New Internationalist

Can Bollywood shatter India’s caste system?


Aamir Khan: giving a voice to the voiceless. Photo by bollywoodhungama under a CC Licence.

Recently, Aamir Khan – leading film star and household name all over the India where Bollywood reigns supreme – began a prime-time show tackling India’s most serious issues. And the whole country is riveted.

I’m delighted to be able to say I told you so. I’ve always maintained that our film stars could achieve miracles on many social fronts if they seriously applied their minds to the task. If only they would introduce important issues into Hindi movies. Aamir Khan is a super star with a difference. He’s acted in truly brilliant films and consistently shown a passion for burning issues. He’s treated delicate subjects with intelligence, sensitivity and creativity.

The last show (and the man deserves an award for having the guts to take this on) focused on ‘untouchability’ and caste atrocities. I've been writing about these issues since 1996 and I believe Aamir has hit the right spot with his comments and conclusions.

Many of our elites – our 1% – couldn’t care less about caste murders, rapes, atrocities or untouchability. They live in fancy gated communities and many actually believe caste is a thing of the past. But Aamir touched a raw nerve. Our elites care passionately about India’s image. We love to talk about our proud and glorious past, our ancient heritage. Yet we pretend the evil in our country does not exist.

Aamir wrote: ‘we can never be considered a superpower if we continue to practice untouchability.’ This is a message our rich and powerful care about. It’s one we need to hear over and over again.

Aamir used clips from India Untouched, a brilliant film, bringing to a national audience the brutal experiences most dalits face in their daily lives. They face constant petty humiliations because they dare to aspire to a normal human lifestyle. And they are never far away from dangers ranging from beatings and torture, to murder and rape.

Dalits are killed every day in India. And nothing happens. The story of the balmiki people brought tears to some of the most cynical eyes. Balmikis are condemned to clean filthy, unspeakably vile toilets using their bare hands, a tin plate and a stick to scoop faeces off disgusting public toilet floors and between railway tracks.

All this in an age when we flaunt the worlds best IT parks, nuclear energy and billionaires galore. The balmiki story was told by Bejawada Wilson, a balmiki leader, fighting for a life of dignity for his people.

Aamir exhorted India to fight untouchability and discrimination. I think if we started a national campaign now, with Bollywood actors on board, it could make a radical difference to the direction India takes.

Crucial social issues can be raised by fun movies, getting people to change their attitudes. The key is to make it ‘not cool’ to have a feudal backward medieval mindset. I believe India’s youth will come on board, for a variety of reasons.

Our poor and our oppressed so desperately need a new tomorrow. Rabindranath Tagore, poet, Nobel laureate and freedom fighter, pleaded for a new dawn with our independence. A new India ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’. Can Bollywood make this happen? Or Aamir Khan? Let’s hope so.

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