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Madam Chief Minister: Not Just About Misrepresentation Alone, It Is About Caste Class Privileges

Through continuous misrepresentation in media and Bollywood, Dalits are constantly reminded and pushed into the pits of Caste apartheid

Untouchable, also called Dalit, officially Scheduled Caste, formerly Harijan, in traditional Indian society, the former name for any member of a wide range of low-caste Hindu groups and any person  outside the caste system. The use of the term and the social disabilities associated with it were  declared illegal in the constitutions adopted by the Constituent Assembly of India in 1949 and of Pakistan in 1953. Mahatma Gandhi called untouchables Harijans (“Children of the God Hari  Vishnu,” or simply “Children of God”) and long worked for their emancipation. However, this name is now considered condescending and offensive. The term Dalit later came to be used, especially by  politically active members, though that too occasionally has negative connotations. The  official designation Scheduled caste is the most common term now used in India.” 

Any story is as important as rightful representation of the characters it’s trying to portray.  

What’s in the name? For people and communities with no caste, class and gender privilege. Everything! 

When does a person become “untouchable”? When a person calls and treats another person as one.

Before we get into why Madam Chief Minister's poster is offensive, I’d like to begin with a few anecdotal points for the reader to consider:

  • Dalit - a self-chosen word by the community also referred to as Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe in the Indian Constitution (the official nomenclature) continues to be addressed as Harijans,  Untouchables or called slurs such as Bhangi, Chamar, Chuda. Why would you call another fellow human “untouchable”?  
  • Why is a person calling a fellow human being “untouchable”, rewarded but the person who’s being called  untouchable not apologised to? 
  • Did the production company consult any actor, director, artist from the Dalit community or hired  inclusivity and diversity practitioners to seek advice on the script and creatives?
  • If caste discrimination is absent as some people say, why is the representation of Dalits in occupations that do not actively implement affirmative action missing? 
  • When caste privileged people say there is no caste discrimination, are they saying they treat every fellow individual equally, fairly with dignity, compassion and humanity?  
  • How many Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Women, Queer and Trans folks must be murdered and lynched, how long will it take for the upper castes in this country to recognise their caste-class privileges and do something about it? How long will upper castes continue to gaslight and act as victims?

In recent past, there has been a lot of content being produced as films, web series, books, and social media itself has played a key role in raising awareness around struggles of Dalits and Dalit communities in India. There is, however, a stark difference in which mainstream Bollywood portrays and represents people from marginalised communities especially Dalits, women, queer and trans people but especially Dalit women and how directors from marginalised communities such as Pa Ranjith, Nagraj Manjule and Neeraj Ghaywan self-represent. For Dalits, the threat to survival lies in the misrepresentation  of the community that has a deep-rooted history of ostracisation.  

Let us now consider the film poster of Madam Chief Minister directed by Subhash Kapoor and produced by T-Series with Richa Chaddha in the lead role, playing Mayawati. The gross depiction of Mayawati in the poster is laughably untrue, biased and reeking of stereotypes towards the Dalit community. When was the last time we saw Mayawati holding a broom? When was the last time we saw her bruised, weak, dressed in shabby clothes? Was this the only way to show her as - a powerful yet a Dalit woman? Is it important to “show” her as “Dalit”? Doesn’t the entire country already know about her caste identity and perhaps why the film is being made? Yet again, thank you for giving out the message that it does not matter if we are brilliant, hardworking and achievers, the mainstream caste privileged society will always see us as “Dalits”.

Dalit community does not require constant reminders, as people bearing the first-hand brunt of caste system, we are acutely aware of society’s biases against us. It is deeply upsetting when we are constantly told by the media how we “look”, what we eat, how we dress, where we live and above all we will never be viewed as humans first but as vote banks, “militants”, troublemakers and so on and so forth.

For a Dalit queer woman like myself and peers, who have dreams and aspirations, but we cannot perhaps fulfil them, no matter how talented and wise we are. We will have to constantly prove our “merit”, justify our space and existence in society. While caste privileged folks jump on the bandwagon to question our merit but rarely interrogate mediocrity of their own folks and peers.

The closeted casteism today (when it is fashionable to perform political correctness) has led to constant misrepresentation, typecasting of Dalits and people from minorities, after all they have battled and achieved. It is no surprise that we are made to negotiate and manoeuvre through your caste and gender identities to have successful and desired careers and relationships while caste privileged and entitled folks can dedicatedly work towards their careers, talents and aspirations without any moral or social obligations. They feed off their cultural, caste-class networks and privileged circles, eat off the caste system to benefit their occupations, lives, relationships and aspirations but hardly ever want to be accountable towards society. It is then correct to assume that caste and class privileged folks do not want to do the bare minimum work. To educate themselves about the lives and precarity of fellow citizens, to listen and engage with folks that do not enjoy class, caste and gender privileges. Is it unfair to expect generosity, compassion from fellow citizens when we live in the same society under a common court of law?

India is built on the labour of Dalits and other marginalised communities. The country time and again has observed Dalits at the forefront of building socio-economic, political and cultural institutions through their  hard labour, marking their dissent and sadly, doing the physical and sexual labour that a person with caste and class privileges doesn't wish to do. We are yet to receive our due, apologies and compensation for the  psychological traumas, physical and sexual violence and discrimination we have endured intergenerationally for centuries. Through continuous misrepresentation in media and Bollywood, Dalits are constantly reminded and pushed into the pits of caste apartheid where some of us have struggled all  our lives throughout generations, to break away from it.  

It is due to political engagements and upheaval around CAA-NRC Protests, Shaheen Bagh, Farmer’s Protests, the country is finally and slowly waking up to Ambedkar. Constant evocation of the constitution in rallies, protests, universities and colleges, at hospitals have made people realise the importance of constitution and civic liberties. I cannot seem to fathom how people in India are still willing to engage and work on themselves when it comes to gender, LGBTQIA+ issues but still act oblivious and unwilling to talk  about caste and religion and further, invisibilising caste-based discrimination and violence in the country. 

Bollywood too has realised the importance of caste to capitalise and economise and that’s where it ends. Directors and actors who portray characters from Dalit and other marginalised backgrounds do not  intimately interact or have Dalit people as part of their lives other than to clean their muck and satisfy their systemic oppressive mentality. How many actors actively work on themselves to understand the  gravity of the lives of “characters”, let alone humanise the marginalised people’s backgrounds they are representing? Directors and production companies again superficially pick on issues to make film but fail  to do the inclusivity and intersectionality work i.e., organising consultations on the scripts with experts, hiring people from Dalit and other marginalised backgrounds as assistants, actors, script writers, casting  directors, putting no discriminatory guidelines and so on. There is no dearth of work that can be done to make the filmmaking process inclusive if one wishes to. To me however, this is basic, to learn and be civil, cordial  and treat another person with dignity, having to explain this seems almost childish.

As an actor and artist, I am frustrated and nerve wrenchingly aware that above all, I will have to keep doing the feminist, intersectionality and inclusivity work for the caste privileges I lack in this country.  For some of us there is no escape or liberty of being “apolitical” because it impacts everything we have in  our lives, work and relationships. For caste-class privileged folks however, there are enough people from  Dalit and other minorities that are brilliant writers, artists, actors, directors and activists who can enrich  the content if one looks around, ask, hire and pay them. In spite of that, it doesn’t take away the  inhumanity for having us explain to the privileged folks how they are tormenting and exploiting us, our  minds and bodies. Dalits are still doing the dirty work of emotional labour, orienting the society about their precarious and difficult lives, having to teach intersectionality is also problematic. It is here we seek accountability from Bollywood because it is the public money on which it thrives. Additionally,  celebrities and moneyed people are not above the law. They live in the society and therefore, must show  some form of socio-political commitment towards those whose stories they wish to tell. As Somnath Waghmare, a filmmaker, says, “no one is doing a charity by making films on Dalit community.” When will Bollywood rise above their survivor complex to see us as equal citizens and above all humans?  

