Mainstream Indian cinema, particularly Bollywood, can be a glamourous, almost unrealistic experience. The audience is transported to a surreal world, which professor Suraj Yengde describes as escapist. He also goes on to say “(mainstream Indian cinematic sphere) has been responsible for sustaining a dominant caste hegemony.” Caste, which is an essential component of the Indian social structure, has had a profound impact on all aspects of life. Cinema, like any other form of cultural expression, is not exempt from the consequences of its influence. As such, while it may not fully or accurately portray the lived experiences of people, especially of those from marginalized communities, cinema, for better or worse, has the power to alter social hierarchies and relationships.

In this article, we examine the depiction of caste in Indian cinema through the lens of representation theory in order to better understand the implications of representation and the changing aesthetics of cinema. To that end, we wish to raise the following four questions: What is representation?  How are aspects of the caste system represented and reproduced in Indian cinema? Why does the representation of caste matter? And how can Indian cinema get this representation “right?”

What is Representation?

The definition of representation is two-fold. On the one hand, representation refers to the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone, as well as the state of being so represented. On the other hand, representation denotes the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular manner. But these definitions of representation alone do not capture the complexity behind the processes of its production. Thus, it is critical to examine a few fundamental aspects of representation theory, and particularly how they apply to the topic of caste in Indian films and visual media.

The first of these aspects is what is known as construction—or, the manner in which a media object is put together. In the case of films or other such visual mediums, construction would consist of the processes of editing and choice of camera angles. A low angle camera shot, for example, can make someone appear more powerful than they are, and a high angle camera shot might make someone appear less important or influential. The second aspect is referred to as mediation or selection, and it relates to the process of organization and selection that a media object goes through before reaching an audience. Think of how a film script is written and rewritten before it makes it to production, which may result in subaltern narratives being left out if they are not deemed profitable, or even convenient, by the (typically upper-caste) production team.  The third aspect is anchorage, which corresponds to the words that accompany images in order to give those images a specific meaning in a given context. This includes captions and taglines used in movie posters. For instance, the supposedly “anti-caste” film Article 15 (2019) directed by Abhinav Sinha features the following taglines on its marketing posters: “Let’s Be Indians Firstly and Lastly” and “Ab Farq Laayenge.” The representation of anchorage herein not only betrays the film’s upper-caste positionality but it also shows how a film meant to address issues of caste ends up (conveniently) conflating them with issues of nationality.

How is Caste Represented and Reproduced?

There are two aspects of representation theory that are the most relevant to our discussion on the depiction of caste in Indian cinema and warrant further elaboration. These are the concepts of (1) stereotypes and (2) ideology. Stereotypes are simplified representations of a person, a group of people, or a location based on fundamental or apparent features that are frequently exaggerated. They can be used to rapidly define characters by depending on current audience recognition, but they are especially problematic since they can lead to biassed assumptions from audiences.

Stereotypes about Dalit people visually coded into cinema revolve around their physical appearance, attire, and characteristic traits. Vishal Chauhan in “From Sujata to Kachra: Decoding Dalit representation in popular Hindi cinema” uses the films Sujata (1959), Souten (1983), and Lagaan (2001), as examples of these stereotypes. All the Dalit characters in these films have a dark complexion, are shabby, submissive, and not confident. They are depicted so carefully, almost to be juxtaposed with the fairer, able-bodied Savarna counterparts in the frame. The characters of Sujata, Gopal and Kachra are also presented as accepting of the discrimination meted out to them, even justifying it. Sujata and Gopal are portrayed as self-hating individuals, going as far as to commit suicide. The name Kachra in itself deems the “achhut” character unfit of a dignified name. Instead, he is referred to as garbage and the character barely talks in the film. Souten and Lagaan were considered successful and ‘hit’ films of their times, with Lagaan even being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The article makes a crucial point: these stereotypes are a way of maintaining systems of hierarchies and power through repeated depiction in cinema. They erase the realities of resistance, conflict, and the agency of the Dalit characters. Instead, the reality these films paint justify existing discriminatory practices.

On the other hand, we have ideology, which is defined as the set of pre-existing ideas and beliefs, held by media producers, which are often represented in their final product. Although in some cases the influence of ideology may produce beneficial outcomes when it comes to cinema, such as when an anti-caste Dalit director speaks to their own lived experiences, it may also sometimes be just as, if not more, harmful than stereotypes. For instance, in films or documentaries about caste made by upper-caste creators, the representation of the caste system could be (and frequently is) influenced by the implicit or explicit ideology of Brahminism held by the filmmaker or producer.

