Paat na paya meetha paani/Or-chhor ki doori re...
This line from the song Mann Kasturi, of the recently released film Masaan, literary means that even the sweet water of the river cannot bridge the distance between its two sides. According to stand-up comedian Varun Grover, who co-wrote the film's script and lyrics, the intent behind the words was: "The Ganges can't fill the divides between castes and genders that we have created in our society."
Richa Chaddha and Sanjay Mishra in a still from Masaan.
One of the two intertwined stories of Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan, which is set in Varanasi and won two awards at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival this year, is a love story between a low-caste boy from the Dom community, which oversees the burning of corpses, and an upper-caste girl.
Shaalu and Deepak's blossoming relationship is marred by the realisation that the girl's orthodox parents will vehemently oppose it. But Shaalu assures Deepak that she herself doesn't believe in such discriminations, and would be happy to marry him even if it needed them to elope.
Most of us are aware of the caste-based discriminations quite well, but, at times turn a blind eye to them. Marginalisation of lower caste people – often leading to socio-cultural exclusion and even violence – continues to be one of the most unfortunate evils of the Indian society.
Last May, a 21-year-old Dalit boy in Maharashtra's Shirdi town was killed because he had assigned a song on Ambedkar as the ringtone on his phone. Media reports said the assailants hit the boy with a beer bottle and kicked and punched him to death after he refused to switch off the song which praised Ambedkar's work for uplifting Dalits.
"The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable," wrote Babasaheb Ambedkar in his famous essay Annihilation of Caste in 1936, adding, "Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity." Ambedkar suggested in the essay that the "real remedy" for caste-based discrimination in India is the promotion of inter-caste marriage.
However, seldom does mainstream Hindi cinema capture this grim reality. Of course, there was Shyam Benegal's Ankur but it was way back in 1974, which is why contemporary films like Masaan are so relevant for portraying our society's woes realistically.
But the real surprise in this regard is Kabir Khan's blockbuster Bajrangi Bhaijaan, starring Salman Khan, which tells the story of a pious Hindu man travelling to Pakistan to reunite a lost six-year-old mute girl with her parents. Woven into the primary storyline of the film, there are nuanced references to caste-based discriminations that are widespread in our society.
In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, while trying to identify the girl's community, the character portrayed by Salman, Bajrangi, says that her extremely fair complexion is an indication that she is a Brahmin. But after she exhibits her liking for meat, Bajrangi concedes that she must belong to a Kshatriya family, who are upper-castes but consume meat.
Salman Khan and Harshaali Malhotra in Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
Needless to say, such references hold up a mirror to the society to see for itself the reflection of deep-seated, centuries-old prejudices.
A senior journalist with The Indian Express asked director Kabir Khan in an interview, "There are casteist lines about 'fair' Brahmins and 'meat-eating' Kshatriyas. Isn't that too stereotypical?" He replied: "Exactly the reason we placed it in the film. Caste is so steeped in our conscience that that is how we talk. That's the stereotype. Bajrangi voices what we all think."
Masaan and Bajrangi Bhaijaan have also come at a time when political pressure on the Narendra Modi-led NDA government to release detailed Caste Census data of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2001 is mounting, and the Bharatiya Janata Party's rivals and critics have attributed a political motive behind the delay. They have claimed that relevant caste data will help develop specific schemes to "uplift those who have been maltreated and suppressed in the name of caste."
Perhaps it is too naive for us to think that a film can unshackle us from the prejudices of the centuries-old caste system that sit so deeply in our conscience. "Films cannot change society. They never have. Show me a film that changed society or brought about any change," Oscar-winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray had rightly said in an interview with the Cineaste magazine in the 1980s.
However, what films like Masaan and Bajrangi Bhaijaan can definitely do is showcase the reality in a brave, unflinching manner. And may be in doing so, hammer into our minds the fact that we do harbour prejudices against people who we think are different from us and nudge us to question our beliefs.
Hopefully, more such films will be made and they will one day bridge the gaps that Ganges' sweet water cannot.
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @saha_abhi1990)
Read: Masaan review
Read: Bajrangi Bhaijaan review