Bollywood has always been fertile ground for escapism, consistently failing to provide insight into Indian society. Whether through the imposition of conventional standards of beauty or the uncritical reflection of a class society, it offers a beautiful escape from the harsh realities on the ground. Cinemas showed the romanticism of breaking down class barriers, but still failed to portray caste, which was often a tricky subject to deal with on a 70mm screen by an industry dominated by the upper class and caste.
Honor killings, caste brutality, caste-based violence have still not found a place in mainstream Hindi cinema, despite mature treatments in films like Jhund and Vaikunth which acknowledge caste struggles and distinguish between caste and class.
“Jabb bolti nahi hai, toh kaise pata ki Brahman ki bachhi hai?
“Itni gori jo hai… Brahman hi hogi.”
No, these are not dialogues that came out of nowhere for the purposes of this article. Actors are revered by heroes and Bollywood is an integral part of our culture. Media that reaches most households across the country are often expected to be no problem. Instead, he blatantly endorses prejudice. The proof? The lines above are taken from Bajrangi Bhaijaanone of the highest-grossing films of 2015. Not only do they solidify ideas of unrealistic beauty, but they also uncritically tie them to caste, even as they hold up a mirror to existing social realities.
Similar to casual sexism, the normalization of caste jokes in Bollywood has made casual casteism the new norm. A scripted punchline to the detriment of someone’s social identity is rampant in the industry. What this glamorous world lacks is that each film’s audience spans multiple segments of society, and many of its viewers don’t have the critical resources or the privilege to unpack the layers of meaning. First, there is the percolation of cultural hegemony, and second, there is the proliferation of it. The result is, more often than ever, that Dalits are deprived of their basic rights to a decent life. Bollywood has described ideas about housing problems for Dalits as a passing joke, for example, which not only trivializes the narrative but also reinforces the stigma of not allowing a Dalit to stay on the same ground as a caste. Hindu in India. Naveen Bharti’s Harvard study using 2011 census data of 800 people shed light on the segregation practiced among people under the banner of development and urbanization. The study was conducted in Kolkata and it was found that there are several settlements in the metropolitan city where only upper caste Bengali Hindus live and no Dalits are allowed. Bollywood’s supposedly innocuous punch lines and scripts entice a large portion of the population into otherness on the grounds that they are inferior.
On the contrary, OTT platforms have recently produced content that takes sensitive topics into consideration and presents them to the public with a nuanced view of the reality of stratification in our society. One such series was Unpaused: Naya Safar, where the final segment, Vaikunth, revolved around a crematorium worker. Crematorium workers in India invariably belong to the lower castes. Covid-19 has been one of the most difficult times for these unsung and unrecognized workers. It was one of the few feature films to appropriately highlight the social ostracism, police brutality, and even housing issues they face. Even if things were watered down on screen, the film asked the right questions: will these communities ever break out of their cycle of generational occupation? When will they be housed like all of us? When will we finally consider them “clean” enough to be inclusive? But the paradox is that OTT platforms still fall short of Bollywood’s reach. When the whole world was “working from home” and doctors and police were hailed as frontline warriors, the drowsy face of crematorium worker Avnish, who works day and night, is unworthy of praise. During the second wave of Covid-19, the condition of crematorium workers worsened when even family members refused to touch the corpses of their near and dear ones, and the onus fell on those people to cremate them. , sometimes even for free. The physical and mental condition of crematorium workers is threatened at every step of the process. There is the threat of communicable diseases such as HIV, typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis, as well as Covid. The risk of infection and the pain of long working hours cause mental depression. The reality is harsh and heartbreaking; there are no statistics on how many of these workers died during the second wave.
The recent movie Jhund, the term, which means a herd, but is used as an abuse for a group of uncivilized offenders, shows the true story of a group of slum dwellers and their journey from jhund to samooh – an international soccer team. As the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, their identity has changed from “criminal, drug addict, rule breaker” to a respected football team. It shows that talent has no boundaries, color, caste, class or gender. For them, a bullet holds the power to change the world. For the jhund it was not a smooth journey but rather a road full of thrones and new challenges but football was their hope. During the journey, qualities such as discipline, determination, teamwork and a passion for a respectful existence were acquired. A central idea in all of these films was the concept of spatial segregation, which also aligns with Peter Bourdieu’s work on the alienation of sections of society due to the land they acquire.
These attempts are a step in the right direction, even if they are isolated. Bollywood, the glamor industry, is still largely unable to escape the shackles of caste. Because films that attempt to venture into these subjects rarely do well at the box office.