Big Screen Entertainment

Is Bollywood scared of Dalit love?

In a country where only 5.82% of the population marries outside the community, the very idea of inter-caste marriage and choosing one’s life partner is fantasy. But it is fantasy and desire that are the two key ingredients of commercial Indian cinema. Not surprising then that a big production house like Dharma Productions grabbed the opportunity to remake the Marathi blockbuster Sairat, which dealt with the theme of exogamy. The just-released Dhadak is Bollywood’s adaptation of Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi tale of a tragic romance between a Dalit boy and an upper-caste girl.

Dhadak is the second mainstream Hindi film this year after Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaazto showcase inter-caste romance. So, are there winds of change sweeping through commercial cinema with major production houses daringly taking on the hot-button issue of caste?

The answer is complicated. In Dhadak, for instance, the caste identities of the lead characters are different from those in Sairat. The hero, Madhukar Bhagla (Ishaan Khatter), is the only son of a lakeside restaurant owner, and the heroine, Parthavi Singh (Janhvi Kapoor), is the daughter of a renowned politician in Udaipur.

It’s evident from their surnames that the young man and woman in Dhadak are both from the sacred-thread wearing upper castes. So, in Dhadak, the romance might be inter-caste but, unlike Sairat, both people are from privileged upper castes.

The other inter-caste romance of the year, Mukkabaaz, was also an upper-caste romance — Rajput boy and Brahmin girl.

Much bolder

Unlike the mainstream films, in sharp contrast are some small productions that dared to centre the story on Dalit protagonists. Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015) traced the lives of a Dalit boy and an upper-caste girl, both grieving the loss of their partners. The film ends beautifully on a promising note: the two find themselves on the banks of the Ganges in Allahabad and take a boat ride to the sangam. The ending is both optimistic and fantastical, all we see is the glimmer of a possible romance.

I explored two exogamous relationships in my film Chauranga (2016). One, which plays out as a fantasy, was between a Dalit boy and an upper-caste girl. The boy dreams of her, adores her, enjoys the sight of her but never approaches her. The day he writes her a letter, it turns his world upside down.

Is Bollywood scared of Dalit love?

The second exogamous affair is shown as a possibility. The upper-caste man and the Dalit woman meet and mate in a cowshed, outside the confines of his upper-caste household. This realised fantasy meets a tragic end when the man accidentally kills her fearing the loss of his honour.

In fantasy

In Sairat, Manjule shows us in vivid detail how the love story of an upper-caste girl and a Dalit boy plays out in life. It looks like any other love story that breaks the ever-present societal barriers of caste and class, but the consequences of such transgressions soon become clear.

Manjule’s first feature film Fandry also toyed with the idea of inter-caste romance. But it operated purely in the fantasy realm where a Dalit boy silently adores an upper-caste girl and never musters the courage to approach her. When he finally does, his caste and livelihood of rearing pigs is thrown in his face to show him his place.

The realisation of exogamy in Masaan, Chauranga and Sairat unmistakably involved migration to the city. In Sairat, the couple escapes a caste-ridden rural society to seek jobs and a possible future in urban factories.

In Masaan, the boy and the girl migrate from a puritan Varanasi to Allahabad, the city of confluence. Interestingly, the girl finds a job in the railways and the boy is hired as a civil engineer, both professions distinct symbols of modernity. In Chauranga, the lone Dalit survivor boards a goods train carrying coal to save his life. The coal, train and migrant labourer, all three are necessary ingredients of modernity.

Unlike these smaller films that boldly dealt with caste and inter-caste relationships, the bigger Hindi films restrict their flings with caste to upper-caste romances alone. Clearly, their interest lies in only capitalising on the fantasy of inter-caste marriage and steering clear of the actual issue — the status of Dalits and their relationship with upper castes. Is Bollywood too scared to portray a Dalit love story?

The writer-director made the award-winning film Chauranga. @bikas

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 11:50:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/is-bollywood-scared-of-dalit-love/article24531699.ece

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