Fixing the Gaze

The Madam Chief Minister poster and the genealogy of a new Dalit assertion

An illustration by Siddhesh Gautam created amid the controversy over the poster for Madam Chief Minister. “Dalit representation in cinema is important,” Gautam wrote on Instagram, “because savarnas have been appropriating Dalit culture for almost a century through films made with unapologetic savarna gaze.” SIDDHESH GAUTAM
31 January, 2021

The month of January is marked by the birth and death anniversaries of Rohith Vemula. Five years ago, after he was pushed to take his own life at the University of Hyderabad—in what Dalits aptly described as an institutional murder—I reported on the defiant politics of Vemula and the Ambedkar Students’ Association that he was part of, and how they were trying to create a “universal language of discrimination” for the country’s marginalised.

Early this January, the Bollywood actor Richa Chadha shared on Twitter a poster of her upcoming film, Madam Chief Minister. The film’s title character, played by Chadha, is based on Mayawati, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and the first leader from a Dalit party to hold such a post in the country’s history. The poster showed Chadha holding a broom, dressed in a worn-out T-shirt and with dirt marks on her face. A tagline at the bottom read, “Untouchable, Unstoppable.”

This portrayal of a Dalit leader naturally ignited a controversy. At the fore were young Ambedkarites on social media—often pejoratively called “digital Dalits,” as if it is hard to imagine Dalits being tech-savvy—brimming with sharp insights that cut through the consensus of the Savarnas.

The criticism revolved around the ethics of representation. “When did Mayawati wear torn clothes or carry a broom?” the student activist Sankul Sonawane asked on Twitter. “You use the word ‘untouchable’, but the film’s cast is Chadha, Shukla, Kaul & Oberoi”—all Savarna castes. “This is like making a film about slavery and only feature whites. Why can’t you reach out to Dalits regarding how we are portrayed? Shameful!”