Monday, April 28, 2008


Yesterday's Washington Post carried an article about lower caste Indians trying to break into the upper caste, nepotistic Bollywood system.

It actually used the word caste. Many times.

The writer cited Shahrukh Khan as an example of someone bucking the system (one of the nation's most popular actors, he's a middle-class Muslim who made his own way, with no Bollywood connections).

An excerpt:

But others say that pretending caste is no longer a factor fails to acknowledge the social filters that prevent many members of lower castes from even coming to the door of a film studio or an expensive acting school.

"There's a feeling among the urban upper castes that the majority of India -- meaning the rural, lower-caste India -- is no longer important and can be totally ignored," said Shyam Benegal*, the father of Indian art-house cinema, known for his award-winning caste-based films. "To me, it's an exaggerated sense of self-esteem to claim that there is no poverty in India. It's a serious denial problem when these plots aren't making it into films. Cinema is so powerful and is very important in teaching empathy."

After Mohandas K. Gandhi's efforts to end caste discrimination in the 1930s and later during the 1970s, there was a trend toward serious caste-based films. But those movies became an old chapter in Indian cinema as soon as the country opened its markets to the world in the 1990s. Consumerism exploded, and plots about nonresident Indians living abroad became the vogue.

"It's the American dream turned into the Indian dream that's really seen in our aspirational cinema," Benegal said. "People in huts want to see films about people living in mansions. The stories end up in never-never land, with some rich Indian family living in Scotland or who knows where. But if anything, that just cements caste. It's not forwarding social change."

The full text is here.


*Netflix, by the way, carries many of Benegal's films - including Junoon, which stars Shashi Kapoor.

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