When High Caste Trumps Low Class!

In a recent Netflix series Decoupled (Hardik Mehta, 2022), high profile, upper class/caste couple Arya Iyer (R. Madhavan), a renowned author, and Shruti (Surveen Chawla) a businesswoman, can’t stand the body odour of their driver Ganesh. On Shruti’s insistence a drunk Arya categorically tells Ganesh that he stinks, and he should use a deodorant that has been kept in the dashboard for him especially; miffed by his employer’s disrespectful treatment, Ganesh quits his job. When Aryan and Shruti realise how hard it is to find a good reliable driver, they decide to visit his house and persuade him to join back. At Ganesh’s house Arya seems visibly hesitant to have water/food that is offered to him. An interesting exchange take place between Ganesh and Arya. Infuriated Ganesh thunders, you don’t take us drivers as human… but do not hesitate [to eat/drink in my house], as I am an upper caste Hindu. Then Arya says, I am not aware of my own caste; Ganesh retorts – one who doesn’t know his caste always belongs to the upper caste! While the scene successfully depicts class differentiation and caste pride at the same time, it also underlines how deep caste issues are in Indian society. If you are presented/packaged as a Hindu from the higher-middle or upper class, one automatically associates you as a upper caste Hindu. This assumption is part of various stereotypes associated with the representation of the highly discriminated, oppressed castes of India, who are categorised as Scheduled Castes.

Understanding Caste

Renowned Indian leader and a proponent of equality, Dr BR Ambedkar declared, “caste is a system of graded inequality, and oppression”1. Sarah Gandee notes, “the hierarchical structure of caste was based upon exclusion and inequality which could not function without multiple castes who could be defined against each other in terms of ritual purity”2. The Hindu jat or jati system (caste) subdividing communities is based loosely on the fourfold varna hierarchical classification – Brahmins (scholars, priests), Kshatriyas (rulers, warriors), Vaishyas (agriculturalists and merchants), and Shudras (workers, labourers, artisans).  The most oppressed ended up being outside the varna system and were termed as avarna3 or the lowest/oppressed caste groups (who were mistreated as untouchables); each of these caste groups have numerous sub-castes. The term Dalit4 is widely used to denote the oppressed castes, in recent years many scholars and activists prefer using the term Bahujan5 (victim communities of social deprivation6), that includes Dalits, Adivasis (indigenous), backward castes, and women in its fold. In this article my focus is on Dalits. Ambedkar in his seminal and pathbreaking address “The Annihilation of Caste”, delved into various problems posed by the caste system.  One specific quote captures the essence of the caste system: “Caste system has two aspects. In one of its aspects, it divides men into separate communities. In its second aspect, it places these communities in a graded order one above the other in social status. Each caste takes its pride and its consolation in the fact that in the scale of castes it is above some other caste. As an outward mark of this gradation, there is also a gradation of social and religious rights, technically spoken of as Ashtadhikaras (eight rights) and Sanskaras (rites of passage). The higher the grade of a caste, the greater the number of these rights; and the lower the grade, the lesser their number”7.

Achhut Kannya

Ambedkar further adds, “caste is no doubt primarily the breath of the Hindus. But the Hindus have fouled the air all over, and everybody is infected—Sikh, Muslim, and Christian”8. It is important to note that other religions of South Asia also carry the elements of caste division, and casteism. Isabel Wilkerson writes, “a caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations”9. Wilkerson further provides a noteworthy differentiation between race and casteism, emphasising that “Dalit names are generally “contemptible” in meaning, referring to the humble or dirty work they were relegated to, while the Brahmins carry the names of the gods”10.

Many wondered why the Dalit character in the Oscar nominated Hindi/Bollywood11 film Lagaan (Tax, Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001) was named Kachra, which means garbage or filth, and found it offensive and discriminatory, but the film was portraying what was prevalent during that period. The biographical Marathi language film Kachru Mazha Bapa (My Father’s Name was Garbage, Mukesh Jadhav, 2016) analyses deep-rooted caste discrimination and oppression prevalent in the Caste-Hindu society in India and how taking on a respectable name was deemed a crime, and thus many from the oppressed castes had names that denoted filth, unwanted, outcaste, beggar etc. Velivada, an online site dedicated to the voice of the oppressed, points to the controversial ancient Hindu law book Manusmriti12, that has guidelines on how surnames should be conferred (2017)13.

In this article, I analyse how casteism is perpetuated in Hindi films of the NRI genre and assess why mainstream Hindi film narratives are all about Savarnas (high castes). Thus, understanding the name and surname convention is very important to understand Hindi cinema and the characters it portrays, as the surnames (mostly) prominently spell out the caste one belongs to. 

