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Dalits in Bollywood: A skewed equation nobody is willing to talk about
While Bollywood is busy celebrating the 100 years of Indian films, we say it is a time for reflection. While art and artists should not be judged on basis of their religion, caste and creed, the skewed participation from a section of the society into India's most glamorous profession raises a few questions. And strangely, as we realized, nobody is willing to answer why despite economic and geographical growth, the untouchables of the society do not find a screen space. Why does Bollywood have not seen a single Dalit superstar - lack of talent or selective rejection?

A section of the society believes the reason is credited to the lack of mythological stories around Dalits available to mainstream film-makers. A few stories which were available did not excite the producers, script writers and directors. So when nobody is talking about a particular community in their stories, there will be no effort to find out suitable actors from the community who can suit that particular role.

 Vivek Kumar, Professor of Sociology in Jawaharlal Nehru University says, “Indian cinema was always about celebration. It was only after the 70's and the 80's that reality was reflected in films. Moreover, there was no research or development and film-makers took up ready-made scripts such as Harischandra, Bhagat Singh, Gandhi as their subject matter. There was no room for the Dalits to enter the scene”

But what about equally popular personalities like Dr. BR Ambedkar or Kabir? Wouldn’t their life have made an interesting story for a film? Why do Bollywood find producers ready to put in 80 crore indian rupees for a film around Gandhi and only 8 crores for a film around Dr.Ambedkar?

In recent past, From mythological stories to dealing with the life and struggle of the common man and to addressing the gay question, Bollywood have matured in dealing with various taboo topics. In midst of all these  the industry has produced films and characters around the untouchable communities. A Dalit boy grows up to become a police officer and comes back to his birth place as a deputed official – Sanjay Dutt playing DSP Pannalal Chohaar in a Vidhu Vinod Chopra movie Eklavya – is probably a reflection to the recent day society mind-shift and also acceptance of the fact that Dalits are coming forward. But then Bollywood fails to create real life examples of such characters. No Pannalal ever had a leading role in any movie.  

Kancha Ilaiah, Dalit activist, points out, “The inbuilt caste discrimination in society has been reflected in Bollywood as well. Although Dalits were excellent performers, but when street performance moved to theaters, the upper caste captured the theater.”

So the claim of Bollywood that it does not adhere to caste, creed or religion is completely untrue or the methods of segregation different from that of our society? Ilaiah replied to the above query by saying that the division is very subtle and sophisticated. “Bollywood has moved away from the crude system of unaccountability but the system is not dead.” He also compared Dalits with Muslims and said that Bollywood has been welcoming to the Muslim society. All the superstars today are from the Muslim community but the same cannot be said for the Dalits.

Illaiah goes on to explain the economic barrier working against the advancement of the community.  “Dalit youth, who are inclined to enter the Industry, lose out because they do not have the cultural capital such as lifestyle, mannerisms or peer groups, which would help them sustain in Bollywood”

But one can gradually feel the strong undercurrent of change coming up in dealing with the issue. From Prem Granth (where a socially ostracized Madhuri Dixit is not able to confront her love) to Ekalavya (which sees Sanjay Dutt as a Dalit police officer, who is not only proud of himself but also unapologetic about his origin) we have seen massive changes in the presentation of Dalits. Accepting the fact that change is happening in the society is probably an indication enough that Bollywood is waking up.

But parallel to this is a maintained silence that promotes the discrimination. The otherwise vocal Bollywood stars are not willing to share their views on this topic. “Does caste based discrimination happen at any level within the industry?” No comments. “Did you ever experience or hear people segregating others on basis of untouchability?” No comments” “ Why do you see a few dalits as support staff and none as a lead role of a movie making business?” No Comments. “ Why No comments? What are you afraid of?” No answer to that either.

Poster boy of Dalit Community Chirag Paswan made an entry in to Bollywood a few years ago. His entry had been touted as “Dalit boy’s entry into Bollywood” by many. His first film Miley Na Milye Hum tanked in Box office 2 years ago. But in the next two years despite political connections and financial ability to struggle, Chirag couldn’t bag any other project. What went wrong? The actor who in his initial days described being a “Bollywood Hero is “a childhood dream”, had apparently given away that dream and came back to help his father in politics.  While Lok Janshakti Party, which ideally fights for the cause of Dalits, is projecting Chirag as their poster boy, the Bollywood return refused to even pick up the call or reply to sms when he heard we were looking to quiz him on the topic of caste in Bollywood. But then Chirag’s silence itself speaks a lot.

Will it take Bollywood another hundred years to see a proportionate Dalit representation in the silver screens of Indian cinema like we see for the Muslims? We hope not. As Professor Kumar says, “Cinema is a part of our culture and to talk about the cultural anchorage in society, we need independent minds and independent personality.”

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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