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.
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 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.
—Harish S. Wankhede, Dalit Representation in Bollywood