NRI Film Genre

NRI is the abbreviation used for Non-Resident Indians by the government of India. India’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s, alongside the rise of an aspirational, ambitious, upwardly mobile, and predominantly English-educated urban middle class, and the strong growth of the Indian diaspora communities in the West that provided a lucrative market for Hindi films beyond India, witnessed a shift in Hindi cinema’s storytelling, and its lead characters14. The 1970s and ‘80s action-oriented “angry young man” films gave way to the frothy romance and family drama set in Western countries, with stories of the affluent and well-settled Indian diaspora as the centrepiece15. As I wrote elsewhere, “The mushrooming multiplexes and malls in the urban centres added to the changing scenario. Indian Diaspora in countries like USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Gulf saw a new kind of film style catering to their diasporic desires”16. These were referred as NRI-centred films in the media, and with their increasing popularity by the late 1990s, NRI Films were acknowledged as a genre of Hindi cinema. 

Iris Vandevelde observes, “thematically, these [NRI] films tackle a range of issues, including representations of diasporic identities such as the supposedly torn minds of ‘hybrid NRIs’, struggling to reconcile their ‘Indian hearts’ with Western contexts of living. Over the years, the films’ narratives have suggested a variety of ways to cope with such identity crises by outright dismissing Western culture, emphasizing nostalgia and Indian values, promoting physical return to India, highlighting the transnational nature of Indian identities and so on”17. Unfortunately, what these films did not address was the caste divide and any acknowledgement of caste issues within the Indian/South Asian diaspora in the West. 

Filmmakers such as Yash Chopra and Yash Johar, who had earlier utilised picturesque locations in Western countries for their song-dance sequences, realised the potential of the Hindi film-crazy South Asian diaspora market in the West, and created stories based on NRI experience to strengthen this market. The 1995 blockbuster Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Big-Hearted Will Take the Bride, Aditya Chopra, 1995) paved the way for big-budgeted NRI-focused films. 

Caste Representation in Hindi Cinema

Any discussion of caste representation in mainstream Hindi cinema throws up the names of just a handful of films such as Acchut Kannya (Untouchable Girl, Himanshu Roy, 1936), Sujata (Bimal Roy, 1959), Bandit Queen (Shekhar Kapoor, 1994), Bawandar (Sandstorm, Jag Mundhra, 2000), Article 15 (Anubhav Sinha, 2019), and Aarakshan (Reservation, Prakash Jha, 2011)18. This in a way explains how underrepresented the stories of Dalits are in Hindi films. The mainstream Hindi cinema not only evades or ignores the issue of caste, but it perpetuates a caste hegemony through its representation.  Arti Singh and EP Abdul Azeez find that “the depiction of characters in mainstream Bollywood movies is also deeply rooted in the interest of dominant castes. The particular social background of the dominant caste is required to posit heroism in Bollywood cinema, and there are perennial attempts evident to manifest the dominant caste and Brahminical identities”19. I agree with Singh and Azeez’s claim that “Dalit identity is reserved for films that are socially oriented, and only if it has any specific caste angle, then only they will show the Dalits/Dalit community”20. Unfortunately, to date Dalit protagonists in Hindi films are a rarity, especially in the mainstream popular films. 

Article 15

In Hollywood we have seen the rise of films that portray the struggles and challenges of Black Americans and highlight issues such as segregation, discrimination and systemic racism.  There is also a strong and successful Black American film production, distribution and consumption structure.  Sadly, commercial Hindi cinema has failed to address the caste system and casteism. With the economics of Hindi cinema controlled mainly by the Savarnas, Dalits’ participation in film production on-camera and off-camera is miniscule.  Furthermore, there is no proper study of or research undertaken on the participation of Dalits in the creative industries, especially films. Neeraj Ghaywan, a celebrated filmmaker hailing from the Dalit community, and winner of two Cannes Film Festival awards, finds, “the handful of caste-based films made in the history of Hindi cinema have all been made by Savarnas. There’s not a single acknowledged Dalit artist that you can name here, even though Dalits make up 25 percent of the population. Whereas in America, you have so many Black directors, artists, singers, songwriters – and the Black American population is 13 percent! The irony is that this industry is not bigoted or casteist, it’s just that we’re ignorant”21

The mainstream Hindi cinema frequently utilises the class divide, at the expense of concealing the caste issue in its narrative. There is a tendency to highlight high caste identity, caste pride, and caste privilege, but the cinema fails to even pay lip service to the issues that plague oppressed castes. There seems to be a huge discomfort when it comes to representing the oppressed castes. Renowned actor/director Amol Palekar, who featured in the recent film 200 Halla Ho (200 Roar, Alok Batra, Sarthak Dasgupta, 2021) about the violent caste-based repression of women, responded to the question of why films such as this are not made, by squarely putting the blame on the producers who do not back such grim storylines, because these stories are not “conventionally entertaining”22. Palekar concedes, “Hindi cinema still prefers to maintain a conspicuous silence about caste issues. Our film industry refuses to come out of the Brahminical aesthetics”23. Palekar’s view is echoed by Ghaywan, who criticises Hindi cinema’s blindness towards caste; for Bollywood it has been easy to acknowledge and represent class issues, but it never understood nor explained the caste problem24. Suraj Yengde points towards an embedded systemic problem resulting in the underrepresentation of Dalits on-screen and off-screen, finding that “censorship of caste as a ‘sensitive’ issue by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)” creates hurdles for films featuring caste issues25

