The creative genius of the Dalit community was on display in New York this February, when a coalition of the Ambedkarite groups organized the first ever Dalit Film Festival for two days, showcasing the talent and creativity of the community that has long been victims of caste-based oppression and injustice in India.
The Feb. 23 and 24 festival screened features such as “Masaan,” a 2015 drama directed by Neeraj Ghaywan, and “Fandry,” a 2013 Marathi film by Nagraj Manjule, besides documentaries such as “Dalan Series” (Nepal), “We Have Not Come Here to Die” and “Pistulya,” among other films. Indian film actress and former beauty queen Niharika Singh was a special guest at the festival.
Celebrity Dalit filmmakers Pa. Ranjith, Manjule and Ghaywan were present at the festival which was held at The New School University. The festival, according to organizers, was a product of the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar, arguably one of Columbia University’s most illustrious alumni, whose ideas and activism have arguably helped shape India and its constitution.
The organizers said the idea of a festival featuring Dalit films that are largely ignored by both pop culture and cinema in India stemmed from the radical change that has been taking place in Indian cinema in the past few years where stories are being told about marginalized segments and issues.
The first edition of DALIFF was dedicated to P. K. Rosy, a legendary first female actor of South India, who was a victim of casteist social and cinematic sphere and died in penury, shunned by the public.
“In the caste-dominated cinema, the Dalit’s culture, public and private life and experiences of the world are nowhere to be found easily. Thereby, the Brahminical perception of the subaltern culture is forced down to the viewers as someone without an agency, strength, valor or character,” Suraj Yengde, an academic activist and post-doctoral Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, said in introductory remarks to the festival attended by an estimated 500 people over two days.
Thus, he said, its reflection is seen outside the cinema in the real life where the viewer continues to misjudge the other by creating a downgraded image of fellow human beings.
“I wanted to present to the world the Dalit genius and creativity because when you talk about Dalits or think of them, you only think of atrocities against them, but there is a lot more to the Dalits’ life, and art is a medium in which the Dalits have consistently maintained their uniqueness, something few non-Dalits are aware of,” Yengde told India Abroad, adding that he was inspired by the Black cinema of America, the Black actors, comedians and how they use the popular culture to advocate for their issues.
After the release of “Masaan,” Variety magazine wrote in a 2015 review: “A ‘Promising Future’ prize in Cannes should help this narratively-challenged drama of two families trapped in the strictures of India’s rigid caste system.”
Noting that Indian cinema sells dreams to the frustrated mass and love is one such dream it sells on massive scale, Yengde said the Dalit life-worlds are not represented in the absolute and correct terms the way it demands.
“It is masqueraded in class and gender terms, conveniently hiding the real caste mechanics at play,” he said. “The South Asian film industry at large is a blatant example of casteist insecurities that it so skillfully carries so much so that it fails to produce lead Dalit, Adivasi or backward caste heroes or sheroes.”
At the same time, he said, it does not uphold the merit of the people from the background of dynasties opening the gates to Dalits, Adivasi or a backward caste person in a lead role. “The caste and class is at play in the film industry and it needs to be accounted by the outside pressure and the Dalit Festival was an attempt towards it,” he said.