From symbolic prop to a motivational force, the on-screen resurgence of Ambedkar is mainstreaming Dalit-Bahujan culture.
Harish S Wankhede
The Indian film industry, the largest movie-making enterprise globally, is renowned for its dance, music, action dramas, and ‘masala’-coated fictional narratives. The industry has entertained the masses for over a century, and it is growing in volume now, impacting the global audience.
However, such a grand art phenomenon is not known for its artistic creativity, intellectual vibrancy, or for a cinema that addresses serious social problems like caste-based discrimination or issues related to the Dalit and Adivasi groups. For example, Babasaheb Ambedkar has been celebrated as one of the founding figures of the nation; however, for a long time, Indian cinema has overtly neglected his contributions and, only on occasions, has engaged with Dalits’ political and social questions.
In the past decade, especially with the arrival of filmmakers, technicians, and artists from DalitBahujan backgrounds, a new meaning has been given to Ambedkar’s image on screen. For example, Nagraj Manjule used Ambedkar, Phule, and Shahu Maharaj’s paintings in Fandry as a satirical artefact to demonstrate the unchanging nature of caste relationships in rural parts.
Similarly, Pa Ranjith often employs Ambedkar’s name, photograph, statue, slogans, and other Dalit symbols in the background of the narratives to provide substantive social meaning to the story. Recently, Sailesh Narwade’s Jayanti expanded this horizon and introduced Ambedkar’s writings as a crucial force that motivates the protagonist to become a courageous, heroic person.
Ambedkar is now more visible on the screen. We see his hanging photo inside police stations, courts, or government offices. Often, his portrait is used as a ‘prop’ to represent the passivity of the State institutions. However, beyond such symbolic usage, Ambedkar has emerged as a motivational force that influences the characters and churns narratives. For example, Tamil actor Surya’s film Jai Bhim (2021) narrates the story of a nomadic tribe that is violated and tortured by the police, and only after a long battle in court do they receive justice. The film utilised the Ambedkarite perspective to examine the problems of poverty, police brutality, and the discrimination that the worst-off social groups experience for everyday survival. Similarly, in Mari Selvaraj’s recent film Maamannan, the Dalit hero is not a docile or powerless being but readily acts as a dignified agent for social and political change, an idea that is borrowed much from the Ambedkarite social movements.
Endorsing Ambedkar’s philosophical values, Neeraj Ghywan’s story The Heart Skipped a Beat in the Web series Made in Heaven is the most impressive addition. Here, Pallavi Manke (Radhika Apte) is a proud Dalit professor, working at an Ivy League university, and has no hesitation to flag her ‘ex-Untouchable’ identity. Though she is marrying a sensitive and progressive Indian-American lawyer, she faces social burdens and anxieties when she offers to add a Buddhist ritual to commemorate her marriage. The story is beautifully woven, representing the social principles that Ambedkar wanted to establish in India’s social life. Further, two upcoming films, Guthlee and Kasturi, will tell us the stories of the aspirations and dreams of two Dalit kids who face discrimination and harassment when they act according to their choices. Here too, the shadow of Ambedkar’s teaching has influenced the narratives.
Further, we see long serials and web series streaming on three OTT platforms, depicting events in Ambedkar’s life. First, Ek Mahanayak: Dr. Ambedkar (2019) on Zee5 is one of the longest teleseries (with 27 seasons and 250+ episodes) that presents a biographical history taking certain artistic liberties (similar to the populist versions of classical myths and other religious stories). The series has impressed the reviewers because of its creative skills, production quality, and good artistic representations.
Similarly, Dr Ambedkar-Ek Mahamanvachi Gauravgatha (2019) on Disney+Hotstar is also an impressive Marathi web series. Here, Ambedkar’s childhood-related incidents are portrayed with melodramatic elements to create myths about his prodigious talent. Further on Sony LIV, a onehour-long musical event Remembering Ambedkar is presented, showcasing heroic aspects of Ambedkar’s personal, social, and political life through dramatic representations.
The new generation of film and documentary makers, especially those who belonged to DalitBahujan social backgrounds, have also significantly contributed and elevated the discourse on Ambedkar’s personality and his ideas in the mainstream artistic sphere. Jyoti Nisha’s BR Ambedkar: Now and Then and Somnath Waghmare’s Chaityabhumi are excellent documentaries that contextualise Ambedkar’s thoughts and movements and provide a deeper insight. On top of it, we will soon see Hollywood’s first film, Origin (directed by Ava DuVernay), that features Ambedkar (played by Gaurav Pathania) as a crucial character in the narrative.
Such mainstream space was not available to Ambedkar for a very long period of time. Even when the Hollywood director Richard Attenborough made Gandhi, he overtly decided not to add Ambedkar’s episode to the story. After facing a long period of exclusion, the growing presence of Ambedkar in popular films, TV channels, and OTT platforms is an acknowledgement that Dalit-Bahujan cultural values are slowly being integrated into the mainstream media.
Though it is a small and nascent beginning, it has the capacity to initiate a dialogue for the democratisation of the film industry and adopt more narratives that are sensible towards socially marginalised groups.
The cultural industry, especially cinema, has remained dominated by conventional social elites to date and has served their social and political interests without much resistance. The marginalized social groups are the passive recipients of such entertainment culture that hardly speaks about their interests and social values. Such an arrangement needs democratic reform.
Ambedkar’s random appearances and the arrival of the nascent ‘Dalit Cinema’ genre have the potential to churn out a new cinematic culture and can bring meaningful and sociallyresponsible cinema to the audience. In association with the ideas and vision of Ambedkar, this momentum will surely democratise the film industry and bring critical nuances to the art of storytelling.
Courtesy : DH
Note: This news piece was originally published in deccanherald.com and used purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Righ