When criticised for having a ‘savarna saviour’ character in his acclaimed film Article 15, director Anubhav Sinha had responded that this film was just the beginning. More Dalit characters would appear in movies and perhaps, the next step might even be a Dalit character as the lead.
What Anubhav Sinha had unwittingly admitted was that Bollywood’s lead actors are not yet ready to play a Dalit. This is such an entrenched tradition in the industry that even a director who is ready to make “off-beat themes” could not challenge it.
Perhaps nor did Anushka Sharma, producer of the web series Paatal Lok. But Jaideep Ahalawat’s character Hathiram Chaudhary, the lead in the series, belongs to a lowly police station in Delhi and is often ridiculed by his seniors. Yet, he fights for justice and truth and could have been made a Dalit character to break the industry’s norms.
A web series is not a film, and unlike the latter, does not cater to a mass audience. But this format allows its producers more liberty, as there is less censorship compared to a commercial movie. Director Avinash Arun Prosit Roy had the opportunity to make history, but missed the chance or maybe chose not to.
A hierarchical society
The show begins with a cryptic description of a hierarchical society. There is Swarglok, or gods who are revered, Dharti Lok, composed of privileged people, and Paatal Lok, where the banished ones whose lives have no value live. Thus, the Paatal Lok police station has cockroaches, jurisdiction over a basti of very poor people and functions with inefficiencies.
In the show, Hathiram explains that the people of Swarglok are disgusted by Paatal Lok and believe that the people of there are always bound to fail.
Here, showing Hathiram as a Dalit man would have been a perfect allegory to show that caste and caste discrimination are not just as a rural problem – especially when the person is surrounded by upper caste media.
The proverbial Paatal Lok comprises of ‘banished’ people, mainly the Dalits and the Muslims. You find a Muslim cop as an assistant to Hathiram, but a Dalit character is conspicuously absent.
The character of Hathiram fits that bill perfectly.
Hathiram’s son is bullied at school and called ‘Hathi ka baccha’ in the same way that Dalit children are taunted in schools.
Yet, the director does not even drop subtle hints to suggest that Hathiram is a Dalit.
You have to watch Newton – India’s entry to the 2018 Oscars – very carefully to know that the lead character is a Dalit. The hint comes in the form of a one-second flash of B.R. Ambedkar’s photo in Newton’s room. (It’s strange, isn’t it, that upper caste characters are loud, but Dalit characters are subtle unless the movie is about caste discrimination, such as Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan?)
Yes, Paatal Lok has a Dalit character in Tope Singh – an obsessive lover who used to fight oppression as a militant in his village before he moved to the city. This portrayal of a Dalit character is similar to that in Article 15, where the Dalits are shown as militants. But in Paatal Lok, Tope Singh is the worst among the four criminals caught red-handed by the police in a conspiracy to murder a highly placed journalist in Delhi.
The question still remains, where are the normal Dalits of Paatal Lok in Delhi?
A missed opportunity
The series is set in the current era; you see posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in flashes at railway stations and so on. But the director chooses to make a caricature of contemporary Dalit politics. In the show, the Dalit Samaj Party, which is obviously based on the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that represents the scheduled castes, is led by a Brahmin named Vajpayee who is so casteist that he washes himself with gaumutra after every visit to a Dalit house. Perhaps the director was worried about too obvious a resemblance to BSP or other parties like the BJP or the Congress, but this portrayal of Dalit politics is unreal and unconvincing.
In the show, a young Kashmiri police sub-inspector called Imran Ansari (played by Ishwak Singh) faces subtle taunts because he is a Muslim. But the show provides no explanation why his immediate boss, Hathiram, is also taunted by senior police officers, making it unconvincing.
Paatal Lok scores multiple points on many fronts. Its portrayal of racism towards people from the northeast of India is highly effective. So is its display of most Indians’ insensitivity towards the LGBTQ community, the deep misogyny in the country, the equally deep anti-Muslim prejudice and the prevalence of domestic abuse in cities and villages. But there is no plausible explanation why Delhi’s Paatal Lok has all the marginalised communities in the city, except the Dalits who have been relegated to the margins for millennia.
The series continues to present the mainstream view that caste and discrimination are prevalent only in villages. All references to caste are in rural settings. Even the Brahmin leader of the Dalit party is from remote Uttar Pradesh.
Had the show portrayed a Dalit character as an upright inspector, it would have demolished the stereotypes that are held about the people of Paatal Lok. They are not “small”, as Hathiram discovers in the end.
A Dalit Hathiram and a Muslim policeman aspiring to enter the administrative services would have represented two of the most oppressed communities in India today – Dalits and Muslims.
The end, where fate plays a part, reinforces the narrative around the importance of astrology. This is bad, but for me, the bigger failure is the missed opportunity to have a Dalit policeman as the lead character in a mainstream series. It would have been easy to do this. Only a few changes in the dialogue and a few hints of the character’s caste would have turned Indian cinema’s social charturvarna structure upside down, just as the promos of the show display upside-down images.