Bollywood’s problem of blatant caste appropriation and negation has been going on for several decades and continues to persist in the modern era. Recently, Richa Chadha’s star, Madam Chief Minister, was criticized for portraying the Dalit community on her original poster, which featured the actress with a broom in her hand and a slogan that said “Untouchable, Impossible to stop”.
Although the film is based on a Dalit woman who becomes the chief minister of a major state, Dalit actors are nowhere to be found in director Subhash Kapoor’s upcoming political drama, many Dalit activists point out, adding that most of the people involved in other leadership positions in the project are also not from the community.
“Making a film about Dalits or a Dalit character is no longer enough,” says Jyotsna Sidharth, a Dalit activist and actress. “How many Dalits were involved in making this film? Did they consult an inclusion practitioner or someone from the community as such to do this work?”
Over the years, it is the stereotypical view and understanding of filmmakers from the privileged community that has shaped the public representation of all disadvantaged communities,” adds Cynthia Stephen, another Dalit activist and social policy researcher, as she points to the glaring absence of the voices of marginalized communities and historically disadvantaged groups in decision-making positions in various spheres of life.
Telling of her own experience, Cynthia shares, “A few months ago, I received a call from a certain political party saying, ‘Since you are speaking out on Dalit issues, we would like to know what Dalits would like to see in terms of policy. After talking to them for a while, I said, “Why should I tell you what the Dalits would like as a policy? I would like to be the one who makes politics”. If you are really interested in Dalit issues, then call me and ask me to do the right thing”.
Jyotsna echoes similar sentiments, pointing out that the lack of caste diversity and the perpetuation of caste stereotypes in Bollywood not only greatly reduces the opportunities for people from disadvantaged groups in the industry, but also hinders the possibility of seeing them portrayed authentically on screen.
“The only way forward is to do the work of intersectionality,” insists Jyotsna. “There are enough of us as actors, artists and activists to really strengthen the work that needs to be done. You can’t make a film about any subject because you think it’s catchy and it’s going to make you money. It’s about the precocity of the community that lies in the misrepresentation of their lives and struggles”.
Richa Chadha, who previously appeared overly defensive in the face of criticism when she first published the Chief Minister’s first look, recently issued a statement apologizing for the controversial poster, calling it “regrettable and completely unintentional”.
Although Jyotsna says she has no problem with Richa playing a Dalit woman in Madame Chief Minister, she cites the actress’s inability to engage and be receptive to criticism of the film as embarrassing.
“I’m not even saying that you chose a Dalit actor for the role. Let Richa play the role. Maybe that way she will get to know (Dr. Bhimrao) Ambedkar. But I have a problem with the pre-process. For an actor to play a character, he has to go through a process of learning and engagement, which I’m sure Richa had to do, but the way the creative posters appeared and her positioning made everything she took, became about her. It’s not about her. It’s about the broader problems of deforming the Dalit community. But she took the criticism very personally,” Jyotsna explains.
But she adds that it is also “misogynistic” and “sexist” for everyone to point the finger at Richa, because those who participated in the casting decision should also receive their share of the blame.
“Why don’t you blame the director and the producers who invested money and did the casting? I am an actor and I understand deeply the process of making a film. So you can’t just blame Richa for everything, but what Richa Chadha should have done is understand and commit. There are so many people in the community who are doing great work, but you have to get out of your cocoon to get involved,” she adds.
Bollywood has been intrinsically complicit and silent in the “invisibility” of the caste issue, says Jyotsna, who believes that if anyone dares to talk about it, the industry ostracizes them. She also points out that the responsibility for the inclusion of Dalits in Bollywood is most often placed solely on the shoulders of less successful Dalit artists.
“Neeraj Ghaywan once tweeted that he was looking for assistant directors and assistant screenwriters from the Dalit, Bahuja and Adivasi community. How many big Bollywood production companies have done this? I’m sure they have many more resources than Neeraj Ghaywan. Why do you still put only one big director from the community to do this work? It’s a huge problem. You keep running away from your responsibilities”.
Srishty Ranjan, an influential Dalit voice on social media, says that the only way to correct this “gross distortion” of the Dalit community and include more diverse voices in Bollywood is to bring more Dalits and people from other under-represented communities into the system, and to “pass the microphone” to those who might not only have the passion, purpose and knowledge but also the lived experiences to contribute meaningfully to the stories less told on the big screen.
In Hollywood, people are so sensitive to representation that they give up roles when they feel they are playing a character from an oppressed or less represented community or ask the filmmakers to hire someone from the same community, also known as “passing the mike”. If not the title role, Richa could have at least said that the film should at least have some representation of the Dalit community because the filmmakers are capitalizing on a movement that is not their own”.
Srishty adds that the Dalit Lives Matter Movement, which was sparked by the alleged gang rape and death of a 19-year-old girl in the UP Hathras, was an opportunity for Bollywood to look inward and ask why most people in positions of power in Bollywood are high-caste and discuss how they could take positive steps to give a voice and more opportunities to people from marginalized communities, but no one really spoke out.
“If you don’t challenge the caste system with your anti-caste art, you are complicit in the oppression of the Dalits. The “Dalit Lives Matter” movement is not only about how Dalits should be able to live, but also about challenging and dismantling the oppressive structure that excludes Dalits. Your solidarity must go beyond simply publishing #DalitLivesMatter on social media,” concludes Srishty.