Salaam Namaste

The representation of Dalit women is equally problematic; barring a handful of alternate and parallel films, Dalit women are rarely the cynosure of the mainstream Hindi cinema. Bidisha Pal, Partha Bhattacharjee, and Priyanka Tripathi raise questions around how the Dalit women are doubly marginalised, firstly, as a woman, and second, as an outcaste, pointing out that “Dalit women face separate identity politics and existential crises due to their reduction as ‘impure’ bodies”26. The everyday violence that is perpetrated in the name of caste is most often on Dalit women, beating, raping, torturing, mutilating, and murdering them to send warning signals to the oppressed castes not to challenge or question Savarna hegemony and status, or make any demand for their basic rights. Mainstream filmmakers keep away from these issues and prefer storylines with an escapist formulaic structure. The 1980s Hindi potboilers27 exploited rape situations for titillation, and sexualisation for their revenge-based plotlines28. The women raped in these films were generally the upper caste hero’s sister, wife, or a relative, as this provided a straitjacketed storyline to get into the revenge mode, instead of struggling to elaborate on the socio-economic divide, and the political dimensions of suppression, oppression, discrimination and subjugation of the marginalised women29

Another issue surrounding the politics of representation is that most of the films that capture the stories of Dalits are told through a Savarna gaze; thus, they tend to be highly superficial, do not delve deep into the complexities of caste/ism, do not assess the social structure and hierarchies, and mostly end up decontextualising the story as per their narrow interpretations. Pal, Bhattacharjee, and Tripathi utilise Bandit Queen (Shekhar Kapoor, 1994), and Article 15 (Anubhav Sinha, 2019), two popular and pathbreaking films (among the handful) that delves into caste fault lines, discrimination, and caste-violence. They find that “although the films revolve around issues of Dalit lives and communities, the marginalized remain marginalized…both films are directed by men who belong to the upper caste belts. Hence, the presence of Savarna patriarchy behind the lenses cannot be taken in abeyance”30

Furthermore, many found Ayan, the Brahmin protagonist in Article 15, represented a “white saviour” complex. In an interview with the film critic Anupama Chopra, Ayushmann Khurrana, the lead of Article 15, tried to justify the Brahmin character, “in Article 15, there has to be a Brahmin or a so-called upper caste who is fighting for the Dalits or the reserved category. He is the one who is leading by example. It is obvious that the downtrodden will fight for themselves, but in our country, you need to have that ‘hero’ who can fight for them”31. In Khurrana’s defence, he does talk at length about caste discrimination, and how no one wants to talk about it; he goes on to say, “it is like a social responsibility as an artist, you should do a film like this.” Chopra further questions, why do you think Hindi cinema has chosen to be caste blind? Khurrana responds, “It is not just Hindi cinema, we are also caste blind, especially in urban India, we have recently seen Dr Payal committing suicide because of caste discrimination, but in rural India it is so rampant, it is crazy! …the so-called upper caste thinks that nothing like [casteism] is there, it doesn’t exist, we’ve blinders on, but it does exist everywhere”32. It is rare for any Hindi film star to say something like this in recent times and acknowledge the inherent casteism. While Amol Palekar thinks, “caste as an issue is rarely commented on in Hindi cinema as it is not conventionally entertaining”, Khurrana feels that any film should have an intriguing value so that people are interested in watching a film that is entertainment at the same time. The sanitisation of caste into a rich-poor binary has been easy for Bollywood to handle and wash their hands of challenging discussions vis-à-vis caste.  Khurrana finds this approach of Bollywood is nothing but “playing safe for commercial gains”. But what I find problematic is when Chopra asks Khurrana regarding the Savarna gaze of the film, he initially respond to it by saying, “the film is being made by a sensitised and aware citizen, who inspires the upper castes to end discrimination”. Unfortunately, Khurrana gets defensive and blames the critics for “reverse casteism”; both Chopra and Khurana laugh it off and move to the next question nonchalantly. On one hand Khurrana talks about the problems faced by one of his college mates due to reservation and casteism, on the other hand, he declares, Bollywood is a secular space where there is no casteism, and scoffs, “there is no reservation either”33

