New Delhi: Early last week, India’s Twitterverse was witness to an intriguing phenomenon. Indians were openly talking about aukat (status) and caste, a topic that is ever-present in the country but almost never publicly discussed. The immediate trigger was the release of the trailer of an upcoming police drama-cum-crime thriller – Article 15—starring Bollywood actor Ayushmann Khurrana.

The social media upsurge had an underlying message. Most people were surprised by the film’s storyline—a cop who is determined to investigate the gang rape and murder of two Dalit women in the rustic heart of Uttar Pradesh. When was the last time Bollywood frontally addressed caste? Or dealt with the banal text of an article in the Indian Constitution which promises equality to every Indian?

A still from Article 15 (Hindi)
A still from Article 15 (Hindi)

The director of Article 15, Anubhav Sinha, had previously described the film as “an investigative drama where the audience too is an accused party". And that accusation of the audience’s culpability is borne out of the endemic and enduring nature of caste in the country’s social milieu. But despite that, mainstream Bollywood films have, for the most part, circumvented the question of caste—almost never acknowledging the issue as a daily Indian reality.

This is at odds with India’s non-Hindi movie culture, which does churn out heart-breaking and powerful tales centered on caste at least once in a while.

“Hindi filmmakers generally shy away from confronting caste," says Uma Vangal, filmmaker and professor at the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy. “They are very conscious of the fact that they have taken on this mantle of being the national cinema of India. It’s (become) almost like a burden."

The caste tale

This turn of events is surprising because as early as 1936, Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani’s Bombay Talkies had produced Achhut Kanya, the love story of a Brahman boy and an untouchable girl, with Rani in the lead. Subsequently, such outings were rare and Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959) based on a similar premise is a rare caste tale of its time. “What India’s nationalist movement brought to the forefront was that Indians should be seen as Indians. It wasn’t even recognizing that there were backward castes though, internally, the caste system was playing out in society," says filmmaker Shyam Benegal. “Indian cinema came up during this time, so it also reflected the popular feeling. If you look at early Indian films, it is very rare that caste was even a subject in the film. Our films never told you where the hero came from, what kind of a household he grew up in, or which caste he belonged to—none of these things are ever seen," he adds.

A still from Pariyerum Perumal (Tamil)
A still from Pariyerum Perumal (Tamil)

In the iconic films of the 1940s and 50s, for example, there are no caste markers—for example, in Andaz (1949), Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Nargis play Dilip, Rajan and Neena, respectively (as an aside, popular heroes of the time also had fairly neutral names. Yusuf Khan went by Dilip Kumar, for example). In Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman play Suresh Sinha and Shanti.

Themes preferred by Hindi cinema are quite easy to identify. The 1950s were replete with nationalistic cinema that spoke of a new republic and its challenges, be it Naya Daur (1957) or Mother India (1957).

By the 1970s, a more mainstream masala thread had infiltrated, and directors like Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai propped up Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘angry young man’ along with more simplistic tales of lost-and-found (Amar Akbar Anthony in 1977), rage and injustice (Laawaris in 1981).

In the 1990s, Bollywood squarely began catering to the diaspora, with tales of globalized Indians (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai). And the current spell is distinctly animated by nationalist sentiment once again.

Interestingly, directors like Benegal and Govind Nihalani did come up with films like Ankur (1973), Manthan (1976) and Aakrosh (1980), as part of the wider parallel cinema movement in the 1970s and 80s. Inspired by Italian neo-realism (a national film movement characterized by stories set amongst the lowest strata of society, filmed in real locations, frequently using non-professional actors) and the French New Wave (identified by radical experimentation in editing and visual style, augmented by engagement with the social and political upheavals of the era), these were all films contesting the idea of “differences" in some way—be it national, ethnic, or linguistic identity.

