Why are Dalits Missing from Indian Cinema and Media?

Ayantika Pal

Since the inception of Hindu Varna System, the practice of casteism has been in the roots of India which is still in contradiction to the term democracy in the worlds largest democratic country. With the introduction of LPG policy (Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation) in 1990s, media conglomerates automatically became a part of free market economy and started to act according to the ideologies of capitalist class which deepens the inequality of class and caste in the society. Media, as it is known as the fourth pillar of democracy, is expected to be the voice of the voiceless. But due to some supremist approach, it has treated the voiceless to be the noiseless people in society, newsrooms or in films. One can hardly find a Dalit person to be in a higher position in print, television or any other media industry. This phenomenon can be said as a reflection of the position of Dalits in the society.

This article aims to reflect the true image of Dalit as Lower Caste people and Savarna as Upper Caste people to the society through the two major mainstream media- television (through cinemas) and print. As Jiya Rani, a Dalit Indian journalist says, The mainstream media is not for the poor, not for the oppressed. It has carved its kingdom out of loyalty to the powers, to bureaucracy, to domination. (The Wire: Nov,15,2016), one can find many examples of the suppression of lower caste in media and Indian society. Though there are few representations of lower castes in Indian media, they are mostly reflected as Harijan understanding of Schedule Caste from Gandhian framework, rather than Dalit understanding of Phule-Ambedkarite perspective. The portrayal of how the media use the term Dalit and what effect and relevance does it have to the society and cinemas are also being depicted in the article.

Representation of Dalits in Indian Cinema

Cinema, being one of the most important tools of media for propagating certain ideologies and food for thoughts among the masses, holds a major role in representation of various sectors, communities or even an individual amongst the masses. In the battleground of caste system, Dalits are the most oppressed identities in the caste hierarchy. In Indian cinema, the issue of caste oppression has seldom got any chance to be represented. The entertainment media viz movies and advertisements, which attracts the major population of the state, has often remained untouched by Dalits. On the other hand, the Savarna or Brahminic spectacle of the power structure has hegemonized the Indian media. Since the inception of Indian cinema industries of 100 years, the number of cinemas where Dalit being portrayed as the central character is very less with respect to Savarna as a leading character. During the Parallel Cinema Movement though there have been few movies created on the basis of Dalit representation inspired by Left-Marxist ideologies, but they remain very occasional. Even, the portrayal of the body of a Dalit-male or female, has always been a stereotyped contrast to the body of a Savarna. A Dalit male has always got depicted with a shabby thin body, physically untidy, emotionally weak and intellectually hollow appearance while, a female attained some sexually attractive and desirable physique so as to be objectified and subjugated by the Brahmin-patriarchs. One such example of this stereotyping is the short film named Manliest Man which has got an award in Mumbai Film Festival.

Considering the film Kabali, one can depict the clear representation of dress code through the transition of Kabali and Tony Lee from trouser and tee shirt to Suit and Tie. The instance when Rupali tells Kabali to wear the suit when he goes to meet the white-collar people and fit in their community, clearly conveys the stereotyped social dress codes of individuals in the class and caste hierarchy.

Another beautiful off-beat Indian cinema Masan, depicts the complexity of life, death, pain and love through the spectacle of Indian caste discourse. Deepak Kumar, who is a boy from Dom Caste, untouchable category in society, falls in love with Shaalu Gupta, a banya upper caste girl. The movie shows a painful love story between the two. It depicts that though Deepak tries hard to come out of the burden and oppression of his caste identity, but he has to return to his profession to earn breads for his family. shamshaan ke aag se hi enke ghar ka choola jalta hai which implies in the houses of this caste, food is cooked from the fire that burns the funeral pyre. At first, Deepak hesitates to bring Shaalu in his locality or in his house, since she belonged to an upper caste, but at the end of the plot, Shaalu dies in a road accident and her body gets burnt in the funeral pyre by Deepak who belongs to a Dalit community, considered to be untouchables by the Savarnas. The movie has a beautiful song tu kisi rail si guzarti hay, may kisi pul sa thartharata hu composed by Ghalib and Faiz, signifies the inseperable bonding of love between the two individuals. The whole scenario also conveys that every caste in the society cannot survive without each other. This dichotomy of reality is painful and oppressive for those who are given a lower position in the caste hierarchy.

