A documentary by Pankaj Rishi Kumar, called Janani’s Juliet, won the best film and best director award at the South Asian Short Film Festival recently, after winning acclaim and other awards as well.
Kumar’s film captures the process of putting together a stage play, Chandala, Impure, based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, juxtaposed with the narration of the real life story of Kausalya Shankar. The production by Puducherry-based theatre group Indianostrum, directed by Koumarane Valavane, is a contemporary version of the classic tragedy of star-crossed young lovers; the director believes that the text isn’t sacrosanct and places his play in a milieu of the appalling caste divide in India. (Kausalya's story also found its way into another recent play, Romeo Ravidas Aur Juliet Devi, directed by Sharmistha Saha).
His Juliet is Janani, an upper-caste girl and his Romeo is Jack, from a Dalit family of scavengers. In the town where they live, a lower-caste man cannot even sit in the 'first class' seat of a movie theatre, despite buying a ticket, so even a glance at a girl from the upper caste is an invitation to violence. Interestingly, Janani has disguised herself as a boy to watch one of actress Shakeela’s soft-porn movies. There is a scene in the play, in which Janani’s maid scrubs her hands almost violently because an untouchable laid his hand on her skin. The girl points to her shoulder, and then to her lips. The older woman is aghast, “He kissed you!” she exclaims. “I kissed him,” says Janani dreamily, and sets in motion the tragedy of a death foretold.
Kausalya speaks to the actresses who play Janani about what she went through. She had married Shankar, who belonged to a lower caste, and for this ‘crime’, the young couple were repeatedly threatened. When a kidnap attempt failed, Kausalya’s parents sent hitmen to attack the couple in broad daylight in the town of Udumalpet, and the crime was caught by CCTV cameras. Shankar died of multiple stab wounds before they could reach the hospital, Kausalya survived and went on to fight a legal battle against her parents. Her father and five others were sentenced to death, other men were given prison terms of varying duration, her mother and three more were acquitted.
Later—and this can happen only in India—the Madras High Court acquitted the father and two others and commuted the death sentences of the hired killers to life terms. Apparently, a conspiracy could not be proved and the video footage could have been doctored. Patriarchy and casteism are such accepted aspects of our society, that in cases of rape of Dalit women, defence lawyers have argued and judges have agreed, that it would be impossible for an upper-caste man to even touch a lower-caste woman, so how could the alleged sexual assault have taken place?
Like in life, in the play too, the biggest worry of the girl’s mother is the shame their family has to endure in their community, because their daughter “bears the seed of a Dalit man”. The onus of caste “purity” lies with the woman—hence the title of the play, Chandala, Impure—and if she violates that, she has no right to live. Kausalya became an anti-caste crusader and continues her fight against honour killings. Another scene from Kausalya’s story is incorporated into the play—when Janani’s mother fails in her attempts to get her daughter to go back to her family, she angrily asks her to return everything they gave her—jewellery, clothes and even her slippers.
So precarious is the issue of caste (and religion too), that hardly any mainstream Hindi films or even plays want to tackle it. There have been films about the oppression of Dalits, but most movie love stories focus on class or clan rivalries, rather than caste. The father (usually) of the rich girl is offended by the idea of his daughter falling in love with a working class man—a factory worker, taxi-driver, mechanic or farmer—and tries to buy off the man or get him beaten by his henchmen.
That’s why after Achhut Kanya (1936), which was made during a wave of social reform and progressive leadership in India, most love stories in Hindi cinema ignored caste. Most of the time, characters did not even have surnames, they were addressed simply as Mr Shekhar or Miss Neeta. Which is probably why Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi film, Sairat (2016), that brought the ugliness of caste to the front and centre of a young love story, was such a huge hit in Maharashtra. Typically, when Karan Johar and his director Shashank Khaitan remade it in Hindi as Dhadak (2018), they prettified it to create a bland and fake film. Bollywood’s ignorance of how the rest of India lives showed through; in their world, a star kid could not possibly be seen living in a hovel, even if he plays a poor man!
Vijay Tendulkar’s play Kanyadaan exposed the hypocrisy of a Brahmin leader, who lets his daughter marry a Dalit man, not because he believes in equality, but because it suits his political agenda. The daughter is ill-treated by the abusive drunk, but she decides to put up with her unhappy marriage, furious at her father’s phony idealism.
In the current climate of hate and misogyny, can Romeo and Juliet ever be happy together? Perhaps, if Juliet is not mute, as in Chandala, Impure. In Feroz Abbas Khan’s play, Raunaq & Jassi, adapted by Iqbal Khwaja from the Shakespeare original, his fiery Punjabi Juliet has the courage to stand up against the ridiculous and destructive machismo of the two warring clans, that unleashes tragedy on the innocent to satisfy their bloated egos.
For all the progress India has made in education and technology, it is still difficult for families to accept their daughters marrying outside the caste or religion. The horrific Hathras rape case and recent uproar over a jewellery ad showing a harmonious inter-religious marriage, are other indications of just how deeply entrenched this malaise is. It is not enough for today’s Juliets to be brave, the Romeos have to grow a sturdy spine too!
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.