In more recent times, mainstream Hindi cinema has continued to centre upper-caste narratives and actors. Even while attempting to address caste, productions such as Article 15 have revealed the implicit upper-caste gaze guiding these films. The film uses graphic scenes of violence carried out against Dalit girls. An IPS officer, the protagonist played by Ayushman Khurana, is shown as a “philanthropic brahmin who is trying to uplift the helpless Dalits” . This film situates the Dalit characters as people who need to be saved, and is ultimately saved by the upright upper-caste characters. As a result, in its portrayal of the Dalit experience, the ideology of Brahminism establishes the norms for media production and consumption, to the point where victimisation has been made the core of the perceived Dalit life. The film takes place in a rural setting, furthering the myth that caste exists only in villages and has vanished in city spaces. Audience members living in the city can walk away with a sense of distance from caste atrocities. The audience, when identifying with the protagonist, also then feels as if they have not participated in caste discrimination, and even leave the film with feelings of guilt or shame alleviated. The actor and director went on to receive praise for the portrayal of caste, some critics describing the film as “hard-hitting” and “radical”. Wokeness or the version of it that these films seem to convey, comes with social clout for these actors and directors.

Why Does Representation Matter?

So far, we have seen how, across several iterations of representation in Indian cinema, the overarching trend with respect to the depiction of caste has been to either invisibilise caste by erasing those belonging to marginalized caste groups, or to only perpetuate the damaging stereotypes tied to these communities. But apart from reasons pertaining to the accuracy of portrayal, which are obviously important in and of themselves, why is representation in cinema considered such an important issue?

First, cinema provides a critical avenue of cultural expression and narration, and the stories depicted on-screen affect all areas of life in terms of how the people represented view themselves, how they live their lives, and how they see others. When people from marginalised castes are consistently represented unfavourably, it creates a vicious cycle that has a negative influence on how others see them and can also lead to internalisation of self-hate within these groups. Conversely, a strong and positive representation with diverse storytellers, actors, directors, and producers can aid in the battle against the dismantling of stereotypes that can be harmful to people and restrictive to society.

Second, representation can also lead to the creation of new and improved opportunities. Dalit actors, for example, have a distinct dearth of performing chances because scripts center around upper-caste characters and stories. Being mindful about inclusion in screenplays can result in a variety of roles, which opens up additional chances for actors from marginalized castes. And when representation is holistic, it opens the door to more interesting and nuanced parts for all performers while also creating a safe place for the communities.

Third, representation is critical for providing a much-needed element of objectivity to cinema and visual storytelling because it helps portray the “full-story” of a diverse community rather than depicting a tiny, self-serving segment of society as the prevailing experience.

How Can Indian Cinema Get Representation Right? 

Unlike the adage “any publicity is good publicity,” all forms of representation of caste in Indian cinema are not automatically “good” or empowering for marginalized caste communities. Above all, for a representation to be considered “good,” it should be authentic, fair (just), and have humanity. To fulfill conditions of authenticity, vernacular and Dalit voices should be at the front and center when telling the story, and it should not be told through an upper-caste creator’s lens. To fulfill conditions of fairness, the representation of caste actors and voices must not simply be extended as a token but actually heard and listened to. This means not simply using Dalit actors or stories as plot points but also making sure that their narratives are given enough exposure without being stifled or obscuring caste issues. To fulfill conditions of humanity, the representation of people from the marginalized castes and their issues should be empathetic rather than patronizing or pitiful. Creators should not opt for a one-size-fits-all solution to the representation of caste, and, as much as possible, themes such as intersectionality should be taken up to show the complexity of caste in the ways it affects humans from different backgrounds. Even in films, lower caste people must be depicted as complex, multi-dimensional beings rather than monolithic and victimized plot points.
Although Bollywood makes it extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to find good instances of the representation of caste, to observe authentic, fair, and humane representation of caste in Indian cinema, we can turn to the examples of the following films. The 2021 Tamil films Karnan and Sarpatta Parambarai, directed by Mari Selvaraj and Pa. Ranjith respectively, have received both critical and public acclaim since their releases. With their memorable characters, engaging plotlines, and riveting soundtracks, the two films have acutely captured the experience of caste and marginalization in Tamil Nadu. The films are rooted in the social and political landscapes of their characters; from which, it becomes almost impossible to divorce the realities of caste. In the Tamil cinema industry, there appears to be a shift in both the portrayal of Dalit characters and the positionality of directors over the past decade. Rajesh Rajamani’s short film, The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas (2020), calls out Savarna filmmakers and their hypocrisies. The film follows three filmmakers as they try to cast an actor to play a Dalit character and their inherent prejudices of what a Dalit person should look like become apparent. Rajamani says “Unfortunately stories on Adivasis, Dalits and Muslims have become very commoditized. It’s become an easy way for upper-caste filmmakers to seem progressive and popular when they tell these stories” His film then questions the way these directors engage with the subject of caste and the stereotypes they reinforce. Finally, there are ever more films such as Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2013) and Sairat (2016) from the Marathi film industry, and Kammatti Paadam (2016) and Pathemari (2015) from the Malayalam film industry. The cinema emerging outside of Bollywood, and from independent production houses can be avenues for sincere and diverse representations of the experiences of caste in India.