Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 28, March 2012

When a Rudaali Raises a Bawandar:
The Marginalised get a Voice

Arya Aiyappan

  1. India, the land of myriad customs and conventions structured along the lines of gender, religion, caste, class, ethnicity and language, consecutively brings about a relation of inequality through them. These asymmetrical relations together forge the identity of every individual, through his or her associations with others and the social environment. Identity interplays with the gender of the individuals (masculine or feminine), pronouncing the ideology operating in the social milieu. Gendering is a common phenomenon of every social institution for 'gender is embedded into their structures and processes. In this sense the family, caste and kinship, labour, education and state are all gendered institutions.'[1]
  2. In a socially segregated society, the position and the status enjoyed by women reflect the social order. Through the positioning of women and the role relationships they play, within the invisible yet potent boundaries of the family and society, they visibly evoke multifarious social relations. Their identities founded on gender roles in a culturally-diverse and religiously-plural India are very ambiguous. The hierarchies of class, caste, religion, ethnicity and race, impinge on the feminine identities to confer upon them a marginalised status, either directly or indirectly. Women's marginalised status bespeaks of their identity in connection with the socio-political topographies controlled by the power web.
  3. According to Sue Thornham, women as non-homogenous groups segregated by religion, caste, class, age, educational background, sexuality and ethnicity,[2] are often subject to double exploitation, sometimes even outweighing their gender status. When society discriminates against them, due to their social grading as women of lower caste and class, the politics of 'Dalit' identity come into play.
  4. Indian society is a 'caste society.'[3] Caste, an ascribed status, is a rigid system of unequal relations specified by birth, endogamy and associations through ritual services. Caste divides society along the lines of jati (a birth – status group), hierarchy (order and rank) and interdependence (division of labour linked to hierarchy).[4] Ethnic communities are politicised religious communities that mark social and cultural differences between groups of people. These communities specify their caste status through separation by birth, endogamy and interdependence through ritual services.
  5. Biradari, the local caste group is the fundamental unit of the caste system. Members of the biradari form marriage relations with similar units forming a larger caste group, jati. Varna and 'jati', the two variations of caste are hierarchicaly ranked and reinforced through daily behaviour imposing restrictions and prohibitions to inter-associations. Social order rooted in the varna dharma, the caste-centred power hierarchies both grant unequal status and regulate the activities of individuals and clans. The social gradations of Varnas are Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishnavas, and Shudras. The 'ideology of karma' is a justification for the caste order.[5] With the passage of time, there have emerged upper and lower castes, more holy and less holy castes, and respectable and disreputable castes.
  6. Dalits or the Harijans, the outcasts among the castes, though branded as the fifth in the order are rarely accorded a venerable position in the Varna system of classification. As a religiously-ordained hierarchy within a framework of material exploitation, caste represents the interests of the higher castes. It is a hegemonic system of oppression comprising of complex hierarchical social relations and principles justifying and perpetuating the relations founded on tyranny. Dalits, the deemed untouchables, unable to 'articulate the discourse of rights,'[6] are pushed into a state of helpless dependence, without an identity of their own. Conversely, the critical rendering of Dalit as a socio-cultural construct 'envisages a culture of resistance and assertion of the subordinated.'[7] When the oppressed challenge the prescribed social order, they prepare the grounds for a completely new paradigm. Their constant endeavour is to do away with ignorance, poverty and the vicious casteism enslaving them.
  7. Society is a mesh of mutual agreements and assumptions; socialisation is the practice of transmuting the biological into a specific cultural characteristic. Fundamental channels of socialisation are the family, coequal groups, educational institutions, profession and the neighbouring environment. Culture articulates a society's ways of life and value systems through films, music, dance, ceremonies and rituals. Cinema brings about 'anticipatory socialization'[8] by manifesting movements within culture by reflecting and recording the variable values. Living beyond a wide chimera, cinema envisages our creative spirit by striking a deep chord with our lives. From mythology to reality, science to spirituality, politics to sports, cinema encompasses every sphere of life. Through the language of cinema, the vast vocabulary which classifies relationships is unveiled. Cinema language frames social and cultural identities by influencing our everyday life through customs and conventions.
  8. A major milestone in Indian culture, cinema embodies the creative spirit of the country. Allied to society, Indian cinema is representative of the cacophony of voices, which constitute the nation. Through its varied genres, (commercial, serious and middle) Indian cinema reflects and represents the society from which it originates. Hindi cinema, communicating through the national language, stakes claim to a pan-Indian outlook, promoting the hybrid sanskar of India with its scores of conventions, customs and ways of living. In India, cinema renders a kaleidoscopic view of the hierarchical social system, imaged forth through the gendered identity of every individual. Movies reflecting the dominant ideology can hardly overlook the politics of gender differentiation implicit within every socio-cultural sphere, inclusive of religion and caste.
  9. In India, caste relations are further diversified along the lines of Purush-jati and Stree-jati. Purush-jati and Stree-jati correspond to the respective gender under the influence of the caste hierarchy. Caste and class posit men at a level higher than their counterparts in the social hierarchy. This correlates to the marginalised status of those women exploited, by both the Dalit men and the upper caste men and women alike. Hindi cinema has played a role, overtly and covertly in sustaining and redefining the social constructs from time to time. Bimal Roy's Sujata, Shyam Benegal's Ankur and Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen,[9] to name a few, are movies which have explicitly dealt with Dalit woman's identity rooted in a caste- and class-based society.
  10. Movies like Rudaali (1993) by Kalpana Lajmi,[10] and Bawandar (2000) by Jagmohan Mundhra[11] are explicit representations of the doubly exploited feminine gender within the social and cultural sphere of uneven power paradigms. While Lajmi's movie Rudaali is an adaptation of Mahasweta Devi's short story, Rudaali, a real life episode in connection with the Bhanwari Devi gang rape case in Rajasthan is the basis for Mundhra's Bawandar. These movies are in keeping with the hardships and problems of the two women protagonists within their restricted social spaces as envisaged in the short story and the real incident. Bawandar and Rudaali, in line with the original sources clearly highlight the caste- and class-based oppressions often meted out to women.
  11. The choice of movies for this paper centring on exploring the Dalit woman's predicament takes into consideration certain common grounds. Both are contemporary in nature, rooted in the same socio-political and cultural environment (Rajasthan) and have women as the lead protagonists. In the two movies Rudaali and Bawandar, the main protagonists Shanichari and Sanwari are representatives of the Dalit community. In keeping with their Dalit identities, they 'adhere' to a culture of subjugation and resistance. Shanichari and Sanwari, representatives of the subjugated sections of the society, brave all odds, mustering the courage to revolt against oppression.
  12. Rudaali and Bawandar rendering the lives of the marginalised shed light on how an accumulation of their experiences has shaped their Dalit identities, which encompasses their experiences. Both of these women struggle to develop their own individuality. This paper is an attempt to understand the meaning and culture of the Dalit discourse within the sphere of Hindi cinema by probing into the lives of Shanichari and Sanwari. Delving into the issues associated with human rights and their denial, these movies explore the trials and tribulations of the exploited women.
  13. The prime issue of concern is to comprehend the Dalit woman's struggle concurrently as a woman and a Dalit. The problems of denial and the subsequent exercise of rights become the contested grounds in the struggle. In the paper I also seek to understand how the marginalised come to terms with the differential implementation of human rights when these are associated with their caste and gender identities. The focal point is the confrontation between their ascribed and achieved identities centred on identification and classification, together with resistance.
