Synopsis: 5 films displaying caste dynamics and discriminations, an overview of their plots, a comment on their depiction of caste and the overwhelming critical reviews.
Caste discrimination as depicted in Indian cinema
Indian cinema, has, for decades, appropriated and/or erased the stories of Dalits. Their stories, when represented, were often told by upper caste men with a blatant disregard for the lived experiences of the community. In recent years, the cinematic landscape has changed with Dalit filmmakers who previously had little to no agency over-representation, to claim their space and shape visual storytelling the way they see fit. Several movies have emerged, most notably in the Tamil film industry, where filmmakers like Vetrimaaran, Mari Selvaraj, and Anand Patwardhan have told stories and created identities which continue to make clear, the lines between class and caste as well as unapologetically display their lived and observed experiences.
Read More about Vetrimaaran movies
The representation of lower castes in film has not been ideal, few critics point out, and rightly so. Several have observed that films focusing on caste have commodified Dalit experiences instead of creating films that engage the public with caste as a structural inequality that privileges the upper castes and oppresses the rest in varying degrees.
Vetrimaaran’s film, an adaptation of Poomani’s ‘Vekkai’, is set in a village in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu and follows the life of a Dalit family as they struggle to survive while striving for dignity. The plot of the film revolves around Chidambaram who has sought to avenge the death of his elder brother by killing his murderer, a member of the landed dominant caste. Chidambaram and his father venture into the forest to protect themselves from the furious dominant caste and the police force that sides with them.
The movie has attracted mixed reviews with a First Post article written by Yogesh Maitreya applauding the universality of the story which could be understood by Dalit- Bahujan Masses across the country. He adds that Asuran is an ‘unusual story that doesn’t succumb to violence or revenge but rises about it.’ He justifies this stance by asserting that Asuran is not a revenge drama; “it is the rebel biopic of an entire community, who from being called untouchables have recently shed their victimhood; who’ve adapted democratic means and asserted that with education a world with justice, fraternity and liberty is possible.” Where revenge dramas end with the killing of the enemy, Asuran tells the story of “how Dalits live, each day in their own way, fighting, resisting, trying to make sense of what comes from Ambedkar: educate, organise, agitate (Maitreya 2020).” The same theme was reviewed more critically in Rajesh Rajamani’s HuffPost piece about the movie saying that “Vetrimaaran processes the lives and struggles of Dalits into a pulp fictionalised revenge thriller (2019).”
Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan is a film set in a village in southern Tamil Nadu, that revolves around the dynamic between the Pallars and the Thevars. Kannibiran, a Pallar and a senior police officer targets and terrorizes the village elders for not removing a headscarf. Karnan, in response to the injustice he witnesses, ransacks the police station and rescues the village elders. The antagonistic tensions between the two eventually leads to the murder of Kannibiran, perpetrated by Karnan who kills him to prevent him from wreaking havoc on his village.
A supporting character, Yeama Raja is a pragmatic pacifist who condemns revolutionary acts of resistance to casteist injustice and confrontation. Instead, he pushes access to opportunity and education as a tool for mobility. Selvaraj makes political comments through positioning characters like these, strategically; juxtaposing ideas and action. The wall painting which held a picture of Gandhi as opposed to Ambedkar, carries Yeama’s face instead of Karnans at the end of the movie. The social opposition to radical ideas as opposed to more comforting ones that ensure preservation of the status quo is evident in this film.
Several film critics have recognised and applauded Selvaraj’s film for abstaining from the glorification of the protagonist. ‘Despite killing the antagonist, Karnan is shown displaying emotions of futility and tragedy towards his act.’ The movie platforms a desire and hope for social mobility and some critics have paid heed to the way Karnan ‘deftly mainstreams Dalit grievances in a relatable and compelling manner, furthering the politics of dignity and social justice as opposed to discriminatory caste pride and valorisation (Vasanthakumar 2022).’
3. Pariyerum Perumal
Mari Selvaraj’s Directorial debut Pariyerum Perumal made waves in the cinematic world. The film evocatively deals with abominable issues through a raw and authentic portrayal of casteist discrimination. Pariyerum Perumal taps into the audience’s empathy while telling the story of Pariyan, a scheduled caste youth who idolises B.R. Ambedkar and strives to uplift his community. The audience vicariously experiences Pariyan’s struggles as he faces the reality of casteist prejudices and violence beyond the comfort of his village.
