction of sexual hegemony by upper caste men, who assert violent sexual authority over lower-caste women. The film makes it graphically clear that there is no protection in the Indian society for lower caste women who venture out on their own. Although, Phoolan is seen fighting back by taking up arms and becoming a dacoit, but the continuous exploitation throughout her life reveal the realities of lower-caste women.
In ‘Article 15’, Dalit women are presented in limited resisting capacities and lack agency. Dalit women are portrayed as victims at different intensities in the film. Be it Gaura, who is in search for her missing cousin or Doctor Malti Ram, who is initially stopped and coaxed into not releasing the accurate postmortem report of the bodies. Two Dalit girls- Shanu and Mamatha are brutally gangraped and murdered and later hanged on a tree. These girls were targeted just because they demanded a hike of Rs 3, in their daily wages. The frame where the bodies of two girls are seen hanging on a tree with a chilling background score depicts the gruesome violence inflicted on Dalit women by upper caste men. It is a striking example of how rape is used as a weapon of retaliation to punish and silence women when they dare to protest. While Dalit women have been actively involved in anti-caste and anti-untouchability movement, the absence of Dalit women’s voice from the narrative makes the viewer believe that they are mere victims and nothing more than that.
Cinematic Analysis of ‘Article 15’
Scenes in the movie will further be analysed with respect to three themes- Construction of Brahminic Saviour; Representation of Dalit Identity and Caste and Patriarchy . Each theme aims to dissect how caste dictates everyday life in the Indian society.
Construction of Brahminic Saviour
The White Saviour Complex is the idea that people who benefit from white privilege are wanting to help those in underserved communities for their own benefit more than that of the communities. “The White Saviour Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege,” said Teju Cole5 in his seven-part Tweet that coined the term (@tejucole). This complex concept manifests itself in many spaces including entertainment, media, disaster relief, education, policy, politics, law enforcement and more (Reed, 5). The White Saviour Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage (Reed,7). People of colour are assumed to lack the capacity to seek change and are thus evicted from historical agency. It undermines thousands of years of victimisation and feed into the stigmatisation of beneficiaries.
The term ‘Brahmanical Saviour’ which emerges from the concept of ‘White Saviour Complex’ manifests that escaping poverty or ignorance can only happen through a saviour’s intelligence. Caste which continues to be a stable structure in India has managed to survive over 3000 years. Caste is not just a social stratification that underlies hierarchy, difference, endogamy and division of labour in Indian society. But, it also forms an ideology and practice supporting inequality and oppression (Jogdand, Khan, Mishra, 556). Low-caste social reformer like Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar were the first to introduce values of freedom, equality and fraternity. It was Ambedkar who enriched these in the Indian constitution. It is only recently that ‘intellectual elites’ have started to pay attention to the role of Dalit assertion6(Jogdand, Khan, Mishra, 559). However, when people of privilege interact with a marginalized community much of the focus is on what one person can do to help those in need rather than what the Dalit community itself has been doing.
Most Bollywood films could be seen suffering from a Brahmin saviour complex- where the fair skinned Savarna hero saves the day. ‘Article 15’ which has been praised for tackling caste-based violence falls in the trap of showcasing the “Brahmin saviour complex.” Sinha places the heroic burden on the shoulders of a privileged upper caste man side-lining the others. Dalit Critic, Nandhana Prem has made the argument that Bollywood has never made a real movie to stage the differences that Dalit face in the society (2). I will now analyse scenes in the movie to explain my point.
