2021 was the year of anticast cinema – from Jai Bhim to Karnan

Illustration by Prajna Ghosh

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In The 2021 film by Mari Selvaraj Karnan, a little Dalit boy furiously throws a stone at a bus for never stopping in his Dalit community as part of a centuries-old “social boycott”, even for working women. What begins after this incident is the fight against injustice.

This boy is reminiscent of a Dalit Jabya, from the classic by Nagraj Manjule Fandry (2013), who also throws a resistive stone at the oppressive “upper cast” crowd at the end of the film. Karnanthe drama begins where Fandry‘s ends.

What a year 2021 has turned out to be for anticast cinema in India. Tamil films have shown that it is possible to be anti-caste and not “anti-box office”.

Also read: From Lagaan to Dhadak: Bollywood has a Dalit problem and refuses to solve it

The Achilles heel of Indian cinema

Castes and castes have long been India’s Achilles heel, but Indian cinema refused to address the elephant in the play, masked unwelcome caste realities with the binary ‘rich versus poor Or showed it through the prism of pity, with a savarna “savior”. Good films also came with tracks from Dalit, but were rare and were quickly forgotten, without having a deeper impact.

In this way, the films of 2021 showed something that no other year has. Not only was there a wealth of hard-hitting anticast films released one after the other, there were also awards / recognitions for actors and directors, and more importantly, box office success in Tamil, Marathi, Telugu. and, to some extent, Hindi, movies.

Let’s take a look at the list of special honors for anti-caste / social justice films this year.

Also read: How Bimal Roy’s Sujata and Pa Ranjith’s Kaala Show the Evolution of Dalit Politics in 60 Years

Special awards for Dalit films in 2021

Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai, showing a Dalit boxer’s struggle for dignity and self-realization, received special mention in The New York Times list of “must-see international movies on OTT”. Surya-starrer Jai Bhim, inspired by Ambedkar’s faith in the judiciary to fight discrimination, anticipated Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Godfather (1972) on IMDB to become the highest-rated film of all time.

that of Mari Selvaraj Karnan starring a bellicose Dalit villager (played by Dhanush) won the Best Indian Film Award at the Bangalore International Innovative Film Festival. ‘Tollywood’ (Telugu Film industry) produced the most films on anticast themes in 2021. Films like Love story, Uppenna, and Sridevi soda center – all showed Dalit characters as protagonists.

Vinod Kamble’s Kastoori (2019), a Marathi-language film about a Dalit manual scavenger’s quest to get rid of its scent, received the national award for best children’s film. Meanwhile, Konkona Sen Sharma won the Asian Academy Creative Award for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” for playing a queer Dalit character (Bharati Mandal) in the widely acclaimed film by Neeraj Ghaywan. Ajeeb Dastans: Geeli Pucchi.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays a Tamil Dalit – Ayyan Mani – in Netflix Serious men received a coveted Emmy nomination. Actor Dhanush received the “Best Actor Award” at the National Film Awards for his outstanding portrayal of the Dalit character Sivasaami in the director of Vetrimaaran, Asuran. He also received the award for best actor at the BRICS Film Festival.

Also read: Bollywood has miles to go before it can produce Kaala, Asuran, Karnan or even a Jai ​​Bhim.

Gradual changes in regional cinema

It’s interesting to see how this change actually happened. Well-crafted stories of Dalits have faced a sort of “untouchability” in the traditional Indian film industry. But the relentless innovation of the Tamil film industry, especially that of Pa. Ranjith Kabali (2016), Kaala (2018), and Pariyerum Perumal (2018), a film he produced, has had a much needed impact on all who watch this phenomenon unfold and they too, including the savarna filmmakers, have slowly taken on the bandwagon.

While the Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi film industries have been hesitant to change, 2021 will certainly make them rethink. This year has definitely reinforced the fact that there is not only a larger audience, but also accolades for the legitimate representation of the oppressed.

The Telugu film industry seems to have drawn inspiration from Tamil cinema. Andhra and Telangana have witnessed a wave of anti-Dalit atrocities, including the gruesome murder of Dalits Perumalla Pranay Kumar and Sankar following an intercast marriage. However, Tollywood had hesitated to make an anticast cinema directed by Dalit characters in the manner of Kollywood. 2021 has changed that.

