The rise of the Dalit aesthete in Marathi cinema

Is the individual success of films like Fandry and Sairat enough to give rise to a unique sub-genre of Dalit cinema, similar to Dalit literature? And is it only Dalits who can narrate such tales of discrimination?

Updated - September 22, 2016 07:04 pm IST

Published - September 12, 2016 04:56 pm IST

A still from 'Fandry'

A still from 'Fandry'

Nagraj Popatrao Manjule’s debut feature film Fandry ends with Jabya, a Dalit adolescent in a poor village in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, expressing his angst by hurling a stone at his oppressor, calling him a ‘scoundrel’. His act of rebellion mirrors that by the nameless child in Shyam Benegal’s first film Ankur , released in 1974, a good 40 years before Fandry . The young Jabya, tormented by his inability to extricate himself from his ancestral ‘work’ of hunting pigs, and humiliated by repeated taunts of fandry (pig) by his upper-caste co-villagers in full public view, converts his despair into rage. However, there is one major difference between the two child characters. The child in Ankur , a peripheral character in the movie, targets the house of the village landlord who has sexually abused a Dalit girl. However, Jabya’s throw, which is aimed the very camera that is filming him and following which there is a silence of about 10 seconds before the end credits roll, is directed not just at his oppressors. By hitting the audience hard on the face, Jabya, and through him director Manjule, declares a revolt on celluloid. His intention is not just to agitate, it is to provoke us, the casteist audience.

In 2016, Manjule’s second film, Sairat , has emerged as the first Marathi film to gross more than Rs.100 crores. There has been marginal improvement, less-pronounced in rural areas, in the condition of those once considered ‘untouchables’. However, the emergence of Dalit film-makers willing to portray lived experiences on cinema, and an audience willing to appreciate such films, has surely given some shape to a Dalit-centric cinematic paradigm. And it is not surprising that this has emerged in Maharashtra, the birthplace of Jyotiba Phule and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. This is not parallel cinema; this is the new mainstream.

However, this is not a new phenomenon, certainly not in Marathi cinema. Looking at its history, we find that Dalit characters have figured at the centre right from the pre-Ambedkarite days. For instance, Dharmatma , a 1935 film by V. Shantaram that was based on the life of poet-saint Sant Eknath.

Giving a brief overview of the history of Marathi cinema, film-maker Paresh Mokashi says that in the case of another Shantaram character, the sex worker Maina from Manoos (1939), we can assume that the lady belonged to the lower strata, though there was no mention of it in the film

These were uncommon instances. However, the 70s brought cultural renaissance to Maharashtra. The Dalit Panthers, co-founded by Marathi poet Namdeo Dhasal, took the shape of a movement aimed at eradicating the evil of untouchability. Modelled on the Black Panther Movement of the U.S., the organisation created fertile ground for the rise of a new cultural genre, Dalit literature, not just in Marathi but also other languages To start with, it was autobiographical in character and involved progressive Dalit individuals chronicling their tales of oppression through writing.

Mahesh Raut, Gadchiroli-based writer and activist, says the period following the Dalit Panthers movement was the best period of Marathi culture in the way it linked the discrimination suffered by Dalits here to that by minorities elsewhere. Dr. Ambedkar found a place in their narratives, as did Marx and Mao. Director Jabbar Patel’s cinema, combining the gender question with caste and politics, was a product of this thinking.

Patel, right from his first movie Samna , pulled no punches when it came to targeting casteism. The film revolved around the personality clash between a pround, power-hungry, manipulative Hindurao Patil and a self-deprecating village drunkard ‘Master’. However, central to their tussle was the disappearance of a Dalit character, Maruti Kamble, one who challenges Patil’s unquestioned dominance in the village and seeks to mobilise his own people in demand for their rights. Kamble’s fierce determination haunts Patil even when he is not physically present.He is the only person in the village able to instil a sense of insecurity in Patil. The samna (confrontation) here is not just between a machiavellian Patil and a probing Master. It is also a battle between Patil’s desire to monopolise power in the village and Kamble’s assertion for greater democratisation.

