Film provokes India to look at its deep schisms of caste

Jul 7, 2019 by

Film provokes India to look at its deep schisms of caste

A surprisingly popular new film is forcing Indians to examine a past filled with atrocities committed in the name of caste

By Saikat Datta | Shreya Sehgal –

For over 2000 years Indians have lived in a strict hierarchy, called the caste system, that mandates a social structure in perpetuity. Now a new film – quietly released last week only to become surprisingly popular – has proved powerful enough that some privileged people seek a ban.

On June 28, Article 15, a Hindi film, was released across India. Already declared a successful money-spinner, it has opened up space for debate on an issue that usually remains buried from public space.

The caste structure that was created by ancient Hindu texts saw a minority of the population labeled as “upper caste” while the rest came to be called “lower caste” and, at the very bottom of the social structure, “outcaste” – the “untouchables.” This led to centuries of oppression and denial of basic human rights.

Article 15 is already being compared by critics to Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, the seminal film on racism and oppression in the American south, and it has scored 93% on the film critic aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.

The film takes off from the rape and murder of two young women in Badaun, a small place in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, in May 2014. Descendants of untouchables, the women belonged to the Dalit Maurya community.

Priyanka Dubey, a young journalist with the BBC, India, wrote about the case in her book No Nation for Women and detailed how the families of the girls had to face many tribulations in their quest for justice.

The film’s title refers to article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits any discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or religion. Adding redolence to this reference is the fact that Dr B R Ambedkar, the national leader who is known as the father of India’s Constitution, hailed from the Dalit (former untouchable) community.

Truth and fiction

“I have been angry for a very long time,” Anubhav Sinha, the director of Article 15 told Asia Times, “but I had not realized how angry I was until I started scripting the film with Gaurav Solanki. We see discrimination and oppression every day around us, but we have internalized it and willingly ignore it.”

The film departs from the basic premise to weave the story of a young upper caste police officer who is sent to his first posting in the boondocks of Uttar Pradesh and chances upon the rape and murder of the two young women. His attempt to investigate the case sparks off an exploration into themes of caste, oppression, justice and identity.

Sinha is aware of the many controversies that have erupted after the film came out. A hitherto little-known group, the Brahmin Samaj, filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on showing the film.

The pushback from Dalit intellectuals and writers surprised Sinha. Senior journalist and author Dilip Mandal was one of the first to raise a nuanced critique that addressed a major lacuna in the film.

“The Dalits, who have been waging a relentless struggle against the caste system for ages with their sweat and blood, have no agency in the movie,” Mandal wrote on June 2, long before the film was released. He pointed out that the lead protagonist was depicted as an upper caste Brahmin, reminiscent of films that depicted white men as “saviors.”

Mangesh Dahiwale, a scholar and activist for Dalit rights, also criticized the “Brahmin savior” in the film. ”The movie shows Dalits as weak and helpless and in need of a savior, who turns out to be a person of upper caste and a Brahmin,” he said.

“This is very problematic. Brahmins cannot be the savior of the Dalits,” Dahiwale told Asia Times. ”The upper caste has normalized caste and most organizations, including the media, are dominated by them. So the kind of circles where conversations on caste are happening is crucial.”

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, a political theorist, writer and activist for Dalit rights, said such films should not be taken seriously. “Many films have been made on such issues but the caste system still exists. Biographies on lives of Dalits or Shudra leaders will create better value and a new discourse in the society,” he said.

“I understand what they are saying,” Sinha said. “I truly agree with the criticism, but my position is that those of us who are privileged have to use it to fight against what has prevailed for centuries. It is not to depict the privileged as saviors, but to show them acknowledging what has gone wrong.” To Sinha, the film is already a success because of the many debates it has sparked across the the country.

Poster of the film Article 15. Photo: Twitter/ @ayushmannk

Continued: Asia Times | Film provokes India to look at its deep schisms of caste | Article

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.