Eating with Our Fingers, Watching Hindi Cinema and Consuming Cricket

by Siriyavan Anand

“Caste devitalises a man. It is a process of sterilisation.”
–Dr BR Ambedkar, Philosophy of Hinduism

“Why all this hullagulla about some remarks and f words used. So what’s the big deal? As though Indians are the holy saints without abusive words. Actually Indians are the most racist people on earth. India is the only country where we have schedule caste system. Is this not racism??? We have Bungis and untouchables. Who has coined these names? The very Indians brahmans who play cricket and want to be treated with respect. Piss on you all cricketers of India.”
– A posting at an Indian Express email discussion forum on ‘racism’

India is a billion-weak nation thirsting for truly international sporting glory. Every four years, the fact that Olympic success eludes India is lamented in public fora. Karnam Malleswari’s weightlifting bronze in the 2000 Olympics, PT Usha’s almost-bronze many Olympics ago and fading memories of the men’s hockey team’s successive golds offer little consolation. But the last two decades have seen a phenomenal hard-sell of cricket. Though cricket is truly an uninternational sport — played by hardly 12 nations, all of them former colonies of the British empire — India’s success in the 1983 World Cup, followed by the hosting of the Reliance Cup in the Subcontinent, and the subsequent television boom spurred by the policy of ‘liberalisation’ (a very clever word), corporate sponsorship and subsidisation, resulted in cricket effectively being marketed as the game that mattered. Cricket, like popular cinema, became a product of mass consumption, especially after one-day games became a regular fixture. More physical sports such as hockey and football have been effectively jettisoned for ‘the gentleman’s game’.

The celebration and success of the movie Lagaan as a nice little good-vs-evil, David-vs-Goliath tale must be understood in this context. Lagaan has won an Oscar nod for inclusion in the ‘best foreign film’ lineup. After a year of hype and accolades in the Indian media and deft packaging for select Western festival circuits and in Hollywood, producer-actor Aamir Khan seems to have almost pulled off what he set out to achieve.

About the same time that Lagaan’s nomination for the Oscar made news, Indian newspapers and television channels devoted more than the usual space to some unusual cricket news. In Madras, Karnataka had won the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Cor-poration National Cricket Championship for the Blind, defeating Delhi. A ‘liberal-secular’ newspaper which has no qualms calling itself The Hindu (February 13-14, 2002) extensively reported the tournament and even carried two-column pictures. Tamil television channels covered it as the ‘soft story’ of the day in their news bulletins. It looks like the World Cup for the Blind will be hosted by Madras in December 2002. Some multi-national corporation, driven by late-capitalist guilt and the ‘we-care’ spirit, might sponsor that event too.

As I begin this, I feel weighed down by the burden of addressing (the ‘liberal’?) readers of Himal on the regressiveness of a film like Lagaan, and even more weighed down by the prospect of convincing them that cricket in India has been a truly casteist game — a game best suited to Hinduism. Burdened, because even those most critical of overriding nationalism jump with joy when their national team wins. In fact, as a friend points out “apart from eating with our fingers, unfortunately both cricket and Hindi films unite South Asians”. For a Subcontinent that so obsessively watches cricket and Hindi cinema, Lagaan offers cinema-as-cricket and cricket-as-cinema. In the Hyderabad of mid-1990s, as a university-bound hostelite watching a one-day match in the common room I saw all groups and communities ‘cheering for India’. Telugu-speaking Dalits, Oriyas, Malayalis, brahmans, Kannadigas, M.Tech students alike would all come in identifiable gangs, reserve seats, and be ‘united’ by cricket even if they had battles to fight outside the common room. The other programmes that drew huge collective viewership were film song-countdowns in Hindi and Telugu.

To understand the vulgarity of Lagaan one needs be alive to who actually plays cricket in India, even as the myth is fabricated that everybody can participate in the game — you open a can of Coke and a sixer materialises or a wicket falls, so you keep consuming Coke for the team and the nation’s good, as Aishwarya Rai leads by example during commercial breaks between overs. Even as direct participation in cricket seems an impossibility for most Indians — one half of the population, women, are effectively excluded — it encourages them to become consumers of the game irrespective of their caste, class, gender and religion. You consume cricket like Aishwarya consumes Coke in the advertisement. Quite the same happens with cinema produced in Madras or Bombay. Even when the hero — be it Rajinikant, MG Ramachandran, Chiranjeevi or Aamir Khan — is on most occasions discoursing against the Dalits, OBCs, women and Muslims (‘subalterns’), there are millions of fans from these very groups who identify with their filmic presence: consumption, with the illusion of participation. And, in a nation of one billion only 14 can make it to the ‘national’ team. Yet, during a one-day match even the poor who cannot afford a TV, or when they can, are unable anyway to afford the pay channel that beams the match, congregate outside electronics shops and watch the game even as pockets get picked. Lagaan, which partakes of and perpetuates this folklore of cricket as universal social solvent, lends itself very eminently to a ‘casteist’ reading precisely because of its thematic inflections and its choice of things to celebrate and suppress.

