The backdrop is everything… they tell the story of the people living there. Every backdrop has a story behind it and I believe it contributes immensely,” Tamil Director Pa. Ranjith had once said.
For years, Dr B.R. Ambedkar was treated like an ‘untouchable’ by the casteist filmmakers of Bollywood. Forget about the foreground, he was erased from even the backdrop of scenes for a long time.
Take for instance, the 1982 Hollywood classic Gandhi. Not only was there no mention of Ambedkar as a character, but not a single passing reference was made about him during the three-and-a-half-hour long film. This was extremely surprising, given the position Ambedkar holds in India’s history — father of India’s Constitution, first Minister of Law and Justice, and one of the most vocal advocates for both depressed classes and women.
Biographies tend to feature the major opponents of any historical figure being depicted. Ambedkar was known for putting Gandhi on the defensive, in terms of his socio-political and religious positions, eventually leading him to resort to a fast-unto-death over the issue of awarding separate electorates to Dalits.
In a way, director Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, although made in Hollywood, turned out to be a perfect illustration of how India’s governing class treated Ambedkar until the ‘90s in real life. His portrait was missing in the Central Hall of Parliament for over 40 years after Independence, despite the fact that he was the chief architect of India’s Constitution. It took nearly 32 years after Independence for Ambedkar to start appearing in Indian films. Even school and college textbooks barely covered him or his contribution to the country. He was largely missing from TV, radio, or any audio-visual material for a long time.
India’s upper castes, who formed the governing class, had simply turned a blind eye towards Ambedkar’s immense contribution as the builder of modern India. Naturally, this was reflected in Hindi cinema.
Portraits of political leaders from upper caste or savarna backgrounds, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shashtri, Subhas Chandra Bose, and even Swami Vivekananda, were predominantly featured as backdrops of Hindi films made by savarna producers and directors.
Even when Bollywood did tell stories about Dalits — which was anyway rare — Ambedkar was missing. A perfect example of this is Bimal Roy’s movie Sujata (1959), in which the Brahmin protagonist Adhir Chaudhary (Sunil Dutt) falls in love with an ‘untouchable’ Sujata (Nutan). Adhir is ‘liberal’ enough to have photos of Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi and Vivekananda in his house, but not Ambedkar.
You could argue why a Brahmin, even if progressive, should have photos of Ambedkar in his house in the ‘60s. This may be true. But then, take for example, Tapan Sinha’s movie Zindagi Zindagi (1972), in which Sunil Dutt plays a doctor who belongs to an ‘untouchable’ family. The movie features not one, but two inter-caste love stories. But Ambedkar was entirely left out of the backdrop here as well.
His presence in Hindi cinema was not just missing from the homes of lead characters, but from the walls of courtrooms, police stations and government offices.
But director Jabbar Patel’s popular biopic on the leader tried to slowly change this. In his English-Hindi film Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000), he created a vivid portrait of Ambedkar’s life, education, political and professional journey. He showcased Ambedkar’s famous duel with Gandhi, brilliantly juxtaposing their contrasting political views. The movie was successful, despite fewer screen counts and an unwillingness of producers to translate it into multiple languages. In Tamil Nadu, for example, the film was not released for the public for nearly 12 years after its completion. The authorities were reportedly not very keen to take it to larger audiences.
Hailing from the Marathi film industry, Patel was perhaps the first director to use framed portraits of Ambedkar in his film’s backdrops, beginning with his 1979 classic Marathi political drama Sinhasan. Incidentally, that was the same year that the Sharad Pawar-led Maharashtra government began printing volumes of Ambedkar’s unpublished writings and speeches.
No one had used backdrops to create an omnipresence of a figure like Ambedkar as brilliantly as Jabbar Patel did. In his Marathi Smita Patil-starrer Umbartha (1982), a large portrait of Ambedkar could be seen on the walls of Patil’s office in a women’s ashram. Ambedkar appeared in the backdrop again, in Patel’s award-winning inter-caste love story Mukta (1994).
BSP phenomena of the ‘80s
However, barring some Marathi films, Hindi cinema did not feel Ambedkar was backdrop-worthy films till 1985. This was around the time the Kanshi Ram-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) emerged as a powerful political force, especially in north India.
This new wave Bahujan assertion manifested in Ambedkar’s statues being erected in every nook and corner of cities and towns, though BSP did not formally come to power until 1995. Kanshi Ram was part of the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) and the Backward and Minority Community Employees Federation (BAMCEF) — an association of SC, ST, and OBC minority employees — all of which followed the practice of mounting Ambedkar portraits on their office walls, inside government buildings.
