How Can Anyone Deny That Pallavi Menke Is Drawn From Yashica Dutt’s Life?

Savarnas have always just taken from Dalit communities. When compounded by gender, it becomes worse. The makers of Made in Heaven should rethink their stand on Yashica Dutt's claims.

Pallavi Menke, in her understated, yet exquisite Gaurang creation with fresh jasmine flowers in her hair and bright red lipstick was stunning as a Dalit Buddhist bride in the episode “The Heart Skipped a Beat” of Made in Heaven Season 2.

The symbolism of a Dalit bride stepping through the water of the elegantly decorated pool to get to the mandap could not be missed. In 1927, Dr. BR Ambedkar led the Mahad Satyagraha where a group of Dalits drank water from a public tank which they were not allowed to use. Nearly a century later, in some parts of the country, Dalits are still prevented from drinking water from common water pots. Yet, here was a Dalit bride (even if played by a savarna actress), who was walking through water in what was clearly a venue which would normally try to keep people of her caste out.

Even while some commented on the propriety of a Dalit character being played by Radhika Apte, a savarna actress, many revelled in the pride of being represented in such a positive way. Said one twitter user- Loved this episode of Made In Heaven, which revolves around a woman struggling to assert her Dalit identity in a world that constantly tells her not to. I cried buckets while watching certain scenes, as it felt too relatable. An incredibly relevant story that shouldn’t be missed.

A predictable savarna response to this episode

There was an immediate backlash from savarnas. One twitter user, for instance wrote-
Don’t know which Dalit wedding (since they made it a point to say that’s what it was) or Buddhist wedding looks like this – but sure. Might have made more sense to show them donate the crores they spent on this gala, to support Dalit-owned businesses or anything more practical.

Sadly, this is a predictable savarna response.

Each of the weddings in Made in Heaven was opulent- why should only one wedding be singled out as wasteful and extravagant? Why should the money spent on a Dalit wedding be donated to charity, but not the money spent on other weddings? It is individuals who pay for weddings from their personal funds; unless a person is taking a loan from you to fund a wedding you know they cannot afford, nobody really has the right to determine how much the person spends on it.

Similar arguments are often also made when statues of Ambedkar are erected in public places using public money. I too have been guilty of thinking of how the funds could be better utilized in improving primary education for students from marginalised communities, and in giving them scholarships for higher education.

However, writer and activist, Yogesh Maitreya had a response to it and explained how statues to Ambedkar instilled a sense of pride in Dalits- “Ambedkar’s statues are neither inactive nor purposeless. They are the reminder of where you belong and what you inherit. Before I began to read, I grew up seeing him and it instilled in me a sense of confidence and empowerment. His statues are never found or situated in Savarna localities nor beyond Dalit bastis. Ambedkar’s statue is an entrance to the Utopia where you begin to dream to stand alone even when surrounded with storms. Ambedkar’s statue is a beginning of a dream of every Dalit who aspires to break free from the clutches of caste in every sense of the word.”

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Yashica Dutt rightly pointed out the plagiarism in taking from her life with credit

The storm was dying down, when a bigger controversy erupted. People who had seen the episode found the obvious parallels between the character of Pallavi Menke and Yashica Dutt, the author of ‘Coming out as Dalit’.

When questioned, the director Neeraj Ghaywan, put up an Instagram post where he thanked “Yashica Dutt and her book which made the term “coming out” become a part of the popular culture lexicon for owning one’s Dalit identity. This inspired Pallavi’s interview section in the episode.”

This acknowledgement was, obviously, not sufficient for Yashica Dutt who pointed out, rightly, that while she appreciated Neeraj Ghaywan for acknowledging her work and contribution on Instagram, it came only AFTER viewers pointed out that the character was based on her and not before. Yashica Dutt also pointed out that an Instagram post did “very little for the millions of the global viewers of this Amazon Prime show.”

What Yashica Dutt was seeking was merely a public acknowledgement that the character of Pallavi Menke was inspired by her life and work. Instead the director, Neeraj Ghaywan continued to insist that Yashica Dutt was merely one of many Dalit authors (the others included Sujatha Gilda and Suraj Yengde) who’s works the team studied for inspiration.

The producer, Zoya Aktar, then went on the defensive and stated that she was “disturbed” by the “misleading reports and comments” by Yashica Dutt, before going on the describe how Pallavi Menke’s backstory was very different from that of Yashica Dutt’s and that the storyline was completely fictional.

There is little merit in what Zoya Aktar claims

While Pallavi Menke might be a Maharashtrian Ambedkarite who studied law at Columbia University and is the recipient of several awards, unlike Yashica Dutt who is from Rajastan and studied journalism at Columbia University, these are merely superficial differences. There are far more similarities between the two than differences. Both used caste agnostic surnames and hid their Dalit identity while in India. After going to Columbia University, both decided to “Come Out” as a Dalit, and wrote books on their experience. Both were public figures who are conscious that for them the personal and the political are intertwined. To completely deny that the character of Pallavi Menke was based on the life of Yashica Dutt is dishonest.

Art almost always imitates life. All good fictional characters are based on or drawn from real life people, and it is precisely this that adds depth to the work of fiction. Many of the characters in Made in Heaven itself are familiar, but the difference between them and the character of Pallavi Menke is that they are all composite characters, while the inspiration for Pallavi Menke is predominantly drawn from one person.

The storyline is entirely fictional. While Pallavi Menke might speak the same language as Yashica Dutt, the situations she encounters and the way she deals with them is fiction. Yashica Dutt cannot, as some say, claim royalties from the episode because the storyline is fictional. But what she can and must demand is an acknowledgement that the character is based on her life and work.

This too is what Yashica Dutt wants when she says, “I request the show creators to acknowledge my life’s work and ideas that contributed to this episode …. beyond a post on social media, and within the show’s credits.” Her request is perfectly justified, and to give her due credit for inspiring the central character will only enhance the impact of the episode which in Yashica Dutt’s own words is “no less than a cinematic triumph when it comes to showcasing what it truly looks like for a Dalit woman to take power back in this casteist society.”

Sadly, however, even while the episode celebrates a Dalit woman seeking her place in the world, the discourse in the real world will continue to be driven by savarnas who choose to negate a Dalit woman’s contribution.

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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