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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  1. #1 Geetha 13 Jul 12

    Great work by Amir khan. Yes Marie, wish more Bollywood and local film heroes will do the same on social evils. I could not believe what happened to the girl in Assam! Are these people animals? He do we begin to address such issues! Kudos to Satyameva jayate!

  2. #2 Tarsh 13 Jul 12

    I was wondering about this. While I agree it is largely positive, celebrity action can be a double edged sword.
    Dan Brockington has an excellent book called 'Celebrity and the Environment: Fame, Wealth and Power in Conservation' that analyses this carefully.
    A youtube interview:
    George Monbiot also reviewed the book, but I can't seem to find the link.
    Not all of what he says is applicable to Amir Khan's Satyameva Jayate of course, but a similar analysis would be useful. Lest we forget Aamir Khan's Coke fiasco.

  3. #3 Merlyn Brito 13 Jul 12

    Satyameva Jayate was brought to my attention here in the US a few weeks ago & I have been impressed by the courage shown by Amir Khan.It is time to bring these issues into the forefront and do something concrete about them.The series should be broadcast in schools and colleges and discussed.Everyone must join forces to eradicate these evils.

  4. #4 Gerard Oonk 13 Jul 12

    Yes Bollywood can make a difference, as everyone/anyone can make a difference, inside or outside India. What is needed ia a massive public outcry, not only by Dalits but also by non-dalits. Just imagine yourself to be a is a person like you and me, but treated as not being a human. When will this stop?

  5. #5 roopa 13 Jul 12

    This particular episode was the first ’SatyamevaJayate’ I watched although my family has been watching it since it started, and as my daughter said, it has become a meeting point for all of us!

    In my humble opinion, the we and the world are where we are today because we don't care, numb fromso much stimulation from all sides. Aamir Khan has , as you say Mari, taken on importantissues with sensitivity,more than a strategy I see it as an outpouring of his concern....
    Works for me, as a reminder ....everyday.......

  6. #6 johnny oommen 14 Jul 12

    I agree with you, Mari. Aamir Khan's Satyamevajayate show is actually doing what none of us expected - a big cotrast to the KBC kind of thing. We wait each week to see what he will take up next. The last one on Caste was again right spot on. That is the one unchanging reality. A person can change much else with education and opportunities, but one's caste catches up, and our society is so good at enforcing this. And yet, Education is still our best tool for change. Congrats on the blog ! Johnny O

  7. #7 Beulah 15 Jul 12

    it is a great programme, but hopefully it will make a difference in our society! Not fall by the wayside like the earlier attempts of ’Rajini’ or ’office office’! But this being a talk show that involves a larger audience may make the people sit up.

  8. #8 TT 16 Jul 12

    Great Article! Posting the link to the shows website, in case anyone wants to find out more about this show.

  9. #9 Sudhir 16 Jul 12

    Caste is nothing but self branding. Such discrimination should be stopped.

  10. #10 vgthomas 18 Jul 12

    More power and a safe life for Aamir Khan. Unfortunately, this state of mind has been ingrained into so many communities. Making one higher class than another ( and within the communities). Having been brought up ( until 1948 in Karachi--now Pakistan) and lived in India until my college years, I have not only been a victim of religious fanatics, but also have seen how my fellow beings have been treated. We must continue keep this issue in the forefront. Thanks Aamir and Marci.

  11. #11 Dilip 19 Jul 12

    Have you seen this article?

    For all the good that it is doing, the differentiation between reel and real life is well articulated in this article!

  12. #12 Gary Michael Tartakov 23 Jul 12

    Bollywood can't shatter the caste system, but it can contribute towards its disintegration if it produces films revealing the horrors that we all know of to consistent public scrutiny. Beyond that, of course, we all have to join organization that will fight the caste system, like the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights.

  13. #13 Asha D Souza 02 Aug 12

    I remember Shyam Benegal's films Ankur followed by Nishant that dwelled on the same theme. Yes, indeed, our film directors and film stars can really change the mindset of people. Just two days back a young girl in Orchha told me that no one would sit next to her in the school bus because she was of a lower caste. Such humiliation among children is terrible.

  14. #14 deepanshu 27 Aug 12

    sir,you are doing well and iam blessing you to do like this in future also jab dil pe lagegi tohi baat banegi

  15. #15 Sam 15 Sep 12

    Bravo brother ! Time to eradicate slavery from India ! Maybe people ahold take turns yearly ! Non- dal its become dalits for a year !

  16. #20 Kei 06 Nov 12

    Love Amir but I hope in talking about caste that no one forget the sidis they are a part of India as well

  17. #23 lal patel 01 Nov 15

    The caste system is the most vile thing to have come out of India and should have been abolished long ago.
    The caste system is India's shame.
    It is about time all Bollywood film stars spoke out against it.
    Also why are there no film stars from the scheduled castes, surely there must be hundreds of good actors actoresses in them

  18. #24 NetTV4U 08 Jun 16

    I really love this quote from Mr. Aamir Khan sir ’we can never be considered a superpower if we continue to practice untouchability’. I wish to do this other film industry starts also. Thanks for sharing. For more <a href=’’ title=’Bollywood Latest News’>Bollywood Latest News</a>

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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