After seeing the body of two Dalit minor girls hanged on the tree Ayan wakes up to the realities of Lalgaon. The film implied that a Savarna had to travel to rural India to realise casteism in contemporary times. Ayan who was seen clueless about the caste system is later seen vowing to fix the mess single-handedly and hammers Article 15’s message by pinning a copy of it on the bulletin board, as an awakening to others. He asks his subordinates, “Which caste do I belong to? But he is never seen to refuse any benefits that this delicate order brings to him. Be it when people tell him that they cannot share a plate of food with him or have water from his household utensils. We see him questioning his subordinates about caste and demanding them to offer him insights to his ignorance. The portrayal of Ayan’s innocence stems from his position of privilege which can afford ignorance. There is a scene in which the other police officers asks Ayan not to enter the swamp saying, “Why are you getting into it, to which he replies, “Someday even a Brahmin needs to get into it, right?” this dialogue depicts that it is only with the efforts of a Brahmin a social evil can be removed. The film tries to tell a story of Dalit oppression by pitting the good brahmin.
In another scene, Dalit protesters throw garbage in front of the protagonists office where he is shown walking through the sewage water and the filth. It is the literal representation of how Dalits are socially forced to live with filth. The Human Rights Watch has rightly observed that caste-designated occupation reinforces a social stigma that they are unclean or “untouchable” and perpetuates widespread discrimination. According to Ashif Shaikh7, manual scavenging is not an employment but akin to slavery. It is one of the prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits and is even central to the violation of human rights (Human Rights Watch). The entire portrayal is in order to glorify the Brahmin efforts. No matter how many Ambedkar statue the movie shows, but when it comes to the protagonist he wears a Gandhian mask8. The continued Brahmin hegemony in power circles is not called out. In a scene where images of Ambedkar and Gandhi are featured in the background Ayan is seen looking up towards the image of Gandhi and Ambedkar’s image fades away. Even if the film revolves around Article 15 of the constitution it fails to discuss anti-caste ideology and tries to show Gandhi as an answer to the caste system.
Representation of Dalit Identity
‘Article 15’ projects a world of ‘Saviour’ and ‘Victim’, where the philanthropic Brahmin is trying to uplift the helpless Dalits (Prem, 2). Dalit men are seen tied to a jeep and flogged in the street and then there is a sight of a bare bodied man emerging from the sewer. These are a few instances where Dalits are seen in a piteous sight but the audience is never allowed to enter into the subjectivity of the sufferer. There are a large number of Dalit characters in the film however, only three Dalit characters have substantial dialogues. The invisibility of these characters is ensured by subtracting their voices.
Jatav Ji, a local constable is a Dalit and the son of a sweeper. He has risen from the social ranking and has internalized the savarna gaze. He is the first person to be casteist about the family of the girls and says, “these people are like this only.” Later he is also says, “those living in filth will never progress.” He learns to acknowledge the oppression of his community. He says that the problem with SC/SC people is that as soon as one of them becomes a cop they think of them as ‘Ajay Devgan9’who will protect them and bring a change. However, we see him being slapped by his upper caste colleague Brahmadatt and is wilfully seen withdrawing a plate of bhajiyas (fritters), so that he doesn’t share it with his upper class superior in a performance of caste rebellion. These scenes depict how socially sanctioned caste oppression has penetrated and is prevalent in the government offices. It also accounts how reservation can uplift social mobility but it cannot uplift caste mobility.
Therefore, it becomes important to look at Nishad who doesn’t believe in tokenism but true representation. He is the leader of the Dalit Sangharsh Sena. He is an educated man who attempts to bring the oppressed together. His voice takes the viewers to the larger anti-caste revolution taking place in the country. As we look forward to understanding Nishad and his revolution, we get to see him shot down. Before being killed, we see Nishad crying on Gaura’s lap. Nishad tells Gaura that there was so much he wanted to say and do but he could not because he had to stay strong and fight the revolution. He narrated how the two of them were supposed to marry and how Nishad wanted to become a scientist and a writer. But just like Rohit Vemula10 his aspirations will also die with him. It is interesting to note that while the character is based on Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan (both sport a blue scarf), a Dalit activist and the co-founder and President of the Bhim Army meets a different fate (@anubhavsinha). Nishad is encountered, but Ravan is still alive. Does the director want us to believe that Chandrashekhar’s end would be like this? I expected Nishad’s character to be more dynamic where there could be more scenes where he would fight for Dalit people’s rights. However, Sinha must have thought that it would overpower the Brahmin protagonist.
