Dalits in films: The voice of the nobodies

Many recent independent films have addressed the state of the Dalit community without pulling punches. It is time to ensure that these travel beyond the festival circuit and spread the truth

Dalits in films: The voice of the nobodies

Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale

Saibal Chatterjee

Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 was a breakthrough. It brought the harsh reality of caste oppression to the Hindi movie mainstream. But away from the glare of the spotlight reserved for commercial Hindi cinema, several recent independent films made in languages other than Hindi have tackled Dalit issues head-on. Four such titles were showcased at the 7th Aurangabad International Film Festival (AIFF) in early February.

Dalit stories on the big screen are expressly aimed at discomfiting the complacent. They do succeed in achieving their goal. Consider Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Tamil writer Poomani’s reaction to Vetri Maaran’s adaptation of his novel Vekkai. The litterateur has taken exception to the political spin that the film, Asuran, has given the story of two warring families.

Kastoori

Inherent in this debate is the irrefutable fact of the growing Dalit assertion — in society, in politics and in cinema — and of the resultant unease that the trend is causing. The strength of Asuran, starring Dhanush, stems mainly from its Dalit protagonist’s fight against an upper-caste landowner. It is essentially a tale of revenge, but it is placed in the context of the atrocities that the socially marginalised are subjected to.

Contemporary Tamil cinema has seen several other films dealing with the way caste dynamics plays out, notably Pa. Ranjith’s Kabali and Pariyerum Perumal, directed by Mari Selvaraj, but none of them has gone where Leena Manimekalai’s unflinching Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale has gone.

Maadathy is a disquieting film set among the dispossessed Puthirai Vannar people, who are regarded as being at the lowest rung of the Dalit hierarchy. Their ostracism is so extreme that they stay out of sight. People do not set eyes on them, let alone touch them. They are “unseeable”.

Kaajro (Bitter Tree), a Konkani film shot in a single take, portrays a low-caste drummer, whose ailing wife dies on Dasehra day.

Maadathy, which is independent filmmaker and poet Manimekalai’s second feature after Sengadal (The Red Sea, 2011), tells the story of how a free-spirited, pubescent Puthirai Vannar girl attains the status of a deity for her people after undergoing a cycle of repression and exploitation that culminates in a brutal gangrape.

The most striking aspect of Maadathy is its authenticity and uncompromising tone. “I did a workshop with members of the community and cast them in the film,” says Manimekalai. Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale won a clutch of awards at the 7th AIFF, including for Best Film, Best Actress (Ajmina Kassim) and Best Cinematography.

Maadathy is, of course, markedly different from star-powered films such as Kabali and Asuran. It eschews commercial cinema aesthetics and opts for a pace and design that flow organically from the milieu it is set in instead of being guided by deliberate plot devices aimed at heightening dramatic impact.

Pretty much the same sort of unadorned, candid storytelling methods powers the other critically acclaimed Dalit-themed films that were screened in AIFF — Vinod Kamble’s Kastoori (Hindi/Marathi), Nitin Bhaskar’s Kaajro (Konkani) and Dr Biju’s Veyilmarangal— Trees Under the Sun (Malayalam).

These films are doing the rounds of festivals and garnering applause for putting rarely heard stories out there for the world to mull over. All three of the aforementioned films were screened in the Competition section of the 7th AIFF to unstinted applause. All of these deserve to be seen more widely beyond the festival circuit.

Kastoori zeroes in on a rural schoolboy who cleans toilets and performs post-mortems. Faced with the scorn of his classmates, he desperately wishes to rid himself of the stench of death and dirt that clings to his clothes. He looks for a vial of fragrance derived from kastoori (musk) that, he believes, will serve the purpose.

Says the self-taught Kamble: “I shot Kastoori on real locations in my own village. Many of the places where the story unfolds are linked directly to my life.”

Kastoori is reminiscent of Nagraj Manjule’s 2013 film Fandry although it is not packed with as much rage. It is a quietly assertive piece of cinematic work that articulates the filmmaker’s misgivings without abandoning a spirit of self-assertion.

Kaajro (Bitter Tree), a Konkani film shot in a single take, portrays a low-caste drummer, whose ailing wife dies on Dasehra day. He is refused the dignity of burying the dead woman within the boundaries of the village. He is ordered to leave the village and find her a resting place under a ‘bitter tree’ in the forest.

In Veyilmarangal, a Dalit family — a man, his wife, and their son — are displaced from their island home in Kerala by flashfloods and forced to travel to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh in search of a new life. Their struggles do not cease. If anything, matters turn worse for the family in an alien landscape where they have nothing to call their own.

These urgent tales of the nobodies who languish on the fringes of society give a voice to the voiceless. Though rooted in specific cultures, the resonance of these films is universal.

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