How Cinema Signals Caste Power – Part I

Poet, translator and founder of Panther’s Paw Publication Yogesh Maitreya in conversation with James Michael, an independent cinema researcher based in Mumbai whose work is focused on film and language. This is Part I of II.

Simran is lost as to why Raj refuses to take her away even in the middle of an impending crisis.

The movie is not really about love but negotiations regarding the fate of India's federalism.

Yogesh Maitreya: Hello, James! Thank you for agreeing to have this conversation. First, I remember that you talked about Indian cinema in terms of the social within a movie story. This intrigued me, as I had just started to see cinema beyond its entertainment aspect. What I understood from our past conversations is that cinema is also a medium of ideology, implicit or explicit, essentially embedded in brahmanism, the dominance of a few over the dalit-bahujan populace. Movies have a history of over a century in India. Do you think they have changed their ideology over this time? Could you cite some examples? I think caste nepotism more or less remains as dominant in cinema as it was. Could you elaborate if there are changes you have seen in the situation?

James Michael: Hello Yogesh! Many thanks for initiating this conversation. You are absolutely right—movies are ideological instruments, just as plays and novels are or for that matter families or schools are. Ideology is in a sense the unconscious of the society, just like we human beings have our unconscious, too. Sigmund Freud had mentioned that dreams are a way through which one could gain a glimpse of the human unconscious—I guess one could characterise movies as dreams par excellence of a society. Just like we subject movies to editing and direction and production, dreams are also subjected to these processes by our unconscious. Movies are also a way through which one can access society—this is why we say society is discursive. More crudely put, how would you or I know that we are living in Mumbai, without a map or a sign board or somebody telling us so? We cannot go out on the street and readily identify the street as belonging to Mumbai. So, just like discursive instruments such as maps, movies also take part in constructing a society and helping us make sense of our existence.

Ideologies are historical—just as dreams could be. I wonder if we could do a history of our dreams, right from our childhood and see how we may have evolved! Anyway, if we were to do a history of movies in India, I am sure it would constitute a history of the Indian nation, which you have rightly identified as brahmanical. This is probably why Madhava Prasad called his book on Indian cinema Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction. Although we can study cinema like we study literature or theatre, we should be attentive about the specifics of the medium, which we could discuss through the course of this conversation.

YM: This makes me think about the so-called father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke (a brahmin from Maharashtra). The backdrop of his movies is largely and predominantly mythological. He tells stories from the past that may not have existed. So we arrive at a curious juncture where we could witness that a brahmin pursuing cinema as an art form is actually pursuing his own longing for a “constructed” past in which his hegemony was unchallenged and he was the reference point of life. Of course, cinema has greatly evolved ever since, but I am circumspect to call it an evolution in the real sense. Because evolution tends to reduce the human effort to be and feel free. It is also because the dominant caste/brahmanical imagination, through movies, continues to dominate the public’s perceptions about life.

I remember Kuffir Nalgundwar’s impressive essay in Roundtable India on the “angry young man” in Indian cinema during the 1970s. He suggested that the dalit-bahujans’ anger against their exploitation was re-articulated as the anger of upper caste/brahmin characters that Amitabh Bachchan played in those movies. It is as if the past and the present of dalit-bahujans is given to the brahmin/savarna man, and when he fights against injustice, the viewers think that the brahmin-savarna man is a revolutionary. In this process, what is at work is the creation of a false consciousness. This might sound like a huge question, but let me ask you nevertheless: do you think cinema in India has a large responsibility in terms of creating a false consciousness among the masses over many decades?

JM: Frankly speaking, I am not a big fan of the theory of false consciousness. Granted, masses are taken for a ride on a regular basis by various players, but is this because the masses suffer from false consciousness or that they watch movies? It has been noted that the white working class tends to vote conservative in the United States, effectively voting against their own larger interests. I have a funny theory that explains this phenomenon: racism. If we are suffering, those considered as below our ranking must be suffering even more could be a thought that passes through the mind of even the so-called “white trash” while voting conservative.

