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Mainstream Indian cinema has rarely depicted the complexities of caste and its associated social problems. With Fandry (2014) and Sairat (2016), Nagraj Manjule brought caste and gender to the centre stage of fi lm-making. However, his recent Hindi fi lm Jhund fails to carry forward this legacy and adopts a time-tested Bollywood style—an upper-caste-male-saviour trope.
The life and voices of the people belonging to various marginalised communities in India have rarely been portrayed in mainstream commercial movies. The release of Sairat in 2016 and its positive reception by the Indian and international audiences was a rare phenomenon. The life and desire of a boy from a fisherfolk community were portrayed with sincerity and sensitivity, and it was appreciated by the audience with matching intensity. Sairat was unusual because it brought the issue of caste and gender to the forefront, won accolades from the masses and the critics at the same time, and was a box-office superhit. Most importantly, it narrated the story from the marginalised caste and gender standpoints.
Dharmatma (1935) and Achhut Kanya (1936) were the first few films in the history of Hindi cinema to invoke the issue of caste, followed by Sujata (1959) in the early years of newly independent India. These were followed by a handful of films in the genre that came to be called “parallel cinema” and commercial films where caste sometimes appeared in intersection with gender. Otherwise, mainstream Hindi cinema has only occasionally, and that too superficially, brought in caste. For instance, let us take the mega-blockbuster and iconic Sholay as a case in point. The film portrays a vengeful Thakur (a politically powerful and landed Kshatriya caste of North India) who hires two criminals to avenge the massacre of the members of his joint family by the dacoit Gabbar Singh and his men. Except for Thakur, castes of all other characters—the hired criminals, the dacoit and his men, and the villagers—remain invisible. Thus, caste is present in Indian cinema selectively without the power dynamics and complex relationships that underlie the caste system. This “silence” about caste need not indicate that caste is not crucial in Indian life. One may understand it as “cultural censorship,” similar to what Sherriff (2000) describes in the context of racism in Brazil. In India, it is typical of the upper-caste, middle-class people to claim to be “casteless” even as they continue to enjoy all the power and privileges associated with their social locations. The film industry dominated by the upper-caste elite does not want to talk about the realities of castes.
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