During a recent interview, the maker of Sairat and Fandry, director Nagraj Munjule, recounted a childhood anecdote. He said that in his village, a woman would beg from all the houses in his neighborhood, barring his. The reason for her discrimination, he later understood, was that he and his family were Dalits. This particular incident has never been cinematically adapted by Munjule, but every story he tells is a cry against this discrimination.
In Sairat, for example, caste is the third protagonist. In fact, for most parts, it plays a more important role than the lead characters Archie (Rinku Rajguru) and Parshya (Akash Thosar). Casteism is everywhere in Munjule's virtual world, much like the world he grew up in -- a saffron-clad priest is a chief guest at a local cricket tournament, a Dalit professor urges his class to read a poem by Dalit activist, Namdeo Dhasal, Parshya's father is driven out of his village after his son elopes with Archie, an upper caste girl, and his mother hesitates when Archie asks for a glass of water from her.
Mithunchandra Chaudhari, who played the role of the Dalit professor, Lokhande Sir, in Sairat said, "It matters who the storyteller is. Nagraj comes from a Dalit background, therefore, he can bring in the sensitivity and nuance that a story like Sairat needs." The actor added that Munjule tells the story of the marginalized rural community so well because he has an excellent understanding of the social fabric.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about most Bollywood filmmakers. More often than not, Bollywood films do away with the complexities of caste, class as well as religious dynamics.
Filmmakers Shashank Khaitan (and Karan Johar) recreated Manjule's Sairat and launched star kids Janhvi Kapoor and Ishaan Khatter.
Their heart may have been in the right place, but Dhadak mentions the 'caste' word exactly twice, before moving on and becoming the 2.0 version of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). But if you think of it, when has any Bollywood film ever bothered with caste subtexts?
Unlike Dhadak, most Bollywood potboilers are not measured against such masterfully crafted film like Sairat. Therefore, the flagrant exclusion of ANY caste-based references goes easily unnoticed.
"In Bollywood films, the caste identity of a character is often like the elephant in the room that no one mentions," said film historian, Indranil Bhattacharya. In most movies, although the caste identity of the lead character is not revealed, it is easy to infer that he/she belongs to an upper caste.
"There are no obvious references to OBC, Scheduled Tribes, or Dalits in Hindi cinema unless they are making a film dedicated to marginalized communities," noted the film historian. Several legendary Indian filmmakers in the past have tried to talk about casteism through Hindi cinema. Shekhar Kapoor made the critically acclaimed Bandit Queen (1994) and Shyam Benegal directed Ankur (1974). Bimal Roy made Sujata (1959), and Satyajit Ray created Satgati (1981). But, none of these films can be categorized as commercial Bollywood movie. Despite having big Bollywood stars like Deepika Padukone and Saif Ali Khan, Prakash Jha's Aarakshan (2011) was a box office dud.
In recent years, Anurag Kashyap's Phantom Films has produced movies like Mukkabaaz (2017), and Masaan (2015) that addressed the caste dynamics in our society and although these films received many accolades, they were not part of popular cinema.
"In mainstream cinema, the lower/backward caste does not exist, unless, they are in the periphery-- playing small insignificant characters like a shopkeeper or a bai (maid)," said Bhattacharya. While Bollywood silently omits caste references altogether, the case is slightly better in regional cinema.
According to a survey by The Hindu, conducted on approximately 300 films over two years (2013, and 2014), only six lead characters belonged to the backward caste. However, during the same years, a substantial number of Tamil mainstream movies had lead characters from a backward caste.
" ... In Tamil cinema for example, which is another dominant film industry in India, the caste identity of characters although not always explicitly mentioned, are often alluded upon," said Bhattacharya.
"It is depicted through dialects that the characters use, or their names and sartorial choices. Sometimes, you even see people from three or four different castes in one film. In Hindi films, however, I think it is more homogeneous because you mostly see upper caste, or middle class, or upper-middle-class caste people from North India as the lead characters,” he added.
An important reason why casteism is so underwhelmingly explored in Bollywood can also be the lack of diversity in the industry itself, which is ruled by North Indian, upper caste individuals, and barely has any Dalit or scheduled tribe representation. We too, as viewers seldom address this issue. While we are very eager to chime in the whole #Oscarissowhite debate, one rarely finds a stray tweet or a Facebook rant about the lack of diversity in our own film industry.
Another factor that is closely linked to caste identity is the construct of social class, which has been amply explored by Bollywood to tell stories, albeit in a very skewed manner. Earlier, many Bollywood films hinged their narratives on the class distinction (based on financial and status differences) of its characters -- the rich-girl-fall for-poor-guy (or vice versa) being the tritest and most overused story idea in the book. In 2018, minus the caste and gender politics, Dhadak too was one such film.
Over the years, we have also seen a string of such love stories -- Raja Hindustani (1996), Taal (1999), Kaho Naa...Pyaar Hai (2000), Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), Bobby (1973) etc, that banked on class dynamics to tell love stories. However, despite class distinctions constantly being portrayed in most Bollywood films, it often lacked nuance and ended up stereotyping characters on the basis of their economic background or social standing.
"Since India is predominantly an agrarian society many early films had the protagonist from a village background, in which villagers were stereotyped," noted Soumendu Bhattacherya, head of the department (Direction), Roopkala Kendro Kolkata (An Institute of Film and Social Communication).