NRI Films: The Song and Dance of the Savarnas

Much has been discussed about the success of the NRI genre, with many scholars pointing out how these NRI films represented the diasporic Indians, negotiating their ethnic identity, their connectedness with the motherland, upholding Indian values, and following their religion and culture primarily in Western countries34. What remains elusive is the discussion around caste, and caste practice within the diaspora. The NRI films are concerned with only the successful upper class and upper caste Indian diaspora in the West, and their limited challenges. Vandevelde claims, “In contrast to films produced up till the mid-1990s which had correlated the Indian diaspora negatively to wealth, immorality and India’s colonial history, the new Non-Resident Indian (NRI) became typically staged as affluent and rich in a positive way, personifying a ‘model’ Indian citizen”35. Unfortunately, Vandevelde’s article on the NRI genre is unable to identify caste, or even mention it once; the focus simply remains on the rich, affluent and the cultured (upper caste Hindus). Thus, Yengde’s assertion rings true, “Dalit experience does not enter into the film-making ecology of Indian cinema”36, and these star-driven NRI films remain unconcerned with the caste factor; watching these films makes one wonder if India (and its diaspora in the West) ever encounter any caste issue. While analysing NRI films in detail, most scholars do not acknowledge the whitewashing of caste, this can be a result of a privileged Savarna gaze, that is unable to see or recognise the caste divide. 

To understand the caste representation in the NRI genre films, I selected 1437 films which were focused on NRIs or had a prominent NRI character, from 1995-2005, and featured in the top ten highest grossing list in the year of its release. I analysed the top ten Hindi film box office reports listed in the following websites: imdb.com, bollywoodhungama.com, and Wikipedia.  To keep it simple, instead of delving into specific castes, I analyse the caste surnames of the lead characters in terms of Savarnas and Dalits. A basic analysis of the story structure of the films is undertaken to evaluate if the caste issue features in any of these films. In addition, I look at the lead actors and their caste/religion to assess if any Dalits were featured in these films in lead roles.

Figure 1 pt. 1

Figure 1 pt. 2

Figure 1 pt. 3

Figure 1 pt.4

Caste Blindness in NRI Films

International Dalit Solidarity Network in its research claims that “evidence has been found that South Asians who have relocated to the United Kingdom, tend to bring the caste system, and inherent discrimination, with them when they move. Caste discrimination is therefore reproduced within South Asian communities in the UK. It has been estimated that there are at least 250,000 Dalits living in the UK”38. Similarly, the USA-based Equality Labs in its ground-breaking report Caste in the United States: A Survey of Castes Among South Asian Americans, finds caste discrimination existing in the USA in all walks of life, from school, workplace, religious places, local business, to food preferences, and interpersonal relationships. Equality Labs also notes, “26% of Dalits who responded said they had faced physical assault in the United States based on their caste”39. Karishma Luthria’s opinion piece in Australia’s ABC News captures firsthand experiences of Dalits in Australia, and how casteism operates, both subtly and directly 40. All these reports point to the strong caste divide in the Indian diaspora, yet, one does not find any mention of casteism, or caste practices, even passing in these Hindi NRI films. 

An analysis of the surnames in the selected NRI films provide some noteworthy insights. The most common surnames in these films are Malhotra, Kapoor/Kapur, Mathur, Khanna, Singh. Malhotra surname appears in six films, Kapoor in four, Mathur in three, Khanna, and Singh in two. The interesting thing to note is that surnames such as Malhotra, Mehra, Kapoor, Khanna are from the same Khatri Dhai Ghar family41. Khatris are supposedly the trading class, they have endogamous groups such as, Dhai-char ghar and Panja jati. While Dhai-char ghar has four exogamous clans, Panja jati has five. Kapoor notes, “[Khatris] have myths justifying their claim to the status of Kshatriyas”42. Malhotra, Mehra, Kapoor, and Khanna surnames are repetitively used in Bollywood, especially in the films of Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions. This can be attributed to the fact that many controlling the production and distribution network belong to these Savarna castes, and thus find it easy to capture stories featuring their caste (privileged) brethren. 

The other surnames that the lead protagonists of these films carry are – Arora, Birla, Bhargava, Chopra, Malik, Pandya, Patel, Rampal, Raichand, Sahani, Saxena, Sharma, Srivastava, and Vora; again, all Savarnas – from Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vaishya caste groups.  Dalit representation remains unspoken, they are just depicted as the house help/servants, labourers, and other menial workers in the background.  Kantaben, the house helper in Kal Ho Na Ho is there for comic relief at the expense of homophobia, when she enters Rohit’s room and find him lying in bed with Aman, she is dumbfounded thinking they both are gay. In the following scene she tries to stop Rahul meeting up with Rohit, and in another she catches them in a compromising position. Her conservative outlook (belonging to a low class/caste) is used for a laugh.

Kal Ho Na Ho

Singh and Azeez rightly assert that “unlike, Western societies, in India, last names or surnames have special significance. They are the indicators of one’s social status—the caste, sub-caste, region, religion, and language. One can easily identify another’s caste based on his or her surname. This way of naming practice is prominent in the Hindi region of India where most of the Bollywood films are based”43. While Rohit Patel and Aman Mathur have their surnames prominently put forth, Kantaben the house helper does not need her surname spelt out; being a house helper is enough to denote someone from an oppressed caste. 

