“Who taught you to hate the tex­ture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the col­or of your skin? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate your­self from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?”

- Mal­colm X.

My first ever con­scious exper­i­ence of racism was at a sports club in Chig­well in 2004. I was 15 and had scanned my mem­ber­ship card at the entrance bar­ri­ers. They opened and I went through but the recep­tion­ist angrily called me back, “That is not your card!” she said, and put out her hand, demand­ing that I hand it over to her. I com­plied with this author­ity fig­ure and upon read­ing the for­eign sound­ing name Isuru Per­era, she handed the card back and acted as if noth­ing had happened. This event planted the seed in my mind for a few sen­ti­ments that would become recur­rent themes in my con­ver­sa­tions with fam­ily and friends and in my SOAS Radio inter­views with people of col­our;

1. That as people of col­our, we are assumed to be crim­in­als unless we can prove oth­er­wise.
2.That we are per­ceived to be less than full cit­izens in soci­ety.
3.That we are also per­ceived to be less than human.

In 2013 I atten­ded the Wire­less Fest­iv­al in Lon­don and wit­nessed A Tribe Called Quest’s first UK Show in 20 years. Q‑Tip in a tra­di­tion­al Dashiki shirt grabbed the mic and said “This one is for Treyvon Mar­tin!” to rap­tur­ous applause. He would then make a speech dur­ing the set about race rela­tions in Amer­ica and the count­less racially motiv­ated killings in its his­tory.

Ori­gin is a 2024 Amer­ic­an film from writer and dir­ect­or Ava DuVernay. It is based on the 2020 book Caste: The Ori­gins of Our Dis­con­tents by the Amer­ic­an author and journ­al­ist Isa­bel Wilk­er­son, who was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journ­al­ism in 1994 and who also won the Nation­al Book Crit­ics Circle Award for the 2010 book, The Warmth of Oth­er Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migra­tion.

The main hypo­thes­is in Caste is that slavery in Amer­ica was not do to with actu­al beliefs of racial superi­or­ity, that was the pro­pa­ganda, but rather it was a caste sys­tem in which black human­ity was known by the oppress­ors but viol­ently sub­jug­ated.

It is import­ant to note that Wilk­er­son is not say­ing that racism doesn’t exist but that it is not the same as caste and not the primary lens through which we should under­stand slavery and dis­crim­in­a­tion. Wilk­er­son acknow­ledges that both caste and race co-exist and often sup­port each oth­er. She points to the struc­tur­al power which can mani­fest in soci­ety and oppress people regard­less of race; “Racism is not the same as caste as race does not mat­ter in order for the sys­tem to func­tion.”.

Wilk­er­son looks towards the treat­ment of Dal­its in India, a mar­gin­al­ised com­munity who are seen as a lower caste (Or even sub-caste) and are deemed as untouch­ables. There is a sys­tem of segreg­a­tion and apartheid in which Dal­its are not allowed to integ­rate with the rest of soci­ety. They have to live on the out­skirts of vil­lages and towns and are unable to use pub­lic facil­it­ies such as wells. They are also made to clean toi­lets and sep­tic tanks with their bare hands and do the oth­er jobs which are con­sidered too unclean for mem­bers of the high­er castes (Such as Brah­mins) to do.

Wilk­er­son sees a par­al­lel between the treat­ment of Dal­its in India and the treat­ment of black people in Amer­ica and Jew­ish people in Nazi Ger­many. Wilkerson’s char­ac­ter in the film, researches the plight of the Dal­its and states that it couldn’t have been about race because; “They were all brown, they were all Indi­an.”

She asks wheth­er caste is a bet­ter way of under­stand­ing the situ­ation in Amer­ic­an than race and then trans­poses the caste sys­tem of India onto the his­tory of Amer­ica and onto Nazi Ger­many and ulti­mately the entire world through­out human his­tory.

The film which is a dramat­iz­a­tion and artist­ic inter­pret­a­tion of the book, has Wilkerson’s char­ac­ter explain­ing the reas­on­ing for her hypo­thes­is by para­phras­ing an idea from Toni Mor­ris­on, “Why would you let your chil­dren be raised by people that you believe are anim­als?” explain­ing to her sis­ter that “They knew we weren’t inferi­or.”  That the belief of racial superi­or­ity was a lie used to jus­ti­fy the oppres­sion.

The caste sys­tem of ancient India was a strat­i­fic­a­tion of soci­ety based on hered­it­ary rela­tions. It dic­tated the voca­tions of those born under it and was also inter­twined with a per­ceived prox­im­ity to Brah­man (or God) and a belief of clean­li­ness and pol­lu­tion. The Brah­mins or priests were at the top, the Kshat­riy­as or warriors/kings were second and the Vaishy­as or crafts­men were third. The Shudras or slaves were at the bot­tom. The Dal­its were con­sidered to be even below the Shudras and were referred to as untouch­ables, based upon the notion that were a mem­ber of a high­er caste to touch them, it would be con­sidered a pol­lut­ing action. The ancient sys­tem is still exist­ing in Indi­an soci­ety today.

The caste sys­tem takes its author­ity from vari­ous Hindu scrip­tures, the old­est being the Rig Veda in its hymn of the cos­mic man which out­lines the myth­ic­al arising of the castes from the body of a prim­or­di­al man;

The brah­min was his mouth. The ruler was made his two arms. As to his thighs—that is what the free­man was. From his two feet the ser­vant was born.

-  Rig Veda Book X Hymn 90 Verse 12 trans­lated by Brere­ton and Jam­is­on.

Schol­ars have poin­ted out that this hymn may be a later inter­pol­a­tion into the scrip­ture, but regard­less of its authen­ti­city, the caste sys­tem con­tin­ues to be a dom­in­ant force in Indi­an soci­ety dic­tat­ing jobs, mar­riages and caus­ing dis­crim­in­a­tion and viol­ence. This sys­tem is also pre­val­ent in wider South Asia and even amongst the wider South Asi­an dia­spora. One only needs to look at the mat­ri­mo­ni­al notices in the South Asi­an news­pa­pers of the west­ern world and the cam­paigns in the US and UK to make caste a pro­tec­ted char­ac­ter­ist­ic in anti-dis­crim­in­a­tion legis­la­tion to see evid­ence of this. A move­ment which has been brought by mem­bers of the South Asi­an dia­spora, often Dal­its liv­ing in the west but still hav­ing to face caste-based dis­crim­in­a­tion from their employ­ers.

The exper­i­ence of Dal­its fea­tures heav­ily in the film with Wilk­er­son vis­it­ing India and meet­ing the aca­dem­ic and act­iv­ist Dr.Suraj Yeng­de who wrote the 2019 book Caste Mat­ters. Dr Yengde’s work was very influ­en­tial to Wilk­er­son and Dr Yeng­de appears in the film as him­self. He gives Wilk­er­son insights into the caste sys­tem, the dis­crim­in­a­tion faced by Dal­its and the work of the lead­er of the Dalit rights move­ment Dr B.R. Ambedkar.

Dr Ambedkar was born in India in 1891. He was a Dalit who attained two PHDs from Lon­don and New York, led the com­mit­tee for the draft­ing of the Indi­an con­sti­tu­tion and served as a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter. Dr Ambedkar also foun­ded the Neo Buddhist move­ment, declar­ing the end of caste and the non-exist­ence of Hindu Gods. He also cri­tiqued the Hindu holy book the Bhagavad Gita for what he believed to be its glor­i­fic­a­tion of viol­ence. Dr Ambedkar how­ever did not appear to look at the issues of caste and viol­ence which were and still are present in Buddhism.

Wilkerson’s hypo­thes­is is inter­est­ing and innov­at­ive. Crit­ics have mainly praised the work for its ques­tion­ing of the cent­ral­ity of race in the under­stand­ing of slavery and dis­crim­in­a­tion and her explor­a­tion of caste as being in fact the main (If often over­looked) factor. Cri­ti­cism has come from Tunku Varada­ra­jan who argues that Wilk­er­son, though high­light­ing the import­ance of caste, does not demon­strate why caste is more cent­ral than race and Hope Wabuke who won­ders why Africa was vir­tu­ally absent from Wilkerson’s study. Oth­er cri­ti­cisms have been wheth­er Wilkerson’s focus on caste down­plays the role of race and wheth­er race or col­our­ism was in fact the basis of the Indi­an Caste sys­tem and the idea of Caste in its mani­fest­a­tions in oth­er soci­et­ies. Dis­cus­sion of the North Indi­an Arya and South Indi­an Dravidi­an cul­tures also seem to be absent from Wilkerson’s ana­lys­is.

Caste was adap­ted into the film Ori­gin dir­ec­ted by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay was the first black woman to win the Dir­ect­ing Award for U.S Dra­mat­ic Film at the 2012 Sund­ance Film Fest­iv­al for her film Middle of Nowhere which was released that year. She was also the first Afric­an Amer­ic­an woman to receive a Golden Globe nom­in­a­tion. She star­ted her career as a journ­al­ist cov­er­ing the OJ Simpson tri­al and her films and doc­u­ment­ar­ies have covered race issues and civil rights in Amer­ica such as Selma of 2014 based on a march lead by Dr Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr that her fath­er had wit­nessed and 13th, a 2016 doc­u­ment­ary about the 13th amend­ment that (Mostly) out­lawed slavery. Ori­gin is her fifth nar­rat­ive film.

The open­ing scene fea­tures a young black teen­ager pay­ing for some snacks at a con­vivence store. The fram­ing of the scene gives a sense that he is being watched which is a recur­ring motif in the film. He leaves the store, talk­ing to his girl­friend on his phone. The fairly every­day and relat­able con­ver­sa­tion makes the film feel like a rom­com, but it takes a sin­is­ter turn when the teen­ager real­ises that a car seems to be fol­low­ing him.

We then cut to a scene fea­tur­ing an older mixed-race couple. A white man is caring for his eld­erly black moth­er-in-law as his wife watches. The moth­er-in-law talks about how her hus­band fought for Amer­ica in WW2, a trib­ute to the black sol­diers of WW2 whose pres­ence is still largely unac­know­ledged in the real world and in cinema. The moth­er-in-law is being placed in a care home and her daugh­ter is con­flic­ted about this. Point­ing to a divide between West­ern and Non-West­ern views about inde­pend­ence and fam­ily, par­tic­u­larly the care of the eld­erly. The woman and her hus­band argue about this. The Moth­er-in-law tells her daugh­ter about how she can see strange shapes in the clouds, a swim­ming pool and a little league team. The daugh­ter laughs and brushes this off as her mother’s over­act­ive ima­gin­a­tion. The woman then travels away for work and says good­bye to her hus­band.

We then cut to a scene from Nazi Ger­many in 1936. The first of many jumps in time and space that will occur in the film. A crowd of work­ers are in a shipyard, attend­ing a launch cere­mony. The woman nar­rates “A Nazi party mem­ber fell in love with a Jew­ish Woman.”  The scene is based on a fam­ous real-life pho­to­graph from the Blohm and Voss shipyard. The pho­to­graph fea­tures a crowd of work­ers doing the Nazi salute and one man iden­ti­fied as August Landmess­er defi­antly not doing it.

“Why was he the only one who chose to not go along that day?”  the woman asks,

The woman is revealed to be Isa­bel Wilk­er­son, and she is deliv­er­ing a lec­ture about her book, The Warmth of Oth­er Suns. After the lec­ture she is informed of the shoot­ing of Treyvon Mar­tin, the young man from the film’s open­ing, by her edit­or Amari Selvan who appears to be a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter cre­ated for the film. Wilk­er­son is asked by Selvan to cov­er the story and he passes her the 911 tapes of the incid­ent.

As Wilk­er­son listens to the tapes, we see the shoot­ing from the point of view of Martin’s killer George Zim­mer­man. The film pulls no punches in its re-enact­ment of the shoot­ing.

Wilk­er­son is moved to ask “Why does a His­pan­ic man shoot a black man to pro­tect a white neigh­bour­hood?”

Selvan asks Wilk­er­son to explore the ques­tions, that the shoot­ing is bring­ing up for her to which she retorts “I don’t write ques­tions, I write answers.”

The answers end up inform­ing an entire book; Caste, and Ori­gin is about Wilkerson’s writ­ing of the book and the per­son­al tra­gedies in her life dur­ing that time.

The main crux of both the book and the film is Wilkerson’s obser­va­tion that “Racism as the primary lan­guage to under­stand everything isn’t suf­fi­cient.”

We cut to Wilkerson’s moth­er reflect­ing on the shoot­ing “I wish he answered him…you have to act in a way to keep you safe, he was too young to know that… you can’t be walk­ing on a white street at night and not expect trouble, that intim­id­ates whites.”

Her sen­ti­ment echoes the idea of many  first gen­er­a­tion  immig­rants in the UK. As new arrivals, they kept their heads down and quietly accep­ted the status quo and the ill treat­ment. The dif­fer­ence is that Wilkerson’s moth­er and many black people of her gen­er­a­tion were not immig­rants but cit­izens in their own coun­try.

Wilk­er­son reads more and more about race rela­tions with book titles like Deep South and Man’s Most Dan­ger­ous Myth appear­ing in shot. Books and their titles will be anoth­er recur­rent motif in the film.

We then cut to 1933 for a scene in the Ber­lin Lib­rary. A Black couple want to take out All Quiet on the West­ern Front, the 1929 book by Erich Maria Remarque, describ­ing his exper­i­ences in WW1. They are dir­ec­ted to the clerk who greets them coldly and unusu­ally asks them for their pass­ports. They are being spied on by anoth­er lib­rary user as Wilk­er­son nar­rates; “They wit­nessed events that would change the world.”

 We then cut to the first tragedy in Wilkerson’s jour­ney, her hus­band Brett’s unex­pec­ted death. A sequence of Wilk­er­son lying in autumn leaves (Which will become anoth­er motif) fol­lows and anoth­er tragedy strikes soon after as Wilk­er­son also loses her moth­er.

The next scene fea­tures a lit­er­ary party. Wilk­er­son stands in front of a paint­ing of a knight next to a fallen horse. She dis­cusses Heath­er Hyer, the vic­tim of Char­lottes­ville car attack of 2017. Hyer was killed when a man delib­er­ately drove his car into a peace­ful protest that she was a part of. Wilk­er­son talks about how Nazi sym­bols and KKK imagery were seen in Char­lottes­ville in the counter protest on the day of the attack and in the protests pri­or to it against the planned remov­al of a con­fed­er­ate monu­ment there.

Wilk­er­son men­tions a Dalit pro­fess­or named Dr Suraj Yeng­de whose work she has been read­ing, and how the plight of Dal­its based on caste seems to be sim­il­ar to the plight of Jew­ish people in Nazi Ger­many and of black people in the US. Wilk­er­son remarks “There is a con­nec­ted tis­sue here, [I want to] build the thes­is show­ing how all of this is linked.” The next seen fea­tures Wilk­er­son read­ing a 1933 list from the Nazi’s of books to be des­troyed.

We return to the couple from the Ber­lin lib­rary, the man spy­ing on them is an ally and he asks them to leave for their safety. “How long have you been in Ber­lin?” You have no idea what is hap­pen­ing?”  The couple then walk through a scene fea­tur­ing shots of a Nazi march accom­pan­ied with Wag­n­eri­an music and book burn­ing and the Nazi Pro­pa­ganda min­is­ter Goebbels, encour­aging the crowd to keep burn­ing the books by recit­ing some racist ste­reo­types regard­ing Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als. Wilk­er­son vis­its Ger­many to do more research where she vis­its the Empty Lib­rary monu­ment from 1995 by Micha Ulman. The sculp­ture is of empty book shelves and has a plaque read­ing  “That was but a pre­lude; where they burn books, they will ulti­mately burn people as well.” A phrase that is still per­tin­ent in today’s cli­mate of rising intol­er­ance and sup­pres­sion of free speech from all sides of the polit­ic­al spec­trum. Wilk­er­son then has din­ner with a Ger­man couple and they dis­cuss gun con­trol in Amer­ica and the swastika ban in Ger­many. The dis­cus­sion takes a turn when one of the Ger­man hosts sug­gests dif­fer­ences between the Holo­caust and Slavery;

“Amer­ic­an slavery found a sup­ply chain used for capitalism…Germany was about exterm­in­a­tion.”  Wilk­er­son objects to this state­ment as it appears to down­play the bru­tal­ity of slavery and the racism with­in the sys­tem but it gets her think­ing about the vari­ous axioms and lenses which schol­ars have often taken for gran­ted.