“This new wave cinema did confront caste but these were seen more as government-driven or ‘serious’ films. The movies didn’t appeal to a large mass (of people). They went into the film festival and national award circuit and were shown on Doordarshan every Sunday. The divide between mass and serious art cinema is directly responsible for why caste doesn’t play on the screen in Hindi cinema," Vangal explained.

The need to be national

To be sure, the inherent obsession of Bollywood to serve as the “national cinema of India" is the single biggest reason for its neglect of issues like caste. Post the 1980s, caste has remained on the margins of mainstream film narratives, tackled only rarely by names like Prakash Jha (Mrityudand, Aarakshan, Chakravyuh) or as semi-fleshed sub-plots in the broader scheme of things mostly meant to showcase big stars (Swades, Lagaan, Eklavya: The Royal Guard). Things have come to such a pass that Dhadak (2018), the Hindi remake of Nagraj Manjule’s seminal Marathi caste tale Sairat (2016), abandoned the caste angle entirely in favour of a more politically correct poor boy meets rich girl story.

A still from Sairat (Marathi)
A still from Sairat (Marathi)

“Hindi cinema was always trying to create this non-existent secular, inclusive, non-aggressive national kind of identity that came out of nowhere," Vangal says. She added that this is akin to the way, nowadays, a certain Punjabi culture is being construed as Indian culture as far as Hindi movies go—be it with songs, dances, or dialogues as any mainstream movie depiction of a wedding would show. Also, the whole idea of “national cinema" came in with the talkies. During the silent movie era, there was no one Indian identity.

“When this sense of national cinema came in, they (the filmmakers) started shying away from anything that may not be a pan-Indian issue," Vangal says. “Caste is so specific to every region or state. The impact or dynamics of caste are so very different everywhere. This is why I think it is something Hindi cinema generally tends to avoid."

Mumbai as a site

There was a revival in negotiating societal differences inside the movie hall in the 1970s, some film experts say, when Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘angry young man’ comes into the picture but then caste plays out as an economic class-related question in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. Ironically, Mumbai, by its very DNA, allows people of different ethnicities and backgrounds to live and work together, often escaping their caste identity.

“Since this industry operates out of Mumbai, it sees cinema as an egalitarian entity where differences don’t matter in the workspace or cultural ethos," Vangal says. The problem with Hindi cinema is that it is a displaced industry, and one made up of migrants, said Bikas Ranjan Mishra, who made Chauranga, the story of a Dalit boy killed for writing a love letter.

“In Marathi cinema, filmmakers are linguistically and culturally Marathi and they cater to Marathi-speaking people. The biggest market for Bollywood is western India, including Gujarat and Maharashtra, where a culturally rooted film (from a different setting) will not work," Mishra said, recalling the time he had to beg distributors for shows for his film, whose spoken language was a local dialect from Jharkhand. Off late, Bollywood’s attempts at addressing the caste question have been sporadic, from Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi -The Mountain Man (2015) to Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015) and Mishra’s Chauranga (2016). “I think lay audiences are used to watching films that are so escapist in nature that it (depiction of caste issues) might make some people uncomfortable or they might be repulsed by it, or if people have those kinds of biases in real life, they might carry the same when it comes to their cinema-viewing experience," said Chaitanya Tamhane, director of Court, a legal drama with caste undertones made in Marathi, Gujarati, English and Hindi that won the national award for best feature film in 2015 and was also India’s official entry to the academy awards that year.

A still from Court (multilingual)
A still from Court (multilingual)

It also has to do with getting funding for these films. “It becomes a lot about the patron or the source from where the money is coming because that also inevitably ends up guiding the content of the film in a big way," Tamhane said. “So, if you have a film funded by the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation of India), that would enjoy a different kind of freedom, compared to a corporate studio that is guided by what people want to watch and what makes money at the box office. So, it’s a (crippling) cycle."

Apart from questions of commerce, the caste identity of individual filmmakers matters too. Barely any big directorial names, apart from Neeraj Ghaywan, Nagraj Manjule and Pa. Ranjith, have identified themselves as low-caste.

