Probhat Chandra Hazra
Junior Research Fellow, Dept. of English, Visva-Bharati
The construction of a homogeneous national identity through the filmic narratives has been one of the most persistent tropes of the Indian cinematic culture for a long time now. The popular Hindi cinema in particular has made a conscious attempt to appeal the elite bourgeois imagination and thus prepared a field for creating certain stereotypes. The portrayal of the English educated, masculine-romantic hero as true ‘Indian’ national, often failed to grasp the essence of a pluralistically constructed nation like India. Now, my paper would look into the curious case of 21st Century Bengali cinema which has a visible inclination towards the attributes and vogues of poplar Hindi film. This Kolkata-centric regional film industry with a huge number of annual releases of mindless commercials and a parallel art-house movie-making, addresses chiefly the complexities of romantic love and urban crisis to gratify the taste of its upper caste/class spectators. Most notably, the recent upsurge of Bengali detective films bluntly exhibits the industry’s project of preserving the Bengali bhadralok identity and showcasing the image of an ideal Bengali man with an intellectual bent of mind. Hence, the construction of the masculine and the intellectual has left a minimal space for the lower caste people who are otherwise perceived as weak and imbecile. My paper would therefore argue that the issue of caste, in spite of being one of most abhorrent social stigmas, found least cinematic representation and the community of socially marginalized people are even more strategically distanced from the filmic sphere which is governed by a dominant upper-caste ideology in the context of Bengal.
Keywords: caste, cinema, dalit, bhardalok, chotolok, representation
Indian Cinema and the Question of Caste
Cinema is undoubtedly the most impactful mode of visual representation of the intriguing social realities in India. The copious nature of annual film-production and the efficient strategies employed in post-production distribution and marketing, ensure the smooth entry of those films into the public domain. Indian cinema can be credited with the making of some brilliant, socially-aware movies over the years. But ironically, its engagement with the issue of caste and the representation of the Dalits on the celluloid, stand very questionable, given the insignificant number of films made on this issue in Hindi as well as other regional film industries.
The Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, popularly known as Bollywood, is essentially caste-biased and is largely responsible for validating the dominant upper-caste hegemony in some way or the other. The glorification of the upper/middle class values and the creation of an Indian utopia have been the chief concern of the Hindi film industry, while the other marginalized groups or religious minorities are excluded from its scheme of things. This project itself can be viewed as a part of the grand nationalist discourse which was prevalent in almost every sort of socio-cultural transaction in post-Independence India. Anirudh Deshpande rightly observes, “…the upper-caste, upper-class, patriarchal and largely Hindu family is the ideological epicentre of bourgeois cinema in post-colonial India” (122).
Since the day of its coming into being, Hindi filmic sphere has been dominated by the elite intellectuals and therefore its strict adherence to the niceties of the bourgeois life is quite obvious. It has a strong formative influence on the popular mind in terms of the conceptual construction of the Indian nation-state. The promotion of the patterns of a glazing lifestyle on screen defines what it is to be Indian, while the representation of the lower caste/class people has largely been stereotypical. Of course, there are many films which deal with the never ending struggle of the poor people and they gained high commercial success. But, the matter of the fact is that they have failed to understand the complexities of caste/class nexus in the Indian society. The question of caste has often been merged with the question of class. Suraj Yengde says, “Bollywood has successfully elided caste as a theme by subsuming it within categories of ‘the poor’. ‘the common man’, the hard-toiling Indian or, at times, the orphan” (4).The portrayal of the protagonist in the male-centred Hindi movies has two visible strands. In the first category the hero is always ‘young, fair, handsome, eligible, romantic, mother-fixated, upper-caste, north-Indian and preferably rich’ (Deshpande, 104). In many other films the upper caste hero undertakes a journey from poverty to success. The plots in these cases culminate into a happy ending and they end up being unable to enter the core of the debate.