  14. Rudaali and Bawandar are vivid illustrations of two Dalit women caught in two different situations of life and their relentless attempts to break free from the constricting fetters that society has imposed upon them. Their social positioning in the lower strata of a predominantly feudalistic society bears the vestiges of the age-old Zamindari system that has scarcely changed for the better over the years. These movies, grounded in the desert terrain of Rajasthan, relate to the Indian consciousness and reality, in spite of their conflicting concerns. Rajasthan, ironically one of the most sought after tourist destinations is also notorious for its orthodox practices. The society steeped in patriarchal hegemony and hierarchically divided along the lines of class and caste still carry out various practices, which are not in keeping with the democratic growth agenda of the country. An uneven sex ratio, child marriage, female infanticide, and the lowest rate of female literacy in India together contribute to the pathetic state of women in Rajasthan.[12] Incidentally, the largest number of Sati stones is in Rajasthan and though legislation has been passed time and again against the barbaric practice of Sati, the inhuman sacrifice still prevails in remote corners of Rajasthan.[13] The 'Panchayat' system and their so-called ordinances, which are deemed golden rules by the community, perpetuate separate state orders within the state of Rajasthan. These differences are blatantly visible in the two movies under analysis. Bawandar and Rudaali do not reflect an imaginary synthetic social order, but one where prosperity is coupled with the sham of society, the orthodox customs of yore.
  15. Rudaali, the woeful tale of women fated to be mourners, traces the picture of a custom practised by the aristocratic families of landlords and noble men, of hiring rudaalis (female mourners) to mourn over the death of their family members. Rudaalis belonging to the lower castes and classes are summoned on these occasions, for the upper classes never overtly communicate their grief. Dressed in black with unkempt hair, the rudaalis shed tears profusely, lamenting over the dead by dancing sporadically and vociferously praising the deceased. The movie is indeed a subtle satire on the barbarous practices that find expression within the multifarious life cycle rituals, be it even the obsequies. These outdated customs are the offshoots of a dismembered society, where rituals are cultural power resources.[14]
  16. Through the gendering of death rituals, women mourners or rudaalis tend as sophisticated modes of amusement for the aristocracy. Rudaali throws light on the agonising experiences of Shanichari, a widow whose life has been beleaguered by misfortunes. Through heartrending vignettes, Lajmi deplores the despicable life of Shanichari who eventually becomes a rudaali, giving vent to her sorrows. Shanichari has always opposed the injustice meted out to her. Hardened by the harsh realities, she can hardly shed a tear, let alone cry. These rituals thus expose the lopsided gender equations with the women of the lower caste and class deigned to serve as rudaalis. On the other hand, aristocratic women, who are kept secluded, cannot express their sorrow in public, constrained by their social ranking. That women and not men are chosen to be mourners also reveals the gender disparities operating within a casteist and class society. Mourning is gendered and women become the role bearers.
  17. Bawandar also set against the arid desert sands, unfolds the saga of a Dalit woman who stands against the oppressive customs, regardless of the punishment doled out to her. The movie addresses social evils like child marriages, prevalent in remote villages in India. These villages rooted in casteism and sexism can hardly tolerate any deviance from the established social order. Therefore, when Sanwari revolts against these norms of patriarchy, with the support of the women's initiative 'Saathin', she has to face dire consequences for her actions. Her fight for justice is blocked not only by the social setup, which looks down upon her, but also by the political and legal system favouring the upper class and caste. Bawandar recounts the fatal crime of rape perpetuated to punish the so-called outcaste, Sanwari. The rape, 'caste prejudice, official apathy, corruption, gender bias, flawed social work, delays of justice'[15] all point towards Sanwari's lowly position in the gendered social hierarchy.
  18. Bawandar is a powerful denunciation of Indian society perpetuating casteism, chauvinism, injustice, oppression and sexual harassment as directives to control women. The movie is an exposition of highhanded patriarchy resorting to sexual violence to silence a woman who dares to question the autocratic male norms. Sanwari's feminine gender together with her lower caste and class status has been the pivotal aspect in the gruesome episode. In Rudaali and Bawandar, when the oppressed (women) slowly redeem a voice to oppose oppression, in a world of differences, society's iron hands curb any sign of rebellion. In the following paragraphs the social constructs of religion, class, caste, gender, language and communal institutions are analysed and their roles in the uneven system are highlighted vis-à-vis the movies chosen and role of cinema in giving voice to the growing resistance.
  19. Indian culture with its medley of religions, traditions, languages, rituals and social systems, is a crucial catalyst in the dynamics of power in Indian society with caste, and sub-caste as its sub-structures. India's politicised religious communities integrate sundry voices with many biased and callous practices still existing within the religious traditions. Within the Hindu religion women are prohibited from seizing religious power and authority—as is made visible in both Rudaali and Bawandar. When Shanichari undertakes the funeral rites of her mother-in-law and is unable to pay the village priest, she has to bear his torrents of abuse and curses. Caste relations are specified through communications and ritual associations between the Kumhars (lower caste) and Gujjars (upper caste) in Bawandar and the Ganjus (lower caste) and the upper caste Thakurs in Rudaali. The priests officiating at rituals enjoy privileged positions in society as honourable members of the 'holy castes'. Their services are indispensable to the naming of a newborn child, and to solemnise marriages and funerals. Socially discarded, yet devoutly orthodox, the villagers acknowledge the priest as the divine incarnate.
  20. The socio-cultural custom of hiring a rudaali throws light on the dialectical relation between the upper caste and the lower caste in Rudaali. Hiring a rudaali is a status symbol and augments family pride. That the rudaali renders a funeral service in the face of upper caste women being unable to proclaim their sorrow hits hard on the gender ideologies controlling obsequies among the caste. Caste delineates the social status of women as pure or impure in the community. This can be seen in the case of Sanwari who is asked to withdraw her suit against the upper caste rapists and at the same time she is forbidden from touching the sacred gangajal because of her violated honour, which reveals the paradox inherent in the caste hierarchy. She is constantly reminded, 'Lugaayi jaat hei tho gungate mein rahe' (Women caste have to remain within the veil). A lower caste potter woman raising a sand storm against upper caste authority is an unpardonable offence.
  21. Gender along with its various 'structures of constraint'[16] intersects with religion and caste in maintaining the status quo as well as initiating processes of oppression and exploitation. Roles prescribed to women manifest the interests of men and indirectly those of higher castes leading to a passive enculturation of uneven gender paradigms. Women within the claustrophobic familial structure are endowed with the task of reinforcing the caste status and its rigid borders.[17]
  22. In cinema, gender is negotiated through actions, speech, gestures and diverse social characteristics (class, religion, caste, communal institutions, ethnicity, relationships and sexuality). In Rudaali and Bawandar, the images reinstate differences through representational systems. The contextual low-key lighting and the skilled use of chiarosquro (the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow) in the depiction of women characters foreground the differences by highlighting their subordinate status. On occasions, the prominent key lighting leaves shadows that highlight the tragic states of these women. The haunting rhythmic drumming, the background score and the spasmodic dance in Rudaali are prominent emblems used to highlight the conflict. The ideology of gender is perpetuated through the mise-en-scene, iconography of images, gestures, mood of depiction, nature of the gaze, gender demarcation, facial expressions, body language and clothing as well. The women characters are bold, but the jaded representation of Shanichari in dark attire breathes a sinister air into her tragic life. These movies elucidate imperative issues primarily concerning women and their marginalised status as Dalits through the representation of various categories.