Lagaan: Millennial Purana
Lagaan is like one of those many Hindu ‘puranas’, literally ‘stories of old’, which have scant regard for historicity, and which in fact revel in their ahistoricity. Puranas are mostly brahman-written mythologies that dwell upon the imagined feats and lore of brahmanical gods and goddesses. Like all else in brahmanic Hinduism’s self-representation, puranas excel in obfuscation and myth-making — all towards keeping the (aryan-vedic) caste and patriarchal status quo intact. Lagaan is one such purana of the new millennium, an accretion to the quintessentially brahmanic myth-making tradition. That Lagaan’s story and direction are by a brahman (Ashutosh Gowariker) is not incidental, though a Muslim (Aamir Khan) parades as the most public face of the film.

The ‘brahamanical’ game: Indian fielders appealing.

Set in 1893, Lagaan is the story of how the residents of Champaner, a village in Awadh (modern Uttar Pradesh), master the game of cricket in three months and defeat the British cantonment team. The wager is that the British would not impose tax (lagaan) for the next three years if Champaner wins the match; if it loses, the entire province should pay a triple levy. Ap-proaching cricket as the white man’s pompous version of gilli-danda, the Champaner XI wins the game under the leadership of Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) aided by a ‘fair-minded’ white lady (Elizabeth, sister of villainous British officer Russell who challenges Bhuvan).

Lagaan is being celebrated by secularists, national-ists, subalternists, leftists, pseudo-secularists, BJPites, academics, critics and filmgoers alike. Columnists and academicians distanced themselves from the loud and jingoistic Gadar and tested their analytical abilities on the subtleties of Lagaan. (The film has generated three articles, and counting, in Economic and Political Weekly.) Profiling Aamir Khan soon after the Oscar call, The Indian Express (17 February, 2002) said Lagaan “won the battle of the imagination in a way Gadar didn’t”. The film, “brimming with nationalism and the charm of cricket”, was the right one for the Oscars, the report said. In post-Hindutva India, Lagaan (unlike Gadar) seems to offer the liberal-secular brigade something to cheer about.

Fretting over the prolonged marginalisation of “the rural” and “the peasantry” in Hindi cinema, Sudhanva Deshpande in a recent Himal article (‘Hindi Films: The Rise of the Consumable Hero’, August 2001) sees hope in Lagaan. Deshpande looks for “the banished peasant” in Hindi cinema of 1980s and 1990s and nostalgically mourns the absence of “the rural or urban labouring classes dancing and singing with the hero(ine)”. He concludes, “This is why Aamir Khan’s home pro-duction, Lagaan, is so refreshing”. (And it is Sunny Deol-Gadar which makes him run into the arms of Aamir Khan, who, never mind, may well have campaigned for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh had he not been busy with the Oscar lobbying.) As if the rural/the peasantry was ever portrayed in all its feudal and casteist-patriarchal ugliness by Hindi cinema from 1950s to 1970s. In this framework, anything rural seems to be desirable from a class perspective. Hence we can forgive the fact that women have to bear the markers of rurality and ‘tradition’: “Hindi cinema has never been naturalistic, so there is no point complaining that the girls look anything but peasant. But today, the heroes do not have any peasantry watching their passage”.

Deshpande also selectively forgets the utterly feudal leitmotif that is not just confined to Hindi, but also extends to Telugu and Tamil cinema as well: where the very-rural hero (played with masculine aggression by MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikant, Vijaykanth, Akkineni Nageswar Rao, NT Rama Rao, Chiranjeevi, Balakrishna and other worthies) is pitted against the urban-educated heroine dressed in ‘trendy, tight’ clothes. Invariably, she rides a car, confronts the bullock cart-driving hero, abuses him in English in the presence of his and her friends, but ultimately (after some songs and dances) is tamed/rescued and ends up in the final frame in a sari, touching the feet of her husband and the in-laws. (Alternatively, in case the male character is a city-bred ‘modern’ and the female rural/rustic, she is raped by the man. The man would be the villain, and the ‘victimised’ woman the hero’s sister who, ‘unable to bear the shame commits suicide’; or, if the film is ‘progressive’, the hero ensures that his sister marries the now-sheepish rapist after making him see reason in a macho way.) This trend has continued till the 1990s down south, and even Govinda as Coolie No. 1 (a remake of a Telugu 1990s film starring Venkatesh and Tabu), whom Deshpande celebrates for his “proletarian image” teaches the pride (guroor)-filled heroine a lesson, tames her, puts her in her place. In such a reading, Manmohan Desai becomes “the original postmodernist Bombay director, with a thorough (and often delightful) contempt for logic and meaning”. Just as much as all Hindu mythologies are the first magical-realist texts (we did it all first/it is all in the vedas). Marquez and Lyotard can take a walk.

Coming back to Lagaan, it is not such a great hit in box-office terms. “In industry lingo it is an A-class hit”, reports the Indian Express, meaning its popularity is confined to metros and urban pockets. (I watched it reluctantly in December 2001 in Madras, some six months after it was released. It was playing only morning-show in a cinema which accommodates about 180 people, but whose cheapest ticket is Rs 80.) Deshpande notes that “the economics of film pro-duction has altered dramatically, and those who now account for the profits of the industry are simply not interested in watching sweaty peasantry. Why then, has Lagaan succeeded? It must have been the cricket theme which, as in real life, manages to unite passions across classes and international borders.” But this modern Gandhian purana is dangerous as far Dalits and women are concerned.

Take Champaner, the village from where our caste-Hindu hero Bhuvan leads the banner of revolt. For a long stretch in the film, Champaner — where men wear kurtas and vests ordered fresh (by Oscar-winning Bhanu Athaiya) from the nearest Khadi Gramodyog Bhandar and women are dressed in ethnic Rajasthani colours (starched spotless white if they happen to be widows) — is presented as some caste-free utopia. There is religion of course: temple rituals, the Radha-Krishna myth, some namaz-doing Muslims with fez caps, and the visiting Sardarji.

Suddenly, when Bhuvan’s team is training under the supervision of the white mlechcha woman, we spot Kachra, the untouchable, standing on the mar-gins — literally — as the ball rolls before him. Bhuvan asks Kachra to throw the ball back. A petrified Kachra, with a small broom in his right hand, his left hand handicapped, is sweating. Hero Bhuvan goads him to throw the ball, and Kachra does it with his disabled left hand. The ball spins wildly. Bhuvan is terribly impressed and wants to rope Kachra in as the eleventh man they have been looking for. Predictably, the entire village from mukhiya (chief) to vaid (doctor) to jyotish (astrologer) opposes the move to induct an achchut (untouchable). They say: fight the British with a silly game if you please, but don’t commit dharam-bhrasht (sacrilege). Meaning, keep your hands off religion, kid. When the British tread on your toes, you can justifiably fight them, but practices like untouchability are legacies not to be questioned. Surprisingly, while Kachra poses a problem, being tutored in the game by a mlechcha white woman (Elizabeth) is not problematic.

Bhuvan assumes the reformer’s role and launches into a speech, saying even Bhagwan Ram had eaten the fore-bitten fruit of Sabari and that he had decried untouchability. While most versions of the Rama-yana refer to the episode where Rama beheads the shudra Sambhuka for daring to recite the vedas despite being ordered to stop, in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s 2001 recall of the tale there is selective forgetting. From being an upholder of the patriarchal caste system, Rama refigures here as someone who was against caste discrimination. This is of a piece with even apparently progressive elements in modern India refusing to reckon with caste. In fact, at the intellectual level there is an effort to defend ‘good Hinduism’ vis-à-vis the ‘bad Hinduism’ (Hindutva) of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates. In this defence of ‘good Hinduism’ by a range of intellectuals (explicitly by Ashis Nandy and implicitly by ‘left-secular-liberal’ anti-BJP voices) an issue like caste never figures, and when it does, caste has something to do with others — OBCs to Dalits. Caste is not something that you have, since it is always what others embody. In such a reconstruction, Gandhian ramarajya and Gandhi’s Rama continue to be defended by even communist ideologues like AB Bardhan (Member of Parliament) in the context of the Babri Masjid demolition. Thus, in a Communist Party of India booklet, ‘Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva Versus The Real Hindu Ethos’ (De-cember 1992), Bardhan, immediately after noting that 6 December is Ambed-kar’s death anniversary, quotes Das-arath (Rama’s father in Ramayana):

“Raghukul reet sada chali aaye
pran jaaye par vachan na jaaye”
(This is the eternal law of the Raghu clan. Life may be forfeit, but never the word once given.)

Rama honoured his pledge to the letter, says Bardhan, who then accuses RSS-VHP-BJP Rama-bhaktas of not behav-ing like Rama, goes on to refer to Golwalkar (former chief of the RSS) as“Guruji”, approvingly quotes Vivekananda, and invokes “Gandhiji’s” sanatana dharma, and even Sardar Patel and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.

Thus far and no further: Kissing is ‘jootha’.

Selling good Hinduism and its decencies is more than just a passing issue in the film and a gauge of its significance is that the sequence following Kachra’s entry is the only moment where an internal problem forces a confrontation in the film. All other flimic confrontations are with the external Other — the white, British male. Here again, Bhuvan effects a selective reordering of the mythic past (Rama is no historical figure anyway) in quite the same way that AB Bardhan defends ‘Gandhi’s Rama’ as opposed to the Rama of LK Advani (the BJP leader who led the rath yatra that some years later culminated in the demolition of the Babri mosque). It was in a similar vein that Gandhi, when confronted by a well-read Ambedkar who threw the book(s) at him, defended both the caste system and Rama in a personalised interpretation, and in fact swore to establish ramarajya — a Dalit’s and woman’s nightmare — again a selective imagining of the past which dodges issues like caste and patriarchy. (See the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate on Annihilation of Caste in Vol. 1 of Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches.)

In the Lagaan purana, since wasting too much time on the Dalit’s token entry would be futile, the villagers are easily won over by Bhuvan’s falsified invocation of the maryada purushottam (‘ideal superman’, as Rama is referred to fondly). Besides sounding apologetic, the Dalit here is wordless; almost as if he is also dumb. The subaltern cannot speak. Totally stripped of agency, Kachra (in Hindustani, it also means waste or garbage) has to simply follow caste-Hindu Bhuvan’s words. He never exercises a choice. Kachra — someone excluded from every other social-cultural-religious aspect of village life — is never asked whether he would like to be included in such a game. It is not clear whether this Dalit, portrayed so pathetically, is even aware of why the game is being played.

Till the introduction of this Dalit character, Dalits and, indeed, caste never figures in the cinematic village. The brahman is conspicuous by his absence, except as the priest in the background with no dialogue. In fact, no character seems to be caste-marked in the pristine village — the Gandhian ideal. It is only Kachra who bears the burden of caste identity. From the raja to Bhuvan we are not made aware of anybody’s caste. Now, do the untouchables of Champaner live in separate quarters? Who are the other untouchables in the village? (There can’t be just one!) Do they approve of Kachra being part of the team? The rest of the villagers — Bhuvan, Lakha and others — are constantly referred to as ‘farmers/peasants’ who own land (though they are never shown participating in any farmerly activity). Hence the lagaan (double, triple levy, whatever) affects them. But what about the landless and rightless untouchables? How does the lagaan, or the cricket match that will liberate Champaner and Awadh from this burden, affect the Dalits? What is the problem that Dalits have with the white coloniser-state? Are not their problems more linked to the caste-colonialism sustained by the raja and the caste Hindus of the village?

Gandhian concepts are liberally sprinkled in the film. In the scene where Bhuvan is introduced, he is shown trying to save a deer from falling prey to the British officer’s bullets. In 1893, in a village untouched by the material aspects of modernity and modern notions of conservation, we have reason enough to believe that venison could be eaten by villagers too. It is not as if deer were not killed by anyone till the white sahibs went on shikaar (hunting for sport) expeditions. Just as you wonder if the local raja would not have indulged in similar hunting adventures, the construct of the caste-unmarked villager upholding vegetarianism and ahimsa (non-violence) lays the ground for a later scene where the raja espouses veggie power. In a scene where Captain Russell (once again) plays the arrogant white man who challenges an effete raja to eat meat, the latter refuses on the ground that it would be against his religious beliefs. If the raja eats the meat, the lagaan (tax) would be waived, says Russell. Whoever has heard of vegetarian kings in late-19th century? But as in other convenient obfuscations of caste in the film, the raja never identifies himself as ‘kshatriya’. His vegetarianism and his tendency to avoid violence simply mean a double-tax burden on the peasants.

The forcible inclusion of the Dalit-Kachra in the team also comes across as a Gandhian moment. While Ambedkar was a votary of the ‘direct action’ method – where Dalits would physically assert their civic rights and democratise public spaces, even if this resulted in temporary violence – Gandhi wanted caste Hindus to feel remorse and guilt and thus voluntarily ask the untouchables to participate in the general village life — from accessing brahmanic temples to water tanks. (See Ambedkar’s ‘What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables’, Volume 9, Writings and Speeches). In Lagaan this translates into caste Hindus, led by Bhuvan, repenting their casteism in a sudden moment of awakening. The vaid, an elderly character who initially opposes Kachra’s entry, thanks Bhuvan for ‘opening their eyes’. This scene lends credence to the much-repeated journalistic inanity: that cricket is a religion in India, and that cricket unites the nation (acknowledging by default that there are a thousand factors that actually divide the nation!).

Disability and untouchability
Irrespective of the result of the game and Kachra’s performance in it, the status of Dalits will remain the same. Bhuvan’s impassioned plea to the ‘village elders’ is limited to Kachra’s inclusion in the team — and this is decided by accident — and is not about the larger social exclusion of the untouchables. What comes across as being most obnoxious is that after all the drama over Kachra’s inclusion, we are told that he is a good spinner not because of ability, but because of his disability. The token Dalit is further Dalitised. When Kachra wants to throw the ball with his ‘normal’ hand, know-all Bhuvan insists he use the disabled hand. Kachra’s being an untouchable is hardly significant; his disability is. Kachra’s talent is not based on merit, the will to excel or the determination to defeat an enemy, like Bhuvan’s is. It, like untouchability, comes with birth. And it is Bhuvan who discovers this ‘innate’ talent. Kachra knows nothing.

Kachra’s character is supposed to be based on Baloo Palwankar, the first world-class spinner the country produced (1910s, 1920s). Baloo, a left-armer, was a Dalit, and an inspiration to the young Ambedkar. Baloo, however, went on to become a Congressman, was member of the Harijan Sevak Sangh, and part of the Gandhian team that forced Ambedkar to sign the Poona Pact. (The pact by which Ambedkar gave up his demand of separate electorates for Dalits following an indefinite fast undertaken by Gandhi.) Baloo later went on to contest an election against Ambedkar. But Lagaan is an insult to Baloo and Dalits in general. The way Lagaan manipulates Kachra is representative of how mainstream society, histories, and nationalisms have dealt with Dalits. It is also reflective of how cricket has dealt with Dalits. Independence India has produced not one Dalit cricketer. (Vinod Ganpat Kambli and Doddanarasiah Ganesh, both with short-lived careers, are being talked about as the only post-1947 Dalit cricketers but Kanadiga friends inform me that Ganesh could be a backward caste ‘gowda’ and Kambli, it appears, is from a fisherman caste and technically not Scheduled Caste.)

It is not as if cricketers have had not had deformities. There have been spinners such as India’s BS Chandrasekhar, Australia’s John Gleeson (called the mystery spinner by the Englishmen) and Sri Lanka’s best-known non-Sinhala player, Muthiah Muralitharan who have had deformities — Chandra was stricken by polio in childhood and both Gleeson and Murali have congenitally bent elbows. But, the juxtaposition of disability and untouchability is very disturbing.

Such a rationalising of a Dalit’s ability, coming as it does in the post-Mandal post-‘liberalisation’ phase where the brahmanical/statist mood is pronouncedly anti-affirmative action, is an ontological and epist-emological assault on Dalits and disabled people. It makes a mockery of Dalit ‘merit’. Not only is an untouchable forced into the team on caste-Hindu terms, his ability is seriously undermined by his lack of self-control over his talent. Kachra spins the ball not because he knows how to, but because his (polio-afflicted?) hand is ‘not normal’. Normally, Dalits are not talented. But Kachra’s inclusion gets celebrated as ‘a triumph of meritocracy’ (Boria Majumdar, Economic and Political Weekly, 1-7 September, 2001). This is just salt in the wound.

Would Lagaan sans Kachra-the-handicapped-Dalit have made it less of a success or the great film it is supposed to be? Since there have anyway been only two alleged Dalits in post-British Indian cricket, would the absence of Kachra have made a difference to the script? Despite the Dalit issue figuring in the World Conference Against Racism at Durban last September, the generally racist Oscar committee is unlikely to have heard of it; but it is these little clever touches that make Lagaan what it is. According to Tamil filmmaker Rajiv Menon and cricket historian Majumdar (EPW), Lagaan is supposed to herald the arrival of the Dalit in Hindi cinema. For the first time, a Dalit is being positively portrayed in colour cinema, they feel. It is the acknowledgement of caste (in passing) and its negotiation/accommodation on casteist/brahmanic terms that makes Lagaan the darling of the liberal-seculars. Moreover, it is Kachra’s socially and physically disabled presence that offers an ideal foil to Bhuvan’s sheer physicality (well-toned body, clean-shaven looks, a doting girlfriend, and overall leadership qualities). Lagaan had to have a Dalit. But it also had to make his talent a congenital physical problem.

At the end of the one-hour forty-two minute climax of the film, and of the cricket match in it, Kachra with a bat presents an abject picture: someone utterly useless to the team when it matters (while he is not using his disabled arm to turn the old ball). Since both Bollywood cinema and Hindu puranas thrive on the miraculous and the fantastic, we could have had the disabled Kachra pulling off a six of the last ball. But the Dalit cannot be given such definitive history-making agency. Such things are best left to caste Hindus. By sheer accident, a no-ball and a single result in hero-Bhuvan taking control to hoist the winning six.

Kachra’s derogatory inclusion is not the only token moment in the film. There are many such concerning women. When Bhuvan’s team is preparing for the match ahead, heroine Gauri (essayed by Gracy Singh) keeps pestering the players to eat. She is unaware of being the frivolous woman who does not understand the significance of the match. (Though in another, earlier scene she offers the sole moral support to Bhuvan when he is beleaguered.) The white woman Elizabeth knows better. Gauri also shows other typical female behavioural traits established in the tradition of Hindu mythologies and epics — jealousy, envy, pettiness, the ability to sing and dance, make good food, pine — all reinforced by popular cinema. The women of the village contribute to the game by sewing up pads and gloves and other cricketing paraphernalia. And of course they cook, serve food, and cheer the home team. If indeed the film offers several Bakhtinian moments of inversion — unconventional bowling action, dress and general behaviour considered unsuitable to the game, and finally the fantastic triumph of the oppressed (if you will) possible only in the sporting arena and not in politics — why are such inversions and role reversals not genuinely extended to women and Dalits? Why could we not have had a Lagaan where a few talented women — someone who can bowl because of her skill in keeping the birds away from the drying grain in the courtyard with well-aimed stones, and some other who invents the sweep shot from endless practice in sweeping the house, and a third who makes an excellent slip fielder because she catches all that a drunk husband throws at her, and suchlike — too entered the team?

This is where caste and patriarchy limit the filmic imagination. And Lagaan becomes a ‘success’. Aamir plays the true macho male who teases his obvious object of romantic love – the classic village belle. Bhuvan’s Rama-like character has shades of the mythic Krishna too. While Gauri is alive to the sexual tension between Bhuvan and Elizabeth – who even expresses it – the hero is blissfully unaware of these dynamics though he sings of himself as Kanha (the folksy Krishna) in the song Radha Kaise Na Jale? In yet another of those token moments, Elizabeth, besides her crush on Bhuvan, is shown developing respect for local traditions — she stealthily participates in the Holi celebrations, prays at the village temple, and even applies sindoor on her forehead.

Lagaan, while claiming to recreate a piece of imagined history, ends up being yet another clever brahmanical tale that offers no progressive relief. But for a genuine understanding of how Lagaan uses cricket, and how a Dalit is abused by Lagaan’s cricket we need to look at cricket in India, and sport as such, with a caste lens.

Cricket, brahmanism, bodies
Who really plays cricket in India? I am not a historian of the game, but it does not require much disciplinary training to infer that cricket is a game that best suits brahmanical tastes and bodies, and that there has been a preponderance of brahman cricket players at the national level. Bored princes and Parsis bent on mimicking the white sahibs might have been the first to take to the game in the Subcontinent, and we eventually had the Bombay Pentagular (communal cricket as it was called till 1946, where teams called Hindus, Mohammedans, Parsis, Europeans and Rest played each other), but post-1947 it has been a game mono-polised by brahmans and brahmanical castes. Little wonder Ashis Nandy, chronicler of modern Hinduism who dedicated one of his books to VD Savarkar, thinks cricket is a game naturally suited to Hinduism. Some commentators see cricket as truly vedantic. As Nandy has it, it is less Victorian/British and more Indian/Hindu.

Maybe we need to take this considered view seriously. Compared to other modern team sports such as hockey or football, cricket hardly involves much physical activity. A cricketer can stay put in one place for a long time. Even a fast bowler expends energy in short spells and cools off at the boundary. Besides, fast bowlers are not what India is known for, except for Kapil Dev, a meat-eating jat. We do not need too much statistical backing to assert that Indian cricketers have excellent personal records at the expense of the team. Sachin Tendulkar might top the batting averages in test and one-day cricket, but as a team India would be in some low-down position. The more Sachin scores centuries, the less India wins — to be precise, only two centuries of Sachin’s ten result in an Indian test win. (In a February 2002 Wisden list of 100 all-time best one-day innings, Sachin, who has more one-day runs than anyone else, figures in the 23rd place.) Such a strange statistic is unlikely to be available in say, hockey: Dhanraj Pillay scoring the maximum goals during a tournament and the team being in the dumps.

Left to right: The 1956 Indian field hockey Olympic team, which won the country's sixth consecutive gold. Vinod Kambli smiles, Anil Kumble bowls.

No sport will tolerate such neglect of bodies as cricket in India. Take Sunil Gavaskar or Gundappa Vishwanath, conservative brahmans both, who could not have afforded their brahman priest-like paunches and dormant slip-fielding if they had been playing a more physical game like hockey. Not surprisingly, hockey, which has been called ‘the de jure national game’ of India (cricket being the de facto national game post-1983), has drawn players predominantly from Dalit, adivasi, OBC, Muslim and Sikh communities. (India’s most celebrated hockey player, Dhyan Chand, though, was a brahman who joined the First Brahman Regiment at Delhi in 1922 as a ‘sepoy’.) Moreover, a game like cricket involves a colossal waste of time. Historically, it was a sport only the leisured class could indulge in. Before the advent of the one-day form, which purists continue to smirk at, it would a take a full six days for a match to be played (rest day included). At the end of it, in many cases there is not even a result to show for the time spent. Spectators too must have surplus time on their hands — one must be able to waste five whole workdays on a test match. Even in the result-oriented one-day format, a whole day needs to be spared (even to watch the game on television). But such has been the craze for cricket, that for the recent one-day fixture at Madras between India and the visiting England team, the local government declared a public holiday to enable its citizens to watch the match. Such gestures have of course become common.

In sharp contrast, a hockey match is likely to yield results in about two hours. And despite the Indian hockey team’s recent wonderful performances, the game is never likely to recapture the public imagination. Most important, Dhanraj, Thirumavalavan, Dilip Tirkey, Jude Menezes, Lazarus Balra or Pargat Singh are unlikely to win the confidence of the publicity managers of Pepsi or Coke. They are also unlikely candidates for promoting credit cards (Add to this the fact that cricket players tend to be a fairer lot compared to hockey players. And TV and cinema have always promoted an Indian brand of racism that excludes the darker-looking majority).

This marginalisation also owes to the social backgrounds of hockey players, and they are unlikely to make much headway in brahman-dominated cricket. After the monopoly of Maharashtra brahmans in the 1970s and 1980s, the 1990s saw Karnataka send in its brahman pack of Anil Kumble, Sunil Joshi, Rahul Dravid, Javagal Srinath (dubbed ‘the world’s fastest vegetarian bowler’) and Venkatesh Prasad (a fast bowler who runs all the way only to off-spin the ball). Dodda Ganesh and David Johnson were their non-brahman contemporaries whose careers, not surprisingly, were short-lived. While Johnson played just one international match, Ganesh did hang around for some time. Sunil Joshi persisted longer than Ganesh, but the four other Karnataka brahmans have been mainstays in the ‘national eleven’. There have been several occasions when up to nine out of eleven players have been brahmans in the team. Let me substantiate this with a quote by Shekhar Gupta, editor, Indian Express: “Harbhajan is seen as the fighting new Indian, non-English speaking, definitely non-brahman (in a team usually boasting 8 of them) and not from Bombay or Bangalore, the nurseries of Indian cricket, but from a small town in Punjab from where most immigrants to Britain come. So you know where that never-say-die spirit of the Southhall Sikh comes from” (26 March, 2001).

Having too many brahmans means that you play the game a little too softly, and mostly for yourself. Let’s get a Gupta sound-byte again: “After he [Alan Donald] bowled the heart out of this, the so-called best batting line-up in the world, at Port Elizabeth in December 1992, he said the Indians were nice guys. But they were not very good at fighting. ‘They don’t want to handle pace. They hit a few shots and then get out,’ he said. This team lost twice in Australia, South Africa, West Indies, and England and at home to both Pakistan and South Africa. They lost even the old label of tigers at home. They were not prepared for close finishes, cracked up in crunch matches and were so easily overawed by the rivals’ aggressive body language. There was no other reason for them to lose to Pakistan at Madras and Calcutta (1999) and to South Africa at Bombay and Bangalore last year.”

Harbhajans and Kamblis are exceptions. We are not going to see cricket at the national level being taken over by meat-eating Dalits, Muslims and Sikhs and some much-needed team spirit ushered in. But how does a game, which I argue is inherently brahmanical, and which draws upon such a small social base, continue to hijack the nation’s imagination? In most modern nation-states, sport has been one area which mar-ginalised groups have used to showcase their talent. Be it Maradona or Pele, Mike Tyson or Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, or in more recent times the fantastic success of Venus and Serena Williams in a game dominated by the rich whites, or the several athletics successes from poor African nations, or the case of gymnasts from East European nations, sport has been an avenue for making one’s way up from slums and ghettoes to podiums. But in India, the caste system forecloses such possibilities. While we have academic studies by African-American scholars comparing basketball and jazz as truly black sites of creative expression, in India we cannot even posit something like a Dalit/unbrahman sport (though the very thought of a sport dominated by brahamans sounds funny). We are forced to merely record how many Dalits ever got into the ‘Indian eleven’. It almost becomes the same as looking at how many Dalits sing Carnatic music or dance the Bharatanatyam.

The hegemony of cricket in India not only eclipses other team sports like hockey, but makes the media, state and the public very quickly dump and forget a Malleswari or a Limba Ram (a well-known adivasi archer of the mid-1990s). But invoking caste and casteism in sport begs the question: if cricket is a game where unfit brahman men simply amble along, why is it that in other modern sports nonbrahman Indian men and women seem to lag behind? Why does Olympic glory seem to be a larger subcontinental problem? For answers, I suggest that we understand how the caste system, prevalent in South Asia, and most explicitly in the Subcontinent, could possibly disable the emergence and formation of ‘bodies’ that could physically rise up to competition from the best. This might seem quite a ‘racist’ and politically/scientifically wrong proposition to make, but consider what Ambedkar wrote some seven decades ago:
“If caste is eugenic, what sort of a race of men should it have produced? Physically speaking the Hindus are a C3 people. They are a race of pygmies and dwarfs stunted in stature and wanting in stamina. It is a nation 9/10ths of which is declared to be unfit for military service. This shows that the Caste System does not embody the eugenics of modern scientists. It is a social system which embodies the arrogance and selfishness of a perverse section of the Hindus who were superior enough in social status to set it in fashion and who had authority to force it on their inferiors.” (Annihilation of Caste, 1936.)

The statement might seem crude and reductionist, but if an entire population was forced to breed for some 2000 years within extremely restrictive patriarchal sub-caste specificities, the theoretical possibility of choosing mates is drastically reduced and there is extensive sub-caste inbreeding. And we are talking about a situation where even today a Tamil-brahman, more specifically a vadakalai-iyyengar of a particular gotra (now figure that out!), does not look for a mate in an equivalent sub-caste grouping in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka. In fact, the socially mobile Tamil-brahman even if s/he is in Delhi/Bombay or Detroit seeks an alliance only in the sub-caste and sub-group, sub-region-wise suitable sub-community. Since the category of caste has been abandoned in censuses vis-à-vis caste Hindus, we have data only on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Dalits and adivasis) who officially account for 4685 communities. With this figure, we can imagine how many sub-castes and sub-communities there might be among the rest of the 77.5 per cent population. Even if we do not take into consideration adivasis, in a country where couples marrying outside caste are forced to commit suicide (as in many much-highlighted cases in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana), there are strictures against inter-marriage in all caste-bound communities. To suggest that such massive forced inbreeding is likely to produce weak bodies, in Ambedkar words “a nation 9/10ths of which is declared to be unfit for military service”, is not too wild I hope.