A close analysis of the surnames44 of the lead actors in these NRI films also point to a domain strictly occupied by the Savarnas; even the Muslim 45 stars are from the Ashraf group (the high caste of Indian Muslims). Dalits do not find any space among the Hindi film stars, nor is there any attempt to provide them any representation in a film business structure that is predominantly owned by the Savarna families and business groups.

NRI films: A Neo-Traditional Celebration of Hindu & Punjabi Culture

Most of the NRI films (that were analysed) follow a similar trajectory depicting heterosexual love stories, built around family or friends, and issues such as belongingness, nostalgia and connectedness, with the culture of the motherland figuring prominently. The only exception is Kaante, an action thriller inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). These star-driven films also play on the stereotype of good Indian and bad Western46. In a scene from KKHH, Rahul tries hazing Tina a new student in the college who has recently returned to India from the UK. Rahul’s stereotypical notion of a Western Oxbridge-educated person having no understanding of the Indian culture, makes him challenge Tina to sing a song in Hindi. Tina surprises one and all by not only singing in Hindi but choosing a Hindu religious song. Tina’s “Indianness” embedded in Hindu culture floors Rahul, and he falls head over heels for her. Similarly, in DDLJ, Simran pleads with Raj to elope with her, but Raj doesn’t want to elope; in a very traditional Indian way, he wants to get the consent and blessings of Simran’s parents, only then he will marry her. For a character like Raj, who belongs to an upper caste and a high class (settled in a Western country), it is something achievable, without much social consternation; all he needs to do is to get into the good books of Simran’s father. 


This “Indianness” melded with the Hindu traditional ethos drives most of the NRI films. Shohini Chaudhuri argues that “through their use of stars, traditions and rituals, Bollywood films feed NRIs’ nostalgia for their ‘motherland’. These neo-traditional films construct an imaginary of mythical India; for example, DDLJ presents an idyllic, virtually pre-industrial rural Punjab, airbrushed and shorn of violent conflict47. In Pardes, NRI Kishori Lal visits India in search of a “traditional Indian” girl for his son Rajiv and finds his friend Suraj Dev’s daughter Ganga a perfect epitome of an Indian upper caste Hindu girl. The first 18 minutes of the film focus on the stereotypes associated with the perfect Hindu upper caste girl by showcasing Ganga’s reverence and respect for her elders, love for her younger siblings and relatives, her caring nature, her religious and social values, her various skills from dancing to cooking, and most importantly her love for the “motherland”, through the song “Yeh Mera India” (This is my India); all this ends up impressing Kishori Lal and he asks Ganga’s father Suraj Dev her hand for his son Rajiv. Films such as , Kal Ho Na Ho, Yaadein, Mujhse Dosti Karoge, and Swades, are all embedded in the same framework of a neo-traditional Hindu family, celebrating culture, and Indianness. Yes, there are strong class tensions (as in K3G and Pardes), but within their own high castes. These NRI films, while depicting the diasporic terrain in the West, is embedded deeply with its own (high) castes and class. I disagree with Pulkit Datta when he says that “the protagonists in DDLJ as well as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai loosely carried the same ideals, where having family, whatever its form, was more Indian and more important than questions of class and caste”48.]. Both DDLJ and KKHH operate within the safe structure of upper caste and upper class; the other castes are hardly depicted, and characters from other religions play second fiddle roles such as aunt (Farida Jalal as Sayeeda Naaz in K3G, and as Lily Anthony Rodriques in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai…), family friend (Pawan Malhotra as Sharafat Ali in Pardes), or as a comic relief (Johnny Lever as Colonel Pankaj Almeida in KKHH). 

Mujhse Dosti Karoge

Most of these films work on the binary depiction of good Indian, and bad Western; in Pardes, Rajiv the smoking and drinking womaniser is depicted as a person not fit for a cultured Indian woman like Ganga. In DDLJ, Chaudhary Baldev Singh remembers Raj bitterly as someone who grabbed beer from his shop and threw money in his face; he found that act very unIndian, and thus would not agree for Simran to get married with someone as uncultured and highly westernised as Raj. In Yaadein Ronit Malhotra despises his family for their overly westernised demeanour and respects his uncle Raj Singh Puri’s family as he finds their Indian values closer to his heart. Unfortunately, in the process of glorifying the motherland, the foreign land and Western culture are vilified in most of these films. 

