Hindi cinema has waited long enough to see a Dalit character as the male/female popular hero. The possibility that a Dalit character will appear on screen as a protagonist to transform a corrupt and criminal social structure by their power and intelligence is not an admissible topic. Such fictional heroism and charismatic attitude are allowed mainly to characters that don upper caste identities. It is characters who belong to the social elite that are the perpetual vanguards who bring justice to the victims and resolve the crises; similar power and attitude are often unavailable to Dalit characters. However, in the recently released Reema Kagti’s web-series Dahaad on Amazon Prime, Sonakshi Sinha portrays a robust and powerful Dalit character and smashes conventional caste stereotypes, especially the role of Dalit women as suppressed and feminine subjects.
The portrayal of Dalit women
Even a cursory review about the social location of female lead characters in Hindi cinema would demonstrate that majority of the female roles are about upper caste Hindu women. Her presence signifies and embodies Indian women as a whole, neglecting any intersectionality based on caste, tribe and religion. On occasion, even when the Dalit woman is presented on screen, she is denied the ‘normal’ feminine space and portrayed mainly to showcase the power and authority of the social elites (as in the 1959 release Sujata); or with passive stereotypes of being a wretched and powerless victim (in Ankur released in 1974); or suffering under feudal-Brahmanical assaults (as in 1975 Nishant), or objectified as a submissive, raped body, with no human agency (Damul 1985).
Such portrayals perpetuate Brahmanical beliefs about the inferiority of Dalits and suggest that the community survives without any middle-class assets, education and modern civic entitlements. In Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen (1994), the abject rural poverty and feudal caste oppression defines the Dalit woman’s social location as a wretched subject. Though, narratives of caste atrocities and feudal oppression is closer to social reality, such perpetuation also offers voyeuristic pleasure to the non-Dalit audience and hides other visible realities about their socio-political advancements. It is only in the post-globalisation period that a noticeable shift is witnessed in the representation of Dalit women.
Empowering on screen
In some of the recent films and web-series, the Dalit women characters are, as noticeable aberrations, showcased as aspirational modern women, ready to fight for their social and political rights as well as perform the role of a mainstream popular hero. Two films released earlier, Madam Chief Minister (2020) and 200 Halla Ho (2021) offer an impressive portrayal of the struggles of Dalit women who contest social and political criminals violently and emerge as popular victorious heroes. Furthermore, in two web series (Aashram and Ajeeb Dastan hai yeh), we again see Dalit female characters aspiring to lead a free and independent life against hegemonic patriarchal norms. In Dahaad, the lead character, Anjali Bhati further improvises this version, portraying the Dalit woman with classic feminist powers and robust individuality.
Dahaad at the outskirts emerges as an engaging crime thriller with three impressive police characters who investigate cases of serial murders in a small town of Rajasthan. However, alongside its gripping tale of mysterious murders and the search for the mastermind criminal, it offers an intelligent social commentary about the deep presence of caste hierarchies, oppressive feudal control and the deep-rooted communalism of the ruling elites. These social actualities are often neglected in crime fictions, which are often presented as merely the contest between the honest policemen and the psychopath criminal. Dahaad, however, underlines the conventional wisdom of crime drama, its screenplay brilliantly depicting caste-based norms and the discriminatory social psyche. It shows that caste not only contaminates the mind of the serial killer but also modern institutions like the police force.
Unlike earlier films (like Jai Gangajal (2016), Mardani (2019), Delhi Crime (2019), Drishyam-2 (2021) etc.) that portrays the police officer as an upper caste woman, Dahaad offers a fascinating innovation by introducing a Dalit female protagonist as the police officer. We see that even though she is distanced from the precarious lives of poor Dalits and has entered into a modern-secular institution as a duty-bound officer, her social identity keeps on obstructing her performance with caste-based hurls, Brahmanical rituals and discriminatory attitudes of the ruling elites. Though the character knows her ‘low’ social location, she rejects performing the submissive and conventional caste role. Instead, she emerges as a dynamic, no-nonsense investigator, retaliating the offenders not through violent action but by asserting her constitutional rights, rupturing the elites’ orthodoxy and patriarchal domination.
The need for more
The prime mandate of the web-series is to expose brutal crimes and explore the mind of the criminal through a multi-layered investigation by the police. Creatively, it added fascinating nuances of social realism and brought it closer to often neglected caste appendages. Presenting a Dalit woman character as a conscious individual, powered with dynamic feminist heroism is a welcoming change. On the flip side however, Dahaad, avoids engagement with the current socio-political background, especially the wide-spread Dalits’ struggle for freedom, social dignity and justice. The revolutionary ideas of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar has been the most influential force in bringing such dynamic social change, infusing confidence and charisma in Dalit bodies. Kagti defines the protagonist as a sincere, self-made righteous being, dedicated to her professional duties without analysing the deeper social history of Brahmanical domination and the resistances offered by the Dalit movement.
Though ‘Caste and Dalit’ issues are yet to become a significant genre within social drama narratives, Kagti’s audacity to make a crime thriller with a Dalit protagonist surely makes it a winner. More such projects will not only liberate Hindi cinema from its populist and rhetorical formats but will also make the cultural industry more democratic, creative and socially responsible.
Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi