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Somnath Waghmare Wants to Revolutionise Dalit Cinema

"The left-liberal filmmakers of parallel cinema are even more casteist than right-wing."
Image: Courtesy of Somnath Waghmare

On the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima-Koregaon this year, violence and the resultant protests brought Mumbai to a standstill. One person was killed and many were injured, mostly Dalits. People carrying saffron flags pelted stones at cars that were going to the village, about 30 kilometres from Pune, where memorial of the battle (victory pillar, Ranstambh) stands.

Many Dalits all across the country visit the memorial on January 1 every year to commemorate the victory of Mahar (an "untouchable" community) soldiers who were part of British army that defeated Bajirao Peshwa’s rule in Maharashtra in 1818.


A 50-minute documentary called The Battle of Bhima-Koregaon: An Unending Journey by 27-year old filmmaker Somnath Waghmare, released in April last year attempts to explain why the battle is an assertion of pride for the community.

“People of the dominant caste think that Mahars were anti-national because they joined the British army. They don’t ask why. What had the Peshwas done to them?” Waghmare asked us on phone.

Waghmare’s family is from Malewadi in Western Maharashtra where he grew up hearing stories of Peshwa oppression of Dalits. Waghmare, who belongs to the Neo-Buddhist community, is pursuing a PhD from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai on Marathi Cinema, Caste and Cultural Politics. “I am trying to steer clear of the narrative of victimisation of Dalits that left liberal filmmakers like,” he said.

A scene with Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar. Image: Courtesy of Somnath Waghmare

His latest film is on Gail Omvedt, an American anti-caste activist and sociologist and Bharat Patankar, a Shramik Mukti Dal activist. “The film tells the life story of this couple and their life together in the background of the larger political movements around them,” Waghmare explained.

We spoke with Waghmare about the direction he'd like Dalit cinema to follow.

This interview has been translated from Hindi and edited for length.

VICE: Tell us about your film on Bhima-Koregaon.
Somnath Waghmare: Since childhood, we have been celebrating Bhima-Koregaon. [On the 200th anniversary of the battle], there was violence and hence it came into the public debate. Mainstream media, which is upper-caste dominated, doesn’t write about this; doesn’t give space to Dalit-Bahujan people. That’s media’s caste politics. Bhima-Koregaon was the first Dalit struggle against Brahmanism. Even before Ambedkar. But it’s not a part of any academic history. The Manusmriti doesn't give the Dalit Bahujan community any right to an education.


This history is never talked about because mostly academicians, filmmakers and journalists—everyone presents Dalits as victims. I thought, we should document this, we should tell this history.

Does a Savarna feel any guilt for what they did to Dalits? The majority of Savarnas are in support of casteism. Even among them there are very few who follow equality and democratic values.

What are the major challenges as a filmmaker?
Usually, its finance. For the Bhima-Koregaon film, funds came through crowd-funding. And I feel like if you get a producer, then somehow you lose a bit of control. I am not making anything commercial. See, I don’t have any privilege, I have no family support, no such circle. This is one of the reasons why filmmakers from marginalised sections don't make films. There is no support system.

Sometimes I feel that the more you gain recognition, more control you lose. My friends tease me sometimes that I am becoming mainstream. But I will always be truthful. If I believe that Indian cinema is casteist, I will say that.

You are currently shooting a documentary on Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar. Why them?
Like Bhima Koregaon, nobody has documented the story of Patankar and Gail Omvedt. Gail’s academic work is so massive. But have you ever seen a single interview of Gail’s on any national channel?

Tell me about your relationship with Gail and Bharat.
I’ve known Bharat Patankar since college. Bharat is from the same town I am from. I am trying to tell the story of their life, the story of their marriage, stories about their life. When Gail came to India, people from the dominant caste wouldn't let villagers celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti. So Gail and Indumati Patankar [Patankar’s mother] started a rally in the village to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti. I am trying to capture such stories.


