In India, according to the 2011 Census, the population of Dalits is 20.14 crore which forms 16.6 per cent of the population. Has Indian cinema marginalised Dalits or excluded them from its ambit as the socio-economic and political system has or has it paid mandatory lip service to the cause of Dalits to get funding/awards/international festival screenings and so on? Let us take a look.

In Achhut Kanya (1936), the.first Hindi film on untouchability, Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar played lovers who could not marry because caste prejudice and class barriers prevented marriage between Kasturi, a Harijan girl, and Pratap, a Brahmin youth. Kasturi is forced into a loveless alliance with one of her own caste. A chance encounter at the village fair brings the two lovers together.

Kasturi’s husband attacks Pratap at the railway level crossing, where he is gatekeeper. While the two are engaged in a fierce fight unmindful of a fast approaching train, Kasturi, in an attempt to save them, is run over and dies. In Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959), much opposition that sustains between poverty and wealth, renunciation and worldliness, dharma and adharma, desire and law, the Brahmin and the Dalit – are worked out in terms of the family-as-nation/nationas-family ideal. Sujata is born into a Dalit family whose parents die in a cholera epidemic.

She is brought up by a Brahmin overseer and learns much later that she is adopted and belongs to the Dalit community. An emergency blood donation by Sujata to her foster mother underscores the hypocrisy that underlies man-made casteist schisms. Manthan portrayed the caste divide in rural pockets of the country. This film, without glamorising the caste issue, focussed mainly on how this plays havoc with the lives of the low-caste groups, already crippled by poverty and illiteracy. Benegal’s interest in power relations comes to the fore in his earlier films.

The four-cornered struggle — among the untouchables, the traditional middle-class, the rising rural capitalists and the new cooperatives led by middle-class agents of change — all this is traced in Manthan with a political consciousness evident in his later films like Aarohan (1982) and Mandi (1983). Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985) is one of the boldest films that seamlessly explores the casteist and capitalist politics in some pockets of rural India like Bihar.

Through the unfolding of Damul, the viewer is almost continuously exposed to a series of audiovisual shocks. There is murder in cold blood, there are mass killings of defenceless people, sexual blackmail of a helpless young widow of high caste, the holding of an entire basti to ransom, gheraoing the basti to stop the residents from casting their votes, subjecting them to the mandatory repayment of debts they had never taken, forcing them to steal cattle for the landlord who leaves them to die if and when they are caught, but not at his doorstep.

The final blow comes when Sanjeevana (Annu Kapoor), an innocent Harijan from the Dalit basti is sentenced to be hanged to death because he turned wise to the landlord’s wicked ways. He had not committed any crime. These are designed to deliberately shock the audience, incidental to the screenplay and meant to shake us out of the cool cocoon of comfort we watch the film in.

Aakrosh (2010) directed by Priyadarshan, while dealing with honour killings in a pocket of Uttar Pradesh where the law and the police play havoc instead of implementing order and peace, also sees the casteschism play out between the two investigating officers, namely Pratap Kumar and Sidhhant Chaturvedi who are brought in to investigate the mystery behind three young men who have gone missing.

Pratap is a Dalit while Siddhant is from an uppercaste and the two often fall out because their perspectives on oppression are different. The high stakes failed when the film turned out to be a box office disaster. This was an attempt to pay lip service to the caste schism in a lavishly-mounted, high-budget and big-star film; part of attempts in recent times where the caste issue is used to target the box office, to get tax exemption for tackling a socially relevant issue and perhaps, to win brownie points that might fetch some awards.

According to Avijit Ghosh, journalist, “In mainstream Bollywood history, it would be hard to find a more assertive, erudite and historically aware Dalit than the protagonist in Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan (2011). For a film industry that often pretends that the caste system does not exist, the portrayal is indeed radical.” An anti-reservation college vice principal confronts a Dalit lecturer on caste reservation by saying, “You are afraid of competition, right?”

The Dalit lecturer, fearless and angry, says, “We tilled your land, reaped your crop, grazed your cattle, stitched your shoes, rowed your boat, we have cleaned your dirty drains, we have even carried your shit on our head. And you lecture us on hard work.” This was a lavishly mounted film with big stars, a big banner and high production values which had bans imposed on its screening in Punjab, UP and Andhra Pradesh that affected box office collections.

Though Aarakshan’s Dalit hero, portrayed by Saif Ali Khan belonging to royalty and a Muslim to boot indicates a change in Bollywood perceptions, one has not witnessed mainstream Bollywood too keen on dealing with Dalit issues. There are many films playing the Dalit card in Bollywood but even if the means are good, the end does not justify the means.

In other words, the technical brilliance and artistic excellence are neatly undercut by the pretentious hypocrisy presented in the narrative. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya (2007) is an example in which 800 camels were reportedly used in an action sequence. This spells out the film’s true agenda – glamour and chutzpah. Eklavya presented the radical and “new” Dalit in the shape and form of a bold police officer Pannalal Chauhar (Sanjay Dutt) who not only asserts his Dalit identity but also bristles against the caste based feudal oppression that still pervades parts of Rajasthan.

Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court (2014) which bagged the Best Film Award at the 62nd National Film Awards, is not about the Dalit identity, Yet, it subtly pulls us to the tragedy of the life of a sewer cleaner who not only has to live within desperate poverty but also earns from an occupation – cleaning dirty sewers – that carries a perpetual risk to life.

He dies while cleaning sewers. They say he was drunk which he is bound to be for drinking for him is a way to insulate himself from the dreg his work deals in – human and animal excreta and much more. Others say he did not have the defence masks a sewer cleaner must mandatorily be given while a third explanation is that he died due to poisonous gases that had collected inside the sewer. It does not matter what led to his death because his death itself, as much as his life, does not matter.

(The writer is a veteran film critic.)