If the debates on “Aarakshan” could not be
hosted staged without representation from Dalits, how could someone denigrate the very policy that ensures representation? If it is just and appropriate to have a Dalit opinion in the discussion of the film, how is it admissible to have the whole film without the involvement of Dalits/OBCs? Even in pre-release screening, even if the involvement is sought by the very constitutional body NCSC whose duty it is “to investigate and monitor all matters relating to the safeguards provided to the Scheduled Castes by the constitution.”
This film could have been made in the 70s, 80s or even in the height of anti-Mandal agitation of the 90s, there seems to be nothing outwardly 21st century, post-Avatar about this movie. The on screen-romance of a forty something actor and twenty something actress, of contrasting backgrounds, college-love story, songs and dance- all home-grown, time-tested, high-return plot-line. So is the upper-caste resentment for Reservation policy.
Before a film is made which outrightly berates the lower castes, they had to test the waters. The “benign, inadvertent usage” of casteist-slurs had to be incorporated and popularized. The song “ kahan raja bhoj, kahan gangu-teli” from film Dulhe Raja(1998) was not a subtle insinuation, but my friends with PhDs (some of who are from the Teli caste) didnt see it as a casteist epithet, but as an “expression” and “local diction”. It is necessary to watch the video alongside mein hoon hero (Ram Lakhan, 1989). Both are a form of poetry-jam where each player wants to prove himself superior. While in mein hoon hero, one man begins with a position of “zero”, in kahan raja bhoj, neither of the men want to be Gangu Teli even for a moment. Although decades apart, both videos display the differential attitude the caste-hindu, caste-muslim film industry have towards economic and caste inequality. In the film “Josh” (2000), it is interesting to note that in an adrenaline-charged exchange, the Hindu gang retort “ aukat kya, teri jat kya” to the Christian gang’s call for fight. Since Christian converts are presumed to be former lower-castes ( even if they were not) they must be reminded of the oh-so-powerful weapon of caste that this Hindu gang possessed. The song couldn’t be more maliciously “caste-appropriate”. Then comes, “Aaja Nachale”(2007) with the line “Mohele mien kaise mara mar hie, Bole mochi bhi khudko sonar he”, meaning “ there is riot in the street, [because] the shoe-maker[ apparently lower-caste] says he belongs to gold-smith caste [apparently more acceptable lower-caste].
These are some of the “tastefully” memorable ones, but there are certainly more of them, could be even more offensive/amusing depending on what your caste is, which I am sure will be neatly documented in near future (unlike this post). After watching, Bandit Queen, Bhawander etc. where the so-called sensitive and artistic filmmakers and actors failed miserably to portray Dalit and other castes genuinely, I stopped watching any movies which has an identified Dalit character. I gave a miss to “Laggan”, “Ganjajal”, “Lajja”, each of them. So I can’t comment on how stereotyping Dalits, other castes and castiest remark/abuse were developed to the acceptability level in the scripts, but I know no Dalit intellectual or any politically aware person of SC/ST/OBC would ever approve of any of these.
The casteist remarks in songs/music served many purposes. First, the lyricists and the film makers could claim “poetic license” to use these phrases of casteist-diction to avoid what in practice could have booked them with SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
Second, in absence of a burgeoning music industry independent of bollywood, filmy-songs are prime source of musical entertainment. Wide circulation of these remarks through music tested and found nil (and in rare cases diminished) sensitivity of the people to blatant casteist remarks.
Third, this degeneration of sensitivity of hindi film-industry was carefully crafted with the rise of usage of slags and slurs in lyrics as if a new era of music of the “common people” were being created.
Fourth, it provided the opportunity to incorporate minor modification in the films if demanded, but the music which were usually released much earlier could have passed on intact.
Each of these movies and music was cleared by the censor board without a hitch, none of them was confronted with negative review/criticism from the mainstream media, nor any progressive forum. Except “Aaja Nachelle”, that too ONLY from dalit groups. For all their casteist-slangs and stereotyping, the movies appealed to to the mainstream, urban viewers as realistic, original and different.
So the film industry was ready to take up more challenging casteist projects.
During this process, caste had become the proverbial elephant in the indian democracy. It was in the nineties, when the OBCs started asserting power as a separate electorate which not just could influence election manifesto, sway elections but could also win popular mandate and form governments. Having eroded the illogical caste-hindu majority in the legislative, they crafted new laws to democratize other branches of governance. The oracles in the big dome, untouched by the “silent revolution” that India was going through, were the only hope to subvert the mandate of the people who could only speak through vote. They failed miserably in spite of taking hostage all of the countries educational institutes (something they were in fact doing not-so-surreptitiously for decades anyway), and channelling all possibly resources, even with the blessings of the oracles. In the process, they demonstrated how much bigotry they can exhibit, and how much more could excite them.
To cash out these sentiments, Bollywood was ready. And Prakash Jha, the serious, political, action film maker could not waite more.Happy Independence Day