Cover

Will a Kaala rise in Bollywood?

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on December 28, 2019 Published on December 26, 2019

Black mark!: Rajinikanth-starrer Kaala’s imagery, colour-coding, and the protagonist’s pride in his Dravidian identity were all statements in themselves   -  K MURALI KUMAR

Sure, you had an Article 15, but Hindi cinema is yet to produce a hero who is of, by and for the underclass

Pa Ranjith changed things — it’s what he does. Before the 2018 film Kaala, the second collaboration between Ranjith and Rajinikanth, entertainment and larger societal relevance seemed too far apart to reconcile in a country such as India. It’s difficult to think of a mainstream Indian film that did more for social justice without once compromising on storytelling momentum. The imagery, the colour-coding and the ‘Kaala’-adjacent puns (kaala means black, and several lines in the film are about the protagonist’s pride in his Dravidian identity) were all statements in themselves.

Not surprisingly, Indian cinema had a tough act to follow when it came to negotiating identity in 2019.

And did it deliver? The answer, in another turbulent year for India, is largely yes. Caste-based violence and discrimination were central to at least three mainstream films — Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya (see box) and Vetrimaaran’s Asuran (Tamil).

Of these, Article 15 was the most critically and commercially successful film, earning director Sinha and writer Gaurav Solanki well-deserved plaudits. The film is about a rookie police officer, Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana), who fights his irrevocably casteist colleagues to get justice for two Dalit girls who were raped and murdered by upper-caste men. The film was based on a similar case in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, as well as several other caste-related atrocities — and real-life political leaders. It places its faith squarely in the Indian Constitution. At the stroke of intermission, which is where the Bollywood hero typically has his big flex moment, we see Ranjan printing out the titular Article 15 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, religion, gender and so on. “We don’t need a hero, we need people who don’t wait for the hero to turn up” is a popular line in the film, signalling its push for systemic change rather than individual outliers.

This is a valid critique. A reason why films such as Kaala (and, to a lesser degree, Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz) work as well as they do is because the hero is not removed from the material realities of those he fights for. Essentially, the hero becomes a metonym for their identity, for everything that they take pride in. Vetrimaaran’s Asuran, starring Dhanush, is a great example of this. Here’s a Dalit hero who doesn’t beg and plead for justice — he extracts bloody vengeance at sickle-point.

Skewed history: Ayushmann Khurrana’s rookie policeman Ayan Ranjan and the movie Article 15 were panned for their ‘Brahmin saviour complex’

 

Article 15, however, makes it clear who the screenplay is speaking to — within the first half hour, Ranjan uses two descriptors for Laalgaon, the fictional Uttar Pradesh village the film is set in. The descriptors are “the wild West” and “like 80s’ Bollywood”, alluding to the fact that someone as privileged as the foreign-educated officer, in all likelihood, has only ever seen the dismal material realities of India through a cinematic lens. In various interviews, the makers of the film have clarified that the film spoke primarily to the well-meaning, urban-dwelling (but generally clueless) liberal who has no real idea about the caste system, thanks to their privileged upbringing. It’s almost as though it taught rank newcomers the basics of a language, and hoped that some of them would be moved enough to compose original poetry, eventually. It may not be the ideal project, social justice-wise, but it’s an admirable one nevertheless.

This question around what writers and directors set out to achieve, and whom their works speak to, becomes even more important when you consider films such as Kesari, the smallest of Akshay Kumar’s four blockbuster successes in 2019. When you see Kesari propagating a venomous, Islamophobic ideology through hackneyed stereotypes and downright malicious dialogues, it becomes difficult to criticise Article 15 for not doing enough.

This Anurag Singh-directed war drama is based on the Battle of Sargarhi (1897), one of the better-known ‘last stands’ in military history wherein 21 soldiers of the British Army’s 36th Sikhs infantry regiment fought valiantly against nearly 1,500 Orakzai tribesmen (the village Sargarhi is a part of Pakistan’s Pashtun-dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province today).

Divided agendas: While ostensibly valorising the martial might of Sikhs, the film Kesari clearly had a secondary agenda — the demonisation of Muslims

 

Kesari is a chest-thumping tale of Sikh valour. Kumar (who plays the regiment’s heroic commanding officer, Havaldar Ishar Singh) turns in a typically stunt-heavy performance.