Caste and Patriarchy
The film, along with a Brahmin gaze, is also made with a patriarchal gaze. It is loosely based on the infamous ‘Badaun gangrape and murder case’11, showcasing two minor Dalit girls hanging dead on a tree. With an addition of a third girl Pooja, who is not dead but missing, the movie gives us hope and closure. Unlike the real incident, where the CBI ruled out that there was no possibility of sexual assault and the girls had committed suicide, which gradually led to the fading away of the incident. Is this Anubhav Sinha’s way of ensuring justice, enacting some sort of progressiveness in the movie? However, the gender and caste imbalance comes together when we hear about the rebellious demand to increase the girls wages but never in their own voice. All we hear is the muffled whimpers and frightened sobs. In fact, the first scene of the movie starts in a yellow bus where the three girls are seen clutching each other, vulnerably waiting for their fate. It portrays the victimhood of the girls who are either discovered hanging on a tree or in an old pipeline in the middle of nowhere. Later the third girl is found who had completed her purpose by being saved by a ‘Savarna’ hero. The case is solved without telling the audience what her testimony was.
The only Dalit female voice in the movie is that of Gaura, a sister of the missing girl, who wants to fight for justice. The first instance where the audience is introduced to her is when she sings a local folk song ‘Kahab To Lag Jayee Dhak Se’ with her community, which speaks about her awareness and sincerity to expose caste oppression. She is the one who runs around from police chowki to Ayaan’s house, so that the police further investigates the case. However, later in the movie we see her voice fading away. We find that she is like this because of her ‘revolutionary’ boyfriend Nishad. She is reduced to a helpless lover. Her character remains underutilized and ignored.
Another teen girl in the film is Amali, who is a house help at Ayaan’s home. Although not Dalit but she definitely is lower in caste hierarchy than Ayaan. A comparison can be drawn between Amali and Pooja, when for a while Ayaan thinks even Amali has gone missing. Later, we see Ayaan telling the vulnerable Amali about her brother’s deeds. Her character enables the audience to draw a parallel between a good Brahmin and a bad Brahmin. Where Ayaan, who could have easily exploited her, turns out to be a protector rather than a predator. She continues to be a prop for his heroism.
Although, the movie revolves around investigation of a case where three Dalit girls are involved but there is no female police constable in the film. Doctor Malti, who stands up for the truth despite continuous warning is nowhere to be found later in the movie. Women are used as mere fillers for the plot. It is also important to note that women were left out of the discussion while the bodies of three young girls became a battleground for men to fight out their caste battles on. Women are the lowest on the caste hierarchy thus, it becomes important for us to hear what they have to say.
In the paper, an effort has been made to restate that ‘Article 15’ falls in the same trap of caste stereotypes and clichés. Despite, its effort to unveil caste privilege and discrimination in contemporary India, there have been questions about Brahmanical gaze and portrayal of the Dalit community in the movie.
I have outlined three themes of Dalit characterization with specific scenes in context of earlier Hindi movies which portray Dalits in the same light as ‘Article 15’. Namely, how the figure of a Brahminic hero is shaped; how Dalit protest continue to be silenced; and lastly the intersection of gender and violence with caste. Sinha’s attempt to acknowledge that caste still exists is laudable, which makes ‘Article 15’ among a handful of Hindi movies to open a platform to discuss and question the systematic oppression. However, the stereotypical depictions of the marginalised communities further fuel the power-based social stratification.
With over 100 years of Hindi cinema, the number of films in which a Dalit plays a central role is very less in comparison to a Saravana hero. Even with the limited portrayal and screen time Dalit characters are objectified and subjugated by the Brahmin patriarchs.
