Dalit narratives have come of age in recent years. Whether it's Rajeev Ravi's Malayalam offering Kammatipaadam (2016), or Pa Ranjith's metaphor-rich Tamil drama Kaala (2018), the focus remains the ultimate emancipation of Dalits even as the plotlines thicken with inter-mingling stories of love and doom. What this says about Indian cinema, on the whole, is that the viewers are open to receiving conversations on caste and casteism.
A toddler walks into his house and finds his parents covered in blood. He cries loudly to wake them up, but they don't. He slowly turns around and totters out, leaving red footprints. This climactic scene, completely silent and devoid of music or dialogue, from Nagraj Manjule's Marathi drama Sairat (2016) is a representation of honour killings in India.
The murders are not depicted and, therefore, we're not shown if Archi (Rinku Rajguru) and Parshya (Akash Thosar) were able to put up a fight before going down. Manjule doesn't want us to notice the couple's final moments. He wants us to understand, however, the evilness of the caste system. And in Tamil filmmaker Mari Selvaraj's directorial debut Pariyerum Perumal (2018), Pariyan (Kathir) sits across from his tormentor — his girlfriend's father — and asserts his position in the end.
Selvaraj carefully takes us through the humiliation that Pariyan faces at the hands of his tormentor and his family members. Various people torture him at various points; he's routinely targeted for having a dream (studying law) and is often cornered for being a Dalit. He knows what it means to be at the bottom of the caste chain.
But he won't give up. Even when he's pushed to the edge, he'll hold on to something and steady himself. When the tormentor catches up with him and tells him that things might change in the future with an apologetic face, Pariyan cheekily smiles and replies that nothing will change as long as he's expected to be a dog — somebody who takes orders from a master. This poignant scene sums up the movie. And, in many ways, it highlights the everyday struggles of Dalits.
These reparative sketches are vitally missing in Bucchi Babu Sana's recently-released Telugu feature Uppena, which has come in for a fair share of praise.
Uppena has great songs (thanks to Devi Sri Prasad) and dirty politics. It piggybacks on making the rich upper caste man Raayanam (Vijay Sethupathi) shame Dalits. When he comes to know that his daughter Bebamma (Krithi Shetty), is in love with a Dalit Christian (Aasi, played by Panja Vaisshnav Tej), he gathers his men to attack him.
Raayanam chops off Aasi's penis for sleeping with Bebamma and goes on to kill his father. If he wanted to, he could have hacked Aasi to death at the same spot. Instead, he sexually assaults him and robs him of his dignity, for daring to sleep with Bebamma. This brutal act of violence, Raayanam thinks, is a greater punishment and leaves him to his fate.
In all these films, the common link is patriarchy and the caste system. Women in India are made to take their husband's last name, and gotra. And, in case of inter-caste marriages, the children are, naturally, grouped under the caste of their father. The commonly-held belief, therefore, is that when a woman from an upper caste marries a Dalit man, the children take on a Dalit identity. This cultural hurdle makes it impossible for many women to choose partners of their own free will.
How Uppena Forgets That It's a Movie About Casteism
Raayanam is a thug who uses his inherited wealth to become more affluent. Somewhere in the film, when Bebamma complains about her cousin's inappropriate behavior, he doesn't take her seriously. But he gets furious when he stumbles upon a few pieces of evidence that are related to her relationship with a Dalit youth. He's not bothered about her consent; he's only interested in the honour she holds, as she's his daughter.
And, like Pariyerum Perumal, Uppena also carves out a little room for one of its protagonists to have a discussion with a casteist, patriarchal figure in the closing minutes. While Pariyan speaks about casteism, Bebamma, without addressing the disease, talks about the strength of love. She imprisons Raayanam in a monologue that fully ignores casteism.
She may have been blind to the atrocities carried out by him while growing up, or she may have looked the other way while he was actively involved in pulverising the livelihoods of Dalits. But how could she not grasp the reality behind her father assaulting her boyfriend and murdering the latter's dad? Why doesn't she consider it necessary to drill some sense into him? There's neither representation à la Sairat, nor a satisfactory gaze that looks into the moral ramifications of Raayanam's inhumanity.
Babu Sana thinks that miracles can happen if there's love. He wants to drive home the message that a woman and a man can have a peaceful, married life even if they can't have penetrative sex. Bebamma begs Raayanam to accept her decision and marches out of her mansion. She later goes to the beach to embrace Aasi. The scene cuts away to show a child asking an old man if a disfigured idol is still powerful. As if echoing her thoughts, the old man says that god's power doesn't diminish with a disability.
That exchange would have been a great footnote had Aasi lost a body part in an accident. How can a crime committed against a Dalit exist on the same plane as a disability?
For the sake of argument, let's assume that Raayanam extends an olive branch to Aasi. But would he look at the other Dalits with a new heart? The answer is no! Raayanam will continue to be a social cockroach and his actions will continue to affect Dalits. His non-interference in Bebamma's life won't leave a single dent in his political aspirations, for which he'll go to any extent.