Article Hindi

Dalit characters who shone in Hindi cinema: Babasaheb Ambedkar birth anniversary special


On the 127th birth anniversary of dalit icon Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, we take a look at some popular films that shed light on the evils of caste discrimination in Indian society.

Mayur Lookhar

A large section of India’s poor hails from the Dalit community. Once derided as ‘untouchables’, the Dalits have had to struggle long and hard for basic human rights. Now and then, keeping its obsession with fair skin aside, Hindi cinema has made some fascinating trysts with this struggle. On the 127th birth anniversary of Dalit icon Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, we take a look at some popular films that shed light on the evils of caste discrimination in Indian society.

1. Achhut Kanya (1936)

This film was made at a time when caste discrimination was widely prevalent. Making a film on a young Brahmin man falling in love with an ‘untouchable’ woman was to defy society itself. But Bombay Talkies boss Himanshu Rai wasn’t one to be weighed down by such worries.

Devika Rani, Himanshu Rai’s wife and one of the leading stars of the 1930s, played Ashok Kumar’s lover. Rai roped in German filmmaker Franz Osten to direct this romantic tale, which remains a classic of Hindi cinema.

2. Sujata (1959)

The Brahmin-Dalit love story was reprised by Bimal Roy in his classic Sujata. Sunil Dutt and Nutan played the protagonists. The film was based on a touching short story by Bengali writer Subodh Ghosh. Sujata was accepted both by audiences and critics, sweeping the Filmfare awards, with Nutan and Bimal Roy bagging the Best Actress and Best Director award, respectively, in 1959.

3. Ankur (1974)

Moving away from love stories, Shyam Benegal’s Ankur depicted oppression through the lens of caste relationships in the Indian village. The heroine of the tale was Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi), a married Dalit woman who is abused by her landlord, Surya (Anant Nag). The film was a stark portrayal of the atrocities of the upper class on women in the feudal system of India’s villages.

4. Sadgati (1981)

A classic from the Satyajit Ray stable, Sadgati highlighted the exploitation of a Dalit labourer, Dukhi (Om Puri), by a Brahmin landlord (Mohan Agashe). The film won the director a special award at the National Awards in 1982.

5. Bandit Queen (1994)

Shekhar Kapur’s film created controversy both before and after it was released. Bandit Queen was the tale of the dacoit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi, who took up arms to avenge her gang rape at the hands of upper-caste men. The film won the Filmfare award for Best Feature Film in Hindi (1994). Seema Biswas chipped in with a career-defining role as Phoolan Devi.

6. Lagaan (2001)

Lagaan became the toast of the nation when it earned an Oscar nomination. While Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) was the film’s heart and soul, one character, the polio-stricken Kachra (Aditya Lakhia), played a significant role as the unsung performer of the final game. Not only does he pick up crucial wickets, but he also ensures that Bhuvan is able to deliver a fairy-tale ending to the match, and the film.

7. Banaras: A Mystic Love Story (2006)

There wasn’t much to the plot, but this was another love story marred by caste. As opposed to classics like Achhut Kanya or Sujata, Banaras had a Dalit youth Soham (Ashmit Patel) falling in love with an upper-caste Banarasi woman Shwetambari (Urmila Matondkar). Director Pankaj Parashar had ambitious ideas, but, perhaps, Banaras wasn’t in tune with them. Nor did Urmila Matondkar do as good a job as Nutan or Devika Rani.

8. Aarakshan (2011)

Box-office success had eluded Saif Ali Khan for a long time when he stepped into uncharted territory by playing a Dalit in Prakash Jha’s controversial film about the politics around the sensitive issue of reservations in educational institutions. Regardless of its subject, the casting of Saif, a nawab by birth and upbringing, in the role of a Dalit earned a lot of flak. Sadly, the film did not justify the casting decision.

9. Manjhi: The Mountain Man (2015)

With this film, Nawazuddin Siddiqui proved that Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) was no flash in the pan. Manjhi: The Mountain Man celebrates the superhuman effort of lowly villager Dasrath Manjhi, who single-handedly carved a 360 foot-long path through a hill armed with just a hammer and a chisel.

The marathon effort took him 22 years, but he never gave up. Not a commercial film, Manjhi earned critical acclaim and enhanced Siddiqui’s reputation as an actor.

10. Masaan (2015)

Dalit filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan was a sign of the new wave in Hindi cinema that has brought a new understanding of Indian society to cine-goers.

A sensitive, passionate tale about love across the class-caste divide in some of the more obscure parts of the country, it caught the attention of critics and audiences alike. With a stellar cast of Vicky Kaushal, Richa Chadda and the National Award-winner Sanjai Mishra, the film was screened in the Un Certain Regards category of the Cannes Film Festival to great applause.