Bombay’s Cinema and its cultural biases

Caste, gender and religious biases are a norm in Bambai cinema. Of course, there was a time when cinema sophistry was due to the beauty of Urdu language as Yusuf Khan, Naushad, Sahir, Kaifi Azami, Jaan Nisar Akhtar, Gulam Mohammad, Mehboob, Kamal Amrohi, and so many others were part of it. Even the non-Muslims used to speak Urdu and the script was Urdu. I am sure, Raj Kapoor, Devananda, Dharmendra, Manoj Kumar, Ashok Kumar all had known Urdu language and were comfortable with it. So, in that way, it was a Hindustani Cinema or Urdu language cinema.

The Hindi Cinema, as it is called today, has more contribution from the non-Hindi speaking people. Whether it is Lata Mangeshkar or her sisters, Mohammad Rafi, Sachin Dev Barman, Salil Chaudhury, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Yeshu Das, S P Bala Subramanyam, and others, Hindi was not their first language but they enriched this.

The greatest of all was Shailendra whose poetry touched our heart as it came from his own experiences of life. And who was Shailendra and why has he been so spiritual and why was his poetry so inspiring. Our left friends suggested that he was a worker in the railway and that he remained a ‘communist’. But none tried to put ‘Pandit’ Shailendra before his name. Shailendra’s caste remained unknown. Was it deliberate not to know about it or the cinema wanted to let it remain as usual? What would have happened if Shailendra had declared his caste identity in a cinema where hero always come from a ‘poor’ brahmin families ‘economically poor’ and fight for the have nots.

Yes, this question itself was answered by Dinesh Shankar Shailendra about a year back when we discussed things. Though it does not matter but it matters a lot too. He said, his father belongs to Chamar community but then probably was fearful in those days, his ‘acceptance’ would be affected if he reveals it. This is a dirty fact otherwise why efforts were not made by our researchers to know more about him.

There are definitely good films but as the tradition of this cinema is, the main patrons of it are the Savarna ‘progressive’ and therefore anything and any solution has to come according to their wish. So, a good Samaritan always come from the powerful castes, preferably Brahmin who will ‘help’ the ‘poor’ and redefine what the ‘dharma’ is.

Blacks, physically challenged, people with obscenities are mostly laughed at and can never be heroes. Most of the characters in these characteristics are vilified.

There was a famous song where Hema Malini plays as a nat or Banjara woman dancer, which is a lively nomadic community, ‘duniya ka mela, mele me ladki, ladki akeli shanno, naam uska’, 1972 Raja Jani or hum banjaro kee baat mat poocho di from dharmvir played by Dharmendra and Jeetendra. She played that in Sita aur Gita too and there are many other films. Having seen and known these communities from close quarters, I can say they have more talent in singing and acting than those who pass through the ‘acting’ classes yet it never occurred to our star directors and producers to look for the talent from the community.

If you visit Rajasthan, there is a community called Bahurupiyas and watch their talent when they act live in solo performances but then their caste become the biggest hurdle. You watch their shows and give them ‘alms’. So, caste decide your talent.

These Bahurupiyas are so talented and yet they are an absolutely landless community in Rajasthan and isolated. They have to beg for their survival. The government might give some hand outs to a few of them who participate in a ‘cultural’ festival but broadly their caste identity become bigger than their talent. It is only when a brahmin or a savarna play Bahurupiya or Banjara in the film that ensures the ‘success’ of the film.

The similar things can be spoken about many other films. I can believe in good intentions but why the film makers not attempt to look a character from the community who can speak on the issue with conviction. It is like this; we ask the extras of the dark colour or obese to mock at themselves and this practice is from good old days when Tuntun used to make fun of herself. Can the cinema ask blacks from South Africa to play and mock at themselves?

Cinema need Mohammad Ali who was unambiguous about his identity and very clear about the oppressor. The Hollywood is changing as there is space and they are still clear about the dangers of the racism but the issue of caste discrimination has not reached there. Perhaps, one day, they will explore the issue.

One thing is clear, it is good to speak about discrimination but equally important is to find voices from the communities and encourage them. I can say firmly; they will play a much better role and can show the discrimination in a much powerful way.

I read many reactions about a film which has released recently and about its upper caste hero who plays as a messiah. One friend wrote in his Facebook post that Dalits in India needed a Martin Luther King and only then they will be able to play their roles, till then the Brahmins will always enjoy the hegemony.

Well, I am sorry to say that revolution brought by Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar is far bigger and superior than what Martin Luther King could do. The new generations of Assertive Ambedkarite will not wait for Holly wood to make a film but they will themselves do it and expose the various facets of discrimination.

Any effort done by any one to being an issue to limelight should be appreciated but it is equally important to see how the issue is addressed. Issue of participation and fair representation is equally important to address an issue in all fairness.

Whether the star directors and producers are able to see it or not, the new generation Ambedkarites are ready and will surprise you in the coming days with their creativity and ideas. After all, 21st century belong to Ambedkarism and Ambedkarite assertion.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

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