What caste is CID 999?

Caste is largely ignored in commercial Indian cinema, even though it determines the destiny of millions and even decides who wins elections

Rajkumar as CID 999.

India is a country where caste determines the destiny of crores of people and rules electoral politics, but our cinema has been reluctant to portray its complexities on screen.

Caste conflicts are kept out of mainstream cinema in order not to offend anyone.

Today, a movement of sorts is shaping up with caste conflicts taking centrestage, spearheaded by artistes who don’t feel shy of their identities.

Unusually, the phenomenon is taking place within commercial cinema, with all its swashbuckling tropes.

The names of Tamil filmmaker Pa Ranjith, who made ‘Kaala’; actor Dhanush, producing films with director Vetri Maaran;  and Marathi director Nagraj Manjule, who made ‘Sairat,’ are frequently mentioned as leading lights of the “movement”.

Some film critics and academics point out the lack of such an initiative in Karnataka.

It’s not that films with lower caste characters are not made in commercial Kannada cinema at all. The hero of the popular ‘Duniya’ (2007) is a Dalit, without the polemical dimensions of that identity.

This is in stark contrast with Kannada’s parallel cinema space, which has a slew of brilliant films that critique caste dynamics: ‘Samskara’ (1970), ‘Chomana Dudi’ (1975), ‘Grahana’ (1978) and ‘Shankhanada’ (1986), to name a few. A more recent example would be B M Giriraj’s ‘Amaravati’ (2017).

Film scholar K Puttaswamy sees a stark difference in the way commercial and parallel films are received. “Art films get discussed only academically, while commercial films make an impact,” he says.

By contrast, theatre in Karnataka does a better job of covering caste.

“It may be because in theatre, you don’t need that sort of support and funds,” says academic Sundar Sarukkai.

“In (the well-known drama school) Ninasam, four of the faculty members are Dalit,” he says.

A writer associated with Ninasam says though the school, based in Hegoodu in central Karnataka, has no caste quota when it comes to admissions, the number of Dalit students who get in is higher than if there were, in fact, reservations.

“Usually, what is said about quotas is ‘these people are from reserved category, they cannot get in on merit’. That is the usual rhetoric. That rhetoric does not apply to theatre in Kannada,” he says.

The problem is not confined to Kannada cinema. Bollywood, except for rare films such as this year’s ‘Article 15’, is largely blind to caste.

The Malayalam film industry, although one of the most critically acclaimed in the country, has also been criticised for its lack of attention to lower-caste concerns.

The most prominent Dalit filmmaker in Kerala, Dr Biju, says, “The first heroine in Malayalam cinema was a Dalit woman, P K Rosy. But she faced protests when the film was screened because she played the role of a Nair woman. So, Malayalam cinema began by shunting Dalits out.”

Biju says that to this day, there have only been two Dalit filmmakers of note in Malayalam, one of them being him. He says his last two films were made in Hindi and English, respectively, because of the “negligence” he faced back in Kerala.

In the Tamil industry, which has multiple individuals making films about lower-caste concerns, artistes have embraced their lower caste identity and made it a signature in their films.

“There are many Kannada actors who are Dalits in origin but will not make a song and dance about it for whatever reason,” says Arul Mani, who teaches literature.

“I guess it’s because Dalits anywhere who are upwardly mobile will tend to sort of underplay the Dalit identity as a matter of strategy. Maybe it is important to leave an experience of oppression behind so that they change the way they respond to this identity question,” he says.

Puttaswamy says the earliest Kannada films to deliberate on caste were devotional, which may look unflattering today considering how different contemporary conversations on caste are.

Taking the example of three Rajkumar-starrers, he says,  “The issue of untouchability is more easily narrated in devotional films like ‘Bedara Kannappa’ (1954). In ‘Bhakta Kanakadasa’ (1960), he is not a Dalit but from a backward caste. ‘Bhakta Cheta’ (1961)  is about an untouchable who wants to become a devotee of Vishnu,” he says. “The filmmakers then were more comfortable addressing caste issues with respect to the life of the legendary devotees.”

In many such films, though lower-caste devotees are shown to have a special connection with god, the characters are often born lower-caste because of a curse they received in their former Brahmin incarnation.

The Brahmin-in-Dalit-form narrative, in fact, tilts the rhetoric away from a conversation on oppression.

Puttaswamy says after the era of devotional films, some filmmakers brought in the caste angle to love stories, but even in this genre, there was a catch.

“It was always between an upper-caste man and a lower caste woman. Lower caste boy could not love an upper-caste girl. The Manusmriti allows a man from the upper caste to have an affair with a girl from the lower caste, not vice versa,” he says.

However, Rajkumar’s presence in many films is a redeeming factor.

Undeniably, his talent had impressed audiences across caste barriers. Some scholars say his upward mobility from a lower-caste background was also a milestone for caste reformation in Karnataka.

“Rajkumar’s popularity is definitely due to the talent he brought from stage to cinema. But he himself is a kind of message-bearer for the communities that were at the receiving end of caste impositions — a message-bearer of modernity, of change, of transformation,” Arul Mani says.

“It is a very energising moment when he steps into the limelight. He unites Dalit and Bahujan aspirations,” he adds.

However, it would be an anachronism to think of Rajkumar as a lower-caste icon in the way Dhanush is today. His brilliance lay in seamlessly moving between a plethora of characters who must have belonged to a variety of castes, which are barely hinted at.

Film critic M K Raghavendra has a roundabout, albeit tongue-in-cheek, solution to the question ‘Which caste?’

“What is Rajkumar’s caste as CID 999? The four CID films he starred in don’t give you the answer. The character’s name is Prakash but that doesn’t give out much either. Think of it like this: if there is an arranged marriage, that means people marry within the same caste. In this film, Rajkumar meets K S Ashwath, who is wearing a Mysuru peta (turban), on a flight. Ashwath wants to marry his daughter off to the detective. Ashwath’s name is Rao Bahaddur Narasimha Rao, which makes him Brahmin, so by corollary, the CID 999 must also be Brahmin,” Raghavendra says.

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