NRI Films Vs Small Town Stories 

The recent trend of small-town stories in Hindi cinema provided an opportunity for exploring the caste divide in the society, but unfortunately these films have become a prime example of overlooking the marginalised castes, with their extreme focus on the high caste protagonists. In these small town-based films49, one will notice how almost all the characters are from the upper caste Hindu Brahmins, with surnames such as Sharma, Mishra, Dubey, Trivedi, Tiwari and Shukla. The plot of these films, be it marriage, celebration, or funeral, mostly limits its engagement to the community it represents. Ravikiran Shinde in his scathing report states that “the largely upper caste directors, writers and producers seem to prefer their own caste names”50. Unfortunately, even the small-town Hindi films fail to represent the diversity that it operates in, or the demography that defines a small town in India; the 30% upper caste population is given preferential treatment, while the other backward class (41%), Scheduled Castes (20%)51, and Scheduled
Tribes52 (9%) find hardly any representation or mention in these films.

NRI films, while showcasing and celebrating Indian/Hindu culture embedded and assimilated in the western world, yet strongly rooted and connected with the “motherland”, do not acknowledge the diversity of Indians in the diaspora. Racism encountered by upper caste Indians in the Western world are highlighted prominently in these films, but unfortunately, they fail to capture or acknowledge caste prejudices and biases, thus creating a contradiction. 

The NRI film genre film especially in the 1990s and 2000s garnered tremendous popularity, with top Bollywood stars featuring in these stories that captured the life of the Indian diaspora and their connectedness with the homeland. The analysis of the 14 NRI films in terms of caste representation clearly reveal that these films perpetuated caste and cultural hegemony. The lead protagonists’ high caste is flaunted in your face, their privilege, access, and success are glorified, and their high culture celebrated. Dalits do not figure in these escapist fares, their aspirations, ambitions never considered. The explicit understanding by most filmmakers, that films featuring Dalits must focus on caste conflict and caste oppression and highlight them as a victim of the society and the system, is disconcerting. The filmmakers clearly do not consider the wider demographic within the Indian diaspora and turn a blind eye towards the strong presence of Dalits in these diasporic communities. It highlights its clear bias, and a deliberate attitude to overlook the Dalits. Hindi cinema not only lacks diversity in terms of the names of characters, but also, the actors and filmmakers. The control of the film business strongly in the hands of Savarnas helps keep the Dalits out of the competition, and does not provide them with a level playing field. 

Yengde concludes that “what is missing [in Indian cinema] is a deliberate discussion about the intra-personal relationships of caste”53. Unfortunately, this lack of diversity is seldom questioned in the media or academia, and often caste issues are subsumed under the discussions of class54. Although I concur with Rajamani’s view on reversing the upper caste gaze and how “there is a lot of scope for both [Dalits]/Bahujan55 and upper caste filmmakers to make important commentaries on caste. The latter have access to places that Bahujans can’t even enter. They are better suited to understand, reflect, and critique it56“, I find Yengde and Ghaywan’s suggestion much valuable, that there is a need for Dalit and Bahujan filmmakers to lead from the front and tell their stories. In recent years, Marathi, Tamil, and Malayalam filmmakers have paved the way for telling stories featuring Dalit protagonists in an evocative and thought-provoking manner; in their narratives, they move beyond the stereotypes attached with the representation of Dalits, and though only a handful, this a good start. Tamil filmmakers such as Pa. Ranjith (Kaala [2018], Sarpatta Parambarai [2021]), Mari Selvaraj (Pariyerum Perumal [2018], Karnan [2021]), and Vetrimaaran (Asuran [2019]) have already displayed how Dalit protagonists can take the centre stage and challenge the stereotypes; importantly, they give prominence to the female voice in their films.  Similarly, thought-provoking films of Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule (Fandry [2013], Sairat [2016]) have been highly commended for their aesthetical storytelling.  Manjule’s recent foray in Bollywood with Jhund (Crowd, 2022), starring Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan, exploring the story of Mumbai’s downtrodden slum youths, not only received rave reviews, but also brought attention to the issues of marginalisation and systemic oppression. These filmmakers have not only created a space for themselves, but have captured the angst, aspirations, and stories of Dalits like never before.  It is being noticed, applauded, and followed; as Mari Selvaraj asserts, “when a new generation creates art, there will be tremors”56.


