Bollywood No Longer A Dream Too Far for India's Lower Castes

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 27, 2008

MUMBAI -- With a résumé listing his acting gigs in rural folk theater and a handful of slightly out-of-focus head shots, Birendra Paswan arrived in this crowded city from his rural village in Bihar, one of India's poorest states, and asked, "Where's Bollywood?"

Paswan, 33, is a Dalit, a member of India's most ostracized caste. Dalits are often cobblers, street sweepers and toilet cleaners, but they are rarely actors in the world's largest film industry. Still, as he stood that day beneath towering billboards showing Hindi film stars hawking expensive watches and cars, Paswan decided Bollywood was for him.

"Part of me felt: 'How can I stand in this glamorous world? I don't have the right manners or surname,' " said Paswan, a talkative man with large almond-shaped eyes. "But I wanted to make it so badly in the Hindi movies."

It is not easy for Indians to shake loose the cages of caste, a 3,000-year-old pecking order in which professions and social status are inherited like eye color or height. But Bollywood, like Mumbai itself, is a place where young Indians are increasingly finding opportunities to reinvent themselves.

Today, a trickle of actors, dancers and screenwriters from India's lower and middle castes are trying to break into a formerly impenetrable star system, full of actors from Bollywood royalty and other insiders hailing from high-caste families. New drama schools are training Indians from all castes. And Bollywood is starting to tackle more serious plots that could potentially star low-caste actors.

"Will you get more attention if you have the right surname and are part of an entrenched star family? Of course," said Anupama Chopra, a film critic and author of several best-selling books on Bollywood. "But there is increasing space now for a booming Bollywood film industry, and there's a feeling that if you are talented enough, well, maybe you will get noticed, no matter what your family ties are."

Across India, Dalits and members of other low castes are struggling to gain access to quality education and better-paying jobs. The economy is booming, and Indians of low caste -- often identifiable by their surnames, birthplaces or parents' status -- want to share in the wealth, or at least the opportunity.

Some aspiring actors from low castes say their confidence is growing. There is more social mobility than ever before, they say, and Bollywood is experiencing its share of change.

"It's something new in the air for young people in some parts of India," said Trisha Karmakar, 24, a member of a lower caste who moved to Mumbai from the poor, densely populated state of Uttar Pradesh. "It's a feeling that at least there's a small chance for lower castes and not just for the star kids who have their godfathers and always get the callbacks."

Karmakar, speaking one recent day in a neighborhood of acting and dance schools, beauty parlors and pawnshops, said she has yet to land a role. But she said she is close to breaking into TV soap operas.

"Even if the chance is tiny, we are here, and we are dreaming big Bollywood dreams," she said. "We are no longer just desperate beggars, ragpickers and rickshaw pullers. Now we are desperate to be dancers, singers and melodramatic lead actresses."

Aspirations and Challenges

Going to the air-conditioned cinema is a popular national pastime without parallel in this country, especially for low-caste laborers who work under India's unforgiving sun -- in construction, in farming, as cow herders and as fruit vendors. For Indians, most of whom subsist on less than $2 a day, the masala mixes of drama and dance are the ultimate escape.


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