Origin: A film on race and caste featuring BR Ambedkar makes waves in Hollywood

BySumanti Sen
Sep 14, 2023 03:11 PM IST

Dr BR Ambedkar was portrayed by Gaurav J. Pathania, a Professor in the United States.

It was a historic day for representation on September 6 when Ava DuVernay became the first African-American woman to present her film Origin at the Venice Film Festival. And, to top it off, it was also the first Hollywood movie featuring Dr BR Ambedkar, one of India's founding fathers.

Dr BR Ambedkar (Left) and Ana DuVernay with Gaurav J Pathania, who played DR Ambedkar in the movie
Dr BR Ambedkar (Left) and Ana DuVernay with Gaurav J Pathania, who played DR Ambedkar in the movie

Origin stars Connie Nielsen, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Victoria Pedretti, and is a deeply moving journey traversing inequalities across the world. The movie was also celebrated at the Toronto Film Festival on September 14 where it received a standing ovation.

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For the uninitiated, Dr BR Ambedkar, headed the committee drafting the Indian Constitution and was India's first Law and Justice Minister. In the movie, he was portrayed by Gaurav J. Pathania, a Professor in the United States.

The American biographical drama film is based on the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. The film explores disrimination through the lens of India's caste system, American racism, as well as the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

How BR Ambedkar is portrayed in Origin

Before the film’s release and while the casting was underway, the casting call had asked for ‘actors from the Ambedkar community are encouraged to apply’, according to a report in The Quint. Perhaps, the director was referring to Dr Ambedkar's caste, referring to Dalits, a group called Scheduled Castes in India.

A Dalit scholar who grew up in poverty, Dr Ambedkar is widely known for helping draft India’s constitution. The film describes his achievements, and also details the travails of his childhood, when he was forced to sit on the floor of his classroom.

Ava connected Ambedkar’s experience with that of Al Bright, an 11-year-old Black boy who was not allowed to celebrate a Little League championship with his friends in the same pool in 1951. Al was not allowed to touch the water. In many states, in America, African-Americans were often barred from using swimming pools.

Ava’s film has been shortlisted for the Golden Lion title. Describing her achievment, she told the media, “It is something that hadn’t happened in eight decades. That’s a door open that I trust the festival will keep open.”

What is ‘Origin’ about?

According to IMDb, Origin reflects on the “unspoken system that has shaped America and chronicles how lives today are defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.” It stars Aunjanue Ellis as Isabel, alongside Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Niecy Nash-Betts, Nick Offerman and Blair Underwood.

Origin talks about tragedies in the author’s life, including the death of her white husband and her mother. The tragedies move the author and prompt her to embark on a journey in which she encounters and investigates several forms of discriminations around the world. The character Isabel portrays Ava’s personal journey involving these subjects.

In the film, Isabel’s journey gives audiences a glimpse into the personal struggles of Black women. Isabel faces pushback for her opinions, but instead of firing back, she internalises it.

‘Justice, and what’s right or wrong, is a global idea’

Speaking about her work, Ava previously told Deadline, “You know, part of the hope with this, we talk so much about IP and what appeals globally. This is something that I saw and we experienced with When They See Us on Netflix around the world: Justice, and what’s right or wrong, is a global idea. It’s not only capes, right?”

“There are stories that are profound and that are deeply felt and emotional in every country in this world that deal with justice. Let me tell you, that’s why when I would see some of the numbers that I got shared with me from When They See Us from all these countries and territories — it’s astounding that story of these boys, which you would think wouldn’t travel, how it traveled everywhere,” she said.

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