Similarly, look at India—do you think lower castes do not know what is best for them? Caste operates in such a way that one community will not mind taking it on the chin, provided there is a prospect of those beneath them suffering even more. I cannot explain the Modi phenomenon otherwise. The atrocities that he inflicts on the Indian people—and I believe everybody is suffering at various degrees—cannot be explained otherwise. Right-wing in India knows how to play caste structures well, just like Donald Trump, who has appealed more or less only to the whites, across classes. False consciousness also begs the question: what is true consciousness? Is there something uniform like that? I doubt.


Also read | Manto’s “Boo” and Savarna Guilt


Anyway, we are veering off the topic. Brahmins have a habit of becoming fathers of everybody. While dalit-bahujans toil and produce things, works of art, brahmins appear from nowhere to claim fatherhood. The first movie in Kerala, Vigathakumaran [Lost Child, 1928], was made by a Nadar man called JC Daniel—Nadars are classified as OBC. In this movie, the heroine was a dalit woman called PK Rosy. JC Daniel died penurious while PK Rosy had to run away to Tamil Nadu because she had the “temerity” to enact the role of a Nair woman in the movie. Nobody bothered to accord Daniel the fatherhood of Malayalam cinema or PK Rosy the motherhood of Malayalam movie acting until certain intrepid journalists dug out their stories in the 1960s.

A dalit social historian known as Kunnukuzhy S Mani was responsible for bringing the story of PK Rosy into the limelight in the early 1970s. I cannot comment on Phalke, but there could be more to the story than meets the eye. That said, cinema has certain signalling power. We will try to discuss this in the course of this conversation.

YM: No doubt that cinema has a certain signalling power that affects the way Dalit-Bahujans see, feel, perceive, desire and even taste. It is a different story that there always remains the gap between what they watch on screen and how they live their lives on a daily basis. Of course, there is no one consciousness or uniform consciousness. What I meant by false consciousness here is the contradiction that dalit-bahujans are often forced to navigate. For example, in the movie Fandry, we see Jabya, a dark-skinned protagonist, applying talcum powder to appear fair and impress Shalu, his fair-complexioned dominant caste crush. Why does he want to look fair? From where does his desire come? It is certainly a creation of the hero image around him, coming from the fact that he grew up watching only fair-skinned heroes. But I think we both agree that cinema in general carries the power to affect the way people imagine. The central question here is whether movies consolidate the caste way of thinking. No movie in India, across languages or genres, is exempted from the caste normative. When we dig deep, we can find caste relations in movies, even if such movies are fictional or fantasies.


Also read | Vicky Donor: Caste and Race of Sperm


Caste is the political unconscious of Indian cinema. I think we both agree on this. However, I would like to think that when cinema becomes “politically conscious”, meaning, when it tells the truth and facts about the lives of dalit-bahujans, it becomes a threat. I remember you told me about the movies of Dr. Biju Damodaran, the brilliant Malayali director who is ignored in Kerala because he is dalit. I watched two movies of his, Perariyathavar [Names Unknown, 2015] and Veyilmarangal, [Trees Under the Sun, 2019]. Both are creations of a brilliant mind, which make us think and do not leave us for long after we have watched them. I had never seen such movies earlier, and most of my other upper caste Malayali friends, who are fans of Iranian and Korean movies, never mentioned him either. Obviously, the movie fraternity seems to be uncomfortable with his cinematic creations. Why is this so? His movies almost transport us to an unseen Kerala that we have hardly seen in popular Malayalam cinema. Do you think his movies expose the falsified image of the lives of dalit-bahujans that popular cinema is in a habit of creating for decades?

JM: Yes, Yogesh, Dr. Biju Damodaran is a classic example of a dalit film maker shunned by mainstream media, while upper caste film makers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a Nair man who makes shoddy movies about Nair lives, keep getting all the limelight they never deserved in the first place!

