In general perception, Om Puri is not only regarded as an exception in the commercial cinema of Bollywood but also praised for his portrayals, which supposedly speak out the social realities of the times. Two of the celebrated portrayals performed by him are Layanya Bhiku in "Aakrosh" and Dukhi in "Sadgati", representing the plight and agony of Tribals and Dalits respectively.
Aakrosh (1981), talks about the exploitation of the (Marxian notion of) "have-not" class, the tribals in the movie. Two important observations in the movie: (1) a tribal named Bhiku is so much disappointed of the exploitative system, he is not even able to speak out his disappointments in public, rather he chooses to vent his anger by killing his own dear ones; (2) the public prosecutor, who is a tribal himself (played by Amrish Puri) does not understand the "reality" of the incident and is trying to prosecute "his" fellow man, Bhiku. On the other hand, Bhaskar Kulkarni (played by Naseeruddin Shah) a Brahmin lawyer, is determined to rescue the innocent Bhiku from the faulty judicial process.
Sadgati (1982) narrates a story of caste prejudice where a Dalit named Dukhi is suffering from the Brahminical exploitation of labour. The suffering of Dukhi ends in his death, as an effect of incessant service to the social elite - a punditji, in this instance. Later on, the pundit realises his arrogance and the movie ends.
In both the characters, one can see how Bhiku and Dukhi are "helpless" and "speechless" about the exploitative mechanisms. The vernacular terms like "Lachaar", "Bebas", "Bechara", "Besahara" are suitable for these two characters, as per the imagination of the movie makers Govind 'Nihalani' and Satyajit 'Ray'.
Bhiku and Dukhi are Rational and They Talk Differently
Caste system is a reaction to the egalitarian principles of the Tribals and Dalits. In Ambedkar's terms, this reaction is a counter-revolution against the Buddhist philosophy. It means, prior to this hierarchical culture, people of democratic culture had a history of "nation" making. Equality, liberty and fraternity were benchmarks of this history. Without having a reasoning and rational mind one can not think of such democratic values. Hence, democratic people applied their scientific minds to build a nation with egalitarian values. Now, the struggle is going on to reclaim that democracy. Bhiku and Dukhi are not "bebas" or "lachaar", rather they know well how to reclaim those sidelined from history of democracy.
The Brahminical imagination could perceive the lachaari and bebasi in the eyes of Tribals and Dalits, but couldn't see the rational articulations of Birsa Munda, Ambedkar, Jaipal Singh, Kanshiram, Mayawati and so on.
Social Stigma and Market
Through these movies, one can see how caste stigma plays a vital role in terms of accessibility to market. The imagination of pundits always goes for profit maximisation out of the poverty of Tribals and Dalits. Prejudiced movie makers believe that Om Puri can perform a Tribal character better than a Tribal him/herself. In fact, the movie makers think of the profit from the characters they get, in the forms of awards and social recognition.
Deliberate Ignorance of Pundits
These movies were made during a period when Dalits and Tribals were accessing the political sphere not only to articulate their rights but also to remind the social elites of their historical blunders. Birsa Munda, Savitri Bai, Jyotiba and Ambedkar, were the role models for these articulate Dalits and Tribals like Kanshiram, Namdeo Dhasal and others. Following this trend, a large number of people of these sections entered into both knowledge making institutions like universities and administrative fields. Strong socio-political movements by them prove their belief in democracy and secular leadership. The reference point of their imagination comes from the values which talk about "morality based on equality" rather than "social irrationality based caste immorality". Thus, Tribals and Dalits talk differently.
(This article was written as an assignment in the year 2012, during my MPhil in JNU)
I am Kshirod Bihari Bharat Nag, pursuing PHD in Sociology in JNU, New Delhi. My research area includes Dalits, Public sphere and Indian Democracy. I am associated with UDSF on the campus. I am basically from Kalahandi district of Odisha.