We then cut to the first meet­ing between Wilk­er­son and her hus­band Brett, a light hearted every­day scene which again takes us into the ter­rit­ory of romantic com­edy. This is jux­ta­posed with the next scene that fea­tures Nazi min­is­ters quot­ing the Jim Crow laws from Amer­ica and tak­ing inspir­a­tion from them. Wilk­er­son nar­rates that laws were com­posed to cre­ate dis­tance and superi­or­ity and one such law was for the pre­ven­tion of sexu­al mix­ing.

 The couple from the lib­rary are revealed to be the Alis­on and Eliza­beth Dav­is. They escaped Ber­lin and moved to Mis­sis­sippi and with a white couple, the Har­vard Anthro­po­lo­gists Bur­leigh and Mary Gard­ner, authored the book Deep South in 1941.

We then see shots of the research for that book. The couples pair into mixed race groups and enter shops togeth­er, being watched by shop keep­ers with sus­pi­cion and have secret meet­ings to dis­cuss their find­ings. Wilk­er­son nar­rates the danger in their work as “Mix­ing of races was not allowed pub­licly in any form except sub­ser­vi­ence.”

The oppress­ive nature of the time is illus­trated in a scene where Alis­on Dav­is states, “We call them sir, they call us boy or girl.”. The revolu­tion would come through music when black Blues and Jazz artists star­ted ref­er­ee­ing to each oth­er as man in defi­ance of this, mak­ing Muddy Waters refrain of “I’m a man!” and the his­tory of that phrase in black Amer­ic­an music all the more power­ful.

Next is a scene fea­tur­ing a friendly neigh­bour­hood sher­iff greet­ing every­one in the town, wav­ing and smil­ing at every­one he passes until he passes the black people who also live there and his smile turns into a men­acing stare.

We cut back to the present day for a scene where Wilk­er­son goes to a fam­ily BBQ, an Amer­ic­an insti­tu­tion that has also had its black his­tory erased. She talks to her sis­ter about the cri­ti­cism she got for mar­ry­ing Brett from her own fam­ily and how they would always say “When will she leave him and find a black man?”. It is dur­ing this con­ver­sa­tion that she out­lines her thes­is and what her book will be about.

“Labels, cat­egor­ies, I think that’s what my book is about…caste is the phe­nomen­on of pla­cing one group above anoth­er group, a hier­archy… [I want to] con­sider oppres­sion in a way that does not focus on race.”

She starts to inter­view her friends and what fol­lows is a power­ful scene where she inter­views her friend named Miss. Who received racial abuse from a teach­er. Wilk­er­son also con­fides in her friend about the guilt she felt the night Brett died and how much she misses him, we see shots of Wilk­er­son and Brett, a mixed-race couple walk­ing down the street, wav­ing to their neigh­bours.

Wilk­er­son then decides to travel to India to meet with Dr Yeng­de. She says good­bye to her sis­ter who is sick and is hav­ing to breathe through an appar­at­us, an echo of George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe.” that became a ral­ly­ing call in the after­math of the 2020 killing.

India is por­trayed as more bust­ling com­pared to the US. Gods abound as the name Krishna appears on a shop front and an image of Shiva appears on a wall. One won­ders why the role of reli­gion in the caste sys­tem isn’t dis­cussed in the film.

We then have a scene fea­tur­ing Dr Yeng­de and Wilk­er­son stand­ing in front of a statue of Dr Ambedkar that is inside a cage and some shock­ing stat­ist­ics about the rapes of Dalit women. Dr Yeng­de tells Wilk­er­son that, “His statue is an affirm­a­tion of our exist­ence.” And that it is also the “Most van­dal­ised statue in the coun­try.”

We then see the Ambedkar Museum which is designed to look like an open book. A con­trast to The Empty Lib­rary monu­ment and then a power­ful flash­back to Dr Ambedkar as a child being kept away from the oth­er chil­dren due to beliefs around pol­lu­tion, not being able to touch the things his friends touch, not being allowed to sit at a desk, and hav­ing to sit on the floor in class.