Regarding the signalling power of cinema, I could suggest at least four powerful instances—no doubt there are more, but the point is all of these instances are determined by the savarnas in the country. Here I refer to cinema as the entire apparatus of film-making including the theatre where movies are screened. In contrast, by movies, I strictly mean motion pictures.

1) Cinema as state: cinema, by virtue of it being communal—that is, as they are screened at a theatre to a public audience—has been a favourite hunting site of the state. That is why we cannot begin to watch a movie without getting educated about the ill effects of smoking or chewable tobacco. We used to also have Films Division documentaries that were shown before the screening of a movie essentially to publicise various government programs. State also intervenes in the form of the censor board [now called the Central Board of Film Certification], which thinks Indian citizens are always already regressed, which is probably their way of saying Indians are hardly citizens. So, as you know, abusive words or overtly sexual scenes are censored out in the service of family. This is powerful signalling by the state. I said communal before because if we were to watch a movie on Netflix, probably we may not suffer from the government’s excessive pedagogic adventurism as at home a movie is either watched solo or by a family and not by a public as such together.

2) Cinema as lifestyle: stardom and the apparatus around it, including page 3, movie magazines and TV shows that rely on the cinema industry, constitute this segment. They signal ideal beauty regimes, including fairness as a virtue as you put it, and act as a conduit to channel consumerism and lifestyle of a kind nobody can really afford. This is also a powerful signalling mechanism: capitalism’s driving logic that no amount of consumption is enough consumption, which works to ensure that the bahujan who is unable to consume like his savarna peers is denoted as backward.

Cinema invents marriage rituals, as in the case of Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! or goddesses as in the case of Santoshi Mata, who never existed before the release of the movie Jai Santoshi Maa in 1975. In a sense as suggested by you before, Phalke was inventing Hindu gods for screen, too, with his mythological movies. As you may know, it was Ramayana the tele-serial that in a sense fuelled the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

3) Cine Politics: South India cannot be talked about without referring to the phenomena called Cine Politics. I believe language politics gave birth to Cine Politics in the South. As you know [in Tamil Nadu] DMK and AIADMK were practically run by film stars. Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh, actor NT Rama Rao started the Telugu Desam Party. In Karnataka, film star Rajkumar wielded considerable political power, too. Madhava Prasad has an interesting paper, where he seems to suggest that when Hindi was equated with the Indian nation, the South and the Southern languages were considered as surpluses outside this national equation and that Cine Politics sought to address this surplus within the framework of the nation. Obviously, language was a vector through which Cine Politics sought political legitimacy.

4) Cinematic family: the last of the powerful movie signalling is via the invention and constant revivification of the family. Movies are made for families—the reason why the plot of a movie almost always revolves around the family or a couple, which is the smallest unit of a family. In Hollywood, blockbusters have a family at the centre, which is trying to protect itself against an earthquake, war or an extra-terrestrial attack, among others. This is primarily because family is the single biggest consuming unit at a cinema: imagine the tub loads of popcorn and ice-creams one needs to buy for excited kids at a cinema hall!

Since Netflix-streamed movies are not aimed at a public in a theatre but mostly at an individual consumer or a couple, they tend to produce movies that deal with slightly more risqué topics. So streaming mechanisms are creating new genres of movies I believe.

YM: Thanks James! This is quite a revelation. What I derive from your elaborations on cinema is that there is an inseparable relationship between cinema, politics and patterns of cultural consumption, controlled by the state and its ideology. Also, your keen observations signal toward processes that result in the creation of mythical cinematic entities. I view cinema as a tool for inventing figures and histories to justify the state’s politics. We all know that it was during the regime of the Congress party that tele-series such as Ramayana and Mahabharata were introduced, which later went on to affect the minds of people—in the sense that they started “accepting” mythology as history. The whole political upheaval after that is largely the result of this one single event.

I remember we talked of a few movies produced during the same time and how they reflected the political mood. We talked about two movies, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ, 1995) and Roja (1992). They differ from each other, but there is something common about them as well. For instance, how they stereotype the communities that are the subject of these movies, in a way related implicitly to the ideological location of the state at that time. What do you think?

JM: Yes, the early 1990s, when these two movies were released, are interesting for a variety of reasons. We definitely see the end of what various commentators call as the Nehruvian consensus. But let us cut to the chase and call it as the end of Nehruvian brahmanwad and the beginning of Sangh brahmanwad. We see the unravelling of the Mandal crisis not least in the form of Kamandal politics emerging quite forcefully to keep the OBCs and Ambedkarism in check. We see the Kashmir crisis unfurling at the speed of light and even as that is happening, the Punjab crisis being resolved by about 1995. We have the economy opening up and the family being remoulded in the form of couple-hood. Most of these crises get reflected in the movies of the period, including Roja and DDLJ. Roja comes from a feudal village and is suddenly thrust into the city of Madras [now Chennai] and into the middle of national politics in quick succession and the couple, Rishi and Roja, is invested with the task of resolving all of these crises.

Much has been written about Roja, but if we were to add to the debate, I would say a comparison between Roja and DDLJ may prove to be fruitful. To me, the title DDLJ itself signifies the nationalist resolution of the Punjab question: DDLJ could be roughly translated as “The Big-Hearted Will Take the Bride Away”, and if I were to add a subtitle to the movie, it would be, “Whether Anybody Likes it or Not”. I will elaborate this now.

If Roja is the Tamil brahmin resolution of the Kashmir question, with the fantasy probably representing the dying embers of Nehruvian brahmanwad, DDLJ represents the Khatri resolution of the Punjab question. There is no obvious cause as to why a Khatri (Raj) should not marry a Jat (Simran), with hypergamy being an acceptable practice in principle. Simran’s father Chaudhary Baldev Singh’s promise to his friend two decades back that Simran would be wedded to his son is the weak diegetic logic that creates the central tension in the movie—weak because there are several occasions when Raj could have eloped with Simran: when Simran suggests it, when Simran’s mother suggests it and when Raj’s father suggests that the couple should run away and marry. Raj, however, is strangely obdurate in his stance that he will take away the bride only with the blessing of the father.

So, to me, the central even if latent crisis of the movie is the India versus Punjab issue that was simmering up until the early 1990s in national polity. Remember, in the early 1990s, we could witness Punjabi culture getting pan-Indian acceptance through musicians such as Daler Mehndi, who I believe is a dalit. This coincided more or less with the end of insurgency in Punjab. For me, the complex feudal dilemmas that Raj and Simran find themselves in are not just about the teething troubles that a new couple would have had to face during the early years of the opening up of the Indian economy. Simran, the bride, also represents to me the geography of Punjab with Raj willy-nilly being a soft version of the state of India negotiating with Jats and by extension other communities beyond the pale of the then national imagination to integrate with India.

Remember that the central icon of the Punjab crisis, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, was a Jat, too. The last train sequence of DDLJ with the iconic parting shot by Chaudhary Baldev Singh, “Jaa Simran Jaa” [Go, Simran, Go] is in that sense the cinematic equivalent of the final resolution of the federal question vis-a-vis Punjab via the trope of nationalism—Punjab, the dulhan [bride], has now been taken away by India, which will, in turn, respect the traditional values of Punjab. So, in short, while there is a nationalist resolution to the Punjab crisis happening in DDLJ, we also see Kashmir opening up a new can of worms for the Indian state in Roja.

Keeping the above contexts in mind, a book like Nehru’s Discovery of India, which probably first imagined an India in the politico-geographical form we were habituated to see up until then, obviously lost its relevance completely, indicating that the final nail in the coffin of Nehruvian consensus had been put.

Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther’s Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
James Michael is an independent cinema researcher based in Mumbai whose work is focused on film and language.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.