By Mayura Choudhari
The existence of dalits is absent in the hundreds of films released every year in Hindi cinema. Or if it could manage to show some characters, then that be of some poor vulnerable roles whom the so called upper caste male protagonist saviour helps, to show his humanly heroic quality to impress the female lead love interest in the story. It has always been like this since the several decades of the Indian film industry; dalit characters couldn't make a place as of protagonists in Hindi commercial cinema.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui acted as a Dalit again after Ketan Mehta’s ‘Maanjhi- The Mountain Man’ and Tigmanshu Dhulia’s ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ where both the films were based on biographies. This time it is Sudhir Mishra’s 'Serios Men' based on the novel ‘book of the same name’ by Manu Joseph, the film released on 2nd October 2020 on Netflix was a much awaited film during this lockdown.
Ayyan Mani played by Nawaz is a Tamil Dalit migrant, settled in Worli Mumbai’s BDD Chawl (where else can a dalit afford to stay?) with his wife Oja played by Indira Tiwari and son Adi Mani played by Akshath Das. Ayyan Mani works as an assistant to a Brahmin astronomer Dr. Arvind Acharya played by Nassar at the National Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. The film starts with correctly pointing to how dalits being kept deprived from education for centuries and hence it will take at least four generations of education to come to the level of luxury that the privileged Savarnas are enjoying.
After reading the quote written on the white board in the office in an initial scene, “Reservations cannot be the only compensation for treating fellow human beings like animals for the last three thousand years”, one wants to believe that justice will be given to the ever since happening immature debates around reservation, but the film does exactly the opposite.
As per the story, dalits expect or depend on favour for recommendation by their Brahmin boss or get converted to Christianity for their ‘meritless’ children's school admission. Throughout the film the audience is compelled to believe that dalits can't even top simple school exams without cheating and that all the money they earn, they utilise it for buying leaked question papers for their “slow” children.
When Ayyan hears the school staff members talking to each other that “Admission will be on merit basis only,” he in anger, steps down and talks to a cleaner about abolishing reservation in comparison to merit; and that's where the majority of our citizens lack behind. They lack understanding that reservation is not for those who are meritless but for those who are denied opportunities, of the potential geniuses looking at their caste. Can't guess how many more years will it take for people to understand the simple concept of ‘equality of status and opportunity’ as mentioned in the preamble of the Indian constitution?
Ayyan Mani who always gets insulted by his Brahmin supremacist boss who also doesn't like him talking in Tamil. Calling it improper; this somewhere shows the concept of language purity and an upper hold of brahmins over it, whereas dalits use an “impure” and abusive language as also shown in the film, or else copy or try to imitate the so called higher castes.
Acharya who is a scientist is arrogant as with pride of his knowledge and is typically dominant in nature. Whereas Mani who understands the social ladder but isn't a conformist has conned everybody telling that a dalit’s (his) 10 year old son is a genius. Mani guides him to behave the same as his boss so as to stop the asking questions by playing arrogance. This shows how typically the people from the lower strata of society try to imitate the ones from the upper strata, whether good or bad, correct or wrong.
Shweta Basu as Anuja, a local politician from dalit community, who is well educated, foreign return but has some acquired disability from domestic violence out of her broken marriage; because no dalit can be educated, smart, independent and physically "perfect" at the same time, there has to be some flaw. There is a history of Indian cinema showing some kind of physical damage to a dalit character’s body, you might remember Kachara from Amir Khan starred Lagaan directed by Ashutosh Govarikar.
Anuja denying to open her domestic violence personal story to public saying “No ‘Dalit women victim card' shit for me”, is added smartly to nullify and silence the authentic realities of dalit women’s lives through a dalit women itself.
Her father Keshav Dhavare played by Sanjay Narvekar takes Dr Ambedkar's name for complementing Adi’s intellect, associating him not for intelligence but for caste. Fixing Dr Ambedkar's image in a frame of dalitism is a really problematic one. One might feel this argument baseless as the kid is shown to be science savvy, but here Dr Ambedkar’s name wasn’t enough to define the kid’s intelligence, hence after caste association Anuja has to take Einstein’s name to compensate.
Later this Maharashtrian dalit leader goes for Ganesh statue's unveiling on stage. It could be understood for a Tamil dalit migrant to be such a devotee of Ganesh as nowhere he is shown associated with Periyarist Movement, instead Oja is shown as a believer of Hindu local goddess and Ganesh. It really seems unrealistic and impractical for a Maharashtrian dalit politician, who also just a few seconds ago calls Ambedkar's name, to unveil a Ganesh statue that too in BDD chawl. This is somewhere an attempt to joke on Babasahab's identity and assertion of 22 vows. The filmmakers failed to observe that Worli BDD’s dalits are no more dalits but have been converted to Buddhism and are active in the anti caste movement.
When asked a few residents and politicians from BDD chawl about this scene, they responded by saying,
“chhe asa shakya tari ahe kay ikde, Buddha Phule shahu Ambedkari chalwal astana! ” (No way, how can it be even possible here when we have the Buddha Phule Shahu Ambedkar movement !)
Ayyans character is patriarchal, which is clearly visible when the couple is at Bandstand and he says “I am doing this and that for you and you are not happy”, in a sense of him doing favours to his wife. This dalit portrayed as pratriarchal is visibly problematic in the scene where he threatens Sayli (Adi's classmate and neighbour) on the terrace in a masculine way for not revealing Adi's secret. where he too is seen talking about hierarchy and authority that comes with seniority, just like imitating the brahmins.
The journalist author Manu Joseph was quoted as saying in The Guardian,“Indian writers in English usually take a very sympathetic and compassionate view of the poor, and I find that fake and condescending.”
“Most Indian readers of literary fiction written in English are of a certain class, and one of the recreations of the Indian upper class is compassion for the poor. I think the poor in India are increasingly very empowered, and the time has come when the novel can portray them in a more realistic way. Ayyan is still an underdog but that is due to his circumstances, not due to his intellect or aspirations.”
With such statement the author is using the word ‘poor’ as a synonym for his ‘dalit’ character as he is trying to counter the previous sympathetic understanding about lower caste people with his enlightened perception of them being frauds and cons. Clearly both the understandings are highly problematic and they need to go through proper ethnographic research, free from prejudices and must not impose their ill interpretations.
In his recent film ‘The Discreet Charm of Savaranas’ director Rajesh Rajamani has aptly shown, how the upper-castes lack in understanding and acceptance of facts about dalits, the ‘Serious Men’ manifest about poor and stereotyped perceptions of dalits by the so called upper caste film makers and authors. May be its not the director’s fault but the age old problem of how Brahmins perceive dalit's, as meritless and who cannot be real genius but as much as frauds who con about their intellect.
The film ends with the ‘kind Brahmin’ boss with a big heart, forgiving them and treating the child in a motivational way, guides him how to gain real knowledge. He suggests the family an ‘Exit Strategy’, a way back to the village in Tamil Nadu where they came from. To take back their child from a convent school to a government school in a village. Again pointing out that the big metro cities, quality education, competitive city life and a standard, respectful living is not for them, the lower caste. That they should be in their pants and live an isolated, outcast life.
Mayura Choudhari is a Co-founder of The Colourboard.