The fields of art and entertainment would be barren without freedom of expression.
However, when marginalised communities, especially Dalits ‘attempt’ to exercise this freedom, even in form of basic human entitlements (like wearing footwear, riding a horse, or sporting a moustache), they have to face negative comments, abuses and even violent attacks. One may recall in 2015, a Dalit man Sagar Shejwal was beaten to death by eight ‘upper’ caste assailants in Shirdi, Maharashtra, because his mobile’s ringtone praised Ambedkar.
The Dalit-Bahujan quest to participate in the entertainment world has often been neglected or looked down on.
In the recent past, learning from the Black arts movement in Hollywood, there have been promising attempts to democratise the Indian film and entertainment industry. With new bold artistic films by Pa Ranjith, Nagaraj Manjule, Vetrimaran, among others, a dialogue has been initiated claiming new space for the Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers in the industry.
Further, with the arrival of the recent short video app ‘Jai Bheem’, one can see that the quest of the artistes and performers belonging to the socially marginalised groups to become an influential part of the entertainment industry with more visibility. These attempts have introduced the ideas of social justice to the cinema and entertainment industry and can be a step forward towards its greater democratisation.
Ambedkar and freedom of expression
The Dalit-Bahujan masses revere Babasaheb Ambedkar as the crucial source of inspiration, who help us understand how we shall operate in the modern world as free and equal beings, capable enough to take independent and rational decisions for our wellbeing.
Today, if Ambedkar sees that people belonging to Dalit-Bahujan sections are so diversely talented in various spheres of arts, dance, music, acting, performances and wanted to create their own name in these fields, what would be his advice to such creative people?
What will be his views on Dalit’s participation in the domain of mass entertainment? Will he be happy to see films like Fandry, Sairat, Kala, Asuran and Jai Bhim? Do we have an Ambedkarite framework to understand how the film industry, which is a crucial source shapes our cultural politics and impacts the social psyche?
Ambedkar, as a vocal proponent of democratic participation of the deprived sections in public life, would suggest that each sphere of social and economic life shall be diverse, ensuring substantive participation of different segments of society. In this respect, the entertainment industry needs diversity and participation of the Dalit-Bahujan groups.
Further, Ambedkar, as the sincere proponent of freedom of expression, would suggest that artistes should be unshackled from social prejudice, dogmas and elite control. According to him, an artiste can perform, with the best of their abilities, only if they have no coercive restrictions to comply with. This is because freedom would be so dear to Ambedkar that he would tell an artiste to create a society that respects individual dreams, cherishes freedom and contests each form of social injustices to build harmonious social environment.
After many historic socio-political struggles, a small but conscious and vocal Dalit middle-class segment is present in the public sphere today. However, a vast Dalit population, anticipating coercive opposition, lives in fear and remains submissive.
Especially, in the entertainment world, there are very few artistes and technicians who can proudly refer to their ‘Shudhra/Bahujan’ or ‘Dalit’ ancestry. For example, the legendary lyricist Shailendra never revealed his ‘Dalit’ identity, whereas actor Raj Kapoor had always worn his Punjabi cultural and social capital on his sleeve. The values of the Brahmanical system hegemonises our social outlook and forces our minds to look down on the Dalit-Bahujan identities with shame and prejudices. Therefore, the Dalit-Bahujan artistes are often prisoners of such stereotypes.
Further, the entertainment business, especially the film-making segment, is one of the most expensive mediums, as it attracts grand fame, money and power. Therefore, the doors of this business are often closed for ‘outsiders’. The sector is dominated by close-knit social networks, nepotism and class associations. Especially, for the Dalit-Bahujan communities, getting a fair and dignified entry in this segment is a difficult task.
There are many gatekeepers who often disallow or discourage talented artistes from having a fair entry into the business. The film industry often promotes the cultural ideas and socio-political concerns of the social elites and relegates the Dalit-Bahujan artistes to be mere insignificant passive spectators. Their art, creativity and cultural symbols find no recognisable space within the mainstream entertainment industry.
The world of entertainment significantly changed with the arrival of many short video mobile applications. Earlier Tiktok had allowed diverse people living in smaller towns and rural areas, especially the artists belonging to the lower social and class strata, to become part of the entertainment world.