The humiliation he endures in the education system and the violence meted out to him by the family and relatives of the upper caste girl he was friendly with, is placed centre stage. Selvaraj does not hold back while depicting the psychological warfare of upper caste cruelty and the truly inhumane treatment served to Pariyan. Jo, Pariyan’s love interest in the film, invites him to a wedding where her father takes him into a room and identifies his caste by asking him questions about his village. Just as he informs Pariyan that members of his caste would not only murder him but Jo as well, several male relatives from Jo’s caste break into the room and physically abuse Pariyan, one even urinating on him. The unspeakable shame and emotional turmoil Pariyan experiences as a consequence, is displayed impeccably in the film. The depiction of ‘the impossibility of love within this uninhabitable casteist environment’ as one review put it, is what gives Pariyerum Periyal an edge over all other films in its realm.
Pariyan abstains from seeking revenge in spite of being victim to despicable acts of upper caste wrath including attempted murder and repeated humiliation.
The symbolism in this film is also a characteristic feature of this cinematic masterpiece. The glass tea tumblers in the concluding scenes are representative of persisting ideas in caste discrimination where marginalized castes are served in separate tumblers. Pariyerum Perumal is an incredible and poignant film that doesn’t shy away from reality and exposes the audience to those with lived experiences of casteist violence today.
Also Read: 10 Famous Inter Caste Marriages in India
Directed by Neeraj Ghaywan and Written by Varun Grover, Masaan follows the experiences of two people with desires and aspirations that transcend the barriers imposed on them by caste. The film first traces the story of Devi Pathak, a brahmin girl and her love interest, a boy from the Bania caste. Within the first five minutes of the film, the audience witnesses gross violations of privacy, moral policing and physical violence as well. The police barge into a hotel room the two have booked for the night and harass both Devi and her boyfriend, Piyush. Terrified of the consequences he will have to face, Piyush locks himself in the bathroom and takes his own life.
The camera then pans to Deepak Chowdary a Dalit who helps his father cremate the deceased at the Varanasi ghats. Deepak falls in love with an upper caste girl who returns from a religious trip, dead. Masaan traces the intersectionality of identity and social barriers in an inexplicable way, successfully chartering the course of grief that both Devi and Deepak have been forced to take. The emotional turmoil and inescapable expectations imposed upon the two is shown evocatively in the film, as it places a spotlight on lived reality and the constant fear of prosecution and the absence of freedom.
5. Jai Bhim Comrade
Last but not the least, Anand Patwardhan’s ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ dissects the seemingly endless struggle of Dalits across the nation. The 200-minute documentary which took 14 years to make, chronicles the timeless caste-based violence that Dalits endure. The film begins paying homage to Vilas Ghogre and his music and poetry which he used as tools of resistance. A dear friend of Patwardhan, Ghogre was a Dalit activist who took his own life following the horrific massacre of 10 Dalits in Mumbai, by police, while peacefully protesting the desecration of an Ambedkar statue. Jai Bhim Comrade depicts just how entrenched the caste system is in India and the discriminatory ideas that are woven into the fabric of this ‘free’ country. Social mobility and egalitarianism are words that hold no material meaning today and the film was applauded by the organisation Human Rights watch for “dismantling entirely any argument that caste discrimination is a thing of the past.” Patwardhan uses music and poetry as an ode to radical resistance and as a tribute to Dalit revolutionaries.
Maitreya, Yogesh. “Indian Cinema and the Dalit Identity.” Firstpost, 7 Sept. 2020, www.firstpost.com/art-and-culture/indian-cinema-and-the-dalit-identity-in-dhanushs-2019-film-asuran-the-rise-of-a-new-national-hero-8783631.html.
Vasanthakumar, Vishal, and Vignesh Karthik . “Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan and Tamil Cinema’s Tryst with Caste.” Newslaundry, 2021, www.newslundry.com/2021/04/21/mari-selvarajs-karnan-and-tamil-cinemas-tryst-with-case.
Rajamani, Rajesh. “Dhanush’s ‘Asuran’ And The Film’s Dalit Hero Are Not Worth Celebrating.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 24 Oct. 2019, www.huffpost.com/archive/in/entry/dhanush-asuran-dalit-atrocities-pulp-fiction_in_5dafed76e4b0422422cddd55.