A number of scenes play into the “martial race” stereotypes about Sikhs, emphasising their nobility (when Ishar Singh punishes his men by denying them food, he goes hungry, too), military prowess (in a key scene, he invents a makeshift sniper rifle on the move), and secular credentials (he builds a mosque for the nearby Pathan village, even convincing his initially reluctant men to join in).

However, Kesari also has a clearly visible secondary agenda — the demonisation of Muslims, the characterisation of Islam as a monolithic group comprised exclusively of barbaric, murderous men who enslave women and are obsessed with religious war. How else would the makers conjure up visceral hatred between the Afghans and the Sikhs circa 1897, when both groups were being colonised by the British? And so we have gratuitous scenes of the Afghan tribesmen executing a woman who has fled her husband (she was forcibly married to a much older man), even as a mullah reads Quran verses. A cross-dressing, lipstick-and-nail-polish-donning Afghan shoots Sikh soldiers on the sly, generally from afar and behind — his expressions and how the other characters react to him make the director’s intentions clear (we are supposed to see this fabulous sniper as weak, effeminate, cowardly and an all-round weirdo).

In the climax, Ishar Singh is about to stab yet another Afghan soldier through the heart when he stops himself. “Tu toh bachcha hai (You’re just a kid)!” he says, seeing his baby-faced adversary’s distinct lack of chin stubble. Minutes later, as Ishar is finally overpowered by a hundred-plus Afghans, the killing blow is dealt by this same teenager, who shoots Ishar a dirty look even as he’s stabbing him through the heart. The dog whistle is an obvious one: Muslims use teenage boys for their dirty jihad, and we should look the other way when the Indian government detains (or tortures, or kills) Muslim boys in Kashmir.

In yet another scene with mala fide intentions, one of the Orakzai leaders asks Mullah Saidullah (Rakesh Chaturvedi), the film’s main villain, why he brings the Quran into every conversation about the Sikhs. Saidullah replies, “You use your weapons, I’ll use mine.” Basically, this scene tells the audience that Islam is a religion weaponising theology.

It’s encouraging that Bollywood finally has an Article 15 — and that one of these days we might just get a North Indian Kaala. But we also need to weed out malicious films such as Kesari, as opposed to, say, giving them ₹207 crore in box office collections. Otherwise, all of our movies will start resembling Kumar’s interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi — toothless, anodyne, and unintentionally hilarious.

 

When caste is the story

Identities intersect in endlessly fascinating ways in the country, reconfiguring the equations of inequity and injustice. It’s a rare Indian film that understands this phenomenon well and adjusts its screenplay accordingly. Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya is one such film.

Set in Madhya Pradesh’s infamous Chambal Valley in the 1970s, Sonchiriya follows a group of dacoits led by Man Singh “Dadda” (Manoj Bajpayee). After Dadda dies during a raid led by Inspector Virender Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana), the rest of the gang is split along two factions, led by Lakhna Singh (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Vakeel Singh (Ranvir Shorey), respectively. Lakhna thinks that the gang should help Indumati Tomar (Bhumi Pednekar), a young woman who has turned up with a small child, Khushi, requesting their help. Indumati had murdered her father-in-law after he attempted to rape Khushi. Her in-laws are now in hot pursuit of her.

And here are the identity equations that make all of this complicated — but also fascinating from a narrative viewpoint, besides accurately depicting the way India functions. The dacoits are all Thakurs, upper-caste men who have taken up the gun in part because they resent the fact that Gujjars such as Virender have become something like their equals in the caste hierarchy. Virender, in turn, feels that his campaign to kill off Man Singh’s gang is a duty not to the law but to his jaat-bhais (caste brethren/clan members).

Indumati is a Tomar, another dominant Jat clan in Madhya Pradesh. But the dacoits — some of whom are, as Indumati points out, her jaat-bhais — refuse to help her because she is a woman. Indeed, as Indumati says later, “woman” is in many ways the lowest jaat of them all.

Finally, Virender’s two deputies are Thakurs, who are unhappy about serving a Gujjar against their own jaat-bhais — this scenario ends tragically for Virender when one of his deputies eventually murders him, unable to bear the taunts of a Gujjar.

Some urban viewers obviously found all of this a little confusing (which was reflected in Sonchiriya’s dismal box office performance in big cities). But most critics found it to be a well-written and well-researched story that engaged with caste and identity in the Hindi heartland. 

Published on December 26, 2019
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor