The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Dalit filmmaker challenging India’s caste discrimination

Director Pa Ranjith on the set of his film "Sarpatta Parambarai," released in 2021. (Neelam Productions)
6 min

CHENNAI, India — Pa Ranjith was often reminded by his mother not to reveal his caste. Instead, he did what few had dared to do in the film industry. He made his identity central to his work.

He is the first commercially successful Dalit filmmaker in India, featuring Dalit characters as heroes and highlighting caste oppression, which remains entrenched in the country despite decades of affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws.

Inspired by Black artists from America’s civil rights era, Ranjith has created a thriving cultural center in the southern state of Tamil Nadu meant to empower the Dalit community, formerly known as “untouchables.” The aim is to transform a popular culture that has always typecast or ignored people from lower castes. He has established a publishing unit for young Dalit writers and poets, an anti-caste band, and a YouTube channel showcasing Dalit life and food, among nearly a dozen initiatives.

Google’s plan to talk about caste bias led to ‘division and rancor’

“I have food habits, music, art that is different from what is shown in popular culture,” Ranjith said on a recent afternoon at his office in a historical neighborhood in Chennai, the state’s capital. “This is not talking about casteism. This is my culture.”

Dalits are at the bottom rung of Hinduism’s discriminatory and hierarchical social system, in which a person’s place is determined at birth. They suffer violent abuse from upper-caste groups for acts as mundane as growing a mustache or riding a horse at a wedding. They often struggle to find housing, access basic services or marry outside their caste. Many are still forced to toil as scavengers, cleaning sewers and septic tanks by hand.

The caste system has proved resilient not just in India but also in Indian diaspora groups in the United States and elsewhere.

“Struggle is a part of every Dalit life. My life is [a form of] resistance,” Ranjith said. “I’m not only a person — I’m a repository of [discrimination] stories.”

This year, as Ranjith marks a decade in the film industry, he has kept busy. Hundreds turned up for an arts festival he hosted in April as part of the celebrations for Dalit History Month, modeled on Black History Month in the United States. The director made his Cannes Film Festival debut last month, and an upcoming movie on the life of a tribal leader will be his first foray into Bollywood.

In “Kaala,” or “Black,” the actor Rajnikanth plays a Dalit character from a Mumbai slum who takes on a corrupt politician. (Video: Wunderbar Films | Lyca Productions)

Now he is inspiring others to share their stories on different platforms.

On a recent afternoon, at the office of Neelam Social, the Ranjith-backed YouTube channel, a 21-year-old woman named Abisha was rapping about her people.

Outta sight, outskirts is where we are forced to reside;

Refugee in our own lands,

You’ve snatched away all our rights.

Abisha has filmed a documentary about a musical instrument played by Dalits during protests and told stories about the eviction of slum-dwellers in Chennai, which inspired her to write the rap song.

“This may reach only a small set of people, but it’s necessary to create a ripple effect,” said Abisha, who uses just one name. “My voice is important because if I don’t do this, no one else would.”

One of the channel’s most popular shows is about Dalit food. A recent episode featured beef, which became a part of the community’s diet over centuries of segregation but is now banned in many parts of India. Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, and Dalits often face violence from vigilantes in the name of cow protection.

Riding a horse is tradition for Indian grooms — except Dalits, who face caste violence. One district is fighting back.

In another corner of Chennai, where most film studios are based, Ranjith built the Koogai library. “Koogai” means “owl” in Tamil and is the name of a popular novel about the tyranny of caste.

“People who come from small towns and villages to work in the Tamil film industry but don’t know where to go or what to do come here,” said Moorthy, 33, one of the supervisors at the library, which has books on cinema and hosts workshops and film screenings.

Moorthy, who also goes by one name, was raised by a single mother in a rural area. He arrived in the city with big dreams of working in the film industry but not much else. He failed.

When he returned to Chennai years later in 2018, the library was just taking off. He found a space to learn and grow.

Last year, he bagged his first film assignment as an assistant director. “Ranjith paved the way for us and groomed us,” Moorthy said. “In the next decade, the most important directors in the industry will be from Koogai.”

For all of Ranjith’s ambition, the 39-year-old father of two is unassuming, dressed in a white cotton shirt and blue slacks. His office space is modestly furnished, without any movie paraphernalia. There are books everywhere, as well as a bust and a photograph of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the chief architect of India’s constitution and its most revered Dalit leader.

Ranjith’s career took off after the success of his first two films, which industry insiders credit with changing caste representation in Tamil movies.

A rare all-woman newsroom puts Indian documentary in contention for Oscar

He is a “damn good filmmaker” and a “pioneer,” said film critic Baradwaj Rangan. “He created a path for others to make films about their identity without being afraid.”

The director’s biggest break came when he was approached by Rajnikanth, a film star idolized by millions of fans globally. The duo went on to collaborate on two hugely successful blockbusters.

In “Kaala,” or “Black,” Rajnikanth plays a Dalit character from a Mumbai slum who takes on a corrupt politician. The other film, “Kabali,” was one of India’s top-grossing films.

“Earlier the producers didn’t want to invest in such films because they would not make money,” Ranjith said. “My idea is simple. Do it in an engaging and entertaining way for a mainstream audience.”

The director’s unapologetic views often draw a backlash, particularly from Hindu nationalists, who view his critique of caste discrimination as a criticism of Hinduism.

He has been accused of “vicious Hinduphobia” and faced a police complaint for remarks against an ancient Hindu king.

But criticism doesn’t bother him. People make him out to be an “angry person,” he said. “I’m not.” He is simply stubborn and committed to his goal, he said, which he shares with his idol, Ambedkar.

“Equality,” he stated simply. “That’s the legacy I want to leave behind.”