By Jyotsna Siddharth
A look at the Intersectionality of caste Identity and gender in two Hindi films – Sujata and Ankur
Two of the finest films on caste discrimination, produced in different time-frames have approached the issue of caste and gender in strikingly different ways, The first film is Sujata (1959) a black and white film directed by Bimal Roy with Nutan as Sujata, the protagonist and the second film is Ankur, (1974) in colour directed by Shyam Benegal with Shabana Azmi as Laxmi, the protagonist. Sujata, is based in semi-urban setting, middle-class, upper-caste, educated household whereas Ankur is picturized in rural setting, upper-caste, uneducated, rich zamindar household.
Sujata and Ankur powerfully brings out a feminist conception of identity and burden in a feudal society where caste dominates till today. The identity crisis is powerfully unravelled in Sujata, where the protagonist is in a constant tussle with her self-identity and her space-location in the house. She is in a dilemma about her identity – is she of a low-caste because she was born in a low-caste family, or does she belong to the family that looked after and raised her.
Sujata is taken in as a baby by a kind bureaucrat after the death of her mother. In the film one of the first few scenes that question the fundamentals of caste identity is when the foster father refers to the baby as Sujata. His wife asks who she is. He says that he has named the new baby as Sujata to which she responds smiling, “A girl who belongs to a low caste and you have named her Sujata (which means, good caste or well born).” The significance of the name is also referred to in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan, where a character of an untouchable boy was referred as ‘Kacchra’, whose literal translation is garbage. This is to relate with names that most individuals carried in Dalit families for centuries. The names given to Dalits often symbolized shame, filth, curse, waste and so on and therefore it was a matter of surprise for a Dalit to have a name that suggested otherwise.
In the film, the character Sujata throughout draws a comparison between the bureaucrats’s biological daughter Rama who is a college going ‘modern’ girl, who likes to read poetry and play sports. Sujata, on the other hand, manages the house and takes care of needs of her “parents”. However, despite being brought up in an “upper caste” household, she continues to be viewed as an “untouchable”, because of her birth in an “untouchable” family.
This perception is emphasized by the reaction of Sujata’s foster father’s aunt when she learns of Sujata’s caste after initially mistaking her for Rama. She literally throws the baby Sujata. When the same Aunt’s son falls in love with Sujata, the protagonist refuses him because she accepts the identity of an untouchable. The film draws heavily on Gandhi’s principles giving it a very light and mediocre route.
Ankur, on the other hand, unfolds the caste and gender relationship boldly. Laxmi, the low caste domestic help works in the fields of the local zamindar and also looks after the house. The landlord’s son who is sent to look after the farms asks Laxmi to prepare morning tea for him. Laxmi is aghast and asks him if he will have tea prepared by her. The son gets surprised at her response, and asks her what the issue is? She reminds him that that she is from a low caste to which he that he does not believe in caste and that she should prepare tea for him.
When he makes a sexual advance towards her, she rejects him and refuses to work for him. He visits her house and persuades her to come back. The two eventually have a physical relationship. It is interesting to see that over a period he starts treating her as his partner implying that he will take care of her for the lifetime.
Ankur constructs a feminist standpoint, which one of the scenes in the film brings out sharply. When the Zamindar’s son finds out that Lakshmi is pregnant he asks her to abort the child. He shares his concern that how is she going to raise the child, as her husband has run away, and that he (landlord’s son) would refuse to accept the child. Accepting the child of an outcaste maid servant will bring dishonour to him and his family so he would wash his hand off. She looks at him in a rage and says, “Am I asking you to look after the child?” He is surprised and questions her, “Won’t she be ashamed?” She pauses and asks, “As if only I will be ashamed, would nothing happen to you?”
Laxmi is conscious about the consequences that might unfold and her inability to raise the child. However, she is determined to keep the child and raise it without the “necessity of father’s name” that our patriarchal society insists on.
As against Sujata, in Ankur, identity is not a dilemma as throughout the film Laxmi seems at ‘peace’ with her identity, powerfully negotiating her fears, apprehensions, opinions and desires. However, the sentiment of being a burden is common in both Sujata and Lakshmi’s lives. It is apparent that they feel a burden on others, though for different reasons. Sujata for being raised by parents who did not give birth to her and yet looked after her while Lakshmi is economically dependent on the landlord’s son that both she and her husband cannot oppose to exploitation he implicates on them, a lived reality experienced by many in villages till today.
Ankur and Sujata are two important films that revealed the dynamics of caste in two different situations. Despite celebrating a hundred of cinema in India, one can still count the number of films on our fingers that reflect the issue of caste. Media texts are as important for analysis as they are entertainment. They are a mirror of time, witnessed by human beings across generations. Thus, it is important what they show, how they show and in what capacity.
Jyotsna Siddharth has completed her Masters in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She loves to read literature and poetry and her areas of interest are Caste, Gender, Feminism, and Philosophy. Currently she is working with Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation