A Case for an Ambedkarite Perspective in the Arts and Entertainment Industry

The fields of art and entertainment would be sterile without freedom of expression.

However, when marginalized communities, particularly the Dalits, “attempt” to exercise this freedom, even in the form of basic human rights (such as wearing shoes, riding a horse or wearing a mustache), they face negative comments, abuse and even violent attacks. . It may be recalled that in 2015, a Dalit man, Sagar Shejwal, was beaten to death by eight ‘upper’ caste assailants in Shirdi, Maharashtra, because his cellphone ringtone eulogized of Ambedkar.

The Dalit-Bahujan quest to participate in the world of entertainment has often been overlooked or looked down upon.

In the recent past, learning from the black arts movement in Hollywood, there have been promising attempts to democratize the Indian film and entertainment industry. With bold new artistic films from Pa Ranjith, Nagaraj Manjule, Vetrimaran among others, a dialogue has been started claiming a new space for Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers in the industry.

Moreover, with the arrival of the recent short video app “Jai Bheem”, it can be seen that the quest of artists and performers belonging to socially marginalized groups to become an influential part of the entertainment industry with more visibility. These attempts have introduced the ideas of social justice into the film and entertainment industry and can be a step towards its greater democratization.

Ambedkar and freedom of expression

The Dalit-Bahujan masses revere Babasaheb Ambedkar as the crucial source of inspiration, who helps us understand how we should function in the modern world as free and equal beings, capable enough to make independent and rational decisions for our good. -to be..

Today, if Ambedkar sees that people belonging to Dalit-Bahujan sections are so diversely talented in various spheres of arts, dance, music, drama, performance and want to create their own name in these fields, what would be his advice to these creative people? ?

What will be his vision for the participation of Dalits in the field of mass entertainment? Will he be happy to see movies like Fandry, Sairat, Kala, Asuran and Jai Bhim? Do we have an Ambedkarite framework for understanding how the film industry, which is a crucial source, shapes our cultural policies and impacts the social psyche?

Ambedkar, as a strong proponent of the democratic participation of disadvantaged strata in public life, would suggest that every sphere of social and economic life should be diversified, ensuring substantial participation of different segments of society. In this regard, the entertainment industry needs diversity and participation of Dalit-Bahujan groups.

Representative image. File photo of protesters opposing the watering down of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe law, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI.

Furthermore, Ambedkar, as a sincere supporter of freedom of expression, would suggest that artists should be freed from social prejudice, dogma and elite control. According to him, an artist can only perform, to the best of his ability, if he has no coercive restrictions to respect. It is because freedom would be so dear to Ambedkar that he would tell an artist to create a society that respects individual dreams, cherishes freedom and challenges every form of social injustice to build a harmonious social environment.

After many historical socio-political struggles, a small, conscious and vocal segment of the Dalit middle class is present today in the public sphere. However, a large Dalit population, anticipating coercive opposition, lives in fear and remains submissive.

Above all, in the world of entertainment, there are very few artists and technicians who can proudly refer to their “Shudhra/Bahujan” or “Dalit” ancestry. For example, legendary lyricist Shailendra never revealed his “dalit” identity, while actor Raj Kapoor always wore his Punjabi cultural and social capital on his sleeve. The values ​​of the Brahmanical system hegemonize our social outlook and compel our minds to despise Dalit-Bahujan identities with shame and prejudice. Dalit-Bahujan artists are therefore often prisoners of these stereotypes.

Moreover, the entertainment industry, especially the filmmaking segment, is one of the most expensive mediums because it attracts great fame, money, and power. Therefore, the doors of this business are often closed to “outsiders”. The sector is dominated by tight social networks, nepotism and class associations. Especially for Dalit-Bahujan communities, getting a fair and dignified entry into this segment is a difficult task.

There are many gatekeepers that often prohibit or discourage talented artists from having a fair entry into the business. The film industry often promotes the cultural ideas and socio-political concerns of social elites and relegates Dalit-Bahujan artists to insignificant passive spectators. Their artistry, creativity and cultural symbols find no recognizable place in the mainstream entertainment industry.

tiktok revolution

Do you remember Tiktok?

The world of entertainment has changed considerably with the arrival of many short video mobile applications. Previously, Tiktok has enabled various people living in small towns and rural areas, especially artists from lower social and lower class strata, to become part of the entertainment world.