Gail and Bharat in their earlier years. Image: Courtesy of Somnath Waghmare

The entire media glorifies Medha Patkar. But Bharat’s work on dam evictees is equally important. Gail Omvedt also wrote an open letter to Arundhati Roy [In which she opposed Roy's stand against the Sardar Sarovar Project in her essay Greater Common Good]. Bharat’s work is huge regarding anti-caste movement and also in development. That’s never portrayed anywhere.

I get a sense that you want to steer clear of building a narrative of victimisation where cinema on the Dalit identity and issues is concerned. Could you elaborate on this?
I am against victimisation. Don’t look at us as subjects. We are capable of telling our stories ourselves. That movie, Lipstick Under My Burkha, was also a "by the Brahmin, for the Brahmin" movie. It propagated the Brahmanical stereotype of a woman from excluded community.

The majority of [Indian] cinema is Brahmin. It’s not anti-caste. It is not progressive.

Tell me how caste shaped your ideas about yourself, about the country?
I have seen caste very clearly. Who you sit with in a classroom depends on caste, who you go out with for chai depends on caste. The person you enter in a relationship with, depends on caste. I have lived in a village for 21 years. Caste is everywhere. I [along with another boy] was suspended from [Pune’s Deccan College] because of a fight over an ideological issue with a Brahmin boy. We were suspended, not him.

Pa Ranjith said that “I don’t want to be known as a Dalit filmmaker.” How do you respond to that?
If you are interviewing a Brahmin filmmaker, do you refer to him as a Brahmin filmmaker? Then why give this identity to me. Media has to be more democratic. Why do journalists keep calling Jignesh Mewani a Dalit leader? It is your casteist behaviour. I am a filmmaker. I am an artist. I can make a film on others issues as well. The media has to be democratic. I follow an ideology, call me an Ambedkarite filmmaker. We are producing an ideology.


In an interview , you said “If the USA can have Black cinema, then why can’t India have Dalit cinema?”
Indian cinema is an elite, savarna-dominated cinema. There is a report in The Hindu that said that just six of the lead characters in the nearly 300 Bollywood movies released over two years belonged to a backward caste. Black cinema is strong because they have developed strong culture. And culture develops by art, literature. We have been able to develop literature, but not really cinema. Because it is a costly medium.

How has cinema on Dalit issues evolved over the years?
There are very few stories. Now people are talking about their caste. Nobody knew that Neeraj Ghaywan is a Dalit. Few people like Nagraj Manjule, Pa Ranjith, Neeraj Ghaywan, I can’t think beyond them.

What are your thoughts on the parallel independent cinema? They do touch on issues of caste.
I have a problem with parallel cinema. The left-liberal filmmakers of parallel cinema are even more casteist than right-wing. Just think: They had space to give rise to a discourse, but they didn’t. They just showed victimisation. Their cinema is not Phule'ian or Ambedkar way of cinema. It isa Gandhian way that reinforces certain values and ideals of cinema. That’s why I am saying don't even make that cinema. Their films can’t do justice to Dalits.

Look at films like Achhut Kannya, Banwar, Ankur etc.. What do these films portray? Victimisation. They don’t show the Dalit community’s assertion.


What must the core tenet of Dalit cinema be?
We have to develop an aesthetic. We will challenge the existing aesthetics. There is a stereotype that Dalits are not intellectuals or that they don’t look beautiful. [Roshmitha Harimurthy] won Miss Diva India Universe 2016, Tina Dabi topped the UPSC exams. We need to bring forward such stories.

First, it will be made by people from the Dalit community. Second, its base will be constitutional values: Liberty, equality, fraternity or Buddhist values. And it will talk of assertion. It will discuss the problems we face. But it will also be about a new society).

What do you think is the future of Dalit representation?
Diversity. In media, cinema. There should be democratization. And savarnas will have to take a stand on caste. The Bahujans population in India is huge.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the community Waghmare belongs to.