  1. Vasant Moon, ed. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. Volume 1 (New Delhi: Dr. Ambedkar Foundation Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Government. of India, 2014), p. 167.
  2. Sarah Gandee, “Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Reinterpretation of ‘Untouchability’: Legislating Against Caste Violence in Rural India, 1930-1975”, Retrospectives, Volume 4 Issue 1 (2015), p. 18.
  3. The avarnas were grouped and included as Scheduled Castes in the constitution of India (for affirmative action/reservation purpose).
  4. A few scholars use the term Dalits and Bahujan alternatively. Many believe Bahujan as a broader term is more inclusive, and it includes other oppressed groups.
  5. Valliammal Karunakaran, ‘The Dalit-Bahujan Guide to Understanding Caste in Hindu Scripture’, 2016
  6. K. K. Kailash, ‘The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same in India: The Bahujan and the Paradox of the “Democratic Upsurge”’, Asian Survey, 52.2 (2012), 321–47, p. 322.
  7. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. Volume 1, p. 72.
  8. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. Volume 1, p. 80.
  9. Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Lies That Divide Us (New York: Allen Lane, 2020) p. 17.
  10. Wilkerson, Caste, p. 76.
  11. Note, I utilise the term Bollywood and Hindi cinema interchangeably, but specifically, I refer to post-1990 Hindi cinema as Bollywood. It is after 1990 that the brand name Bollywood became popular.  Vikrant Kishore, From Real to Reel: Folk Dances of India in Bollywood Cinema. (Adelaide: UNESCO-Apnieve, 2014).
  12. As per Velivada, the Manusmirti outlines: “Let (the first part of) a brahmin’s (denote) something auspicious, a kshatriya’s name be connected with power and a vaishya’s with wealth, but a Shudra’s (express something) contemptible. – Manusmriti II – 31; (The second part of) a Brahmin’s (name) shall be (a word) implying happiness, of a Kshatriya’s (word) implying protection, of a Vaishya’s (a term) expressive of thriving, and of a shudra’s (an expression) denoting service. – Manusmriti II-32. See https://velivada.com/2017/06/03/dalits-assigned-bad-names-brahminical-scripture-manusmriti-answer/
  13. Georg Bühler, The Laws of Manu (New Dehli: Cosmo, 2004), p. 5.
  14. Kishore, From Real to Reel, p. 98.
  15. Sony Jalarajan Raj, Rohini Sreekumar, and Fikri Jermadi. “The Khan Mania: Universal Appeal of Superstar Shahrukh Khan in a Post-Globalised Bollywood Era” in Salaam Bollywood: Representations and Interpretations, Vikrant Kishore, Amit Sarwal, and Parichay Patra, eds. (New York and Oxford: Routledge, 2016), pp. 263-64.
  16. Vikrant Kishore, “Amitabh Bachchan: From ‘Angry Young Man’ to ‘Flirtatious Old Man’ – Changing Representations of Masculinity in Bollywood”, International Journal of Communication Development, Issue 1 (2011): p. 8.
  17. Iris Vandevelde, “Revisiting the NRI ‘Genre’: Indian Diasporic Engagements with NRI and Multiplex Films”, South Asian Popular Culture, Issue 11-1 (2013), p. 47.
  18. A few insightful and detailed studies of caste discrimination were captured by the Parallel Cinema or the Indian new wave cinema such as Ankur (The Seedling, Shyam Benegal, 1974), Bhavni Bhavai (The Tale of the Life, Ketan Mehta, 1980), Aakrosh (Anger, Govind Nihalani, 1980), and Samar (Conflict, Shyam Benegal, 1999).
  19. Arti Singh and EP Abdul Azeez, “Caste in Contemporary Bollywood Movies: An Analysis of the Portrayal of Characters’, Asian Journal of Social Science, Issue 49 (2021), p. 94.
  20. Singh and Azeez, “Caste in Contemporary Bollywood Movies”, p. 94.
  21. Rahul Desai, “Neeraj Ghaywan on Exploring Caste and Sexuality in His Ajeeb Daastaans Short”, Filmcompanion.in (16 April 2021).
  22. Manisha Mandal, “Amol Palekar Feels Hindi Cinema Distances Itself From Caste Issues as It’s Not Entertaining”, India Times (19 August 2021).
  23. Manisha Mandal, “Amol Palekar Feels Hindi Cinema Distances Itself From Caste Issues as It’s Not Entertaining”.
  24. Desai, “Neeraj Ghaywan on Exploring Caste and Sexuality in His Ajeeb Daastaans Short”.
  25. Suraj Yengde, “Dalit Cinema”, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Volume 41 Issue 3 (2018), p. 10.
  26. Bidisha Pal, Partha Bhattacharjee, and Priyanka Tripathi, “Gendered and Casteist Body: Cast(e)ing and Castigating the Female Body in Select Bollywood Films”, Journal of International Women’s Studies, Volume 22 Issue 10 (2021), p. 61.
  27. Hindi film potboilers such as Aaj Ki Awaaz (Voice of the Day, Ravi Chopra, 1984), Awaaz (Voice, Shakti Samanta, 1984), Insaaf Main Karoongaa (I Will Deliver Justice, Shibu Mitra, 1985), Ankush (Goad, N. Chandra, 1986), and Aakhree Raasta (The Last Option, K. Bhagyaraj, 1986).