Again, though there have been few cinemas on Dalits but, the question arises, have these movies reflected the true form of oppressions that a Dalit individual or family suffers in the Caste based political structure? Most of cinema as are based on the love-life struggles of a Dalit. They portray the relation of a Dalit girl with an upper-caste boy, or an upper-caste girl with a Dalit boy. Few examples of such movies are Achhyut Kannya, Masaan, Fandry, Sairaat or Sujata. But what about the homosexual Dalit individuals? They fight against a second level of oppression in the orthodox Indian Society. The further marginalization of their political and sexual identity has led to a complete obliteration of their rights and even their existence. Indian cinema industry has never come across such crisis of Dalits. Moreover, the tremendous mental and physical torture that a Dalit suffers to survive, are been hardly shown in Indian commercial movies. Though there are some movies which tried to project the discriminations, like Chourangi, but could never reach the level that the reality shows.

Dalits in Indian News Headlines and its relevancy with Indian Movies

The Indian news media has always portrayed the term Dalit with accordance to their own ease and acceptance. Also, one can hardly find a Dalit identity in a positive news headline. In most of the cases, the headlines reflect the oppressions and for an instance, legalises it in majoritys opinion. For example, A 17-year-old Dalit girl gang-raped in Muzaffarnagar (INDIA TODAY: March 18), The Indian Dalits attacked for wearing the wrong shoes (BBC NEWS, JUNE 18). Media, in some cases have tried to raise voice against the injustice practiced on the Dalits but since they are very few in numbers, are kept unnoticed by the majority of the society. For example, Silence Shrouds the Murder of a 13-Year-Old Dalit Girl in Tamil Nadu (THE WIRE: OCT 18). Also, the follow up of a Dalit news story hardly takes place in Indian media houses. On the other hand, if we consider Indian movies, we can get a vivid reflection of what gets printed in the newspapers. For example, honour killing is not a new practice in inter-caste discourse. The movie Sairat reflects the true mirror image of the headline like Honour killing: Tamil Nadu couple thrown into Cauvery alive (TOI: NOV 2018)5, where, the couples were Nandish, who were a Dalit (similar to Parshya from Sairat) and Swati, who belonged to a upper caste family (similar to Archie from Sairat) and many other headlines like, Untouchable’ Love: An Account on the Rise of Honour Killings in Tamil Nadu (Newsclick: Dec 2018), Hosur couple killing: Dalit youth’s Jai Bhim T-shirt was his last defiant act( THE HINDU: NOV 2018).

B. R. Ambedkar wrote in his book Annihilation of Caste that caste is not a division of labour but a division of labourers. Now the question is, would ‘Hindu reformist’ acknowledge and follow the leadership of a great man who is a non-Brahmin? The answer is No. Because the capacity to appreciate merits in a man, apart from his caste, does not exist in a pseudo- religious- political system called Hinduism. And then the natural tendency starts to shift towards oppression. Oppression of ‘non-Savarnas’ in any form, rationalizing any irrelevant issue. For example, Dalit Student Tied to Tree and Beaten, Not Allowed to Give Board Exam in Gujarat’s Patan (THE WIRE: MARCH 23)

Any form of representation in a cinema is the portrayal of being of any definite identity in the social reality. The social fact of discrimination faced by Dalit communities generally obtains less representation in mainstream media as their experiences of inequality, prejudice and hostility from other dominant groups is a normative function of their social reality. For example, the Keelavenmani Massacre in 1968 was reported as a class issue in a local Tamil paper, Dinamani. Only when the issue was taken up by Dalit political parties such as Communist Party of India (Marxist), Puthiya Tamilagam (New Tamil Nadu) and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panther Party) (Dharani, 2017), were the reasons of discrimination along caste-lines and untouchability brought to light (Balasubramanian, 2011)[1]


Dalits representation in cinema holds a major signification to showcase their caste identity and levels of oppressions in social reality. The symbolic portrayal of a non-Savarna in Indian movies always reflects their struggle for liberation. According to 2011 census, there is 25% Dalit population in India. But the question is, how much true representation do the Dalits get in Indian media? In comparison to the Hindu Savarnas, the ratio is merely negligible. To perform the true sense of democracy, to let every citizen enjoy their rights and liberty, the nation must come out of caste system, or in other words, there should be more representation of every community irrespective of their caste, creed, sex, religion, race or any other discriminating factors which hinders the sense of humanity. Right at this socio-political context, Indian media and film industries need to be touched by the untouchables.

1. Fabric-Rendered Identity: A Study of Dalit Representation in Pa. Ranjiths Attakathi, Madras and
Kabali: ISSN 0975-329X

The author am a student ofDelhi< School of Journalism.



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