As the BSP wave grew, Ambedkar slowly found resonance in Hindi cinema. The first evidence of this in a big mainstream movie was probably the 1985 Rajesh Khanna-Smita Patil starrer Akhir Kyon? In the film, Patil’s character Priya works in the government-run Doordarshan network, and has an Ambedkar portrait right above her office chair in her cabin. I suspect that director J. Om Prakash, who was Punjabi by birth, may have had some knowledge of the Punjab-born Bahujan leader Kanshi Ram and his work.
After the Rajiv Gandhi government fell in 1989, subsequent Prime Minister V.P Singh’s government accelerated Ambedkar’s brand and his portrait was finally installed in the Central Hall of Parliament. Ambedkar was also posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honor, in 1991.
Soon after this, in 1992-93, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Doordarshan released a biographic Hindi serial on Ambedkar’s life titled “Special feature on Dr. B. R. Ambedkar“.
The process of mainstreaming Ambedkar has been slow, but today, his image in Hindi movies is more prevalent than ever.
India’s Oscar entry for 2017, Rajkummar Rao-starrer Newton, prominently features Ambedkar on the walls of the protagonist’s house, covertly depicting the lead character Newton, as a Dalit man.
In the 2017 Akshay Kumar-starrer Jolly LLB 2, Ambedkar’s portrait can be spotted right behind the judge’s desk in his chamber, alongside Gandhi, in multiple scenes.
Whether it is Newton (2017), Jolly LLB 2 (2017), Mukkabaaz (2017), Article 15 (2019), Netflix’s series Sacred Games (2018), or its latest movie Raat Akeli Hai (2020), we see Ambedkar’s image becoming a regular occurrence in Hindi films.
TV serials such as Ek Mahanayak – Dr B.R. Ambedkar on Zee Entertainment’s &TV, and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Mahamanvachi Gaurav Gatha, a Marathi serial on Star
Pravah/Hotstar with more than 250 episodes, have been immensely popular in recent years. They have also been dubbed and broadcasted in multiple languages.
Meanwhile, Marathi film director Nagraj Manjule has successfully carried forward the legacy of Jabbar Patel through his socially sensitive films that explore contemporary caste dynamics, such as the award-winning Fandry (2013) and Sairat (2016). The scene in Fandry in which the Dalit character Jabya has to carry a dead pig in front of his school, while passing a wall mural of Ambedkar in the background, remains one of the most poignant scenes of Indian cinema.
Tamil film director Pa. Ranjith also uses walls as a canvas rather succinctly. In his first movie Attakathi (2012), Ranjith features both Ambedkar’s statue and his framed photo mounted on school walls. In Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018) Ranjith goes a step further when he juxtaposes Ambedkar and Gandhi in the former, and adds Dalit Bahujan greeting ‘Jaibhim’ in the dialogue in the latter, when a police officer joins a protest and reveals himself as Dalit. In Kaala, a Buddha Vihara (a Buddhist Colony) was showcased in an Indian film for the first time.
Still more to change
Today, even in movies that are not directed by Dalit directors, or are not about caste identity or discrimination, we can see B.R. Ambedkar’s portraits as part of the backdrop — be it on walls of homes, police stations, or courtrooms. This is indicative of a greater acknowledgment of Ambedkar’s role in nation-building.
Ambedkar’s rise in visual and popular culture may have initially coincided with the rise of the BSP, but it has now reached another level. Today, no political party can ignore Ambedkar, especially because OBCs and Muslims have also started following him.
He is no more just a ‘Dalit’ icon. He is a symbol of Bahujan assertion, women empowerment, student movements, and more importantly, human rights and democratic values. This was seen during the nationwide anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests, when posters, photographs, and writings of Ambedkar were shared widely. His images occupied a central position not only in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, but in protests across India. Even a Gandhian like historian Ramachandra Guha was arrested outside Bangalore’s Town Hall while holding a photograph of Ambedkar.
As director Pa. Ranjith said, backdrops have tremendous power in cinema because they capture social realities without dialogues or music. Directors featuring Ambedkar in their backdrops may not be explicitly espousing his political ideology, similar to how it doesn’t mean much when they feature or mention Gandhi. If anything, it shows that directors are more aware of their socio-political reality, and are trying to showcase it.
Whatever the reasons may be, there is a palpable mainstreaming of Ambedkar, in the country that neglected him for so long in reel and real life.
If merely mounting a portrait of Ambedkar took so long, then imagine the grand chasm that still exists in the popular understanding of the leader. The fact that you have to be of a progressive mindset to open your walls to his portrait says that he is still regarded as a social justice hero or as a radical Bahujan leader, not as the founder of Indian Republic. We have a long uphill battle before we can see his ideals seeping into the plots and screenplays of average film makers, and before we can see an increase in the diversity of actors, characters and storylines.
The author is an independent writer and critic on Indian cinema, socio political issues and is a proponent for diversity. Views are personal.