In reading the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema descriptions of Shyam Benegal’s renowned trilogy – Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976) – one might be led to imagine the ‘straightforwardness’ of the narratives of the films. Ankur, for instance, to be about a young man’s affair; Nishant, about a woman who is abducted and raped by rural feudals; and Manthan, about corrupt politicians and their struggles with new technologies and milk cooperatives. In general, if one were to read such synopses without prior knowledge about the larger social relevance of these films, one could tend to believe that they have nothing to do with caste or untouchability. The reality, however, is that these films have layers of subtle references to the dynamics of caste in rural India. Unfortunately these crucial yet understated elements have ambiguously been omitted by film critics.
To test this claim, let us explore the caste indicators of Lakshmi and Kishtayya in Ankur, and then look closely at how the synopses addressed this. The morning after his arrival into the village, Surya (a newly married city-bred young man played by Anant Nag) asks Lakshmi (played by Shabana Azmi, the wife of a deaf-mute labourer, Kishtayya) to make tea for him. She hesitates, asking him whether he would drink tea that she made saying: “Mere haat ki chai piyengey aap?” Confused as to why he would not, Surya asks, “Kyun, kya baat hai?” and she responds, “Woh, hum loga kumhar hai sarkar”, telling him that she belongs to the kumhar, or potter caste, considered ‘low’ born.
Although castes involved in skilled professions such as carpentry (sutar) and ironsmithing (lohar) are technically, in the government parlance, considered to be ‘backward’ classes/castes, they were not necessarily considered as ‘untouchables’ or Dalits. In other words, a Kumhar might be considered to belong to the ‘lower’ Shudra caste, but the practice of untouchability was by and large reserved for the ati-shudra, the Dalits. The working mechanism of the caste system, however, systematically laid down ‘inherent’ notions of caste/occupational hierarchy, leading to what B R Ambedkar termed ‘graded inequality’ within Indian society. Thus, for example, Sutars consider themselves to be superior to Lohars, who consider themselves to be superior to chamars (leatherworkers) and so on.
Of the various ambiguities in Ankur the lived reality of untouchability that the Dalits faced was imagined for the Shudra couple Lakshmi and Kishtayya. Therefore, depicting them as Kumhars and ‘untouchables’ was perhaps erroneous. Not that it was completely inaccurate, as Shudras (ie, Bahujans) might also have encountered such discriminatory treatment. Nonetheless Kumhars being treated as ‘untouchables’ highlighted yet another dimension of the practice of untouchability that can be thought of as permeating Indian society. On being asked about the caste identity of Lakshmi and Kishtayya and their depiction as ‘untouchables’, Benegal recently told this writer that although Kumhars might not now be considered Dalits, they were treated as ‘untouchables’ in the Telengana region of the 1950s, the period in which the film was set.
In the critical analysis of Ankur that has been published over the past three decades, Kishtayya is often referred to merely as a ‘labourer’. There is no doubt that both he and Lakshmi are ‘labourers’. But failing to mention their caste backgrounds – perhaps the primary reason for their being on the margins, and the reason for being virtual slaves of the landlord – subverts a vital element that consolidates the economic, social, cultural and political positions of the subjugated couple. Furthermore, labourers are generally remunerated; but during the entire course of the film, one never sees either Lakshmi or Kishtayya being paid a fair remuneration for their work, for which Benegal may have intentionally maintained an element of ambiguity.
The story of Lakshmi and Kishtayya begins when a self-indulgent Surya arrives in the village, supposedly to look after his family’s estate. However, he displays little interest in following agricultural pursuits, for which he has neither the will nor the required skills, and he is thus largely dependent on the labour done by Lakshmi and Kishtayya. In this context, it is interesting that film historian Sangeeta Datta has written, “Living on the verge of poverty, Lakshmi steals grain from her master’s storeroom – her survival instincts are stronger than any moral qualms.” It is rather unfortunate that Lakshmi’s act is labelled as ‘stealing’. Datta not only fails to comment on the dependency of the ‘master’ upon his ‘slave’, but also neglects to comment upon the non-payment of a fair remuneration for their productive labour. Had Lakshmi been duly paid for her services as a housemaid and field labourer, she would not have had to ‘steal’ grains – produced, incidentally by her own labour.
Datta, while questioning Lakshmi’s ‘morality’, does not fail to highlight Surya’s seeming modernity. “Surya displays liberal ideas when he eats food cooked by the ‘untouchable’ Lakshmi,” Datta writes, “and sends off the village priest who protests.” Hailing from a patriarchal background, where sons often do not learn to cook, Surya’s ‘liberalism’ comes at the price of Lakshmi’s subjugation. After cooking food regularly for Surya in his house, their relationship eventually becomes sexual. On this point, Datta attributes this sexual relationship to Surya’s supposed liberalness: “Despite his earlier display of progressive views, Surya’s claim on Lakshmi is a replay of his father’s ownership of the village woman Kaushalya.” In other words, Surya’s father ‘owned’ a mistress in a similar manner. It is pertinent to note here that, after Kishtayya is caught stealing toddy, Surya makes sure that Kishtayya is publicly humiliated, after which he disappears. It is in Kishtayya’s absence that Surya and Lakshmi become sexually involved, at Surya’s hollow promise to Lakshmi that he will “look after” her.
