Dalit and powerful: How women are reclaiming the screen – Times of India

In the OTT series Made in Heaven 2 during a heated discussion between Pallavi Menke, a Dalit academic, and her fiancé Vikram about his parents’ subtle opposition to their inter-caste marriage, Vikram says, “Aren’t you reading a little bit too much into it?” Pallavi replies, “No, you can’t see it.”
This pivotal moment in the episode captures the invisible presence of caste in India. Those privileged enough, just can’t see it. However, there are a handful of directors who have recently made it their business to change this. Dalit women are on screen, ready to grab us by our collar demanding to be seen, some more gently than others. In just the last couple of years we have had characters like Pallavi Menke in MIH, Bharti Mandal in Geeli Pucchi (part of Lust Stories 2), Mahima Basor in Kathal and Rene in Natchathiram Nagargiradhu.
JNU assistant professor Harish Wankhede describes this as an exciting time for stories about Dalit women that are modern and radical in perspective. “This is possible because the OTT medium is progressive, pluralistic and anti-establishment and moves away from the commercial bling of mainstream cinema. There is no pressure of family viewing which allows for experimenting with multiple ideas and content,” he says.
An ambitious Bharti Mandal, a manipulative Tara (in Madam Chief Minister) and a determined Anjali Bhaati (in Dahaad) are a far cry from oppressed victim figures that we have seen on screen so far.
Kathal director Yashowardhan Mishra who chose to tell the story of a Dalit policewoman in a small town that is mired in prejudice is one such break from the past. The series uses humour to raise questions about misuse of power and privilege by upper castes. Basor, understands the misuse but does not carry the bitterness, instead choosing to channelise her uniform and authority to look for the missing Dalit girls who no one really cares about. Mishra says, “The Dalits we see on screen are grim, oppressed, grief-stricken and vengeful. While not taking away from the struggle or the oppression I felt that there was space for creating a celebratory image of a Dalit character. Dalit heroes need to be shown as happy, champions with a sense of humour.”
He adds, “This has also led to a cultural shift for the audience, when Dalits are presented as victims, they feel that this is how they are “meant to be.” We need to change that.”
Prof Jebaroja Singh, who teaches gender studies at St John Fisher University and has authored book Spotted Goddesses: Dalit Women’s agency narratives on caste and gender violence says that the presence of Dalits in such places of authority and responsibility should be essentialised and not just tokenised. “That’s what our activist film directors are concretising today. Such veracity of sincerity is necessary to thwart centuries of gas lighting that is continued even today that we are a cultural denigration in physical appearance, skin colour, intelligence and morality. This process is now disrupted and rerouted by media in the depiction of Dalit women, girls and them as those imbued with agency, sophistication and elan,” she adds.
Wankhede says that this change in perspective has been catalyzed by the presence of an aspiring Dalit middle class, which has a political worldview and is looking for content that is closer to their lived experience. “There is a growing middle-class audience that is educated, aspirational, dynamic Dalit middle-class who are forward looking. They would like to see cinema that inspires, that is aesthetic,” he says.
Of course, perceived reality is different from actual reality. Nearly every day newspapers continue to be filled with caste atrocities that appear to be unrelenting. Even today Dalits are subjected to humiliation, assault, rape and lynchings for drinking or eating from a common vessel or daring to own assets or even riding a horse at their wedding.
In the 70s-80s Indian cinema took its first tentative steps towards Dalit portrayal where women were wretched, poor victims of circumstances and atrocities, unable to create change in their lives. Initial films that began the conversation were Achhut, Achhut Kanya and Sujata. Wankhede says that the pivot took place with the Bandit Queen that chronicled the life of Phoolan Devi, a Dalit woman who was a victim but who uses her voice and influence to strike back at the upper caste. “She takes revenge. It is among the first films that portrays a Dalit woman with sensitivity. We also had Bawandar that was based on Bhanwari Devi. These films ruptured the present from the past narratives,” he says.
One of my main premises of Prof Singh’s book is that Dalit women are rebellious transgressors irrespective of class and place locale. “In my book I provide evidence for the fact that Dalit women are not mere victims. We harbor desirous voices in us as change-seeking and change-making bold leaders. As depicted in mainstream film media in India now, Dalit women innovate subversive strategies to transgress boundaries of mainstream cultural expectations. Yes, we are victimised by colluding of power structures of caste, class, patriarchy, and religion, but our stories don’t end there.”
One of the main reasons for the shift in depiction of Dalit women as victims as those with agency is the increased presence of Dalit women in art, and education, Prof Singh says. “While on the one hand, the ugliness of violence against minority groups in India has increased, there is also the urgent presence and vocalisation of opposition to brutality. Such organised voices such as the casteless collective in Chennai and several other movements including anti-caste movements and Ambedkarite movements in the USA and other parts of the world, have created communities that protest such vulgarity of violence against Dalits and especially on Dalit women’s bodies and minds. Spontaneous activism is on the rise,” she adds.
Wankhede says, “We need more stories and cinema about Dalit-Bahujan community that makes people aware of socially responsible art. The success of these stories will inspire more filmmakers, writers and other creative people to come forward and just like Hollywood saw Black cinema, we will see Dalit films as a genre. Mishra says, “The character has moved from the corner of the screen to the centrestage.” It is about time.

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