However, the caste-question is not entirely left out from the corpus of Indian cinema. There are films, though very scanty in number, has taken up this issue with all seriousness and thus questioned the status quo of the filmic mainstream. Franz Osten’s 1936 film Achhut Kanya is one of the earliest examples. It unfolds the love story of an upper-caste boy and lower-caste girl, which of course ended in tragic separation. Although the director ultimately had to be entrapped within the ghetto of political correctness by not allowing the boy to marry the lower caste girl and thus sustained the orthodox caste-biased morality, it was nonetheless a brave attempt. Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959), Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974), Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen (1994), Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan (2001) and the more recently released Masaan (2015) by Neeraj Ghywan addressed this issue and built alternative cinematic narratives around caste and interrogated the foundational norms of the biggest entertainment industry of the country.
All these films have their own dynamics of representing the caste-question. Especially Sujata and Bandit Queen are very revolutionary in their approach to understand the intersection of caste and gender. Suzata is perhaps the first of its kind, unlike Achhut Kanya, which ends in an inter-caste marriage. The film thus successfully transgresses the norms of the society which is at once patriarchal and caste-biased, where inter-caste marriage was still considered as social taboo. On the other hand Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen challenges the upper-caste, male gaze which looks at a Dalit female body as desirable. Soma Chattapadhyay considers this film to be an altogether fresh attempt to recreate the image of an Indian woman (344). Although vulnerable to the evil patriarchal forces as an object of sexual gratification, Phulan rises from strength to strength and never submits to that force.
Rachael Dwyer, one of the earliest exponents of systematic academic criticism on Indian films, has noticed that only the films exclusively based on caste consciously depict the lower-caste people and their struggle in an authentic way, but the so-called mainstream films which are globally circulated and branded as Indian films are least bothered about this issue. As discussed earlier, most of them are very insensitive and stereotypical in their approach to the caste-question. Dwyer says:
Very few films show lower castes or Dalits, unless the film is specifically about caste issues…or wants to make a point about Dalit uplift. Even with the rise of lower castes as political group in north India, they have not featured in films unless they are directly concerned with the topic. (140)
However, Marathi Dalit filmmaker Nagraj Manjule’s award-winning works like Sairat (2013) and Fandry (2016) are some of the finest examples of ‘Dalit Cinema’, a term which is gradually gaining prominence in the academic sphere. Both of his films has firmly established ‘a new discourse on Dalit-centred socio-culturalism’ (Yengde, 1) and thus constructing alternative narratives of Dalit resistance through his filmic texts.
Bengali Cinema and the Bhadralok/Chotolok Binary
Any sort of discussion on Bengali cinema is a very complex process, as the wide range that it covers defies any generalisation. Madhuja Mukherjee’s argument on the possibility of a holistic history of Bengali cinema being written is true to a great extent. She rightly thinks, “…no linear narrative is possible, for so-called Bengali cinema, as the category of ‘regional cinema’ in India is a product of conflicting forces, as regards to political conditions, industry, aesthetics, taste and target viewership” (1). This statement, indeed, is indicative of the shifting tendencies of Bengali cinema over the decades and its varied responses to the socio-political as well as socio-economic undercurrent. In this section, we will very briefly look into the ever-existing dichotomy between the bhadrolok and chotolok and see how this has made an impact on the on the general nature of Bengali cinema.
Post-Independence Bengali cinema saw the arrival of some serious socially aware movies. From 1950 onwards till 1980 the stalwarts of Bengali cinema explored the manifold implications of life in the postcolonial Kolkatan milieu. The pangs of partition, the visible decadence of moral and ethical values of a generation of people, the turbulent political ambience of Kolkata in the 70’s, class struggle, the ups and downs of left political ideology – all these issues have been addressed in every possible way. But the films exclusively made on the evils of caste prejudice are surprisingly rare and awkwardly sporadic. Way back in 1979 Ritwik Ghatak made Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (1973) based on the brilliant novel of the same name by Adwaita Mallabarman, a Dalit writer. Both the novel and the film explore the life of Kishore, a young fisherman of low-caste origin. Rajen Tarafdar’s film Ganga (1960) is an adaptation of Samaresh Basu’s novel of the same name. This film also is a meticulous representation of the stark realities of the life of low-born fisherman community. This film does not have a direct reference to the existing caste-hierarchy and the evils of untouchability. It rather touches on the issues of capitalist exploitation by the upper-class people and the crushing threat of poverty that these people had to face. Director Mrinal Sen had made a very memorable film on the issue of untouchability in Telegu language – Oka Uri Kotha (1977). But surprisingly none of his Bengali language films had ventured to take this theme up. After almost three decades from the release of Ganga, another very potential director Goutam Ghosh came up with his revolutionary film Antarjali Jatra (1987) which offered an outright critique of the Brahamanical hegemony and the rigid social orthodoxy in Bengal.
