The role of India’s untouchables in film

Published originally in The Star here

DEEP THOUGHTS | living | The role of India’s untouchables in film

The role of India’s untouchables in film

Jun 22, 2007 04:30 AM

Shauna Rempel
Toronto Star

Name: Prashant Kadam

Age: 35

Program: First year of master’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies at York University

Thesis: Visual representation of the Dalits in popular Hindi cinema

The background: Dalit refers to an outcast class of “untouchables” under the Hindu caste system in India. Before the caste system was thrown out in the 1950s, Dalits were considered the lowest of the low, relegated to society’s most menial jobs and subjected to violence, harassment and abuse.

Even though the Indian constitution forbids discrimination along caste lines, it still exists, especially in modern cinema, a huge business in India. Nearly 200 Hindi-language films are made each year in India and the 160 million Dalits are sorely under-represented. When they do appear, they are usually cast as victims or stereotyped as uneducated, rebellious and violent.

“There’s a tendency to portray them as physically handicapped at times even. It’s how filmmakers perceive them and how society still perceives them,” Kadam says.

The correlations: Similar studies have been done on portrayal of aboriginal peoples in film and on Blaxploitation films of the ’70s. In Shaft, for example, there is a perception that a marginalized group is taking back some power.

“The notion of a Blaxploitation film is that the industry understood that there was money to be made by portraying black characters in a film,” Kadam says. But, “they were still stereotyped.” Male characters were often subjugated and beaten, while female characters were either sex-hungry or victims of sexual violence, he says.

The movies: Kadam focuses on three films that are rare because they have Dalit characters as protagonists.

Ankur (The Seedling), from 1974, is a story about a maidservant who is impregnated by her boss and abandoned by her deaf-mute Dalit husband. The husband later returns to his wife’s side, only to be beaten by the guilt-laden boss.

The 1994 film Bandit Queen is loosely based on the life of Phoolan Devi. She was sold into marriage at 11, subjected to years of abuse, and by her late teens was leading a gang of bandits on violent robberies that targeted the rich and shared the spoils with the lower castes.

The 2000 film Bawander (Sandstorm) is also inspired by the story of a lower caste woman who stands up for justice after a gang rape by taking her abusers to court. However, she is again victimized, in the court and police system.

The Future: After his master’s degree, Kadam wants to expand his study as part of a PhD thesis. He hopes by then Dalits will portray themselves in their own films in the same way filmmaker Spike Lee does with the black experience in North America.

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