  23. Stereotypes construct gender with women typecast as vulnerable beings as compared to their powerful male counterparts. Through stereotypical unwritten social norms, complete conformity is demanded from both men and women. Austerely enforced through laws they expect no defiance. Rebellious attitudes are curtailed and those striving to break free from the shackles of stereotypes are subjected to severe punishment. When Sanwari as a Saathin voices her protest against a villager's misbehaviour towards a woman, her in-laws and the village elders make relentless attempts to socialise her into silence.
  24. Family, society and kinship systems also manifest the power inequities leading to the oppressed state of affairs of the Dalits. Kinship ideology promulgates equality centred on the precept of separate but equal. The patriarchal family model centred on masculine self hood, considers Shanichari the widow as an outcaste in her village. She is the ill-fated woman whose father met with a sudden death and was abandoned by her mother. At an early age she was married off to a drunkard who later succumbed to an outbreak of plague. Later, her only son Budhwa also deserted her. Shanichari is plagued by miseries and, unable to shed tears, has become the butt of ridicule among the villagers.
  25. Ideologies of gender are negotiated between the various strata of the society, the classes. Shanichari's meagre existence and the pittance she receives for her labour is in contrast to the plush lifestyle of the Zamindars and their better halves. Beyond the obvious gradations between the Thakurs and the commoners, there also prevails gendered differentiation of and within the classes. These differences are visible in the clothing styles of Shanichari, Mungri (Shanichari's daughter-in-law) and the much-pampered Thakurain. Within classes, clothes reinstate social control over women as in Rudaali and Bawandar. The imaginary Lakshmanrekha of their 'ghoongat' enforced through social consensus has always dictated Shanichari and Sanwari are true to their subordinate identities.
  26. Every society is structured and differentiated through language. Language viewed from a social perspective replicates, represents, reforms the racial, religious, class, caste, ethnic and gender interests. Power is manifested in the interplay of language, which simultaneously communicates and exploits. The rustic version of Hindi in Rudaali and Bawandar, exposes the supreme and invincible gradations of class, caste and gender among village folks. 'Language is not used in a contextless vacuum; rather it is used in a host of discourse contexts which are impregnated with the ideology of the social systems and institutions.'[18] The choice of words, phrases and conversational styles reflect the social class positions of Sanwari and Shanichari by appropriating their status in front of a Zamindar, priest or even a Dalit man. In Rudaali, the common folk never dare to address the Zamindars by their first names. The lower classes, possessing less verbal ability, use honorific titles like 'Hukum' (command) and 'Sarkar' (authority) signifying absolute power.
  27. Languages are also 'gender ascriptive'. The voice of a selfless Indian woman is silence where a smile connotes sexual insinuation. Shanichari's and Sanwari's Dalit statuses are clearly visible in their gestures as well as in their languages use. Addressing themselves as 'Manne', the likes of Shanichari do not even dare to look up at the Zamindar, despite the Zamindar commanding her 'uppar dekh, uppar' (to look up). Appropriating social gradations by recognising the identities of the marginalised, communicates the irony implied in the command. In the rural milieu where Shanichari and Sanwari lead claustrophobic existences, they are expected to be the ignorant submissive women with no will of their own. Therefore when Sanwari lodges a complaint against her rapists and signs the First Information Report at the police station, the officer sneers loudly, 'Oh! Ho! Autograph'. He is a representative of a society unwilling to acknowledge that lower class and caste women can be literate. Likewise, the priest's intermittent outpourings of Sanskrit are attempts to exhibit his superiority, though Shanichari verbally defends herself.