The involvement of Dalit-Bahujan artists as creators and consumers of entertaining content has not only diversified the entertainment segment, but has also highlighted the deep desires of artists from marginalized groups to showcase their talent.

The Chavans and Pawars. Both couples are TikTok stars. Pictures: Facebook and Instagram

However, after the banning of Tiktok in India, many alternatives have emerged in its place but hardly have a similar impact. Other applications like Instagram reels or YouTube short films, mainly serve the entertainment values ​​of middle class elites, do not allow Dalit-Bahujan artists to take center stage.

Although these popular technological innovations in the social media space enable the participation of Dalit-Bahujan artists, it has often been observed that they restrict and relegate the creative content of Dalit-Bahujan artists. They claim that this content “violates community standards”, preventing them from taking center stage by either labeling it as “inappropriate content” or hounding it with caste abuse and slurs.

Remember the controversy stirred up by armies of trolls when Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter held up a poster with “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy” written on it.

Traditional entertainment platforms have repeatedly restricted, relegated and erased the creative content of Dalit-Bahujan artists, and their attempts to take center stage on the internet have also often been curtailed. It should also be noted that the algorithms of these apps often promote so-called “beautiful faces”, mainstream music and commercialized content. Consequently, Dalit-Bahujan entries – such as songs about Buddha and Ambedkar, dances and sketches by Dalit artists, topical content on caste atrocities, among others – are often relegated to the background and not do not appear prominently on these platforms.

The art industry and the arrival of the Dalit-Bahujan

It is now apparent that in the elite world of art and entertainment, Dalit-Bahujan artists barely exist.

Although there is a rich history of Dalit-Adivasi-Bahujan contributions to the making of art (Madhubani paintings), music (Parai instruments in Tamil Nadu) and aesthetics (Marathi Dalit literature), there is virtually no recognition in the mainstream. on a national level. The national cultural sphere is often dominated by the abstract values ​​and identities of social elites. For example, most artists who have won prestigious national awards often belong to the upper castes.

The conventional entertainment industry and arts and aesthetics institutions have shown no responsibility towards the arts, the Dalit-Bahujan artists and their cultural and creative prowess. They have been mostly limited to local platforms and community-centric spheres. Socially marginalized groups have remained passive viewers of entertainment content, as it is primarily shaped and delivered by upper caste social elites.

Moreover, institutional regulation and censorship over artistic content or dogmatic moral coercion (such as abusive trolls) have only reinforced conventional institutional practices and marginalized Dalit-Bahujan activists and artists.

To challenge such coercive hegemony, an organic platform was needed where marginalized social groups can demonstrate their talent and creativity without any hesitation or fear.

The arrival of a small but striking alternative Dalit-Bahujan literature, media, cinema is the culmination of such a quest. Cultural artists from the Tamil, Telugu and Marathi entertainment industries have already initiated this process of transformation, which is slowly spreading to Hindi and other film industries. The new generation of Dalit-Bahujan artists and entrepreneurs aims to break down the boundaries and conventions of the entertainment industry, making it culturally diverse and socially plural.

Moreover, short video apps like the “Jai Bheem” would surely prioritize and propagate the ideas intrinsic to the Dalit-Bahujan movement and its icons, thus contributing to the strengthening of the social justice movement.

Such innovation is crucial because it has enormous potential to transform the entertainment industry in favor of socially marginalized groups. The arrival of Dalit-Bahujan entrepreneurs, artists and innovators can create a new space in social media, allowing unlimited cultural and entertainment content created mainly by Dalit-Bahujan artists.

A free and liberated artist is the most beautiful creature in this world. The Ambedkarite perspective on art and entertainment will enrich this field with enlightening liberal ideas and social justice values. Importantly, it also allows artists to escape social and cultural essentialization and allows them to freely express their artistic and creative talents, thereby setting a transformative agenda for arts and entertainment businesses.

The responsibility of alternative social media or technology initiatives is to ensure freedom of choice and expression for all its participants and to make “new media” a dynamic space to challenge Brahmanical hegemony. The new Dalit-Bahujan media should liberate artists from social prejudices and enable them to showcase their talents as free artists.

Dr. Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Center for Policy Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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