Look at Hollywood all you want for validation but then also learn about the diversity policies, inclusive hiring practices, affirmative action for African American actors. The only thing Bollywood aspires towards  is to get a chip on their shoulder at Oscars but does zilch to improve overall ethics, work environment, image and credibility of their profession. For a Dalit queer woman like myself and peers, we will  have to constantly prove our “merit”, justify our space and existence in society. When you see your people being misrepresented, typecast after all they have battled and achieved, you know you will always  have to negotiate and manoeuvre through your caste and gender identity to have careers and relationships you desire while people with caste privileged and entitlements can dedicatedly work towards their  careers, talents and aspirations. Then to me, it seems that people with caste and class privileges do not wish to do even the bare minimum work. To educate themselves about the lives and precarity of fellow citizens that have less or no class, caste and gender privileges. Is it unfair to ask for generosity, compassion from fellow citizens when we live in the same society under a common court of law?

My question therefore is, when are we going to make anti-Caste discourse an important factor to shape and implement serious policy guidelines in Bollywood? How long do the marginalised have to wait for caste  class privileged networks, workspaces, media and Bollywood to actively seek solutions, make spaces for them to perhaps have their due? The issue therefore is not just about representation but about caste-class privileges which entitled folks do not wish to share with the rest of us. Mainstream Bollywood is not a property of an individual or clout, it is as much a space for each individual as it is for established directors,  actors and producers.  

When will Bollywood begin to educate themselves about the disparities in this country, especially in case of Dalit community that some of us live as secondary citizens with substandard, rough and insecure lives? Because our identities are constantly fetishised and appropriated, why are we still debating whether caste discrimination and caste-based violence exist or not? This affirms that people with caste-class privilege do  not wish to address the issue and work with the community as equals but only see them as dirty, filthy  people with no agency, creativity or talent.  

The film poster is far from the reality of the Dalit woman they have tried to base the film on. Mayawati has not only claimed her space as a Dalit woman in a state like Uttar Pradesh but has repeatedly made history with her political career in a country only rewarding of high powered, masculine, testosterone engineered, hetero-patriarchal and Brahmanical scholarship and politics.  

What can Bollywood do? 

It is imperative to begin accepting and acknowledging anti caste discourse and do the work it takes to uplift the society through inclusive and intersectional filmmaking process. Production companies need to  regularly organise consultations with the community they chose to represent and make films on, so us all don’t feel repeatedly shocked and depressed, pulled into pits some of us have managed to leave.  

Simultaneously, when a film is met with objections by a community, it doesn't mean the industry stops doing its work. It must therefore, find ways to enrich the content, take constructive criticism and improve  their perspectives and politics. It is important that any film or filmmaking process does not enforce  stereotypes and further marginalise people and make mockery of their lives and resistance.

About last year, as the founder of Dalit Feminism Archive, I initiated intersectionality and inclusivity guidelines for D For Drama. Following are some immediate steps that must be taken to bring better inclusivity, intersectionality within the filmmaking process.  

  1. Hire inclusivity and diversity practitioners to advise you before you go on to represent a  community in a disenchanted way by further reinforcing the stereotypes. 
  2. Organise regular consultations with actors, directors, activists and artists from the community (there are quite a few you will find if you look around) to inform the content. 
  3. Actively hire and support people from marginalised communities in the filmmaking process and production companies.
  4. Draft and implement non-discrimination, no tolerance policy against discrimination (verbal,  nonverbal and systemic) on the basis of caste, religion and gender, and policy against sexual harassment at workplace.  
About the author

Jyotsna Siddharth is an actor, activist, artist and writer. Jyotsna is a co-founder of Sive (2017), founder of Project Anti Caste Love (2018), Dalit Feminism Archive (2019) has Masters in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and Social Anthropology from School of Oriental and African Studies, London and is a Chevening Scholar (2014 -15)



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