It is such a context — where a billion bodies cannot yield a single Olympic gold — that results in a much-unplayed game like cricket becoming the preoccupation of a caste-ridden nation. In the parent country, England, cricket is hardly the most popular game, football being the game that matters. However, English cricket today, led by a Madras-born Muslim, is more ethnically rep-resentative and balanced than perhaps any other, though there are fewer blacks and more Asians now. While Indian cricket is dogged by casteism, in South Africa cricket practises racism by omission: some 15 years after the nation formally gave up apartheid, there have been few black players. Ditto for Zimbabwe. In both these African nations, football remains the basic male sporting pas-time. In Australia (or New Zealand), the game does enjoy pop-ularity but this nation equally keenly follows other sports, and has even yielded an aboriginal Olympic gold medallist in Cathy Freeman. It is in the Subcontinent that we seem so fixated on cricket. And caste.

India/Bollywood produces films like Lagaan because it patronises a game like cricket. And cricket rules because the brahmanical caste system, with is bedrock as inequality, continues to grip India. Much of the obsession/addiction to cricket can be understood if we understand the popularity of cinema in India, which produces a phenomenal 1000-odd movies a year. (India also plays more one-day matches than any other country.) Popular cinema in India, be it from Bollywood or Kollywood (as Tamil filmdom is called), which began its career by retelling brahmanic-Hindu mythologies, continues to be a major site which sustains and nurtures the caste system and the brahmanical social order. While Valentine’s Day comes to be celebrated in select urban pockets, only post-Hindutva – and it is repressive Hindutva which finds this unacceptable –not many question the consensus over the continuing ban on kissing in Indian cinema.

Caste profile of one team each from 1970s/ 80s/ 90s
The 1996 Indian team that played England in the Birmingham test. Only the skipper, Azharuddin, is a non-Hindu. All others are brahman/ ‘upper’ caste.

V Rathour (‘upper’ caste)
A Jadeja (‘upper’ caste)
SV Manjrekar (brahman)
SR Tendulkar (brahman)
M Azharuddin (Muslim, captain)
NR Mongia (‘upper’ caste)
SB Joshi (brahman)
A Kumble (brahman)
J Srinath (brahman)
PL Mhambrey (‘upper’ caste)
BKV Prasad (brahman)

The 1982 team that played England at Lord’s. All players except Kirmani are brahman/‘upper’ caste.

SM Gavaskar (brahman)
GAHM Parkar (‘upper’ caste)
DB Vengsarkar (brahman)
GR Viswanath (brahman)
Yashpal Sharma (brahman)
O Malhotra (‘upper’ caste)
N Kapil Dev (jat)
RJ Shastri (brahman)
SMH Kirmani (Muslim)
S Madan Lal (brahman)
DR Doshi (brahman)

The 1978 team that played West Indies in the Bombay test. Kirmani and Bedi are non-Hindus. All others are brahman / ‘upper’ caste.

SM Gavaskar (brahman)
CPS Chauhan (‘upper’ caste)
M Amarnath (‘upper’ caste)
GR Viswanath (brahman)
DB Vengsarkar (brahman)
SMH Kirmani (Muslim)
N Kapil Dev (jat)
KD Ghavri (‘upper’ caste)
S Venkataraghavan (brahman)
BS Bedi (Sikh)
BS Chandrasekhar (brahman)

So, an average of 6 brahmans per team. Brahmans constitute about 3 per cent of the Indian population.
To top it all, the ideal brahman selectors’ delight:

Sunil Manohar Gavaskar
Krishnamachari Srikkanth
Gundappa Vishwanath
Sachin Tendulkar
Dilp B Vengsarkar
Ravi J Shastri
Sadanand Vishwanath
Javagal Srinath
Madan Lal
S Venkataraghavan
Anil Kumble
12th man: L Sivaramakrishnan
Reserves: Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly

Cultural studies scholars have extensively deli-berated on why kissing and sex scenes are almost self-censored in India. They would benefit by looking for answers in caste taboos. Caste-conscious Hindus are extremely touchy about jootha (contact through saliva, yechchal in Tamil) and kissing can be the most despicable jootha act. And you certainly cannot indulge in it publicly. While Hindi films celebrate the act of the wife eating the leftovers in the husband’s plate, even married couples cannot kiss on screen. Before saying “All this in the land of Khajuraho and Kamasutra”, we must remember that more than these two Ks, it is the strictures in Brahma Purana and Shiva Purana — which encourage only coital/reproductive sex, quite like the older Gandhi did — that caste Hindus take seriously (see Sudhir Kakar’s Intimate Relations, 1989).

If even kissing and making love have to be seen as subversive in popular cinema, one may well understand why nothing really subversive is possible in this genre. Yet, cinema has emerged as the most popular cultural form in post-British India as much has cricket has emerged as the most popular sport. Both cinema and cricket in their banyan-like existence have prevented the growth of anything under their unhealthy shadows. Fluff like Lagaan and false icons like Sachin are the best that these institutions can throw up; their worst — match-fixing and Gadar.

(Author's note: Some of the reflections on cinema were triggered by a conversation with Ravikumar, President, PUCL Tamil Nadu-Pondicherry. I owe the point on disability and cricket players to NU Abhilash, researching cricket in the UK, who also helped compile the teams. By way of clarification on the quote at the beginning of the essay, Ambedkar, like other male writers of his time, uses ‘man’ in the generic sense to refer to all of humankind and not in the sexual/ masculine sense)

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Published on: March 04, 2002
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