I haven’t watched Dhadak yet. But Sairat is a masterpiece, and though Karan Johar’s new production is officially an adaptation of Nagaraj Manjule’s Marathi original, Dhadak isn’t likely to be anything like it.
The brilliance of Sairat was to take one of Indian cinema’s most generic themes — young love disapproved of by society — and underpin that deeply familiar screen trope with the lived reality of caste hierarchy. The effect was electric.
Why does simply making caste visible have such power within the popular cinema format? Because caste has long been missing from our screen romances. Star-crossed lovers in our movies often come from different class or economic backgrounds, different regions or languages, even different religions — but to speak of their different castes is extremely rare.
But in the week of Dhadak’s release, it seems worth asking: was this sanitised filmic past as inevitable as it seems? On July 7, 1936, a film called Acchut Kanya had its premiere at Roxy Talkies in what was then Bombay. It ran there for 19 successive weeks. According to the Indian Cinematograph Yearbook of 1938, it also had a record run of 37 successive weeks in Paradise Talkies in Calcutta, and was among the nine big box office hits of the year. Directed by the German Franz Osten and produced by
Written by Niranjan Pal, the son of nationalist leader Bipin Chandra Pal and chief scenarist of
Despite that “lekin”, the scenario was socially radical. Yet, Acchut Kanya is very much an Indian tale. So the romance begins not with a meeting between two atomised individuals, but in the fortuitous encounter that bonded their families. In many ways that is the crux of the film: the unlikely connection that develops between a Brahmin named Mohanlal and a
Mohanlal and Dukhiya become friends for life, a relationship that threatens the status quo and is perceived as bizarre. At one point, faced with a police inquiry into the mob violence that set Mohanlal’s house on fire, the mob’s ringleader — one Babulal Vaid — says Mohanlal did it himself. “Are you saying Mohanlal is mad?” demands the daroga. “Totally mad,” says Babulal, deadpan. “If he weren’t mad, would a Brahmin sell groceries? Would he set aside the company of us upper caste folk to make friends with an acchut?”
But while allowances may be made for affection, marriage across the caste gap is unthinkable, even for the mad. As is choosing one’s own marital partner. So when Mohan’s son Pratap and Dukhiya’s daughter Kasturi reach marriageable age, the fathers broach the topic only to agree wistfully on its impossibility. The children try their luck, mildly. In one rather sweet bit of banter between father and daughter, Kasturi urges Dukhiya, “Why don’t you choose Pratap for me? Don’t you like Pratap?”
But Dukhiya cannot possibly choose Pratap. So Pratap suffers his fate quietly, marrying a girl called Meera, but growing slowly more despondent as he fails to get Kasturi off his mind. “Bhagwan, tumne mujhe bhi acchut kyun na banaya? (God, why didn’t you make me an untouchable, too?)” he says once. Later, when Kasturi’s wedding is being fixed, Devika Rani says meditatively to Mohan, “Ladki ka toh janam hi byaahe jaane ke liye hota hai (A girl is only born to be married off).” “Par kiske saath? (But with whom?),” presses Mohan, as if it’s a riddle. Kasturi’s reply is instant: “Apni jaat wale ke saath, aur kiske saath? (With someone of her own caste, who else?)”
Any love that challenged that social decree was ill-fated. As Kasturi puts it, “Bhaag se kisi ko chhutkara nahi.”