From Achhut Kanya to Chauranga, how things have changed yet remained same
I only know one thing, I am in love with you, Kasturi.
No Pratap, I can’t do this. You are a baman(Brahmin) and I am achhut(untouchable)
Hey lord! Why didn’t you make me achhut?
This was way back in 1936, when Himanshu Rai’s Achhut Kanya touched upon the subject of untouchability in our society. Pratap and Kasturi who have grown up together aren’t allowed to marry each other as their fathers – who by the way happen to be good friends – state their unwillingness to do so because of the difference in caste hierarchy. While the movie could have easily been the story of any two lovers who are not allowed to be together by their families, caste, as the main contentious issue cannot be ignored.
Come 2015, we are still dealing with the same societal problem. But stories on such topics are few and far between on the screen. Bollywood’s obsession with ultra-rich characters from the upper middle class usually with surnames like Oberoi, Malhotra and Khanna, is still going strong, but there is a simmering wave of cinema that is taking chances to unravel stories hidden in the earthen constructs of India. Stories that not only show us the age-old urban-rural divide and the uncompromising stand of people in each milieu, but also the ingrained divide by caste, religion and social standing that almost hits us a like a slap on our faces reminding us of our own people’s ghastliness.
One such experiment is Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s upcoming movie Chauranga which unfolds a story around class oppression and a teen guy falling for an older-than-him upper caste girl. Releasing in January next year, the film won the Best Feature (Grand Jury) award at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA). Writer and director Bikas Mishra says that he drew from his own experience of growing up in Jharkhand and how villagers treat people belonging to lower castes.
At the beginning of this year, behind the mesmerizing and compelling visuals of Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, one saw the underlying social divide as was portrayed in the story of Deepak from a lower caste falling for an upper caste girl Shaalu. As their love blooms and they grow fond of each other, one of Deepak’s friends does not forget to caution him to not become more ‘serious’ for the girl as she belongs to the upper caste. In 2014, according to an analysis, only two movies in 2014 had lead characters who were explicitly from the backward castes — Manjunath and Highway.
While there is a great dearth of diversity in Bollywood and no one is really taking up the cause of voicing an opinion on it, Hollywood director Spike Lee has been one of the proponents of speaking on generating opportunity for people of color, and women. Being untouchable in India is almost tantamount to being called a nigger in the west. In his recent stirring speech, Lee wanted everyone to draw attention to the fact that how Black people are almost non-existent in the upper rungs of studio business. His just released movie Chi-Raq which is a satirical drama on women who go on a “sex strike” till their husbands stop fighting wars and give up weaponry, shows how strongly he feels about the rampant and brutal reality of societies shying away from these discussions.
Not long ago, Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen showed us the utter ignominy of a Dalit girl when in a gut-wrenching scene, Phoolan Devi is gang-raped by a group of upper-caste men and paraded naked in the village.
As the country is progressing and shunning prejudices at one level, such brutal incidents still make headlines time and again in the newspapers. It’s really important to bring out more such stories from the hinterlands on celluloid, which highlight the travails faced by people from lower caste and how conveniently we sweep it under the carpet as ‘yeh sab toh hota hi hai gaon me’. We have seen protagonists depicting the changing times (read: first world problems) in films like Happy Ending, Dil Dhadakne Do and Tamasha but it’s bold and radical for filmmakers to experiment with topics that Bollywood often keeps in a dark corner. After all, what’s cinema if it doesn’t make you think and take notice.
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