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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 20, May 4, 2013

Dalit Representation in Bollywood

Saturday 4 May 2013, by Harish S. Wankhede


The celebration of 100 years of Bollywood needs to be reviewed from a subaltern perspective. The general assumption that cinema is a normal mode to produce anecdotes to satisfy the entertainment quotient of the people should go through a critical scrutiny. Films as artistic expression cannot be devoid of their politico-ideological objectives. Hence, from a Dalit perspective when one enquires about their space during the past one century of the film world, only a handful of non-decrepit, obscure examples are presented. Caste as a peculiar Indian reality is an acceptable fact but it is often cast away by the Bollywood filmmakers.

Bollywood’s first decade after Independence responded quite significantly to the modernist-socialist outlook. The rich and social elites were presented as insensitive towards the poor, selfish in their endeavours, greedy at their core and also violent with animalist instinct. The poor, city dwellers and village commoners were lovable, honest and stood in defence of ideals. Raj Kapoor as the humble city dweller of Awara (1951), Dev Anand as the unemployed charming youth in Kala Bazaar (1960) and Dilip Kumar as the rustic and raw struggler of the village in Naya Daur (1957) became the mascot of the common people’s aspirations. The nationalist hope that the newly born nation has to pass this transitory phase to achieve the ideals of modernity was promisingly reflected in this decade. It created that duality between the ‘good versus evil’ as the concrete contestation between the rich and poor and sensitively defended the aspirations of the downtrodden. Further, at instances, the issue of caste became a part of the popular narrative in films like Ganga Jamuna (1961) and Sujata (1959) but only to supplement the popular reformist logic of the ruling classes. Otherwise the poor of the popular Hindi cinema remained with the abstract ‘commoner’ identity away from caste considerations.

Away from the realistic optimism shown in the earlier decades of the Bollywood cinema, the 1960s narrowed down its concerns to the emotional ghettos of the upper-middle class people. The decorative and bulging style of the city rich, Western attire, foreign locations and cosmopolitanism gripped the narratives making Shakti Samant and Pramod Chakravarthy household names. (Gooptu 2012) The bourgeois hero was a romantic lover, good hearted and indulged mainly to satisfy the burning emotional quench. In the times of Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna as the spokespersons of Bollywood, it was difficult to assume that popular cinema could notice the other wretched world. Caste was completely blacked out as if the socialist dreams were already fulfilled within the first decade itself. However the upper caste names, brahmanical cultural rituals and Hindu aesthetics were portrayed as the natural assets of the entire nation.

With the beginning of the ‘Amitabh era’, since the late 1970s, a shift took place from the sensible social portrayal of the unequal society. It further shifted towards a very imaginative space centred on the ‘angry young man’ hero. The ‘superstar’ could singlehandedly solve the personal and public anguishes with a fist of fury and appeared as a ‘prophet’ hero. (Dasgupta, 2006, p. 22) He primarily contested the issues of poverty, corruption and lawlessness but hardly showed any concern to deal with the social maladies such as caste discrimination or women’s empowerment. It was reflective of the fact that the idea of Heroism needed a peculiar social background (upper caste) and hence no-body (including Govind Nihalani), during this age of ‘anger and frustration’, even imagined to portray a realist Dalit protagonist fighting against social and capitalist ills.

From the late 1970s onwards, the idea of dominant metanarratives was critically scrutinised to seek equal and visible space for the values and notions which were historically marginalised and socially suppressed. In the postmodern context, the public discourses and social ideas were reimagined to provide meaning and substance to the obscure peripheral subjects. The qualitative participation of people from the margins into the mainstream discourses significantly transformed the conventional values of the collective life and also helped in building a more secular and tolerant milieu. Hence, in contemporary times, especially in the Hollywood cinema, women, coloured men, queer subjects, physically challenged individuals have gathered prime locations and capacity to emerge as distinct and independent characters of film narratives and thus have helped in the democratisation of cinema in a considerably positive way. However, such democratic credentials are not visibly present in the popular Hindi cinema.

The popular rhetoric that cinema is the mirror of contemporary society which depicts the dominant changes taking place in the societal milieu is an untenable claim. Especially when it is judged in the background of postmodern socio-economic and political spectrums, which have democratised the forms of knowledge and have argued that the realities are fragmented, subjectively oriented and distinct from each other; Bollywood cinema remained dominated by upper-caste normativity. The growing socio-political struggles of the socially marginalised groups during the 1970s and 1980s to claim their legitimate rights in public spaces have not become a narrative even in a single mainstream film.