The paucity of more films like those mentioned above, explicitly demonstrates the dominance of a certain section of people in the sphere of cinema. Bengali cinema in the two decades preceding the 21st century has explored the middle class bourgeois life like never before, of course with a few notable exceptions. Ajay Kumar Dey is very sarcastic about this urban-centricity which denies to look beyond the crises of the so-called bhadralok community and thus ignored the huge presence of the lower class/caste people outside the urban space (43).
The ideological figuration of the bhadralok dates back to the colonial era when the term was used to refer to a group of English educated middle-class Bengali people. Over the years, the term has acquired multiple shades of meaning and the community itself emerged a force which exerted its influence in the cultural sphere of Bengal in every possible way. Now, the term itself is a constant referent to another group of people sitting at the other end of the social spectrum – the chotolok, the Dalit or the lower caste people. While bhadralok literally denotes a man of superior cultural taste, chotolok bears a caste-connotation within its formation. The later, of course, is an upper-caste construction which is chiefly used in everyday parlance to point to the cultural supremacy of the elite as well as to humiliate the ‘other’ for the lowliest professions it is associated with. According to Sumit Sarkar,
The subordinate jatis consisted predominatly of peasants, sharecroppers, artisans or other rural labouring groups, and literacy rates among most of them remained abysmally low in the vernacular and almost non-existent in English. (87)
The relevance of the caste-question in present day Bengal has been dismissed by many and the stratification of the society has been done based on the issue of class. But the peripheral existence of a huge number of lower-caste people disproves such conclusive assumption. In an article, Nauman Reayat and Dr. Zehanzeb Khalil present an exhaustive list of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe population, collecting the data from the Backward Classes Welfare Department, Govt. of West Bengal (130). There are almost 60 different categories of scheduled caste people and a large number of them are associated with lowliest professions which the bhadralok people look down upon in regret. Monoranjan Byapari, a famous Dalit writer from Bengal starts his autobiography with some remarkably significant lines which bears great relevance in this regard. He says,
Here I am. I know I am not entirely unfamiliar to you. You’ve seen me a hundred times in a hundred ways. Yet if you insist that you do not recognize me, let me explain myself in a little greater detail, so you will not feel that way anymore. When the darkness of unfamiliarity lifts, you will feel, why, yes, I do know this person. I’ve seen this man….You will see a bare-bodied goatherd running behind his cows and goats with a stick. You’ve seen this boy many times. And so the face seems familiar to you. That is me. That is my childhood. Now come outside your house for a while. Look at the tea stall that stands at the corner of the road where your lane meets the main road. That boy whom you see, uncombed hair, wearing dirty smelly, torn-vest, with open sores on his hands and feet; he has been beaten a while ago by his owner for breaking a glass and has been crying – that there is my boyhood. And then my youth. Ferrying goods at the railway station, climbing up the bamboo scaffolding to the roofs of the second or the third floor with a load of bricks on my head, driving the rikshaw, waking nights as guard, the khalashi on a long distance truck, the sweeper on the railway platform, the dom at the funeral pyres. (ix)
Now, the collective bhadralok attitude of inadvertence towards these people consolidates into the ‘darkness of unfamiliarity’ that Byapari talks about. Chotolok is therefore largely thrown out of the social as well as cultural horizon of the elite people. The association of everything that is ‘low’ and ugly causes this relegation as the Dalits are generally thought to pollute the socio-cultural environment. Though the theory of ‘purity and pollution’ is associated with the practice of untouchability, this can be applied here as well. The lower-caste people of Bengal may not suffer from this curse today, yet they are considered as cultural untouchables. That is why their participation in any cultural happening is still a big no-no to the upper-caste/class people.