  28. The human body, used as a metaphor for society possesses immense symbolic and cultural values. The human body is the focal point of social control and the bedrock, upon which gender equality is built. Conditioned and bounded by historical conventions, the body configures feminine identity in connection with a variety of codes of appearance grounded on the female body. The sexualised body is the privileged site for definition of the self and the social order. Sexuality, an innate emotion of every man and woman, is also a social construct operating within diverse domains of power. The notion of body is crucial in the Indian context, especially the woman's body which is associated with varying power paradigms, notions of purity and identity together with the diverse socio-cultural markers. Rudaali and Bawandar give ample examples for these issues which have been highlighted through the experiences of the women protagonists in these two movies (violating the body, pure versus impure, powerful versus powerless, subjugation, oppression, etc). Body thus becomes the most potent site of contestation, revealing the changing dynamics in every situation. Carole Vance considers that 'sexuality is simultaneously a domain of restriction, repression and danger as well as a domain of exploration, pleasure and agency.'[19] Women's bodies exist as tokens of community identity with virginity as the cardinal virtue. David Arnold, in the Indian context, spoke of the body as 'a site of colonizing power and contestation between the colonised and coloniser.'[20]
  29. The over indulgent yet strictly cloistered upbringing of the Zamindars acknowledges the legitimate right of the ruling class to toy with the emotions of the lower class, especially women. Whereas, decency and duty encumbers the feelings of the latter, the representatives of which are Shanichari and Sanwari. Centuries old Shastras (rukes) relegate women of the lower castes to the status of mere sexual objects—virtual slaves to be used to satisfy men. In the movies under discussion, Lakshman Singh, the Zamindar, who takes a fancy to Shanichari, and the upper class men lusting after Sanwari are illustrative examples of gendered class differences. That Dalit women fall victim to upper class men and Dalit men alike, make their existence even more traumatic. Rudaali pictures the wayward drunkard husband while his wife, Shanichari, struggles to make both ends meet. Shanichari has to tend to the requirements of the house, while her husband claims to be the breadwinner for namesake alone. The exploitation that women face both within and outside the class and in a relationship is highlighted. The doubly oppressed status of Dalit women is foregrounded.
  30. Gendered power inequalities also lead to the social control of women through sexuality. Patriarchy calls for the control of woman's sexuality to perpetuate gendered power inequalities and caste ideologies. The concept of being impure is ingrained in the female psyche as Sanwari cries, 'Mein maili huyi gayi' (I have become impure) when she recalls her brutal rape. The association between shame and sexual violence as well as the apprehension of violence and woman's experience form processes of patriarchal control.
  31. A country's political and legal system can play a pivotal role in annihilating the age-old discriminations due to the caste system. Nevertheless, when the system itself betrays the victim's prayer for justice by supporting the perperators, the real cause goes unnoticed. Bawandar presents through apposite vignettes the plight of Sanwari who has been raped by caste men. It illustrates how the inhuman experience of rape captured the attention of the country with even the Prime Minister empathising with the victim and offering her monetary support. However, the corrupt legal system colludes with the powerful denying Sanwari her due justice.
  32. Sanwari is persistently reminded of her Dalit status even in her plea for justice. The judgment blatantly discards the possibility of upper caste men gang raping a lower caste woman, let alone touching her, and is as crude a verdict as it can be termed. The biased judges pay no heed to Sanwari—an untouchable's request for justice. The judgment acquits the rapists because of the caste and class differences between the rapists and the victim. Ruling out any association of an uncle and his nephews along with a Brahmin priest in a heinous act like rape is (in their understanding) baseless. Upon hearing the verdict the close-up shot of a completely devastated Sanwari unable to contain her tears, evokes sympathy in the audiences. That the film presents ample evidence of political support being garnered for the rapists, and the judges being repeatedly substituted for the court trials, exposes the gullibility of the pillars of the society.
  33. Domination and resistance are opposing effects of the same power relations, which are not inevitable, unchanging and unalterable. No relations of power exist without resistances. Women's attempts to unshackle themselves from stereotyped roles are met with resistance. Society resists the hostile behaviour of women by using violence against them, denouncing them or taking revenge against the entire society to which they belong. The United Nations Declaration in 1993, on the eradication of violence against women acknowledges the agonising life of a woman saturated with violence in one form or the other:

      physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family and the general community including battering, sexual abuse of female children, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non spousal violence and violence related to exploitation, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women, forced prostitution and violence perpetrated or condoned by the state.[21]

  34. Violence takes on a different hue when the victimisers unleash terror by calling to mind the victims' gender identities coupled with their caste identities. Sanwari's reformist attitude to do away with child marriage is disapproved of by the upper caste village men. A woman retaliating against a villager's (man) misbehaviour towards another woman is very unacceptable within the patriarchal community. A Dalit woman fighting for justice is contrary to society's codified laws, which brand them 'dumb', devoid of the faculty of speech. Their inability to speak and articulate, mirrors their downtrodden status as untouchable.
  35. The upper caste men have sexually exploited Sanwari, but she refuses to cow down in fear, even though they brand her an outcaste. They destroy her means of livelihood by breaking her earthen pots, prevent villagers from giving her milk and forbid her from drawing water from the common well. However, these two women, Shanichari and Sanwari, in spite of being subjected to the painstaking customs of a male chauvinist society are not willing to accept their subordinate status. When they refuse to conform to the callous practices and cardinal structuring principles of the male-dominated superstitious society, they are doomed to be the despicable untouchable, Dalits. The flashbacks in these movies are suggestive of the time lapse as well as the tenacity and the fortitude of these women to face the adversities.
  36. Sexual violence in the form of rape has been the time-old practice to discipline women who have weaned themselves away from socially-acknowledged canons of conduct. Sanwari's protest against child marriage and Shanichari's consistent refusal to be a rudaali poses a challenge to the redundant caste system, which defines a Dalit as a mute, bound to obey the diktats (norms) of society. Bawandar shows, as Karin Kapadia puts it, 'Rape is not only sexually motivated – it is a weapon of power…it is a violation of a physical and mental nature.'[22]
  37. Empowerment encompasses resistance and survival built into the same environment; survival is resistance. The evading enigma of empowerment is the unceasing ambiguity; marginalised sections are allocated a share of the power but cannot undo the power inequities. Nonetheless, smashing age-old fortresses of silence, the marginalised are learning to face the trials and tribulations of life with the invincible spirit of survivors rather than the despondency of losers. Bina Agarwal deems empowerment to be the 'process that enhances the ability of the disadvantaged (powerless) individuals and groups to challenge and change (in their favour) existing power relationships that place them in subordinate economic, social and political positions.'[23]
  38. The empowerment of women can be achieved through legislation or by bringing up the contentious issues open for discussion and creating a change in the mindset of social beings by questioning them. Cinema, as a channel of communication, reflects society and holds the power to redefine it. By highlighting the different social constructs used as tools to sustain uneven balances in society and by focussing on how the same are being redefined by the downtrodden, cinema not only shows reality but also points to a possible redemption.
  39. Rudaali and Bawandar holds a mirror up to society and brings to light the trials and tribulations of Dalit women, who are victimised both for being a women and for belonging to a lower caste. The mental and emotional traumas of women are poignantly delineated in Rudaali and Bawandar through the atrocities perpetuated on them under the guise of religion, caste, class and gender discrimination. These movies clearly echo Sharmila Rege's concerns regarding how, 'gender elements in class and caste structures affect marriages, family relations, and women's work and also how education is factored into domestic settings.'[24] Overlooking minor aberrations like the overt dramatisation of the women protagonists' exploitation and abuse, the introduction of certain subsidiary characters, and undue emphasis on certain problematic issues, the movies clearly delineate the poignant life struggles of the leading women protagonists. These digressions evidently facilitate and augment the interest factor of the narrative to avoid the common tag of being branded as documentaries. This clearly explains why Bhanwari Devi, the real life protagonist is not happy with the portrayal of the reel life counterpart Shanichari. Her bitterness and anger have led to many controversies, which have engulfed the movie since its creation. Bhanwari Devi does not endorse the cinematic representation of her life which she feels has been dramatised to evoke sentiments of sympathy from the audience. Likewise, the cinematic version of Rudaali also incorporates some changes, which have been drawn out to heighten the entertainment quotient of the movie.
  40. Shanichari and Sanwari, representatives of 'woman caste' celebrate the distinctive self-affirming characteristics of women's subculture, which enable them to resist dehumanising patriarchal practices. Their rebellion is directed against patriarchal society, which has, in India propagated a culture of disparities. According to Dalit Laureate Gandhar Pantwane, 'Dalit is not a caste, Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution. The Dalit believes in humanism.'[25]


