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My Dalit Women Are More Than The Patronising Stereotypes You Come Up With!

The Dalit woman holding a broomstick, as in the first poster of Madam Chief Minister, is an image that reduces the enormous capacity a Dalit woman embodies. Don't patronize.

The Dalit woman holding a broomstick, as in the first poster of Madam Chief Minister, is an image that reduces the enormous capacity a Dalit woman embodies. Don’t patronize.

Short hair. Face tilted to her right. Determined eyes; squinting. Looking at a camera that seems to have shot off insults at her. Bruises from a scuffle, one near the lower lip, another below the right eye. The camera may miss the right one, so another prominent one on the left cheek. A longer one, if you will, so that nobody misses it. All this on the perfectly made-up, impeccably clear face of Richa Chadha.

Okay, maybe the scuffle is misleading. Let’s show labour! Give the woman a broomstick in her hand, how else do we make sure the audience knows this is a Dalit woman? You know, let’s also say “Untouchable, Unstoppable” at the bottom of this poster. Just so they know, you know?

The Dalit identity – we’re more than your stereotypes

We know. We’ve known for quite some time now. We hear your conversations as you speak, write, and make movies about us. Madam Chief Minister is only one of the many that have come, and one of the many that are yet to come. We see it when a fair-skinned, entitled, upper-caste woman plays us. Here’s what we don’t see: Why her? Why us?

As a Dalit woman, I’m often asked about my caste identity more than twice because, apparently, my English is too good for me to be Dalit. Almost always, I’m certain that they’re not measuring my Dalit-ness as much as they’re measuring my Brahmin-ness. Brahmin-ness as a standard for learning, acting, being, and representing is exhausting. Especially for my women. That we need to look at the screen and believe that Richa Chadha is Mayawati, or one of us, is a lie we cannot swallow. Representation matters, and rightful representation is important today, more than ever before.

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Twitter was unkind to a woke actor, someone who chose her movies carefully and turned down the role to play an Arunachali woman, because Richa Chadha gets the representation debate only when it is about racial differences.

When Dalit men like Jignesh Mevani and Prashant Kanojia condemned the poster, she apologized immediately said she had little or nothing to do with what became the movie’s first poster. Earnestly, to win back her audience, she even wrote a ‘heartfelt note’ saying she was listening and learning.

The entire movie, it seems, has been a learning experience for her, as she recounts her childhood memories of how people around her discriminated against Dalit women and children. Of course, she missed it all in her naiveté and now, this movie about a Dalit woman represents her ‘untouchable, unstoppable’ learning process to learn about my women and our struggles.

Another glaring example of misrepresentation – learn from that!

A few months ago, a twitter-storm broke out as everyone raged about a Canadian citizen who played the role of a transgender woman. In a film industry where Pakhi Sharma (Bobby Darling) was only given roles that derided the basic humanity and dignity of the lives of transgender people, an Akshay Kumar was required to flex his ‘wide range’ of acting skills: how such a masculine man could play a role that required him to be effeminate. The man who cannot get enough of telling us about how he is trained in martial arts, swayed his hips to play a transgender woman, because that’s all that is understood about femininity in this world.

In a world where transgender people’s stories deal with the mental trauma of having to navigate their way around a heterosexual world that revels in inflicting violence and abuse on them, they strive hard to thrive. But they thrive! To not recognize it in your effort to straitjacket their experience is another kind of violence.

THIS is a trans woman!

In her Instagram post on the 30th of October, 2020, Dr. Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, an openly trans woman, put up a collage of two of her photos.

In one, she dons short hair and looks straight at the camera. Written below her face are the abuses she receives regularly in her DMs. Placed next to it is a photo of her holding a newborn baby. She looks at it, happily, as a stethoscope hangs around her neck on her white coat. Below this photo she says “This day forward, it’s Doctor”.

For an audience that worships Akshay Kumar and truly believes in a world he has invented and promoted, with movies like Pad Man and Toilet, to think of a transgender woman like Dr. Trinetra delivering babies is impossible. And our film world shoulders the responsibility for this gross misrepresentation and conscious creating of biases.

The dangerous idea of the ‘pitiable’ Dalit woman

To not acknowledge the powerful role of the silver screen in affecting our daily lives is foolish. To believe that an artist’s responsibility ends with the last day of the shoot and the director, is ignorance. To think that you can play a role you don’t fully understand and learn from it while speaking to the communities the character represents, is laziness.

Telling me more about the responsibility of film-makers, Rajesh Rajamani, the director of ‘The discreet charm of the Savarnas’ says, “Cinema undeniably has a huge psychological impact on how we interpret individuals, events or history. It also serves as the most easily accessible source of information and knowledge for majority of the public. When a filmmaker chooses to tell a story about anyone or anything, they should adequately invest in it in all the possible ways. They must attempt to truly understand the subject and the premise for what it is, and not rely on lazy popular stereotypes. If our filmmakers are unable to think of a Dalit woman beyond holding a broom in her hands, it only reveals how Indian cinema is still stuck in its caricaturing, victimizing or exoticising people when it comes to telling the stories of the most oppressed communities.”

The idea of a Dalit woman as ‘always pitiable’ is dangerous. To define a Dalit woman through her struggles and violence, is to box her into a stereotype she has fought against, for ages.

My women fight tooth and nail. They touch the upper-caste students and run away from school, to prove a point. They walk into assemblies full of upper-caste people to make a statement. They carry guns and are called Bandit Queens, for standing tall against injustice. They laugh, they scream, they cry. They watch, they learn, they speak. They are always speaking. But somehow, you need to be their representative in a film about them, to learn about them. The idea of learning by representing the very experience you want to learn about, is as Savarna as can be.

We’re more than just the ‘downtrodden’ Dalits of your imagination

The latest trend of social media today, for the woke/ liberal/ progressive people, is #DalitLivesMatter. For this, the mutilated bodies of Dalit women, the raw sexuality of Dalit men, the colour and illiteracy of Dalit children are conversation starters. But is that all we are?

In the web television series ‘Pataal Lok’, the only representation we see of a Dalit woman is of being gang-raped by upper-caste men to keep up the word of a bigoted son. The woman says nothing while the men take turns to abuse her. In the movie Article 15, the caste-blind police officer learns about caste and brings justice to the Dalits in the way he can best- by patronizing.

The question, at hand, seems to be the very way in which Dalits are imagined. Is it at all possible that they can exist beyond the exhausted, beaten down, downtrodden, lost and worthless images that are consciously created by the woke liberals in the films?

“Why can’t we look at the way Brahmins behave? Why is it that we are only identified through trauma or rags-to-riches stories? Films don’t show us eating pizzas and laughing. But we do that, don’t we?” Sumeet Samos, a young rapper from Odisha, asks me. Every time he receives a text from a friend, it is to seek his opinion on politics and Dalits, or literature and Dalits. He has never been asked about the kind of music he enjoys, only about Dalits. This fetishization of Dalit trauma legitimizes the caste hierarchy as there is accommodation of only one kind of Dalit experience in the society. A Dalit woman who laughs is instantly rejected by the society, as the experience becomes more human than Dalit, for them.

A few years ago, Vijeta Kumar, a teacher and writer based in Bangalore, uploaded a video of Dalit women singing, laughing and dancing at an All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch conference on Instagram. Telling me more about the heartwarming video, she says “It took us a while to recognize that we have an appetite for joy, dance, and humour. We’d done four writing workshops together and in each one of these, we made each other howl with laughter at the things we’d written, said and done. There was a visible lightness in our bodies and stories as they were composed in spaces filled with our women. The laughs are louder, the stories are powerful, and the writing is unstoppable”. Vijeta’s writing symbolises this sentiment as she weaves our realities into stories and words that we recognize and revel in.

The Dalit woman holding a broomstick is an image that reduces the enormous capacity she embodies. To show our woman as the one who held a gun and laughed heartily as she did it, is an empowering image. To show a Dalit Madam Chief Minister, it is not just okay to have an upper-caste woman playing her, hold a broomstick or even ride a bicycle. It is important for the movie’s first poster to be one of her sitting in what can only be described as a throne, sipping tea and staring into space and taking on the chaiwala for the chai walas. And she must be laughing, not learning through the movie!

Image source: Movie promos of Madam Chief Minister & YouTube

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About the Author

Divya Malhari

Divya Malhari is a Dalit writer and an Assistant Professor of English, teaching in Bangalore. Writing about her caste experiences in her blog http://datlitwriter.wordpress.com/ she believes that caste can be defeated by read more...

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