For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.

Debate | The Return of the Dalit in the New Cinema of South India

What we need, and what is gradually emerging, is cinema that is both regional and inclusive. It is grounded in the ethno-specific public and the geopolitical surroundings and resists the constant shelling of fake news and propaganda. 
A still from 'Asuran'.

“This is our chance. Make your enemy tremble in fear.” 

– Dr B. R. Ambedkar

Let me begin with a stray, not unusual, incident in the district where I reside now.

On July 4, 1991, in the village of Tsundur (Guntur, Andhra Pradesh), a Dalit graduate, Govatota Ravi, bought chair class tickets (reserved for the ‘upper’ caste Reddys) and in the darkness of the cinema auditorium, his crossed feet touched the viewer seated in front of him.

This seemingly isolated event was responsible for Reddy men and police’s massacre of 13 people belonging to Dalit communities in August 1991. Now, the blue and bronze Ambedkar statues positioned throughout the partially pitched roads of Namburu and Kanteru serve as enduring reminders of a violent and wheezing past.

If it is true that the projector and the screen activate the deep, dreamy mind of the audience, then filmmakers should be more inclined toward forging politically conscious cinema. For the last three decades, we have been exposed to the commercialisation and fetishisation of class struggles and communal issues. Whether we have reached some kind of harmonious state as a country with the aid of this overt attention to class and religion is a matter for another debate.

However, it is intriguing to note the total whitewashing of relevant caste questions from cinema altogether. Cinematic apparatuses are owned and regulated by traditional ‘upper’ caste ruling elites, and it is inevitably dangerous for them to allow images that tend to threaten their scopic privileges. An authentic representation of a Dalit person on screen carries the potential to harm the hygiene of their swachh or clean images.

Therefore, what we need, and what is gradually emerging, is cinema that is both regional and inclusive. It is grounded in the ethno-specific public and the geopolitical surroundings and resists the constant shelling of fake news and propaganda. 

Around three years ago, I had the good fortune of interviewing the rebellious Malayali filmmaker Sanal Sasidharan (director of Ozhivudivasathe Kali, S*** Durga, Chola).

On being questioned about the Brahminical role-changing drunken entertainment in An Off-Day Game, Sanal underlined the traits of casteism inherent in us: “We don’t understand our privileges and our biases until we reach a particular inescapable situation. This revelation doesn’t come from the outside; it is inside us. I made this film. But it is also inside me as a person. Without total democracy, we can’t imagine reaching that elevated plane of existence.”

A still from ‘An Off-Day Game’.

We are witnessing a new breed of filmmakers and a new kind of cinema surfacing from the heartlands of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra. Pa. Ranjith reveals, as Karthikeyan Damodaran and Hugo Gorringe note, “how the political apparatus of the state and representative politics systematically excludes Dalits, fisherfolk, and other marginalised subjectivities in the expressive cultures of music, literature, clothing, and sport. One of the effects of territorial stigmatisation… ‘is the “dissolution of ‘place’”, that is, the loss of a humanised, culturally familiar and socially filtered locale with which marginalised urban populations identify and in which they feel “at home” and in relative security’”.

Therefore, on one hand, we encounter the brutal realism of the Dalit condition in films like Peranmai (Valour, 2009), Visanarai (2015), Pariyerum Perumal (2018), Jai Bhim (2021), Pada (2022), Puzhu (2022); and on the other, the hyper-masculine fantasy of revenge and retaliation in Kabali (2016), Kaala (2018), Asuran (2019), Karnan (2021), Sarpatta Parambarai (2021). I feel the collaboration with superstars like Rajinikanth and Dhanush also divulges a perverse reversal where icons are employed to serve the Dalit cause. Especially from Vetrimaaran, Pa. Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj, we come across Dalit cinema rooted in struggle and oppression, and a forward and progressive movement toward Dalit empowerment and emancipation. These films fall somewhere between the conventional mainstream and the arthouse and dissolve all traditional definitions and genre expectations. 

Since this kind of cinema is also a reaction against the longstanding exposure to Brahminical barbarism both inside and outside the screen, violence functions as an integral part of redeeming the tortured Dalit protagonist. Violence, here, is not simply a response to the past; it simultaneously indicates an impending revolution. It is not the sort of contagious violence where blood begets blood; conversely, it is moralistic in nature against Savarna feudal violence and abuse on the pretext of Hindutva nationalism. 

Also read: The Dalit Person in Mainstream Indian Cinema

However, extra ounces of muscles are not only added to the black bare bodies of the Dalits in question; instead, there is an urgency to shape Dalit minds as intellectual resources. In a cathartic concluding scene that follows the intense violence in Asuran (Demon), the last enlightening words of farmer Sivasamy to his son are: “Chidambaram, if we own farmlands, they will seize it. If we have money, they will snatch it. But if we have education, they can never take it away from us.”

Cinematically, we have traversed a long road since Achhut Kanya of mid-1930. We have significantly and incrementally moved away from Dalit torture porn to an upgraded version of high-octane Dalit retributive action and redemption. In some of these films, sometimes strength is derived from the conflict-free interrelationships between the human, the divine, and the animal in folktales and myths. At least on celluloid, we experience the possibilities of another India. What we need is not repeated melancholic reminders of the absent Dalit in popular cinema but celebratory assertions of the emergence of various kinds of Dalit voices in all other types of cinema.

A still from ‘Jigarthanda DoubleX’.

Disquieting questions still stir inside: how do we confront and seek release from the unending maze of power structures? Where does one find one’s identity in this age of madness and illusions, at this precise stage of Bramayugam? What are the ways to escape the Brahminical hold over property, food, and historical time? 

And it is here that I remember Ranjith’s hope in cinema as a political weapon: “I will not accept that a film is just something you watch and leave. It is a mass medium that connects with every layperson. Cinema is how parties are born, how leaders are created, how a movement is fanned. It can be used by people to claim their freedom. And I use it against the Brahminical system”.

Karthik Subbaraj, in his meta-parody Jigarthanda DoubleX (2023), wields the camera as a shooting gun that records the catastrophic genocide of tribals by the ruling party; the ‘unedited’ film is then released in theatres as documentary footage to topple the government. 

And again I hopefully remember three stones flung at glasses/screens to wake us up from our collective amnesia, to inject aesthetic nervousness inside us: at the end of Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974), a young boy breaks the glass of the upper caste landlord’s window; Karnan’s little Dalit boy, in a fit of outrage, throws a rock at a bus’s windshield to register his protest against a long-established social boycott; the last shot of Fandry (2013) tracks the lower caste schoolboy as he hurls a stone at the camera shattering the cinema screen.

Asijit Datta works as Assistant Professor in the Department of Liberal Arts at SRM University, AP, and maintains an independent academic channel on YouTube for aspiring students, research scholars, and teachers.    

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter