Caste in Indian cinema- A comparative analysis of films “ India untouched,stories of a people apart” by Stalin K and “The invisible other:Caste in Tamil cinema” by Suresh E.T
Ann Mary Biju
The democratization of public spaces with respect to freedom of expression irrespective of any social divisions in the society has been an emancipatory tool especially within the sphere of arts, specifically with respect to films and theatre. There has been a revolutionary transition in the areas of playwriting and performance based arts towards addressing social issues by using the creative lens of artistic freedom to do the same. With such a treatment of vital issues disrupting the society, art has elevated into being much more than a get away from reality but something that creates unrest in its viewers by way of mentally situating oneselves in unsettling social realities which constantly victimises individuals and communities through a smoke screen portrayed to be real. In such a context, I would like to discuss how art has been used as a means of expressing reality via raw treatment of the subjects it seeks to address and how in the process it has enhanced social awareness. For the same purpose I will be engaging with two documentaries revolving around the topic of caste- “India untouched,stories of a people apart” directed by Stalin K and “The invisible other:Caste in Tamil cinema” directed by Suresh ET. Both the documentaries portray caste as a social structure that continues to address the Indian society without much change despite the revamping of societies and confirmation with democratic values.
The documentary “India untouched” which released in 2007 revolves around the narratives of people from eight Indian states and their lived stories of caste realities that still persist.Through the narrative treatment employed by the director of intermittently interviewing persons from the privileged sections and those from the unprivileged sections, the viewer undergoes a process of a pressing imagination of the caste system from stories of both sides. As one side legitimises the system by holding onto scriptures and trying to portray Indian society as distinct from modern values laid down in the constitution, the other constantly gets subjected to menial lives which are legitimises by the former’s view of the world. This helps the viewer to form an imagery of a loop in which one would find itself no accurate beginning or end but its each constitutive segment would have to position itself un-congruously in the loop. Hence personally this documentary expressed to me via this imagery the persistent issue of caste by the use of consistently interwoven negating narratives. It also reaffirms the viewer that our conditioned minds have a certain historical context by occasionally displaying verses from the manusmriti that directly connotated to the views displayed by Brahmins.
The second documentary released in 2017 had on the contradictory a different appeal to me although both of them at the first instant seemed to take a similar treatment using narratives of people from varied domains. The documentary largely featured the views of students and scholars of film and media studies who evaluated tamil cinema to have been bombarded with stories that glorified the upper castes while typically portrayed the dalits and lower castes as the needy praisers of the upper caste hero who often acted as their saviour. Dalits also occupied the roles of the erroneous goon or persons that delegitimised the otherwise so-called just system. The mostly single narrative treatment of the documentary appeared quite rhetorical and emphasising on the single narrative of the caste documents on popular mediums.While the first film intermittently incorporated negating perspectives on caste, the latter film incorporated a treatment of validating the viewpoints of persons by following it with clips from tamil cinema that had elements of caste embedded within it.
It would be useful to analyse whether the films acted as propaganda pieces of art or to evaluate the change in scenario over the years regarding the topic as both documentaries were released at a gap of 10 years. Both the documentaries wouldn’t qualify all the conditions of a typical propaganda films but there were certain features of the same which could be related to both. In the span of ten years between 2007-2017, there as been a 66% hike in the number of cases registered as atrocities against dalits (Sengupta,2017). The later film takes a narrower arena of examining caste by looking into the influence of the popular medium which often put forward a moral element of sanctifying the upper castes. By looking into caste in the in a medium enjoyed by masses, the second documentary was able to situate the same in an arena that was implicitly present in a media but which we unconsciously internalised as well as appreciated.This can be seen as a good propaganda attempt to understand the implication of caste in other previously unthought of or “invisible” ways as the title suggests. This also helps us to understand the other side of liberty and equality being antithetical concepts in the face of who it gets entitled to. In such a sense both the documentaries would qualify as being good propaganda art given their time of release was at junctures were crimes against dalits saw a rampant rise and it was a period were there was an increase in case of reporting of such atrocities.
On the critical side, the first documentary had an inherent bias of stereotyping the village as the pivot of caste violence. Even though it becomes evident that the village is not free of such discrimination even now, the choice of interacting with villagers alone mostly in all of the eight states comes from ruling out the possibility of caste violence in a more invisible manner in urban and peri-urban areas. The second documentary, also due to its choice of topic, had a wider spectrum of nuances within its shorter extend which was less stereotypical compared to the first piece.
One can also observe that the second documentary emphasises on the question of how certain cultural appropriations take place and seeks answers in popular culture. In this way it seeks to answer the roots of cultural appropriation that unconsciously got manifested in the minds of the lower castes who seeked upper mobility by imitating the upper castes and tried to adopt the nitty-gritties of their lifestyles. It hence also poses a question of identity where one struggles with his/her identity by birth but in the attempt to negotiate with life adopts a suitable identity to serve their purpose. However the first documentary rawly portrays caste system while also instilling hope at the end that it could be a tedious process to break away from it but with certain efforts it is nevertheless possible.
By problematising the issue of caste in a popular arena and by the merit of coming up with it in an area not profoundly thought by many previously, E.T Suresh’s documentary personally stands out to me as a better piece of art that creatively unsettles us. However both the pieces provided a convoluted understanding of the operationality of caste in present India where it functions at a psychological level. The influence comes from the sanctity provided by age old religious scripts on one side but on the other hand modern society also manifests it in a populist regime that visibly emphasises upon equality while invisibly normalises violence in elements by which it is surrounded with. Thus art that closely examines the lived realities of people by its raw portrayal definitely functions as the medium through which any society can think, evaluate and intervene in social systems that do not safeguard the principles of social justice.
1.K, Stalin, director. India Untouched,Stories of a People Apart. 2007.
2.E.T, Suresh, director. The Invisible Other:Caste in Tamil Cinema. 2017.
3.Sengupta, Rai. “2017 Timeline of Atrocities Against Dalits: UP, Rajasthan Top The List.” The Citizen, 2 May 2019, www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/newsdetail/index/2/12381/2017-timeline-of-atrocities-against-dalits-up-rajasthan-top-the-list.