With much talked about episode 5 of Made in Heaven 2, Neeraj Ghaywan redefines the discourse on caste in mainstream Hindi filmmaking. While many films dealing with the theme of caste prejudices have been made in the last decade, almost all of them approach caste as a system of discrimination and place their hopes in modernity and a mirage of a casteless society.
The episode is radical because it questions the very idea of a casteless society, as it demands adherence to upper-caste norms and the erasure of the Dalit past. Instead of advocating Dalits joining the mainstream by forgetting their past, it asks for the reclamation of history and its celebration.
A still from Made In Heaven 2: The Heart Skipped A Beat
Neeraj Ghaywan has consistently made films on Dalit themes, and with his career, the discourse around Dalit issues has also evolved. Tracing his cinematic work, one can also see a journey of the theme itself.
Masaan (2015), Ghaywan’s debut film, traces the journey of a Dalit boy and an upper caste girl. Both of them escape an oppressive society that thrives on the ideas of caste and honour. Their employment with the Railways, the vehicle of modernity, brings them to Allahabad (now, Prayagraj), the city of confluence, and the film ends on a feel-good note where caste seems to have gotten irrelevant because none of the characters practises their caste-based occupations. As migrant workers of modernity, they are in the same boat.
The ending of Masaan is feelgood because it assumes that once people from different castes get employed in modern workplaces such as railways, caste-based prejudices will cease to exist.
Ghaywan revisits this assumption in his short, Geeli Puchi (Part of the 2021 Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans). Here, two women work in a modern factory, but still, the Dalit woman faces discrimination when it comes to career advancement. Though the film intricately tells the stories of the central characters, Ghaywan scrutinises his earlier assumption and offers a new finding. As long as the upper castes own the means of production, the Dalit workers will continue to face discrimination unless they learn the shrewdness of the upper castes.
The much talked about fifth episode of Made in Heaven 2 takes us into the future and scrutinises the assumption that Masaan made, just that genders are reversed, and the class difference has narrowed.
In the casteless society of the USA, a Dalit woman and an upper-caste man fall in love and decide to get married. So far, so good, as there are no raised eyebrows of parents, no elopement or honour killing. Everything goes without a glitch until the ritual of marriage is discussed.
The Dalit girl doesn’t want a Brahmanical ritualistic marriage, and the man is okay with it, but his family isn’t. They want a brief ritual of pheras after the registration of the marriage. When the girl asserts and wants to have a Dalit Buddhist wedding to follow the pheras, the family tries many tricks to get her to drop the idea. Even worse, her groom-to-be fails to empathise with her. The episode ends with the upper caste man’s realisation of his family’s hidden prejudices against the girl’s assertion of her identity. And finally, Ghaywan shows us what a Dalit wedding could look like.
A still from Made In Heaven 2: The Heart Skipped A Beat
The episode re-examines some of the assumptions on which Masaan ends. Will caste still matter in a casteless society? The answer that Masaan brings forth is: “maybe”. But, Ghaywan revises the answer in the episode and says, “Yes, caste still matters when it comes to the rituals of marriage if not marriage itself.”
The question of equality is revisited, too. Will caste cease to matter if people take up modern professions? And, when the economic class difference narrows?
The answer that the episode presents is very different from Masaan‘s. Episode 5 is politically more complex as it shows how problematic slogans such as bringing Dalits into the mainstream is. It means acceptance only as long as Dalits live in denial of their past and assume the codes of upper castes. However, when a Dalit person asserts her identity and demands a celebration of her heritage, it makes the upper caste household uncomfortable.
This episode is important because it proclaims a significant departure in Dalit discourse in mainstream Hindi filmmaking, from the portrayal of oppression to the assertion of identity. However, there is a catch that the episode captures beautifully.
While the bride-to-be asserts her Dalit identity unapologetically, her family, particularly her younger brother, holds it against her. Why? He says he won’t like being identified as a “quota student” in his college. So, the assertion is a path fraught with risks, like it is for the brother in a caste-ridden society like India.
With this episode, Ghaywan busts the myth of the mainstream and defines it as an idea of cultural subjugation. Instead of seeking admission into the mainstream by accepting Brahmanical rituals, Ghaywan advocates the need for new symbols and new rituals. And, who better to turn to for that than Buddha and Ambedkar?
While Ghaywan and the writers of the show Alankrita Shrivastava, Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti and additional writer Rahul Nair deserve all the credit for redefining the Dalit discourse into the mainstream, it’s somewhat tragic that creators resorted to cold legality after Yashica Dutt (Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir) demanded credit in the episode claiming that a part of the Dalit girl’s character is based on her. Strangely, Ghaywan had even acknowledged her as an inspiration for the character (particularly the interview scene) before posting her demand’s rebuttal on Instagram. One would have expected more grace and empathy from the creators of a show which successfully raises the issues of discrimination. Would it have hurt to acknowledge her contribution on the screen if they already did so on social media? Isn’t the controversy essentially the same denial the episode claims to expose?
(Bikas Mishra is an award-winning writer-director based in Mumbai)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.