Minnal Murali: Will Indian Cinema Ever Embrace a Dalit-Bahujan Superhero?
Indian legends and superheroes are mainly young, fair and tall men with Brahmin or Kshatriya social locations.
Comic books, films, literary fiction and nationalist history are prominent subjects that shape our perceptions and dreams. The fantastic tales of heroes and legends is a crucial diet that helps every teen develop his/her worldview. Ironically, we have very few ‘Indian’ superheroes, and our imagination of them is often hegemonised by American characters.
By HARISH S. WANKHEDE
Importantly, superhero tales in India lack deep connectivity with India’s social and class contexts. For example, our superheroes are overtly depicted as urban upper-caste hunks, who defeat supervillains but appear unaware of many other social ills, including the problems of caste discrimination and feudal order. No Indian superhero fights to emancipate Dalit-Bahujan masses from the terrible clutch of Brahmanical hegemony and class exploitation.
The recently released Malayalam superhero movie ‘Minnal Murali’ on Netflix brings a rupture in this genre. It introduces earthy subaltern characters from rural sites and narrates a story of superheroes that engages precarious social and class realities.
Hindu Mythology and Brahmin Heroes
In India, we grow up with the popular mythologies of Lord Ram and Hanuman from Ramayana, or the legends of Arjun and Bheem from Mahabharata. Hindu mythological tales are often about powerful men who fight for land, social pride and patriarchal values. They fight their own clan (Like Pandavas fighting the Kauravas) or defeat another powerful race (like Ravan is depicted as a powerful Rakshas in Ramayana). The legends mostly revolve around the extraordinary life events of the Kshatriya or Brahmin families who perform marvellous actions, fight dreaded evils and save their kith and kin from troubles.
Indian legends and superheroes are mainly young, fair and tall men with Brahmin or Kshatriya social locations. Dalit-Bahujan characters are almost absent in the constellation of mythical heroes. Even the current trajectory of Indian superheroes and nationalist leaders follows a similar trend. Modern icons that dominate our social and political life are mostly upper-caste men. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Sachin Tendulkar, from Rabindranath Tagore to Pandit Ravi Shanker and from Raj Kapoor to Pranoy Roy, the majority of popular legendary figures belong to specific social locations. The tag of ‘national heroes’ is mostly attached to them, whereas other Hindu groups survive merely as disciples, followers or the captive audience of these super-achievers.
Such domination continues in the superhero format, too. In the early 1980s, Raj Comics introduced Indian versions of superheroes (remember Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv, Doga, etc.) who would fight deadly monsters and supervillains and keep the city safe. They were mostly depicted as strong men and belonged to urban middle-class or upper-caste groups. Similarly, Indian cinema’s superheroes are also presented as powerful upper-caste men (Shahenshah, Bahubali, Krrish, Robot, RaOne, etc.) who fight criminals and corrupt politicians, rescue the world from painful destruction, and avenge the wrongdoers of the past.
Indian superhero films added to the myth of upper-caste heroes and their superiority, whereas other groups are often shown as poor and powerless beings. Interestingly, here, the villains are often shown as distinctly deviant, ugly or the fat little men with dark complexions.
Ironically, no superhero emerges to fight caste atrocities, protect the dignity of Dalit rape victims or bring social justice to marginalised groups.
The Dalit-Bahujan audience is waiting for an organic superhero who can rescue the wretched population from Brahmanical servitude, class exploitation, and can contest the everyday violence with the fist of fury.
Minnal Murali: A Subaltern Superhero
Minnal Murali is set in Kerala’s small village-town Kurukkanmoola and narrates the story of two poor men, Jason (Tovino Thomas) and Shibu (Guru Somasundaram). Jason is a young tailor and aspires to migrate to the US for a better future. However, a corrupt police officer decides to halt his progress. Shibu, on the other hand, is a poor simpleton who serves customers in a small teashop. He is detested by village folks and lives like an outcast.
On the day of Christmas, both are hit by lightning bolts. The next day, they discover that they are endowed with superpowers. Once they realise that they have been given such powers, they try to utilise them to change their precarious conditions. Shibu, in an attempt to win the heart of his love interest, robs a bank and kills people who antagonise him. Though Shibu is the criminal, it’s Jason who is arrested by the police for the wrongdoings. The complex drama reaches its climax when Shibu decides to burn the whole village down in rage. Here arrives the good superhero ‘Minnal Murali’ and rescues villagers from the dangerous plans of the supervillain.
The earlier Indian superheroes in cinema were mostly presented as upper-caste urban males and mimicked American superheroes. Minnal Murali refuses to follow such a pattern and offers significant indigenous elements to present a distinct Indian superhero. The film is set in the period of early 1990s and showcases the changing nature of the rural economy. Interestingly, it realistically touches various aspects of degraded village life, which otherwise find little attention in mainstream cinema. It demonstrates that a large section of people is struggling under poverty, faces social discrimination and is burdened under coercive social practices.
Both the lead characters belonged to the lower strata of society and do not have any social capital or economic assets to fulfil their dreams (an uncanny resemblance with the status of Dalits in rural parts). Only a miracle could have rescued them from such terrible conditions. Imagining such subaltern characters as superheroes is an ambitious and creative attempt.
However, on a critical note, the film hesitates to take certain creative leaps to make it more authentic and suitable to Indian social realities. For example, the film, though it suggests that the lead characters belonged to the poorer strata of society, shies away from giving them overt Dalit-Bahujan identities and speak about caste issues fairly. Such a portrayal and engagement with social issues could have elevated the realistic rural background further. Importantly, the film could have disturbed the hegemony of the social elite characters as the sole custodians in the role of superheroes.
Waiting for a Dalit-Bahujan Icon
Our country has rich cultural and social diversity but we have very few Dalit-Bahujan icons. Jyotiba Phule or Babasaheb Ambedkar are often counted as part of the national iconography. However, even they are belittled as leaders of a specific caste or community. For a long time, Indian literature and cinema remained detached from engaging and presenting promising Dalit-Bahujan stories and legendary characters.
Hollywood cinema is not an ideal counterpart for comparison on this account, but there is a slight improvisation when it comes to diversifying the superhero genre. Hollywood cinema explored the possibilities of presenting black superheroes (Hancock, Blade, Catwoman, and recently, Black Panther) and has narrated their stories even as legendary fictional characters (Django Unchained). Here, the black characters do not necessarily fight racism and social ills or flag opposition against white supremacy, but such attempts do suggest that the category of superheroes is not reserved only for whites.
A diversified family of superheroes (including women and other minorities) in Hollywood inspires marginalised social groups and tells them that they, too, have equal potential to become superheroes. In this respect, Hollywood appears more progressive and inclusive in comparison to Indian cinema.
It is only recently that one can witness a growing change in the representation of Dalit-Bahujan characters in cinema. Tamil cinema, in particular, has introduced Dalit heroes who fight social evils and class oppression with courage and power. Pa Ranjith’s Kala, Kabali and Sarpatta Parambarai, Vetrimaran’s Asuran and Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan demonstrated that Dalit-Bahujan characters can be presented in heroic roles and can also be appreciated by the film audience. However, the possibility of seeing a Dalit character as a superhero is still a distant dream. Minnal Murali is a brave attempt in this direction.
Courtesy : the quint
Note: This news piece was originally published in thequint.com and used purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Rights objectives.