Dalit scholars, such as Suraj Yengde have emphasized the need of a deliberate discussion around the intrapersonal relationships of caste in Hindi cinema (Dalit Cinema, 16). The lack of diversity within the Hindi film-making fraternity continue to illustrate Dalit stories through upper caste clichés. These films might be well-intentioned but fail to portray the realities of life. Only a few filmmakers have been successful to raise the issues of a community which comprises the largest section of the Indian society.
Unlike Hindi cinema, Marathi and Tamil cinema have been successful to reclaim Dalit stories through lived experiences. Dalit filmmakers such as P.A Ranjith and Manjule have not only managed to tell their stories, but also humanize the lives of Dalits and their complexity. Acknowledgement of the Dalit community that has otherwise been missing from the mainstream is only possible through assertion of Dalit identity. Unlike the non-Dalit filmmakers who look at them through the lens of pity. Most Hindi films depict Dalits in minor roles struck with poverty and helplessness, who need to be rescued by an upper-caste liberator.
Although Bollywood is seen as a melting pot of talent and creativity but it continues to ignore the issues concerning minorities. We see Brahmin heroes playing stereotyped Dalit characters without understanding their struggles and desires which has the power to alter the mindset of the audience. Bollywood film industry can be made more inclusive only when minority community become a part of the industry. Stakeholders in Bollywood comprise a large percentage of urban, upper-class elite who are not able to empathize with majority of the country’s population. There is a need to incorporate Dalit producers, directors, writers, actors who can bring stories of those who remain ‘untouched’ by the Hindi film industry in the foreground. It is only through inclusiveness that Bollywood can become a democratic platform to narrate stories.
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1.) Further Provisions- The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The Act was enacted to protect the marginalised communities against discrimination and atrocities.
Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955. The Act prescribes punishment for the practices of ‘Untouchability’ and enforcement of disability arising from it.
2.) The Black Panthers were a political organization founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California to challenge police brutality against the African American community. It was a revolutionary organization with an ideology of black nationalism, socialism and armed self-defense (National Archives).
3.) In Sanskrit it literally means ‘those within varna’. They are considered to be a part of the Hindu Varna system of social classes. Communities which belong to one of the four varnas or classes i.e. Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra are called “Savarna” (Columbia.edu). These classes benefit from the varna system. The term ‘Savarna’ is specifically used in an oppositional sense to Dalit.
4.) The term is used to refer to the idea of unknown frontier of flawlessness in the western imagination. The protagonist connects with the west more than his own country.
5.) He is an Nigerian-American writer, photographer and art historian. He is the author of like- “Blind Spot,” “Open City,”” Every Day is for the Thief” and “Known and strange Things.” He has received numerous recognitions for his work, including the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York city Book Award, the Windham Campbell Prize, and the international Literaturpreis.
6.) Dalit assertion refers to the efforts by the Dalits to challenge inequality and oppression by constructing an anti-caste ideology.
7.) He is the founder and convener of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a grassroot campaign against manual scavenging.
8.) Gandhi was never against the varna system but called for co-existence between different castes. Whereas, Ambedkar vehemently opposed the varna system. According to Ambedkar, it is a socio- political and cultural oppression that out rightly denies the rights to the marginalized communities.
9.) He is a Bollywood Action Hero.
10.) He was an Indian PhD student at Centre for Knowledge and Innovation. He was also an active member of Ambedkar Students Association. He committed suicide after facing discrimination on the basis of his caste.
11.) According to the initial investigation two minor girls from Dalit Maurya community were kidnapped, gangraped, strangled to death and hanged from a tree in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh. There was an alleged involvement of two police constables and four others in the incident. The three had reportedly admitted to the crime. Angles such as honour killing and property inheritance were also linked. However, the CBI’s closure report stated that it was a case of honour suicide because one of the girls had an affair with a local boy from a different caste. But it failed to clear why the other girl committed suicide and how did the two manage to hang themselves on a tree without any assistance?