  28. Isha Karki, “Scripting Resistance: Rape and the Avenging Woman in Hindi Cinema:, Journal of International Women’s Studies, Volume 20 Issue 4 (2019), pp. 83-102.
  29. Jyotika Virdi, “Reverence, Rape – and Then Revenge: Popular Hindi Cinema’s “Woman’s Film”’, Screen, Volume 40 Issue 1 (1999), pp. 17-37.
  30. Pal, Bhattacharjee, and Tripathi, “Gendered and Casteist Body”, p. 63.
  31. Anupama Chopra, “Article 15: Ayushmann Khurrana Interview with Anupama Chopra”, Film Companion, (June, 2019)
  32. Chopra, “Article 15”.
  33. Chopra, “Article 15”.
  34. Amit Ranjan, “Construing the Indian Middle Class Ideology: Changing Ideas of Nation and Nationalism in Hindi Cinema”, Economic and Political Weekly, Volume 54 Issue 26–27 (2019), pp. 65-72; Sindhuja Sankaran, Maciek Sekerdej, and Ulrich von Hecker, “The Role of Indian Caste Identity and Caste Inconsistent Norms on Status Representation”, Frontiers in Psychology, Issue 8 (2017).
  35. Vandevelde, “Revisiting the NRI ‘Genre’”, p. 47.
  36. Yengde, “Dalit Cinema”, p. 16.
  37. This list is compiled from the data provided on the following websites: www.bollywoodhungama.com, www.imdb.com, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Hindi_films_of_the_1990s, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_Hindi_films#2000s.
  38. International Dalit Solidarity Network, “Caste Discrimination and Human Rights (UK)” (2019).
  39. Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, and Natasha Dar, Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste among South Asian Americans, (USA: Equality Labs, 2018): pp. 27-28.
  40. Karishma Luthria. “They’ve left South Asia, but they can’t escape the discrimination and division of its caste system,” ABC News (11 February 2021).
  41. Ashok Malhotra, ‘Malhotra Surname – History and Origins’, Dr Ashok Malhotra’s Blog (2019)
  42. Saroj Kapoor, ‘Family and Kinship Groups Among the Khatris in Delhi.’, Sociological Bulletin, 14.2 (1965), 54–63, p. 54.
  43. Singh and Azeez, “Caste in Contemporary Bollywood Movies”, p. 94
  44. Surnames of the lead actors in the selected 14 films: Agnihotri, Bachchan, Chatterjee, Chaudhary, Dutt, Joshi, Kapoor, Khan, Khanna, Manjhrekar, Mukherjee/Mukerji, Patel, Roshan, Shetty, Shroff, Sinha, Zinta.
  45. Yoginder Sikand, “Islam and Caste Inequality Among Indian Muslims,” Countercurrents.org (15 February 2000).
  46. Jaishree Kumar, “We Asked the Desi Diaspora to Review Bollywood Characters Portraying Desis Abroad”, Vice (28 May 2021).
  47. Shohini Chaudhuri, Contemporary World Cinema: Europe, the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 160.
  48. Pulkit Datta, Bollywoodizing Diasporas: Reconnecting to the NRI through Popular Hindi Cinema (Miami University, 2008), p. 54 [undergraduate thesis
  49. Small town-based films include: Tanu Weds Manu (Aanand L. Rai, 2011), Dum Laga Ke Haisha (Give it all your Force, Sharat Katariya, 2015), Toilet Ek Prem Katha (Toilet: A Love Story, Shree Narayan Singh, 2017), Bareilly Ki Barfi (Bareilly’s Sweet, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, 2017), Sui Dhaaga: Made in India (Needle & Thread, Sharat Katariya, 2018), Luka Chuppi (Hide and Seek, Laxman Utekar, 2019), and Dream Girl (Raaj Shaandilyaa, 2019).
  50. Ravikiran Shinde, “From Jolly to Bauua, Bollywood’s Small-Town Heroes Are Always Upper Caste”, Business Standard, India (27 December 2018).
  51. Sanyukta Kanwal, ‘Share of Indian Population in 2019, Based on Caste’, Statista, 2020
  52. There is also a huge misrepresentation of the equally marginalised indigenous/tribal communities in Indian cinema. The adivasis (indigenous) groups/communities are categorised as Scheduled Tribes in the constitution of India.
  53. Yengde, “Dalit Cinema”, p. 16.
  54. Yengde, “Dalit Cinema”, p. 16.
  55. Jyoti Nisha, ‘Indian Cinema and the Bahujan Spectatorship’, Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai: Athena Information Solutions Pvt. Ltd., 16 May 2020), ProQuest One Academic.
  56. Nolina S. Minj, ‘Reversing the Upper-Caste Gaze: Rajesh Rajamani on His Vision for The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas’, Firstpost (8 October 2020).
  57. Nolina S. Minj, ‘Reversing the Upper-Caste Gaze: Rajesh Rajamani on His Vision for The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas’, Firstpost (8 October 2020).

About The Author

Dr Vikrant Kishore is a filmmaker, academic and a journalist. He has authored and edited books on Indian cinema, celebrity culture, and cultural heritage. Dr Kishore’s areas of research are Indian cinema, intangible cultural heritage, reality television programmes, and caste issues.

Related Posts