Origin, a Hollywood film, has hit theatres across the U.S. Based on the book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson, the film, directed by Selma’s Ava DuVerney, grapples with serious questions of social stratification of race in the U.S., comparing it with the caste system in India.
Gaurav J Pathania, an Indian professor hailing from Kurukshetra in Haryana, can be seen in the small but significant role of Dr BR Ambedkar in that film.
Currently, an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Eastern Mennonite, Pathania shared his journey from being an Indian professor to a Hollywood actor with The Free Press Journal (FPJ).
“She (DuVerney) wanted to do justice to the role of Ambedkar. She wanted to cast someone who knows the character and is emotionally attached to the character”, Pathania told the FPJ.
He explained that the director dropped funding from Netflix to be able to make bold creative choices for the film, one of which was hiring non-actors like him.
DuVerney has worked with Bollywood bigwigs like Priyanka Chopra and Rajkumar Rao as a producer of the film White Tiger. Pathania said that when he asked DuVernay why he was cast, in a sea of other actors, she replied, “You are an Ambedkarite professor and you've been studying caste. I wouldn't have to work hard explaining the importance of the role to you. You'd already know that.”
“I have never acted before, maybe at some theatre in my college in Kurukshetra. I was never a big fan of the Hollywood industry... it's a different life”, Pathania said, chuckling, “It is because of Ava and Ambedkar that I got involved in this project.”
Talking about his experience with the film, Pathania emphasised that the transition from the role of a professor to an actor, despite what most people would believe, was an easy one.
“As a professor teaching a class almost feels like being in front of the camera. You are always performing, to an extent. I have been an activist, giving speeches on big stages in front of the camera and large groups of people”, he added.
“Ambedkar is someone I look to as God. He wrote the Constitution, which gave Dalits and women equal rights as humans. He single-handedly made us humans. While playing this figure, there were points where we all got emotional”, Pathania added.
His father was an Ambedkarite from a village in Kurukshetra where Pathania finished his primary education.
“I was a shopkeeper for five years. I would have completed my education earlier if it wasn't for that”, he said. Pathania made his way to Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for his PhD after which he moved to the U.S. for a post-doctoral research project.
He has undertaken a project to trace the emergence of Ambedkarism around the globe by meeting people worldwide who met Ambedkar to track the global phenomenon of Ambedkarism.
Pathania writes extensively about caste, class and race in research with a focus on radical student movements and the social change that they bring. On a website that he moderates, mindsofcaste.org, he published his anti-caste writing, poetry and activism. He also mentors scholars in the area of caste.