Kamble’s defiance was the precursor to the disquiet of another strong-willed character in Patel’s universe, Milind Wagh from Mukta (1994). The film was arguably the best one on Dalit assertiveness and the perpetual power struggle in Maharashtra between the landowner class and the subdued Dalits. It borrowed elements from both the Dalit Panthers’ movement and the struggle for dignity among African-Americans in the U.S. And, 22 years before Sairat , it showed a well-educated Mukta falling under the spell of Milind’s idealism. However, it was made in different times. Jabbar Patel’s world was infused with hope for a better future. When the two, Milind and Mukta, decide to get together, it is not just as individuals; it is as part of a greater struggle for dignity. The fact that Mukta has a father who is a poet and a grandfather who has been a freedom fighter only infuses greater optimism in her thinking.

The piece de resistance in the movie is the musical conversation between Mukta’s African-American friend Julian and the grandfather, where Patel makes a fatigued veteran, from the privileged community, have dialogue with an individual from the underprivileged section coming from a different culture. The two are divided by class and culture, but united by their hope and desire to bring change.

Patel would go on to make his next masterpiece in the form of a biopic on Dr. B.R. Amedkar (2000), one that, in true Ambedkarite spirit, was an exercise in realism rather than an attempt at hero worship or hagiography.

Though many of Patel’s movies, including Jait Re Jait that had at its centre a tribal community, won critical acclaim, they were not always considered mainstream. However, 16 years since Patel’s Ambedkar, the scenario has changed; there has emerged a new market, one that includes the Dalit middle class.

Vira Sathidar, the activist-writer who played the central character of Narayan Kamble in Court , says such a market is present now, one that will ensure that a film themed at Dalit issues will get commercial success. However, these remain disjointed efforts. “ Fandry , Khwada (by Bhaurao Karhade), Baromas (by Dhiraj Meshram), they were all autobiographical tales of discrimination suffered by these film-makers due to their caste background. However, their individual narratives have not given the form of a movement. The market forces don’t allow that. A Sairat may become a blockbuster, but what we need is a cinematic new wave, along the lines of the IPTA. For that, film-makers sympathetic to the Dalit cause need to come together and reflect, they need to form a collective.

“Sadly, that is not happening. Every filmmaker claims to be more radical, more progressive than the other. This limits the cultural space. We need an organised effort with a definite artistic and political core. Otherwise, films will win National Awards but will not be able to create a genre. They will remain exceptional efforts.”

This gives rise to another question, one that Dalit scholars and litterateurs have been debating for decades: Can only Dalits provide an authentic portrayal of the cruel apartheid that has existed since centuries? Sairat was refreshing in the way it blended commercial elements like music and romance with a tale of subjugation. However, does the fact that it is a Dalit who has acted as the helmsman make it any more powerful than a Mukta ?

Mahesh Raut, the activist, quotes Dr. Ambedkar himself when he says that the battle here is not against upper caste people per se, it is against the prejudice that arises from casteist thinking. Hence, a Dalit as well as a non-Dalit can look at issues from the viewpoint of the oppressed sections and portray it on celluloid. However, the problem arises when a non-Dalit individual arrogates to himself the right to set the framework by which the aesthetic merits of such a piece of art are to be judged. Such rule-setting, he feels, should be done by someone who has suffered discrimination in real life.

Vira, the activist who played the role of Narayan Kamble in Court , echoes this viewpoint. “There can be people with great empathy among both Dalits and non-Dalits. Munshi Premchand’s novels and short stories, Jabbar Patel’s cinema, Arundhati Ray’s essays, these can be considered as much part of Dalit culture as writings by Dalits. When Babasaheb Ambedkar began his movement, many empathetic Brahmins took the lead in burning Manusmriti , an episode we can also see in Jabbar Patel’s biopic.”

He goes on to add that even when we consider tamasha art, unique to Dalits, non-Dalits played a major role in popularising it. “Chaitanya Tamhane, the director of Court , though not being one, showed a great understanding of the life of Dalits. I was pleasantly surprised by the way he explained to me the character of Narayan Kamble.”

He refers to the fact that ‘Dalit’ is an inclusive term that includes not just the people belonging to the Scheduled Castes but tribals, people from the LGBT community and other discriminated sections. “Writing about them, making films on them is about compassion, sensitivity, understanding which can be found among all sections. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was not an African-American. Does that make it any less authentic? Aesthetic honesty in voice matters more than identity conferred at birth,” he says.

Corrections & Clarifications:

This article has been edited for a factual error.

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