“Hindi films generally stay away from caste issues because most of the makers are savarna Hindus," said Masaan writer Varun Grover. “They have grown up with the privilege of ignoring or actively being a party to the deeply problematic nature of caste. Why would they make films that reveal their own horrible crimes?"

A still from  Masaan (Hindi)
A still from Masaan (Hindi)

Bollywood is a very political industry and constantly responds to the power hub, Mishra said. Over the last few years, our political narrative has changed and Bollywood has responded to it. Around 2013-2014, for example, Hindi cinema was producing politically charged narratives like Haider and Masaan. It has now devolved to sanitized and depoliticized tales of fierce patriotism and nationalism.

Director Ketan Mehta, known for films like Bhavni Bhavai (1980) and Mirch Masala (1987), said the overall cinematic journey in India has changed and social issues are not really a focus area for most filmmakers. They are keener to travel across the globe, incorporate international characters, dabble with issues of urbanism, consumerism and globalization rather than aim at a certain rootedness, he says.

“Producers ask you to make purely entertaining movies, and because these issues are convenient to the dominant political paradigm, they are apolitical. Pure entertainment means you perpetuate the beliefs of the mainstream, which is the upper caste Hindu male," Mishra said, citing the example of recent blockbuster action comedy Simmba starring Ranveer Singh which, at its core, is a simplistic rape and revenge drama that propagates the ‘thok do’ (kill them) mentality.

Non-Hindi realm

A still from Fandry (Marathi)
A still from Fandry (Marathi)

Such problems do not seem to be as entrenched and prevalent in the non-Hindi film industry, where the insatiable obsession for global appeal hasn’t percolated down to the extent it has in Mumbai. From Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry and Sairat (Marathi) to Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala and Pariyerum Perumal (Tamil), Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot and Anhe Ghore Da Daan (Punjabi) to Vidhu Vincent’s Manhole (Malayalam), the stories are gritty and grimy, focusing more on the subtext of caste than just going at it with a sledgehammer. Disproving the notion that these subjects can only be serious, niche offerings meant for art film circuits, some of these are also hugely successful commercially (Sairat is the biggest hit in the history of Marathi cinema).

A still from Kaala (Tamil)
A still from Kaala (Tamil)

At least in south Indian cinema, Vangal said, caste issues have always been a part of mainstream movies and audiences saw them playing out from the beginning. From Sivaji Ganesan reminding his British-educated son (Kamal Haasan) of the courage and bravery of his Thevar brethren in Thevar Magan (1992) to the depiction of Jallikattu, the traditional bull-taming contests in southern Tamil Nadu (TN), in countless films like Murattu Kaalai (1980) and Virumaandi (2004), the examples are numerous. But many of these were assertions of other backward caste (OBC) identity— essentially, the middle castes (who, in many instances, were the oppressors of Dalits in the villages of southern TN). The Dalit revival in Tamil cinema by directors like Pa. Ranjith is, in many ways, a response to this earlier assertion by the middle castes. And, in fact, mirrors real-life political activity too. Both in TN and Maharashtra, there has been an upsurge in Dalit mobilization on the political stage—from the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi in the southern state to Prakash Ambedkar’s newly floated Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, which contested in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Quite evidently, the freedom to have to cater only to a limited language and cultural community and address its specific challenges is the key to the spirit of regional cinema.

“In non-Hindi states, power is not centralized in the hands of a few (film) producers, and, hence, there is more scope for experimentation," Grover said, adding that indie movie spirit is more alive in these industries and individual voices can break out, which is how the world got something like Sairat—the biggest hit from Marathi cinema. The advent of new forms of content distribution like online streaming services, however, has reinstated hope for those looking to tell or watch brave, caste-based narratives devoid of commercial constraints.

“We have a new generation of filmmakers who are not apologetic about making political cinema, and they don’t want to be content with just international success. They want (their) films to be seen in our country. So it’s a very exciting time to be a filmmaker in this country," Mishra said.