The Bollywood films are superficial attempts to mystify the socio-political realities. The marvellous fictional narratives are distantly separated from the quotidian complexities of the average person. It cunningly avoids itself from indulging in the hard questions of social reality and in most of the cases imposes a structured narrative meant to address the emotive and psychological concerns of the Hindu social elites. Hindi films are written, directed and produced by a dominant set of people that celebrate the tastes and values of upper class-caste sensitivities. Even the film critics, historians and scholars have studied cinema as an art aloof from the rugged conflicting social realities. The experiences of caste discrimination and exclusion have a negligible presence in the narratives of the Bollywood cinema.

The ‘parallel/new wave cinema’, on the other hand, showed some efforts in bringing the lower caste subjectivity on the silver screen. The social questions of feudal exploitation, caste violence and Dalit repression gathered remarkable momentum. In this realm, however, even the ‘realistic cinema’, which is celebrated for its actual narratives and commitment towards presenting a naked truth to the audience, contented mainly in showcasing the superficial populist stereo-types of the marginalised lives and hardly entered into the core debate of social realities. The Dalits are presented as submissive animate selves, degraded and destitute with almost no hope for a better future. Similar to Karan Johar’s designer NRI lifestyle, the parallel cinema is also content with a designer reality and addresses those social questions which will not make its audience uncomfortable and agitated.

The post-liberalisation period since the 1990s witnessed that the filmmakers mostly endorse simple market ethics by locating sensationalism and entertainment as the ideal vehicle to reach their targeted audience. Hence, they have distanced themselves from their social responsibilities as an artist and crafted a cinema genre having a wider global appeal. Hindi cinema was termed as the quasi-mirror image of Hollywood and it happily adopted the new nomenclature as Bollywood. (Rajadhyakshay, 2003) The heavy investment in the exhibition industry brought the niche ‘multiplex culture’ and thus marginalised the single-screen business. Films were specifically made to cater to the tastes and sensitivities of the upper middle class audiences, who have the capacity to spend three times more than the average filmgoer. (Deshpande, 2001) Hindi films, which earlier used to respond to the ‘desires and concerns’ of the average Indians, now categorically mean to propose a specific kind of surreal taste of the escapist nature.

In the contemporary cinema, it seems that the possibility of experiments has increased; however its commercial logic still governs the art form. Hence, even a serious filmmaker like Prakash Jha mistreats a sensitive issue like reservation under an upper-caste moral tutelage to retain his audience in his commercial flick Aarakshan. Certain films must have improved on the technical side of the artistic form (Gangs of Wasseypur or Shanghai), but their capacity to promote an artistically made film with an equal commitment to portray social ills, is still a distant dream.

The representation of Dalit persona and his/her ideological and moral characteristics reflect the Gandhian visualisation of the ‘Harijan’, that is, dependent (Sujata 1959), submissive (Damul 1985) and suitable to the ethics of socio-cultural Brahmanical values (Lagaan 2001). The Dalit movement which has impacted the socio-political churning in the most impressive way and produced a robust independent ‘Political Dalit’ has almost no representative narrative available in the mainstream Bollywood films.

Bollywood in the most visible way is devoid of creative freedom, honesty and the passion to break the conventional norms which eventually can produce a radical art form.

The popular Bollywood cinema is the apt example of such fake world. In most of the cases, it lacks rational contemplation and capacity to break the clutch of commercial logic. Hence its engagement with the darker side of societal behaviour is just superficial. It is so much distanced from the real world that the film scholars theorised the ‘fantasy’ of the Bollywood as the basic theme which governs the film makers and audiences alike. The dream merchant tag is the celebrated nomenclature here as it subtracts the normal quotidian life to present an opium fused narrative. The invisibility of caste or Dalit protagonist on the silver screen reflects such narrow and bogus commitment to cinema as an art form.


Dasgupta, Susmita (2006), Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar, Penguin Books, New Delhi.

Deshpande, Sudhanva (2001) “The Consumable Hero of Globalised India”, Popular Indian Cinema Through a Transnational Lens, Raminder Kaur and Ajay J. Sinha (eds.), Sage Publications, New Delhi.

Gooptu, Sharmishtha (2012), “The Underrated Sixties in Films”, The Times of India, August 6, New Delhi.

Rajadhyakshya, Gautam (2003), “The ‘Bollywoodisation’ of Hindi Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in the Global Arena”, Inter-Area Cultural Studies, 4(1): 25-29.

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