"Films like Mother India (1957), Dharti Ke Lal (1946), Tisri Kasam (1966), Jis Des Main Ganga Bahati Hai (1960) had a villager as their protagonist. The protagonist of most of these films were simple, honest, villagers who came to the city in search of jobs and better living, but could not resist the harsh realities of city lives, and went back to the village or revolted against the system to establish new social norms," he added.
Rachel Dwyer, a professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London, said, "In the 1950s, Raj Kapoor’s depiction of the poor as virtuous and long-suffering set a standard. Bimal Roy showed them in a more realistic way, while Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) showed them sympathetically."
Despite the stereotypical depiction of the 'poor' and the 'rural section' at least Bollywood chose to tell their stories in past decades. Nowadays, we rarely ever see village based films. Most of the Bollywood commercial films are shot in Instagram worthy locations and the characters of the films are either affluent or at least middle-class. Reflecting on this phenomenon, Dwyer noted that commercial cinema is for entertainment but it must engage with the audiences’ interests and desires.
"These films cater to their audiences who are mostly aspiring emergent middle classes. The elites also enjoy the films, but the less affluent watch different films, such as Bhojpuri, which often show aspirations that are more relevant to them. The (characters who are) poor are seen more in art cinema... The (mainstream) audience is interested in a new India and the lifestyles of the wealthy. The films have spectacular locations and glorious song and dance routines...The emotional reality of these films is offset by this glamour." she added.
While the 'poor people', 'villager' stereotypes are disappearing from Bollywood mainstream, (whatever the reasons may be) the regional stereotypes are taking its place. Be it the Gujarati caricatures in films like Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017), Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), or the sloppy unimaginative portrayal of 'South Indian' characters in films like Chennai Express, Bollywood has now come up with characters that have strong regional identities. Even North Eastern characters, like Mary Kom, which was unfortunately played by a North Indian actress. In fact, some of these regional identities work very well for actors as well, and they capitalize on this trend.
“I find the Gujarati caricatures in Bollywood films like Kal Ho Na Ho somewhat patronising," said Ethnographer, curator and oral historian, Irna Qureshi.
"The stereotyping is strong and it’s as if some of the Gujarati characters are there just for laughs. But, if you think about actors like Dharmendra and his work these days along with his sons (Sunny and Bobby Deol), or even Akshay Kumar, they have actually capitalised on their Punjabiness. They’ve played many Punjabi and Sikh characters and portrayed Punjabiness in a positive light," she added.
It isn't just about regional identities that actors capitalize on. Salman Khan has a strong Muslim fan base, and an Eid release from 'the Bhai of Bollywood' never really fails. That way, even the real religious identity of actors pay off. Shah Rukh Khan finally discovered that with Raees. Unfortunately though, despite Bollywood being the stronghold of the Khans, the way Muslims characters are played onscreen often leaves much to be desired for.
At a time when Hindi cinema was yet to become Bollywood, there was a category of films called the Islamicate films. Those films were movies like Umrao Jaan (1981), Pakizah (1972), which portrayed a certain kind of feudal past, where the Muslim aristocracy was dominant and ruling India, where music, Urdu poetry, etc were used as elements of the Islamic culture. However, those films are not made anymore.
Nowadays, there is a very binary way of portraying Muslims onscreen. Either they are the good-hearted, kind, loving and essentially patriotic characters or they are the Jihadis with terror plot, planting bombs. In fact, Muslims characters are often reduced to their religious identities, wearing skull caps, offering namaz etc. It isn't just Muslims, even Christians and Parsis are stereotyped. Christian characters always have an Anglo-Indian accent, and talks about Jesus, while Parsi men wear Fateh hats and speak Hindi with a heavy accent.
However, Amaresh Chakraburtty, a professor of direction and screenplay writing, at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, said that Bollywood has become more inclusive.
"We have come a long way, and now we are seeing the inclusion. In the 70s and 80s, there was exclusion, Muslims characters were done away with completely and as and when they were portrayed, it was very patronizing, whereas now, in films like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), there are three friends, one of whom happens to be Muslim, and its depicted in a very natural way," said Chakraburtty. He also added that films nowadays are also more inclusive in terms of regionality, with most films trying to use dialects, instead of straight-jacketed Hindi dialogues.
According to a survey conducted by an IIM-A professor, Dheeraj Sharma and his team that examined 50 films from each decade (from 1960-2010), it was found that 78% of promiscuous women have Christian names, and 58% of corrupted political figures were Hindu Brahmins.
The reasons for these stereotypes may be many. The filmmakers have lacked the cultural and social perspective to carve out nuanced characters, or they may be just catering to the lowest common denominator of the audience. However, whatever the reasons may be these stereotypes still remain, that only adds to people's already skewed perception of caste, class, and religion.
The reason why films are so critical in our lives is because they affect the way we perceive our environment, relationships and ourselves. Therefore, a muddled depiction of caste, class, and religion only makes these already contentious markers of society harder to understand, even for the audience. So instead of mindless stereotyping, what is expected out of Bollywood -- the biggest film industry of the country that turns outsiders like Dilip Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan into celebrities, makes small-town girls like Kangana Ranaut a heroine, and welcomes people of different caste, class, and religion into the magical world of cinema with open arms-- is to be a little more inclusive in its films as well.