Dalits in India need their own Martin Luther King

Written by Vidya Bhushan Rawat | Published on: July 4, 2019
Caste, gender and religious biases are a norm in Bambai cinema. Ofcourse, there was a time when the beauty of Urdu language as spoken by Yusuf Khan, Naushad, Sahir, KaifiAzami, JaanNisar Akhtar, Ghulam Mohammad, Mehboob, Kamal Amrohi, and so many others lent a certain elegance to this cinema. Even the non-Muslims, like Raj Kapoor, DevAnand, Dharmendra, Manoj Kumar, Ashok Kumar etc.were comfortable in this language and the scripts were written in Urdu. So, in that way, it was a Hindustani Cinema or Urdu language cinema.

Indian Cinema
Image Courtesy: Punit Paranjpe / AFP

Similarly, the Hindi Cinema, as it is called today, has more contribution from the non-Hindi speaking people. Whether it is Lata Mangeshkar or her sisters, Mohammad Rafi, Sachin Dev Barman, Salil Chaudhury, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Yeshu Das, S P Bala Subramaniam, and others, Hindi was not their first language but they enriched this.

The greatest of all was Shailendra, whose poetry touched everyone’s heart as it came from his own experiences of life. But who was Shailendra and why has he been so spiritual and why was his poetry so inspiring?It is believed that once upon a time, he was a railway worker and that he was a lifelong 'communist'. But none tried to put the honorific 'Pandit' before his name. Shailendra's caste remained unknown. Was it deliberate or was it an attempt to draw the attention away from something? What would have happened hadShailendra declared his caste identity in a cinematic tradition where the hero always belongs to a 'poor' brahmin family and fights for the have-nots? Yes, this question itself was answered by his son, Dinesh Shankar Shailendra,during a conversation about a year back. He said his father belonged to the Chamar community but then, probably, was afraid in those days that if he revealed this fact, his 'acceptance' by the film fraternity would be affected. This is a dirty fact which is still prevalent. Or else, why have the researchers not made an effort to know more about him?

While there are many good films being made, but as the mainstream tradition of this cinema has been that its main patrons are the 'progressive'Savarnas or the upper castes, and therefore any solution has to come within the framework of their worldview. So, a Good Samaritan in Bambai films always comes from the powerful castes, preferably Brahmin, who 'helps' the 'poor' and redefines what the 'dharma' is. Dark skinned, physically challenged or people with disabilities are mostly laughed at and can never be heroes. Most of the characters are vilified.

Even when one of the main characters in a film belongs to a non-mainstream background, the actor playing that character is definitely from the dominant mainstream. E.g.HemaMalini plays a Banjara woman in Raja Jani(1972) or Dharmendra and Jeetendra belong to the Banjara community in Dharamveer. However, the Banjara community is a very vibrant and talented community, and yet it never occurred to our star directors and producers to look for the talent from the community.It is only when a brahmin or a savarna playsa Banjaracharacter in the film that ensures the 'success' of the film.

Similar things can be said about many other films. While their intentions might be good, why do the film makers not attempt to look for an actor from the community itself,  who can speak on the issue with conviction? It is good to speak about discrimination but equally important to find voices from within the communities and encourage them. They will certainly show the discrimination in a much more powerful way.

A recent movie, in which its upper caste hero acts as a messiah for the lower castes, is being much talked about nowadays.. One friend wrote in his Facebook post that Dalits in India needed a Martin Luther King and only then they will be able to play such roles, which portray their issues. Till then, the Brahmins will always enjoy the monopoly. Any effort made by anyone to being an issue to light should be appreciated, but it is equally important to see how the issue is addressed. Issue of participation and fair representation is equally important to address an issue in a wholesome manner. Whether the star directors and producers are able to see it or not, the new generation Ambedkarites are ready and will surprise the world in the coming days with their creativity and ideas. After all, the 21st century belongs to Ambedkarism and Ambedkarite assertion.