Sudeep Chakravarti, in his book The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community defines the bhadralok class as ‘a species that displayed societal and intellectual independence’ and ‘a class of educated, self-aware, globally-aware Bengalis who would now be administrators, lawyers, scientists, writers and thinkers, a class that rapidly outgrew the limited purpose the colonial masters had initially designed for them’ (226). Cinema as a medium of cultural transaction is no exception. This marginalization, of course operates at two levels. One, the life of a Dalit is assumed not to have any interesting factors to draw the cinematic materials from. Two, they are never encouraged to put their own step forward to voice their anxieties through the celluloid. The number of upper-caste actors and directors testifies this upper-caste filmic monopolization. Cinema, therefore can be called a significant and politically motivated bhadralok project which helps to assert the cultural identity and sustain the hegemony of the more privileged group as always.
21st Century Popular Bengali Cinema: The Celebration of the Macho and the Intellectual and the Absence of the Chotolok
The 21st Century is marked by a very subtle transition in the film industry of Bengal, in terms of content, production, the role of the audience and market. It stands at the cross-current of multiple genres and aesthetic approaches of film-making. While, in the earlier decades there was an already existing rift between the hardcore commercial films and the parallel art-house movies, the rift tended to be even bigger than before. The advent of a liberal economy in the pan-Indian context during the 90’s had created a huge number of entertainment-mongers who are the bi-products of a consumerist culture and who wanted more masala factors to be added to the films. That is why, the entire film-going audience was divided into two clear categories. One category of audience derived immense pleasure from the action movies which basically revolved around a romantic love story, a masculine hero and his spectacular fight with his enemies (most of the time the goons sent by the heroine’s father) and his victory. The other category consisted of the so-called intellectual people who were the lovers of serious films which mostly explored complex aspects of human life that were intricate, psychological and very rarely talked about.
The ‘action-hero’ culture in Bengali commercial cinema started mainly in the ’80s in the hands of directors like Haranath Chakraborty, Swapan Saha, Prabhat Ray et al as a result of the undeniable influence that came from the Bollywood and obviously some technological as well as social changes that took place during this time. The rise of this new form of heroism was indeed more masculine and gender-biased. Spandan Bhattacharya, in his article, locates this within a particular industrial, technological and aesthetic framework. He terms this as a ‘dominant figuration’ and claims that it has a “strong connection with technological transformation, trans-regional film production networks, star images and directorial interventions” (2). According to him, the changing social patterns and the newer production equations within the industry, the initiation of the colour film technology, change in the film viewing cultures, the proliferation of video halls within the suburban areas of Bengal, the emergence of a new offset printing press used widely for printing posters – all contributed immensely to the rise of action heroes like Prosenjit Chatterjee (3). The 25 year long reign of Prasenjit as an action hero came to a twilight with the release of Haranath Chakrabory’s phenomenal film Saathi (2002) with Jitendra Madnani, popularly known as Jeet as its protagonist. Jeet as a hero gained a wider acceptance as he was a new face which both the industry and the relatively new generation of audience were badly searching for. But more or less his kind of heroism was a continuation of the style that Prosenjit explored in many ways.
But with the arrival of the SVF (Shree Venkatesh Films) production house and its gradual expansion to be the biggest and richest banner of the industry, an altogether new hero was born. The release of Rabi Kinagi’s film I Love You (2007) starred by Dev, brought in a more muscular and macho action hero that Bengali audience had never seen on the silver screen. The new hero became the prime spectacle of the films as his sculpted body and tall stature fitted very well as a proper cinematic material. This film became a blockbuster, in terms of the box office-collection, and it was able to successfully set the new trend of film-making in the Bengali film industry where the physique of the hero became the chief sellable commodity.
