"I relate so much to this character", " I felt she was a perfect portrayal of me", "That is exactly what my family is like". Such responses are what we often hear or feel after we watch a film that we can relate to. However, ever since I started watching movies, I don't remember being able to say any of these. That is, until I watched Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi, the third film in the Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans.
In Indian media, be it Bollywood or regional films, there has always been a domination of certain kinds of people. Be it the director, actor, cinematographer — they mostly come from privileged sections of the society. Hence, their way of telling a story can never match the actual lived experiences of the marginalised. In every film that you watch, you will find the protagonist to be a Sharma, Agarwal, Reddy or some other dominant caste. You'll see that the plot of most movies revolves around a love story between a man and woman, never of the same gender. Most plots tell the stories of the dominant and privileged classes, or as I like to call it, that of the oppressors.
What this essentially does is it to add to the already existing mainstream narratives where the marginalised communities have no space. If we want to watch a film about caste, we have to Google and specifically ask for suggestions, and one can mostly find documentaries rather than films. Thus, the marginalised are consciously excluded from mainstream portrayals of stories and characters, and end up being a symbolic representation in a few parts of a plot.
Even when stories of the marginalised, oppressed or minority communities are taken up, it becomes extremely problematic and an incorrect representation of the lived experiences of these communities. Firstly, the problem lies at the casting level where a cis-heterosexual man tells the story of a transwoman, where an upper caste actor plays the role of a Dalit person or when an upper class woman plays the role of a domestic worker. This is nothing but appropriation of spaces meant for the marginalised by the privileged sections. A person who has never experienced marginalised social locations when writing, acting and telling their stories, is bound to create an inaccurate representation. I refuse to believe that the casting department for a film cannot find actual actors from these marginalised caste, gender, class and sexuality locations. Rather, they choose not to and give the role to someone from the privileged sections. As much as nepotism is prevalent in the film industry, so is casteism, sexism, classism as well as homophobia.
In Geeli Pucchi, too, we have an upper caste actor, Konkana Sen Sharma, playing the role of a Dalit queer woman. However, director Neeraj Ghaywan is from a Dalit caste himself and I believe that is one of the reasons the film could portray the actual realities of caste. But, Neeraj is telling the story of not just a Dalit person but also a queer woman. Being a cis-heteosexual man, can it really be said he could bring out the nuances present in gender and sexuality locations? Does that mean that directors, actors, writers should only tell stories through their own social positions and only the marginalised can speak for themselves?
If that was the case, no story about the marginalised would ever be heard, given how we lack opportunities and resources to reach these platforms. It is true that only people having lived experiences can give an accurate representation about their marginality but it is also the responsibility of comparitively privileged sections to make their stories heard by lending their power and resources. What is needed is an inclusive team where a director refers to and listens to the marginalised voices to build his/her story as well as creates a space to let the marginalised narrate their own story independently.
Watch the trailer of Ajeeb Daastaans here:
For people from marginalised communities, it becomes very hard to find a story or a character that they can relate to. A Dalit man rarely sees someone like him on the screen, a Dalit woman finds it even harder. Similarly, you may see the portrayal of a gay man on screen but you'll rarely see a Dalit, queer woman on screen. With every added marginalised identity, the representation becomes even harder to find. Even when we are shown in mainstream narratives, we either become the gay hairdresser who is extremely touchy or the helpless, struggling Dalit man who cannot provide for his family. There exists no other alternative storyline as we are always victimised and seen as helpless. There rarely exists any strong narratives about middle class or rich Dalits or accepted and uncloseted queer persons.
Growing up as a Dalit, queer woman myself, I have never come across a story or a character that I could relate to. I haven't seen a film on a Dalit woman where she is a protagonist, let alone the idea of a Dalit queer woman as the lead. What happens when you do not come across such narratives, is that it slowly creates a loss of identity as well as confidence. I have often questioned myself as to why I was so different and cannot find more people like me. As to why both my ascribed and achieved identities are that of the marginalised sections. The identities I was given at birth I have no control over, but even the one I chose for myself, made me think I was not normal or part of the mainstream Indian society.
In this quest to find a person on screen just like me, I finally stumbled upon Ajeeb Dastaans. Geeli Pucchi happens to have a Bengali Dalit, queer woman as the lead. Once I finished watching this short film, for the very first time in my life, I felt a kind of joy and achievement of finally being heard. The film did not victimise the Dalit character and make her look helpless, rather by the middle of the film, she was driving the story. This film shows the conflict that arises in workplaces, love life as well as friendship when it comes to one's caste and sexual orientation.
In Bengal, caste plays out differently than it does in most other states. Usually, one can understand by a person's surname which caste location they belong to but this is not always the case in Bengal. Apart from identifying surnames like Banerjee, Chatterjee and Bhattacharya as Brahmins, one cannot easily identify other caste surnames. A person with the surname of Biswas or Ghosh can be Dalit or upper caste and hence caste becomes somewhat invisible or hidden. Even within the rare stories about Dalit people, one can hardly find Bengali Dalits. That is why the character of Bharti Mondal from Geeli Pucchi made such a big difference.
Moreover, the story was not built in a rural context where most narratives about Dalits are set. Rather, it brought into focus the urban and industrial setting and how caste locations play out in benefitting upper castes in workplaces. In Geeli Pucchi, alongside the Dalit protagonist, we have Aditi Rao Hydari playing the role of a Brahmin woman who is married and has a good job at the same company as Bharti despite having lesser qualifications. She has also not come to terms with her sexual identity and struggles her way into marriage as she cannot seem to fall in love with her husband.
The general public still holds the idea that caste is now outdated and does not exist, except in maybe a few rural areas. The film challenges that very notion by bringing out small instances, like how Bharti is served in a steel cup because she’s "untouchable", and not being able to enter the office reserved for upper castes or being declined a job even though she has the necessary qualifications. This story is not just about caste, or gender or sexuality. Rather it is a story about how these multiple identities play out and become a deciding factor affecting all areas of our life. It tells us where to work or what job to do, it tells us who to be friends with and who to fall in love with. It tells us about our own limits and restrictions and how mental labour will always be placed way above physical labour. It tells us what humiliation and oppression are, as well as about privilege and the conditioning of our minds. This story encompasses all in one and points out how just because we do not see or experience marginality, does not mean it is non-existent.
Geeli Pucchi has a riveting storyline and is inspiring, but it is not without flaws. Starting from casting to who narrates the story, I believe they could have done better. Although it portrays different marginalised identities, has a brilliant plot and good performances, one cannot take away the fact that the role of the main protagonist was played by a Sen Sharma and not a Mondal. It's like seeing my exact copy on screen but knowing the person does not actually relate to any of my experiences.
Megha Malakar (she/they) is a Dalit queer woman. She is 21 years old, and is pursuing a Master's in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Hailing from a low caste family as well as belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, she's been seen and treated as "different". Megha wishes to amplify the voices of the marginalised and work with issues of caste, class, gender and sexuality. You can find her on Instagram here.