Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: How Masaan confronts us with a truth caste norms would have us negate

In post-constitutional India, the meeting points of two castes or of people from two historically opposed castes, has become a vantage point for understanding the process of society’s democratisation.

Yogesh Maitreya July 26, 2020 09:20:32 IST
Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: How Masaan confronts us with a truth caste norms would have us negate

Historically, Indian cinema exploited the labour of Dalits in its making, whilst erasing or appropriating their stories. This was not an accidental practice. When their stories were told on screen, it would be by savarnas who also played their characters with patriarchal, sexist and casteist undertones.

The scenario has slowly changed, and the identity of Dalit characters in cinema — directed by a Dalit (and a few non-Dalit) filmmakers — has become explicit, transcending boundaries of caste and class. These filmmakers have helped shape visual storytelling that combines “justice with aesthetics”.

“Justice with aesthetics” was rarely present in cinema made by savarnas, or it was seldom honest. Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers have filled this gap, while creating a new wave of cinema that is more appealing to a Dalit-Bahujan audience.

In this series, we examine 10 Indian films that count not only among the finest cinema the country has produced, but are also intertwined with justice, politics, and aesthetic.

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Masaan (2015) neither begins nor ends the way the audience might think it should, or could.

If it is seen as a fine film because it has depicted the life of a Dalit person in an optimistic light, then its real essence has been missed. Because Masaan is as much a film about Brahmins as it is about Dalits. What makes it among the most significant films produced in India over the last decade is its figurative yet realistic fusion of two subjectivities — two lives historically opposite to each other — in its climax.

In fact, the story of Masaan begins with its climax — a metaphor for post-constitutional India. The brilliance of director Neeraj Ghaywan lies in inscribing this social code into cinematic description, a feat very few films made after 1949 in India have managed.

In post-constitutional India, accessibility to one to another — especially that of Dalits to Brahmins — in public spaces like colleges, universities and government offices has rapidly increased.

This accessibility broke many previously stringent social restrictions, including those of ‘touch’ and ‘sight’, and gradually moving towards the development of ‘emotion’ and ‘feelings’. Of course, this has not been enough to make society completely democratic and devoid of caste-based discrimination. However, these minuscule changes and their conversion into cinematic visuals have the potential to impact our gaze sensitively in social, public and cultural life. It is in this sense that Masaan is mandatory cinema to watch and interpret, for at least next few generations.

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Masaan begins with a dark frame, and a moan signifying sexual gratification. Devi Pathak (a Brahmin) is watching porn in complete silence; her eyes reflect her arousal. It is a normal, private moment, but one that is made possible in Devi’s case only in the wake of the proliferation of internet access. In the traditionally Brahminical and orthodox location of Varanasi, technology helps bring a small measure of liberation to a Brahmin woman, otherwise socially and sexually restricted by her caste. The relationship between technology and the perishing of caste and gender norms is a social progression that has rarely been the subtext of Indian films, and Masaan is an exception.

In another sequence, Devi’s boyfriend Piyush Agarwal (a member of the Bania caste) books a room in a dingy hotel so they can have sex. In the midst of (again) a moment of normalcy between a couple, they are “raided” by the police and held accountable for “sex trafficking”. If the charge seems senseless, that is because it is; the police here stands for a (Brahminical) state that reaches even those private spaces and moments of individuals which their parents — as protectors of caste — cannot reach anymore.

Indian cinema and the Dalit identity How Masaan confronts us with a truth caste norms would have us negate

Still from Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan

A wailing Piyush, begging the police not to contact his parents, tries to protect the caste status quo: He runs into the bathroom and there dies by suicide. Devi, however, decides to live, facing the “stigma” of “being caught in an obscene act”. Meanwhile, the police inspector who “caught” Devi and Piyush blackmails her father for money, threatening to leak a video recording of his daughter’s tryst. For exercising her individual right of sexuality, a Brahmin girl is held “culpable” by the police (state), which is simply the Brahminical apparatus of maintaining caste rules in a new form. Devki’s moment of liberation is turned into an act of caste crime.

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Masaan then leaps into another world, with the story of Deepak (who belongs to the Dom/Dalit caste). He studies Civil Engineering and helps his father part-time to cremate the mortal remains of the dead at the Varanasi ghats. He is focused on his education and also very conscious of who he is.

Through friends and college networks (a post-constitutional development), he meets Shaalu Gupta (a member of the Bania caste). Both show indications of liking each other. For Deepak, a Dalit who has been historically kept segregated from Shaalu’s caste groups, Facebook offers a way of keeping her close. They go out on a date; later, they kiss — a liberation of a kind, given the history of their caste relations.

One day, Shaalu leaves for a religious trip with her family; she ‘returns’ dead. Deepak is asleep and is woken by his brother who tells him they have a lot of bodies to cremate. Among them is Shaalu’s, which Deepak identifies by the ring on her finger. He is devastated, silent, confused, and suffering.

The accident as a negative deus ex machina works in favour of caste norms, according to which, Shaalu and Deepak cannot be married or be together — norms of which he is conscious. Yet, as a man in love and confident about his ability to chart a promising future, he stands for his love when Shaalu is alive. The tragedy leaves him shaken; his pain seems to have no end.

Nevertheless, Deepak moves on. What triggers his acceptance of the truth is his background, the caste into which he is born, and the work that has been assigned to members of his community for ages in Varanasi. Every day, he is close to death; Shaalu’s presence in his life is like that of flowers in a barren land, it rejuvenates him.

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Devi also moves on. She gets a job with the Indian Railways. Deepak also joins the Railways as an engineer — the first graduate in the family, and perhaps the first to be employed outside his caste occupation. Devi and Deepak do not know each other. They undergo their individual suffering while their lives slowly regain a measure of “normalcy”.  They meet at the riverside as strangers; Devi is crying, Deepak offers her water. They exchange a word or two. A boat comes along and the boatman offers them a ride. They take it, and visit the sangam (confluence) of rivers.

In post-constitutional India, the meeting points of two castes or of people from two historically opposed castes, has become a vantage point for understanding the process of society’s democratisation, as well as our individual imaginations of each other. Pain in a caste society visits people differently as per the position of their caste. Yet, we all feel pain. Feeling is what we share in common. But caste makes us negate this normalcy. To resurrect this normalcy, one has to break caste norms. For taking us into this journey of resurrecting normalcy, Masaan is a must-watch. Neeraj Ghaywan’s film destroys something in us, but also creates a sense that is new to our sensibilities.

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Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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