Understandably, the narration of these films shifted its attention from the age old family-drama and started constructing the individual heroism. The stories filmed on the screen only revolved around the hero’s aspiration, desires, conflicts and revenge etc. The glorification of this new muscular (as well as masculine) self is awkwardly visible in the names of the films also – Rudra the Fire, Challenge, Fighter, Ekai Eksho, Shooter, Macho Mastana, Boss, Sultan etc., to name a few. While the earlier generation of action heroes showed a kind of moral anger and stamina, there is everything physical about the new hero. Neelam Sidhar Wright observes this transformation of the figure of the hero as a tendency that crept in the 21st Century popular Indian cinema in general. She says that the new hero
…must be measured and approved….he must sponsor a decent haircut, display the muscles of a superhero….He must offer everything that a Hollywood A-list actor does – and more. The much talked about rebranding of Bollywood megastar Shahrukh Khan demonstrates this shift perfectly. Khan is famously known for having initially gained popularity despite having his scuffy hair, dark skin and ordinary stature. He originally won the audiences over because of his mischievous smile and ‘cheeky yet charming’ character. However the actor himself discussed his need to reinvent his image (through hair extensions, chest waxing, intensive body building and skin lightening)… (7)
Having said all these, I argue that the creation and celebration of the macho and the muscular is in itself a political act of relegation. The repetition of the same success-formula of masala, fight, songs, dance and the projection of such a hero is never challenged in the commercial arena of film-making. While, the larger part of the audience, which is an amalgamation of both urban and rural viewers, are exposed to the mainstream, it is very easy for the film-makers to impart some social message through entertainment. But, in an attempt to maintain the box-office, the Bengali film-makers never ventured to take up intriguing social issues and never ventured to film the existing social stories of oppression and dominance. The stories narrated in these films are more or less the same. The hero has a strongly-built physique, with always-visible muscles, an air of romanticism around him. He is essentially an upper-caste hero, though not always upper-class. He falls in love with a girl of high breeding and status (the representation of the heroines are always very stereotypical and humiliating). Her father, being a man of wealth and power, does not like this connection and does numerous attempts to separate them. And then an eternal conflict between the hero and the heroine’s father goes on. Finally the hero conquers ladylove by having an emphatic victory over the goons sent by her father. Sometimes the hero starts as a poor, hard-working young man, but eventually, at the end of the smooth running plot, claims both the princess and the kingdom.
Using the Freudian explanation of the term ‘scopophilia’ i.e. pleasure in looking, famous film-theorist Laura Mulvey does a brilliant discussion on various aspects of visual pleasure that cinema offers. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, she says,
The cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking, but it also goes further, developing scopophilia in its narcissistic aspect. The conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form. Scale, shape, stories are all anthropomorphic. Here, curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world. (114)
Now, my argument is that the socially constructed chotolok or a lower caste person, who is always perceived as weak, dirty and imbecile, is never considered as the ‘anthropomorphic’ element to fit into the conventions of mainstream cinema as the lower-caste people as taken as sub-human entity. The social prejudices against Dalit bodies are nothing new. The upper caste Hindu gaze strongly projected a Dalit body as feeble, stupid and submissive. And many a times, the society has associated criminality with a Dalit body and it is seen as violent, threatening and socially unacceptable. The exclusion of the Dalit from the filmic sphere is therefore very easy to justify for the upper-caste film directors because the life of a Dalit which is full of mortal struggle is never supposed to provide that larger than life visual pleasure that the audience can derive pleasure from.
The representation of the lower-caste people, as said earlier, is very stereotypical. Prem Singh in his unpublished paper (2011) argues that, “In Indian cinema the body of the Dalit male and female presents a stereotype contrast to the body of the upper caste Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Viewed as untouchables, male Dalits are depicted physically untidy, emotionally weak, intellectually hollow and an object abhorrable because of their ‘low’ birth” (2). Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan is perhaps the best reflection of the society’s prejudiced notion of a Dalit body. In this film, Kachra, the Dalit character has been depicted as deformed, dark-skinned, untidy and silent.
