A picture of a woman holding a broom. Anywhere else, the image might pass unnoticed. But in India the poster for the film Madam Chief Minister, loosely based on the life of politician Mayawati, who is a Dalit, has triggered uproar for perpetuating caste stereotypes.
Bollywood actor Richa Chadha, who plays Mayawati, tweeted an image of the poster ahead of the film’s release later this month. She is shown looking dishevelled and holding the kind of large broom used by municipal roadsweepers. The tagline of the poster reads: Untouchable, Unstoppable.
The poster has offended on many fronts. “Untouchable” is now an unacceptable term in India – although some Dalits are reclaiming it – and the actor’s unkempt appearance implies Dalits are unwashed and untidy.
For Dalits who have strived to escape the hereditary, menial jobs that defined and dehumanised them, the broom is a particularly potent symbol.
The outrage was instant. Chadha and director Subhash Kapoor were lambasted for being incapable – as upper-caste and privileged Hindus – of escaping simplistic conceptions of Dalits.
Many expressed their views on Twitter. One wrote: “Over the years, Bollywood in the guise of breaking caste barriers and making progressive cinema has furthered caste prejudices and solidified symbols associated with discrimination. What does a Dalit leader going on to become CM have to do with holding broom?”
Another tweeted: “UCs (who claim to be secular, liberal) understanding of casteism is always flawed. Apparently everybody wants to make movies on Dalits these days because it’s profitable and they in turn do more harm to the community.”
While another wrote: “The recent poster of Madam Chief Minister makes me feel heartbroken once more. I lack words to talk about the deliberate reluctance of people to understand things. All so-called ‘progressive’ behaviour fails when it comes to how a Dalit is imagined in this country.”
Chadha dismissed the criticism as an example of “cancel culture” and urged her critics to see past the poster and appreciate the film’s “progressive and transformative” theme.
Political theorist and author Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd said caste prejudice was so ingrained that those who created the image ignored the fact that Mayawati was educated and worked as a teacher before becoming, as leader of the Bahujan Samaj party, the first woman chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. She served four terms.
“The director’s casteist mind and absolute stupidity [meant he] did not see her image with a human eye, rather he saw her image with a caste eye. Bollywood is so full of such casteist and foolish minds that they can hardly be expected to make what this film claims to be: a socially relevant and transformative film,” said Shepherd.
Apart from a handful of new young Dalit directors who have emerged against the odds in recent years, the film industry has mostly failed to tackle the caste realities of India, despite being the single most powerful cultural force in the country, shaping the perceptions of millions of Indians.
If Dalits are shown at all, it is as menial labourers or as victims of upper-caste exploitation leading brutalised and wretched lives.
A few years ago, a film production house shared a casting call on Facebook looking for “an actor who looks like a Dalit”.
Director Rajesh Rajamani, who poked fun at the idea of casting someone who “looks” like a Dalit in his short film The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, said even on the rare occasions Bollywood broaches the subject of caste, the result is superficial.
“Unfortunately, stories on adivasis [the indigenous tribes of India], Dalits and Muslims have become very commoditised. It has become an easy way for upper-caste film-makers to seem progressive and popular when they tell these stories,” Rajamani said in a recent interview.