This year, three big budget Telugu films were shot on anticast themes. Buchi Babu Sana’s Uppena featured an intercast love story involving a Dalit Christian fisherman and a Hindu girl from the “upper castes”. The film won one of the biggest openings in 2021, despite having debutant Vaishnav Tej in mind. Apart from Uppena, there was that of Sekhar Kammula Love story and that of Karuna Kumar Sridevi soda center which reflected the realities of the castes of India.

Kollywood, meanwhile, has gone from simple caste discrimination to assertive Dalit characters. Director Mari Selvaraj produced a masterclass Karnan. Here, Karnan (Dhanush), an assertive character from a small “backward caste” village, fights against the establishment and awakens the villagers content to be subjugated.

Pa. Ranjith returning to the management after three years gave Sarpatta Parambarai a classic spectacle. It was not only a skillful period film reinforcing the social affirmation of lead boxer Kabilan (Arya), but also showed his struggle with himself – the teaching of Buddha to ‘attack deep bhav’ (be your own light ) – which is reiterated in one of the songs from the movie, Neeye Oli. One of the striking images in the film is when Kabilan receives advice from his Dalit friend, with Ambedkar on the wall as a backdrop: “This is our chance. Make your enemy tremble with fear.

Jai Bhim followed, breaking all records on Netflix and becoming the highest ranked movie on IMDB. the BBC, The independent, and Khaleej weather – all covered the film and its impact. Surya, who played Ambedkarite (Chandru), is doing everything to bring justice to the poor tribals wrongly detained by the police. “Jai Bhim” and “Jaibhimwallas” have so far referred to Dalits and their salvation, but the film has beautifully transformed the term to refer to anyone who fights for human rights. The portraits of Buddha, Ambedkar and Periyar, the voice of Ambedkar and Judge Chandru’s credits to Ambedkar’s writings and speeches were the first of their kind and will go a long way in attracting more people to Ambedkar’s writings and speeches.

At the end of the year, Jayanti has come out, becoming the first Marathi film to be released as cinemas reopen after Covid-induced closings. In this film, Santya (Ruturaj Wankhede) is transformed when he reads the life and works of Ambedkar, Phule and Shivaji Maharaj. The film also references Ambedkar’s prominent work. Who were the Shudras? and Govind Pansare’s Who was Shivaji?

Also read: Lights, camera, caste – Ambedkar photo came to Bollywood after 38 years of independence

Box office success

Almost all anticast films with Dalit main characters made good box office collections. tamil movie Karnan gave Dhanush its best box office opening despite a 50 percent theater occupancy limit. The film raised Rs 10 crore on opening day – the best opener in the actor’s illustrious career.

Critically acclaimed Sarpatta Parambarai was viewed in 150 countries on Amazon Prime, according to a report. Jai Bhim also experienced similar success. Jayanti was operating successfully in its fourth week despite a 50 percent occupancy limit in Maharashtra.

2021 saw Pa. Ranjith was at the epicenter of this shift in Tamil cinema. Most recently, actor Vikram announced that he is teaming up with director Pa. Ranjith for his upcoming film titled Chiyaan 61. The director also announced his next production, Writer.

While the Tamil, Marathi and now Telugu film industry has to some extent broken out of the mold to show the social realities and assertiveness of Dalits, the Malayalam, Hindi and Kannada film industry is lagging behind.

The success of Jai Bhim, Jayanti, Uppena, Karnan, Sarpatta Parambarai – all released in 2021 – definitely changed the narrative. Bollywood can no longer ignore this drastic change and must consider moving away from fairy tale fiction to savarna stories. Nagaraj Manjule’s beginnings in Hindi Jhund on disadvantaged children, with Amitabh Bachchan, which will see its release in 2022, could be a starting point.

In Jai BhimIn the soundtrack to “Power” we hear Ambedkar’s live voice as rapper Arivu writes the film’s most striking song. The voice comes from her BBC Radio interview in which he declares: “We want untouchability to be abolished. We have practiced untouchability for 2000 years, no one cares. “

Director Pa. Ranjith tweeted: “It is the community that saw [sic] anticaste and procaste balance. Here are the stories that come out as the story of the hidden and denied Rasa Kannu. It will change our generations ”.

Indeed, if the films on the stories of “denied” continue, it will definitely change the outlook of future generations. In the real world, 2021 has been a tragic year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the “world of coils” has certainly given us much to celebrate. It has proven to be a real accelerator of change, which will last us a very, very long time.

Ravikiran Shinde is a freelance writer and columnist. He writes on socio-political issues and is a supporter of diversity. He tweets (@scribe_it). Opinions are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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