Surprisingly, there is a very curious example of a Bengali commercial film which takes up this issue of caste, though not that convincingly. Amanush (2010) film directed by Rajiv Kumar Biswas, narrates the life-story of the lower caste protagonist Binod (Soham Chakraborty) who is an orphan and is brought up by a church father. He is characteristically an introvert but he was a genius also. When he goes to college, he proves to be a complete misfit in the atmosphere of the college where most of his class-mates are upper-caste students. They regularly mock him for his appearance and caste and hated him as they thought he got admission to the college for the quota system. Binod, who is shown to nourish a psychological disorder in the darkest corner of his mind for the disturbed childhood he has had, gradually turns violent in the college campus. Meanwhile he gains the friendship of an upper-caste girl Riya (Srabanti Chatterjee) who starts to bring some fresh rays of happiness. Riya, well-behaved and polite-mannered girl starts ‘civilizing’ him. Gradually Binod falls in love with Riya. But at this particular point of the story, a handsome looking, upper-caste boy Aditya enters into the Riya’s life. Binod can not tolerate this relationship. He slowly turns into a psychopath killer and starts killing everyone. He even attempts to murder Aditya but eventually the film ends in Binod’s tragedy and he kills himself in an extremely dramatic climax.
This film is, no doubt, brilliant in its attempt to project a lower-caste protagonist on screen, which itself challenges the norm of Bengali commercial cinema. But, again, the director fails to go beyond the limitation of stereotyped representation. The plot which could have been a success-story of Binod, turns into a tragedy. After a certain point of time, the audience even started to lose sympathy for him. Binod’s characterization as a criminal entirely reflects the social attitude towards the chotolok.
Apart from the mainstream masala movies, there has been a recent upsurge of detective films which are also viewed widely throughout Bengal. The term ‘popular’ obviously has gained new meaning. The line of divide which existed between the commercial films and the literary films in the earlier decades, started to become thinner in the last 5 years or so and detective movies have been enjoyed by both the urban and rural audience. The audience of the 21st Century is made of a slightly younger generation of people who are, now, comparatively more exposed to the world cinema due to the huge developments in technology and cybernetics. Therefore a movie of good taste is always a welcoming event to the younger generation. Since 2010, after the release of Anjan Dutta’s Byomkesh Bakshi, there has been a huge number of releases of Byomkesh Bakshi films every year, which, once again, I see as a political act of continuation of the bhadralok dominance in Bengali cinema.
The repeated appearance of Byomkesh Bakshi on screen certainly is an assertion and reconstruction of the Bengali bhadralok identity. The image of the sharp-witted Bengali detective can therefore be seen as a direct contrast of the intellectually hollow lower-caste man. The figure of the Bengali detective has a strong role of in crystallizing the Bengaliness as he is very much rooted in the societal and cultural matrix of colonial Bengal and is inclined towards Europhone rationalism. Gautam Chakrabarti observes the creation of a detective as a an act of forming resistance against the colonial power, at least in a theoretical level. He says,
It is this location in the Indian Bengali mindscape that makes Satyanvesi (truth-seeker) Byomkesh Bakshi, a quintessentially bhadralok private investigator, who spurns that designation and prefers to calls himself a truth-seeker, a character created by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, a fictive representation of an autonomous, proto-postcolonial identiy-forng urge. (259)
The frequent filmic adaptation of Byomkesh stories in recent times and the construction of the image of the Bengali intellectual has, theoretically at least, left no scope for the chotolok counterparts to the part of the big screen.
So, the possibility of the emergence of a cinema of and for the lower-caste is a far-fetched imagination so far in the context of Bengal. Even, film-critics, and commentators are also very silent about it. The social marginalization of a certain section of people has always been the norm and it is never challenged. Although Dalit writers like Monojan Byapari, Monohar Mouli Biswas, Adhir Biswas et al are voicing their own self through their memoirs and autobiographies for a long time now. The assertion of the Dalit selfhood through Dalit literature, of late, has stirred the status quo of Bengal social structure and a huge number of scholars and academicians are engaged in working on this issue. Now it is high time to address the ‘gap’ in the linear narrative of Bengali cinema which is inherently dogmatic about caste-question.
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About the author:
Probhat Chandra Hazra is presently an M.Phil. Scholar in the Department of English, Visva-Bharati. He graduated from the University of Burdwan in 2012 and completed his masters from Visva-Bharati in 2014. He has qualified for the UGC-NET Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) in 2016. His research areas include Dalit Studies and Partition Literature. He is also interested in Postcolonial Literature, Film Studies and Bengali Poetry of the 1960’s.