Hollywood and our Varnawood
Chandra Bhan Prasad
Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, GD Birla, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, to name a few, were all great men who influenced the Indian mind to a great extent. They all lived happy marital lives. But was it only 'coincidence' that the women they married, all belonged to their own communities. Every Indian is born with a clearly defined Varna/Caste identity, which far outweighs his identity as an "Indian". Children learn the alphabet only after learning their social identity. The only exceptions are children of sex workers who, in a patriarchal society, are deprived of any such identity. They grow up without knowing which caste they belong to, But with the many compulsions of a professional life, they ask their unfortunate mothers who their father is - only to know which caste they belong to.
Of every 100 business houses, 75 or more may belong to Vaishyas. Of every 100 Vice-Chancellors or editors, 75 or more may be Brahmins. There have been some changes though. Even Baniyas, after having sold adulterated edible oil for ages, are turning into editors. What will happen to the media world, already reeking with incompetence and dalalgiri. Political parties are formed along Varna/Caste lines. Different communities worship different gods. Social conflict occurs along Varna/Caste lines. Even during calamities, such as the earthquake, Varna/Caste considerations play a role in relief and rehabilitation packages.
Does the Indian art or film industry portray this social divisiveness? America is a dream-land not only for the academia, industrial houses, children of the elite but also for the art world. That is why the Bombay film world, while picking out a new name for itself, thought Bollywood appropriate. In one stroke, it self consciously found itself closer to Hollywood. When Saeed Jaffrey got a break in Hollywood, he became an instant celebrity. Victor Banerjee's role in Passage to India brought him credibility and fame. Om Puri's reputation rose even higher when he was thought of as eligible by Hollywood and Shekhar Kapoor suddenly found himself in the midst of stardom when he made Elizabeth. Thus, a tryst with Hollywood makes any Indian an instant celebrity - because Hollywood sets parameters - of merit - in its acting, script writing and directing.
But do Indian artistes learn from Hollywood's social vision? Of late, white American society has begun reconciling itself to the idea that unless racial/ethnic minorities in America are given their due share in every sphere of life - capital, assets, institutions, jobs - democracy will not live long and race-based tensions will continue to haunt America.
Their most spectacular resolve has been in the areas of knowledge, media and art. Consider the following: The Writers' Guild of America (WGA) commissions regular studies to "track employment trends of writers of colour, women and older writers in American motion pictures and TV networks." The Hollywood writers' fourth report, 1998, gives a detailed account under about two dozen tables. According to the report, white male writers accounted for 70% of television writing and 80 % of film writing in 1997. Racial/ethnic minority writers accounted for just seven and five per cent respectively. But between 1992 and 98, minority membership in the WGA grew by 61%, as against an overall membership growth of 17%. Between 1991 and 97, minority employment in film and television shot up by 66%, as against an overall increase of 10 %.
The WGA report confesses that "it is not surprising that writing for film and television, remains largely dominated by white males." But it promises, "WGA is firmly committed to assisting the industry in identifying the barriers to equal employment opportunities. It seeks to work with all parties involved in feature film and television production to develop innovative programmes, policies and practices that will allow the industry to benefit fully from the writing talents of individuals from diverse backgrounds".
That is what is happening in Hollywood. Back home, what is the proportion of Dalit writers in Bollywood? Or, is there any Dalit at all? Was a study conducted? Then, why should Dalits accept Bollywood art, when the art world itself practices caste apartheid? Will Bollywood writers ever admit that their industry is an all Chaturvarna affair? That they must conduct a study to figure out the social backgrounds of writers and that they make a conscious attempt to include Dalits in script writing?
Clearly, the most conservative white in America is more progressive than the most radical member of the Varna order in India. In fact, Varna art and artistes are more conservative than temple priests. While the priests shamelessly admit to how conservative they are, Varnawood artistes publicly celebrate their "progressiveness"! The first lesson in life they learn is caste pride - and die practising caste prejudice all throughout their lives.