The participation of Dalit-Bahujan artistes as the creators and consumers of entertaining content has not only diversified the entertainment segment but also showcased the deep desires of the artistes belonging to the marginalised groups to showcase their talent.
However, after the ban on Tiktok in India, many alternatives emerged in its place but hardly have a similar impact. Other applications like Instagram reels or YouTube shorts, mainly serve the entertainment values of the middle-class elites, disallow the Dalit-Bahujan artistes to take the centerstage.
Though these popular technological innovations in the social media space allow the participation of the Dalit-Bahujan artistes, it has often been observed they restrict and relegate the creative content of the Dalit-Bahujan artistes. They claim such content “violates community standards”, stopping them from taking centre stage either by tagging them as “inappropriate content”, or by trolling them with abuses and casteist slurs.
Recall the controversy stoked by troll armies when Jack Dorsey, the CEO (chief executive officer) of Twitter held a poster with “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy” written on it.
The traditional entertainment platforms have several times restricted, relegated and erased the creative content of the Dalit-Bahujan artistes, and their attempts to take centre stage on the internet have also been curtailed often. One must also note that the algorithms of these apps often promote so-called ‘good looking faces’, mainstream music and commercialised content. Therefore, the Dalit-Bahujan entries – like songs on Buddha and Ambedkar, dances and skits by Dalit artistes, news content on caste atrocities, among others – are often relegated to the background, and do not show up prominently on these platforms.
Art industry and the arrival of the Dalit-Bahujan
It is now obvious that in the elite world of art and entertainment Dalit-Bahujans artistes hardly exist.
Though there is a rich history on contributions of the Dalit-Adivasi-Bahujan to the making of the art (Madhubani paintings), music (Parai instruments in Tamil Nadu) and aesthetics (Marathi Dalit literature), there is hardly any recognition in the mainstream at the national level. The national cultural sphere is often dominated by abstract values and identities of the social elites. For example, most of the artistes who have won prestigious national awards often belong to the upper castes.
The conventional entertainment industry and the institutions of arts and aesthetics have shown no responsibility towards the Dalit-Bahujan arts, artistes and their cultural and creative prowess. They have mostly been restricted to local platforms and community-centric spheres. The socially marginalised groups have remained passive viewers of the entertainment content, as it is mostly shaped and circulated by the upper caste social elites.
Further, institutional regulation and censorship on artistic content or the dogmatic moral coercion (like abusive trolls) have only strengthened the conventional institutional practices and marginalised the Dalit-Bahujan activists and artistes.
To challenge such coercive hegemony, an organic platform was required where the marginalised social groups can demonstrate their talent and creativity without any hesitation and fear.
The arrival of small but impactful alternative Dalit-Bahujan literature, media, cinema is an outcome of such a quest. Cultural artistes in Tamil, Telugu and Marathi entertainment industries have already initiated this transformative process, which is slowly spreading to Hindi and other film industries. The new crop of Dalit-Bahujan artistes and entrepreneurs aims to break the boundaries and conventions of the entertainment business, making it culturally diverse and socially plural.
In addition, short video applications like the ‘Jai Bheem’ would surely prioritise and propagate the ideas intrinsic to the Dalit-Bahujan movement and its icons, thus contributing to the strengthening of the movement for social justice.
Such innovation is crucial as it possesses huge potential to transform the entertainment industry in the favour of socially marginalised groups. The arrival of Dalit-Bahujan entrepreneurs, artistes and innovators can create a new space in social media, allowing unrestricted cultural and entertainment content created mainly by the Dalit-Bahujan artistes.
A free and liberated artist(e) is the most beautiful creature in this world. Ambedkarite perspective on art and entertainment will enrich this domain with enlightening liberal ideas and values of social justice. Importantly, it also lets the artistes escape the social and cultural essentialisation and let them express artistic and creative talents with freedom, thus setting a transformative agenda for the art and entertainment enterprises.
The responsibility of the alternative social media or technological initiatives is to guarantee freedom of choices and expression to all its participants and make the ‘new media’ a dynamic space to challenge the Brahmanical hegemony. The new Dalit-Bahujan media shall unshackle the artistes from social prejudices and allow them to showcase their talents as free artistes.
Dr. Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Center for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.