We decided to remain in the shadows, so you could shine brighter
by Aroh Akunth
Anybody who has lived in India will tell you how big the Hindi Film Industry (aka “Bollywood”) is. In my life of two decades, I have consumed a great deal of Bollywood cinema, either through consent or from having it blared in my face. I have experienced it bodily and through the collective experiences of my family.
Bollywood is not only a medium, but also a dream that has been sold all over the world for almost a century now. It has the potential to be a religion, a philosophy, or a cultural phenomenon depending on how critical you are or how much you invest in it. Simply put, the “B” in Bollywood is for the Big, which you cannot ignore. It also symbolizes toxic masculinity, upper-caste arrogance, and Hindi mainland hegemony over our nation state, making it a force to reckon with, even in our country’s politics. A look at the recently held general elections will tell you that having any claim to being from the “industry” and right-leaning tendencies would ensure you a win.
Now I know this piece is supposed to be about love for Asian cinema; after all, India loves its cultural soft power over smaller nations and its stereotypical depiction in Western cinema. But as a gender queer person, who comes from a formerly untouchable community, which has little to no representation in the industry, let’s just say there isn’t much love between Bollywood and me. But this doesn’t mean that something I have lived with all my life can just go away. The thing about the hegemony is that you know you have been disenfranchised, but you are dependent on it through the elimination of alternatives. Thus, it becomes even more imperative for a person like me to provide an alternative imagination.
Indian progressives have rallied for years about reforms and radicalization, and have maintained in their rhetoric that something as derivative as art can be achieved and refined without centering women or lower-caste folks in a country which continues to run on their labor and oppression.
I must admit that Bollywood cinema has evolved; it has gone from being socially invested to “masala” (the predominant mixed genre style), stayed there for a while, and only in recent years has tried to make a return to research-based storylines which do not defy physics or common sense. Though so-called concept-based movies have recently pulled audiences to the box office, the “masala” genre is still going strong, a matter that might puzzle sociologists.
Film as a medium is a culmination of many kinds of artforms and is thus equipped to speak to the audience in comparison to traditional forms; it has the potential to push our imaginations in ways that were once unthinkable. I’m looking for that one moment where something from Indian cinema emerges from the rot, where I can imagine myself and actually engage, and that happens to be a movie, not made in Hindi, and made by a director who is not upper caste: Kaala (Pa Ranjith, 2018).
Kaala might not have gained “mainstream” traction, was taken off screens quickly, and was poorly reported in the media, but all these obstacles only made it shine brighter. For the first time, I felt that all the appropriation of queer bodies and desires in Indian cinema could be renegotiated, and transacted as assertion. If we could have movies like Kaala, we already have a foot in the door. Kaala is not only set in Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in Asia, but it is also not afraid to shy away from making political statements. Not only does it prominently feature symbolism from anti-caste and class struggle perspectives, but it also does a great job at giving screen time to its female characters. Kaala stands out for its assertive and complex portrayal of women and aptly captures the social realities of communal tensions and critiques purity, pollution, and land rights in a country struggling with choosing which path of development to take. It directly takes on the Hindu-Right and posits that movement within the narrative of the Asura king Ravana and indigenous ideas of equality. The bravery of this work can only be judged in comparison to a country where caste atrocities are still an everyday reality.
While in recent times, the director of Kaala, Pa Ranjith, has faced casteist attacks, his upper-caste contemporaries have come up with movies which finally address the caste system, a discrimination that has a history lasting more than a millennium in South Asia. The title of this writing is inspired by dialogue from one such film (Article 15, Anubhav Sinha, 2019), where the Hindu God Ram visits the lower-caste people, and they tell him that they had lit lamps to welcome him back to Ayodhya, but once their lamps went out, they realized his palace looked brighter in contrast to their unlit homes, so they decided to remain in the darkness. While it is a poignant reminder, the movie does little to address Ram or even the movie’s upper-caste protagonist as an oppressor. In contrast, Kaala has given me, and I am sure many like us, the imagination to make the journey from shadows to stars. Kaala ends with the protagonist surviving as an idea, and so will our imaginations, for an equitable and just future.
Aroh Akunth is a Dalit-Queer activist, whose work revolves around examining art, urban, campus spaces as sites of exclusion and diversity. They have gained their bachelor’s in social sciences from Ambedkar University Delhi, and are currently pursuing their master’s in criminology at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.