I was one of many in my neighborhood and school to have called out name ‘bhaiya’ or ‘madhisey’ for the street vendors from Madhesh. It was the earliest misnomer I picked up from my own family and neighbors. It was easy blemishing someone’s identity by just refereeing them with an offensive name, but it never occurred to me then how those small incidents would impact my conscience years later.
It was easy growing up a racist; even throwing subtle racist remarks towards close friends with a laugh to hide it after. Once I got hold of what it feels like, it was harder growing up afterward. It was tough unlearning the things I learned. The phase of self-analysis and atonement began.
I never had a moral figure in my life, I only had elders and the mainstream Hindi films to look up to. And, I learned what they casually preached. To treat someone different on the basis of their color, language, accent, and occupation is a grave offense which often goes unpunished in our society. if it weren’t true, I should have been incarcerated long ago.
A depiction of Racism in Cinema
Films made on Racism or race-related issues find a deep place among niche audience, however, most treat them as just movies. Most of the time, they are often branded too controversial for their depiction of the bitter reality or are outright obliterated for being too offensive. Mostly because real historical portrayal brings unpleasant attention towards a certain class of people or group.
The earliest film ever made on the issue of racism didn’t come out until the mid-1950s, around the same time the American civil rights movement took the noble step. It took a while to bring the subject of African-Americans and other minorities into Hollywood. In contrast, these films aren’t only the reflection of the prevalent racism in America but the entire world where the racial minorities are expulsed by the society and the justice system. Racism is prevalent in Asian countries too and extraordinarily in larger number, however, we only have had few films that ever dealt with the issue.
To quote James Baldwin (American novelist and social critic),
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
When we talk about the depiction of racism in cinema, the earliest films that come to our mind are 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. Both of which are the finest example of films ever made depicting the prevalent racism in society.
12 Angry Men came out in 1957 and To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. These two films are only 5 years apart from each other, however, the issue depicted in both the films resonates the sociopolitical strife made on the racial minorities. `The racial profiling and mistreatment of the minorities in America is largely the context for both the films.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is based on a book, by the same title, by Harper Lee which went to win the Pulitzer Prize. The film too went to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Both the setting of the book and the author emerges from Southern America in the 1930s, hence highlighting the prevalent social issues existing in the South. The story is inspired by the life of a young African-American man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of rape of a young white woman. The accused is indicted and later killed while trying to flee the court. The movie came out the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for his involvement in the civil rights movement.
“12 Angry Men” takes on the issue of a young Puerto Rican man falsely accused of a homicide. It closely follows the debate on indictment by the 12 jurors assigned for the trial. The story goes as such, “A young Puerto Rican man is falsely accused of killing his own father on the basis of few unreliable testimonies provided by the witnesses. The jurors base their judgments on the Reasonable doubt and accuse the man of the first-degree murder, however, one juror believes in the fairer trial for all and persuades others to give a thought before letting their judgment take over. What follows is a long debate on the man’s right for justice, along with reflection on the jurors’ biases and the justice system. The jurors reflect on their own lives and beliefs before deciding the fate of the young man, but it takes a lot of persuasion from one single man to make it happen. In the end, the accused is proven innocent and acquitted by the court.”
Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, which is set in Alabama during the 1930s, the story of 12 Angry Men is entirely set in New York City, hence the outcome of both the stories differ. There were less likely chances of Tom Robinson, an African-American, ever being acquitted in the white-supremacist state. In an interesting theory, neither would the accused Puerto Rican from 12 Angry Men stand a chance of being acquitted if his trial was ever conducted in the southern state of Alabama. Here both the events are triggered by the supposed crimes committed by the person of a racial minority, and both the trails are conducted by the justice system led by white men.
The surprising similarity in both is that they have white male protagonists. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Davis in 12 Angry Men, a lawyer, and an Architect respectively. Both are the highly regarded personals of society. Both the protagonists are well educated and serve as the downright moral hero of the story. They both advocate the civil rights and justice for the weaker class of citizens,
Although cinema has inclined upwards and many such sensible films have been made in the last 60 years, a colored male or female protagonists with strong moral characters have been seen only lesser. Few films with such an adjustment can only be seen in the modern era works of Ida Wells: The Passion for Justice (1989), Paul Robeson: Here I stand (1999) and Richard Wright –Black Boy (1994).
In the Context of Nepali Films
In Nepal, the racism existed since the creation of the first state. The prevalent Hindu hierarchy has attested the rudimentary practice of racial profiling and differentiation since the inception of the caste-based system. There are hardly any films in Nepal made on the discrimination faced by people on the basis of their race, caste or color, mainly because we mostly lack audience and filmmakers who can tackle such an overwhelming project with an assertive approach.
Most of the mainstream films made in Nepal tend to exploit the cliché and stereotypical constitution of the racial minorities but discourage it entirely. It still tends to be a fun-stock for the general audience, hence, there are less likely chances of sensible racism-countering films ever being made.