Although we see Kishtayya perpetually drunk, there is a significant scene that highlights aspects of his productive skills. In his ‘usual’ drunken state, Kishtayya climbs a tall tree to drink toddy, from which he then descends with a pot full of the drink. Both of these manoeuvres are done with notable ease and agility, despite Kishtayya’s full knowledge that one false move would mean a number of broken bones, if not death. For most Dalitbahujans, such productive skills are learned at a young age, and one tends to become an expert by youth. Although the film depicted various aspects of this skilled-though-marginalised Dalitbahujan consciousness, critics have rarely if ever commented on its significance, particularly from a Dalitbahujan perspective.
In another subtle yet telling scene, Surya follows an unknown noise by a nearby well. It is broad daylight, and he stands by a wall looking at a few women by the water. Suddenly, Surya is frozen at the sight of a snake and, terrified, he calls out to Lakshmi for help. Without much ado, Lakshmi calmly picks up a stick and shoos the snake away. Here again, it is significant to read this scene as reflecting Dalitbahujan culture and knowledge of the often-undermined rural underclass/caste. Not only does Lakshmi not hurt the snake; but by not being intimidated by it, she displays a far deeper sense of understanding of nature – again, a critical example of the Dalitbahujan consciousness. In contrast, the educated, urban, middle-class, ‘upper’-caste Surya is speechless at the mere sight of the snake. Yet while the focus for critics has remained largely on the negative facets of ‘lower’ caste characters, positive and productive skills apparent in the narrative have systematically remained unseen.
After Kishtayya’s humiliation and subsequent disappearance, Surya and Lakshmi gradually become sexually involved. The time between Kishtayya’s disappearance and his return (close to the end of the film) is left ambiguous, due to which a viewer might tend to believe that Surya impregnated Lakshmi – likewise, the reference made by the title, Ankur, or ‘seedling’. When Surya and Lakshmi argue over her pregnancy, Surya expects her to go through with an abortion, but Lakshmi refuses. Surya asks, “Don’t you feel ashamed?” to which she retorts, “Must I only feel ashamed and not you?” Although the claim to paternity here is not clear, it is apparent that Surya does not consider having sex with an ‘untouchable’ an act of shame – as long as it is not made public. It is only when Lakshmi’s pregnancy would reveal their involvement that he wants Lakshmi to feel ashamed. Lakshmi, meanwhile, is bold enough to question Surya’s stance, and brave enough be a single mother. Critics hailed Priya Bakshi’s character from Kya Kehna (2000), played by Preity Zinta, taking a similar stance; however, when a ‘lower’ caste Lakshmi took such a stance 26 years ago, was it not worth the mention?
Most critics have taken a rather simplistic approach to this complex dynamic. Some have suggested that Lakshmi had always wanted a child; or implied that Kishtayya was naive, as he seems to be joyous seeing Lakshmi pregnant when he returns. But it is important here to note how ambiguous the narrative actually is with regards to the ‘seedling’. Early on the film alludes to Lakshmi and Kishtayya having sex; but because the film does not explicitly reveal how much time has passed during Kishtayya’s absence, the viewer cannot be conclusive with regards to the paternity. At the same time, what will follow after birth is perhaps much more important – and oddly, one of the least commented upon aspects of the film. There is no doubt that Lakshmi’s and Kishtayya’s child will bear an invisible signifier as the child of an ‘untouchable’. But the narrative also implies that the ‘seedling’ is ‘sown’ in their family: leaving claims of paternity ambiguous, Ankur leaves the lower-caste Lakshmi with the hope of a future generation. On the other hand, at the end of the film we see Surya and his wife virtually trapped in their own house, with no apparent hope in the narrative for their family to grow. Ankur thus leaves the deprived and subjugated couple on the margins, but with the hope of a family.
For her pivotal essay “Can the Subaltern speak”, noted Indian theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s perspective was hailed as a ‘voice of concern’. Implicit in her work, however, was the presupposition that the marginalised is “inherently mute”. In real life, as in innumerable films, the Dalitbahujans have spoken, sung songs, murmured, acted and reacted; if they remained mute, it was perhaps in protest. If only Spivak had considered the complexities and implications of caste along with class, she would have found that, indeed, the subaltern often speaks. Whether they are being heard, of course, is often another matter altogether.
~ Prashant Kadam is pursuing his master’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies at York University, Toronto, and is working on a documentary on the representations of Dalits in Hindi cinema.