A star-filled Bollywood film on India’s caste system churned up passionate debate as it opened on Friday, with angry lower-caste groups trying to torpedo its release, saying it reinforces social prejudices against them.
The furor makes clear that caste — the millennia-old Hindu custom that divides people in a strict social hierarchy based on their family’s traditional livelihood and ethnicity — remains a deeply sensitive subject in modern India, despite government programs to erase such distinctions.
At least three big states have banned the film Aarakshan from opening on schedule on Friday over fears it could stir up caste tensions. Its director, Prakash Jha, filed an urgent appeal to the Supreme Court seeking to overturn the bans.
The film’s stars were given police bodyguards and police also guarded theaters that did show the film, searching moviegoers and barring them from bringing bags inside, authorities said.
The movie’s title means “reservation,” a reference to affirmative action quotas for India’s untouchables, also known as dalits, in jobs and education.
Dalits, who form nearly a fourth of India’s billion-plus population, say the film belittles them and shows them in a negative light.
The film’s star, famed actor Amitabh Bachchan, sounded anguished on his Twitter account on Friday, accusing people of condemning the film without even watching it.
“Have cried at our helplessness in not making people understand that this art needs to be seen not banned!” he tweeted.
On his blog, Bachchan quoted his character in the film, the principal of a college: “Two Indias reside in this country ... and in truth, if we have to see any progress in our society, then the distance between these two Indias must be erased.”
Caste discrimination runs deep in India despite government efforts since independence in 1947 to use affirmative action to wipe it out. India’s economic boom has further sharpened the divide, with much of its dividends accruing to the upper castes.
Large sections of India’s upper castes are incensed over the quota policy, which ensures lower castes get spaces in the country’s highly sought-after medical and engineering schools, universities and jobs.
Aarakshan had created a buzz, with the lead actors — including action hero Saif Ali Khan and Bollywood starlet Deepika Padukone — traveling the country to promote its release.
Another objection raised by some lower-caste groups is that the Dalit protagonist is played by Khan, who belongs to an erstwhile royal family in India.
“This objection is unfair. By this logic, are they saying a Dalit cannot play the role of a king in a film?” Jha asks.