    [1] Sharmila Rege, Sociology of Gender: The Challenge of Feminist Sociological Knowledge, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2003, p. 127.

    [2] Sarah Gamble, The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Post feminism, London: Routledge, 2001, p. 99.

    [3] Andre Be'teille, Society and Politics in India: Essays in a Comparative Perspective, New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1991, p. 123.

    [4] Pramod K. Nayar, Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis, Politics, New Delhi: Sage, 2006, pp. 41–42.

    [5] Be'teille, Society and Politics in India, pp. 122–24

    [6] S.V. Srinivas, 'Citizens and Subjects of Telugu Cinema,' in Deep Focus: Film Quarterly, (March 2002): 63–67.

    [7] C. Lakshmanan, 'Interrogating Dalit Studies in India: towards a critical theory,' in Online Posting: Madras Institute of Development Studies, (December 2007), URL:, site accessed 15 October 2009.

    [8] John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television, London: Methuen, 1984, p. 106.

    [9] Sujata, Dir. Bimal Roy, Perf. Sunil Dutt and Nutan, 1959; Ankur, Dir. Shyam Benegal, Perf. Shabana Azmi, Sadhu Meher and Anant Nag, 1974; Bandit Queen, Dir. Shekhar Kapur, Perf. Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey and Aditya Srivastava, 1994.

    [10] Rudaali (The Mourner), Dir. Kalpana Lajmi, Perf. Dimple Kapadia, Sushmeeta Mukherji, Raj Babbar, Raghubir Yadav, Raakhee, Mita Vashisht, Manohar Singh and Amjad Khan, 1993.

    [11] Bawandar (Sandstorm), Dir. Jagmohan Mundhra, Perf. Nandita Das, Raghuvir Yadav, Deepti Naval, Rahul Khanna, Govind Namdeo and Gulshan Grover, 2000.

    [12] Mary Grey, 'Women's struggle in rural Rajasthan: seeking a life of dignity,' in Online Posting: Wells for India, 2007, online:, site accessed 2010.

    [13] Sati is an old, redundant custom among some communities in which the widow was immolated alive on her husband's funeral pyre. Although the act was supposed to be a voluntary on the widow's part, sometimes it was forced on her. The British abolished this practice in 1829, but there have been around forty reported cases of sati since independence.

    [14] Malory Nye, Religion, London: Routledge, 2003, pp. 125–48.

    [15] Meera Kosambi, Women's Oppression in the Public Gaze: An Analysis of Newspaper Coverage, State Action and Activist Response, Bombay: RCWS, 1994, p. 138.

    [16] Nancy Folbre, Who Pays for Kids? Gender and the Structures of Constraint, London: Routledge, 1994, p.6.

    [17] John Maliekal, Caste in India Today, Bangalore: CSA, 1979, pp. 20–42.

    [18] Paul Simpson, Language, Ideology, and Point of View, London: Routledge, 2005, p. 6.

    [19] Carol Vance as cited in Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, Women's Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, London: Mayfield, 2001, p. 136.

    [20] Meenakshi Thapan, Embodiment: Essays on Gender and Identity, Delhi: Oxford UP, 1997, p. 2.

    [21] Claudia Garcia-Moreno, Violence against women, gender and health equity, in Working Paper Series. No.99.15, Cambridge: Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, 1999, p. 3.

    [22] Arvind Sharma, Women in Indian Religions, New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2002, p. 120.

    [23] Karin Kapadia, The Violence of Development: The Politics of Identity, Gender and Social Inequalities in India, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2002, p. 501.

    [24] Sharmila Rege, Sociology of Gender: The Challenge of Feminist Sociological Knowledge, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2003, p. 72.

    [25] 'Who are the Dalit?' in National Conference of Dalit Organisations, October 2009, URL:, site accessed 21 November 2009.

Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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