Our liberal illusions may have us believe that we have progressed as a society but caste issues rooted in bigotry, enforced by a religious theory still prevail in India. This month alone, 26-year-old Pamposh, a Dalit medical intern from Punjab ended her life after being subjected to casteist slurs and threats from senior doctors and two days ago, four Dalit workers in Pune were found dead due to suffocation cleaning sewers; a profession that is still institutionally thrust upon the lowers castes even though it was banned in 2013.
Caste equality has been one of the oldest fights for human rights in Indian society with activists, artists and filmmakers trying to bring awareness to the subject with their work. There has been a number of films about the caste system like Shyam Benegal's debut, Ankur, Satyajit Ray's Sadgati, and the latest being Article 15 with Ayushman Khurana that was even a commercial hit. But before mainstream films touched on casteism, a Chhattisgarhi-language film tackled the subject at a time when it was relatively harder to.
In the 60s, there was a wave of Bhojpuri films that gained popularity for the first time in cinema history. It was during this time that Manu Nayak, a young film enthusiast in Chhattisgarh, then Madhya Pradesh, decided to make the first Chhattisgarhi film and base it on a subject close to his heart— caste discrimination. Kahi Debe Sandes, which translates to 'convey the message' was released while the film industry was dominated by Hindi films.
The film is about a love marriage between an inter-caste couple — a boy from a Scheduled Caste community and a Brahmin girl, stirring the pot that is a small village in Chhattisgarh where casteism is prevalent. The premise of the film outraged a section of the Brahmin community in Raipur who threatened to set fire to Manohar Talkies, the theatre where it was slated to be released calling for the movie to be banned.
However, progressive Congress politicians Mini Mata and Bhushan Keyur spoke in favour of the movie, including the then I&B minister, Indira Gandhi who acclaimed it to be a film that promotes national integration. It was eventually premiered on 16 April 1965 in Durg and Bhatapara and a few months later in the Rajkamal (now Raj) talkies of Raipur. Despite being the first of its kind, Kahi Debe Sandes is still considered the torchbearer for not just regional cinema but also films about social causes.
As for casteism, it's truly mind-boggling how people deal with the issue. For the most part, even woke Indians seem to miss the atrocities that very evidently happen on a daily basis against Dalit and lower caste communities. We have learnt to look at casteism with a dissociated gaze; something that happens only in villages. And yet both homegrown and diaspora musicians continue to boast about being from an upper class like Brahmin or Rajput and Dalit/ SC/ ST/ lower caste stories and narratives are appropriated by upper-class Indian creatives for artistic acclaim, unapologetically. Cancel culture seems to have missed a spot.