Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: Karuna Kumar's Palasa 1978 is a sublime song of resistance
Palasa 1978 does not merely narrate the resistance of Dalits — the film sings it.
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.
Karuna Kumar’s Palasa 1978 (March 2020) is the story of the bloody nature of the Telugu state (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) in which caste-atrocities are rampant. It is a movie deeply rooted in the social reality of the Telugu state; this very element makes it a movie that captures the stories of Dalits across India.
What makes it a film worthy of attention is that it resurrects hope in education, yet, does not embrace a feeble mode of resistance. Violence in Palasa 1978 is creative as it leads to the protection of the socially underprivileged. It is a means of protection and survival, not a way of life. But this violence has sprouted from the blood of Dalits, murdered by the ill-will and hatred of the dominant castes.
Palasa 1978 is the story of two brothers, Mohan and Ranga Rao, belonging to a Scheduled Caste (Dalit) community from a village called Palasa. Mohan is a singer, Ranga a percussionist. Mohan participates in a singing competition and despite being the best, isn’t declared the winner. Instead, boys from the dominant caste are given the prize, chosen by a jury acting under the orders of the boys’ parents.
This is Mohan’s first experience with the knife’s edge of caste, but he doesn’t allow himself to feel hopeless. Instinctively, he grows rebellious after this incident. Mohan thrashes an upper caste boy who abuses his father and Ranga’s fiancée when they go to fetch water from the well. In these two scenes, Mohan Rao embodies the story of many Dalit boys living in villages across India, who know what it means to survive under the oppressive shadow of feudal lords.
This also ties in with why Palasa 1978 is a significant film in the legacy of Dalit resistance and cinema: Director Karuna Kumar realises that Dalits should be the protagonists of their own stories, and that it is unjust to make them reliant on upper caste revolutionaries [in these narratives]. This should have been a norm, but isn’t. In its absence, cinema becomes a propaganda machine — like mainstream Bollywood which shamelessly serves fair hero-heroines, stories that have nothing to do with people and their history, and forces the perceptions of oppressive castes onto the audience. Palasa 1978 counters this, offering a fresh and sensible stimulus to our minds.
Mohan, Ranga and others from their community work in the cashew factories of two upper-caste brothers, Chinna Shavukar and Pedda Dora Linga Murthy. Chinna and Pedda also own most of the land in the village. Pedda has a henchman, Bhairagi, who belongs to the Schedule Caste community. Chinna and Pedda symbolise Indian politics in a nutshell: Two brothers as two dominant parties, for whom some loyal Dalit Bahujan works, while the majority of Dalit-Bahujans — who are aspirational, have dreams and stand against injustice — are assumed to be their enemies. Palasa 1978, however, doesn’t merely decode this system. It also offers a democratic vision, and the zeal to achieve it. It replenishes the people’s power in a democratic regime, without being anarchist.
A sequence of events leads to Mohan having to kill Bhairagi. Mohan and Ranga surrender to the police, ready to submit to the law, but are bailed out by Chinna Shavukar, who harbours a rivalry with his brother Pedda. Mohan and Ranga start working for Chinna, helping him win elections and consolidating his power. But when Ranga expresses his ambition of representing his caste in the panchayat polls, Chinna becomes furious and abusive. Violence is wrought on Ranga and Mohan’s families.
A shattered Mohan seeks vengeance, but is persuaded otherwise by a Scheduled Caste police officer, Inspector Sebastian. Sebastian persuades Mohan that the path forward is not through violence, but through education. He promises to secure justice for Mohan’s family.
Twenty years pass, and Mohan Rao has travelled across India and realised the plight of his people (Dalits). He starts believing in the path of education, agitation and organisation for their liberation. One day, he receives a phone call from Sebastian; the policeman informs Mohan that he failed to bring Chinna Shavukar to book. Moreover, Chinna is now about to perpetrate a massive land grab in Mohan’s birthplace, Ambusoli village. Mohan returns, kills Chinna, and turns himself in at the police station. Mohan’s last words before he embarks on his mission are: “I will kill them to show that we will not keep quiet.”
That said, Palasa 1978 does not glorify violence. It sees the story of a people beyond the violence, showing the vision of education and justice. Palasa 1978 does not merely narrate the resistance of Dalits, but sings of it. It makes even those most unwilling to hear, listen to the song of resistance.
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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