Wilk­er­son meets a stu­dent who is writ­ing a thes­is on Dr Mar­tin Luth­er King’s vis­it to India which he dis­cusses in Ebony Magazine in 1959. Dur­ing the vis­it Dr King is intro­duced as “A fel­low untouch­able from the USA.” Dr King is at first sur­prised to hear this but then acknow­ledges that black people are seen as untouch­ables in his soci­ety. We also see a young Ambedkar walk­ing through the streets of Lon­don and New York as a stu­dent and see­ing the treat­ment of black people in those coun­tries first-hand.

A power­ful moment in the film is when Dr King’s voice comes through with a line from a ser­mon that he delivered about his time in India. A line that men­tions black hands hold­ing white hands, a prom­in­ent sym­bol of the Civil Rights move­ment and one that Dr King would say again in the I Have a Dream speech of 1963.

 We then cut to a bar in Nazi Ger­many where Ger­man men are flirt­ing and dan­cing with Jew­ish women. Sol­diers appear and a man is warned to escape as “They are look­ing for artists and people who like Jazz.” Wilk­er­son nar­rates about Endo­gamy, the system’s pro­hib­i­tion of mar­riages between people in sep­ar­ate cat­egor­ies. “Segreg­at­ing love, it built a fire­wall between people.”

A power­ful mont­age then fol­lows fea­tur­ing har­row­ing scenes on a slave ship in the Middle Pas­sage and in the con­cen­tra­tion camp at Aus­chwitz. Wilkerson’s nar­ra­tion explains the dehu­man­isa­tion required for the sys­tem to func­tion,

“Shaved heads, became a single mass that the SS sol­diers could dis­tance them­selves from.” and

“Their bod­ies did not belong to them, they were no longer people but num­bers.”

We then see a Dalit wear­ing only shorts dive into a sep­tic tank to clean excre­ment.

 A scene in which Wilk­er­son finds an old news­pa­per cut­ting in her mother’s house brings the film full circle and we cut to black and white. It’s 1951 and we are told the story of Al Bright. To say any­more would spoil one of the most icon­ic sequences in the film.

Wilk­er­son inter­views a friend of Al Bright about the bizarre spec­tacle that occurred that day and the gross unfair­ness he and his friends felt about the situ­ation even as chil­dren.

Wilk­er­son nar­rates some of her con­clu­sions and we then cut to the present day as she fin­ishes the book and men­tions the cur­rent state of affairs, namely the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump and the George Floyd killing which to her are all symp­to­mat­ic of the caste sys­tem.

Watch­ing the film was a power­ful exper­i­ence and caused me to reflect on the moments of dis­crim­in­a­tion and pre­ju­dice that I exper­i­enced in my life and how ideas of superi­or­ity have had dev­ast­at­ing con­sequences through­out world his­tory. I also really felt the shock of how arti­fi­cial and hol­low con­structs such as race and caste can affect the mater­i­al world and sup­press and kill count­less people if sub­scribed to by a major­ity or a minor­ity with power. His­tor­ic­al accounts of ordin­ary people being moved to become bar­bar­ic killers based on these base­less ideas and of the way in which these ideas spread through soci­ety have been a far too com­mon and repeat­ing occur­rence.

Ulti­mately Ori­gin is a love story. Shots of Wilk­er­son and Brett’s first meet­ing and their sub­sequent domest­ic life as well as shots show­ing how they nav­ig­ated being a mixed race couple in mod­ern day Amer­ica are relat­able and show the every­day human story with­in the sweep­ing his­tor­ic­al one. A shot of Wilk­er­son and Brett walk­ing through the neigh­bour­hood is con­tras­ted with the Dav­ises walk­ing through theirs. Ori­gin is a film about the tran­scend­ent­al power of love and how her hus­band Brett a white man defied the sys­tem.

I sat down with Dr Suraj Yeng­de to ask some ques­tions about his work and the film.

Could you tell us about the plight of the Dal­its and your book Caste Mat­ters?

The exist­ence of the com­munity con­cerned is quite trau­mat­ic and quite back­ward. They’ve been striv­ing to reclaim their human rights and there’s a major­ity of them still who occupy the rur­al hin­ter­lands and their con­di­tion is not very prom­ising. That being said, we also have sev­er­al act­ive social and polit­ic­al move­ments, cul­tur­al move­ments but they tend to be sub­sid­ised by the dom­in­ant cul­ture, the dom­in­ant castes… so my book looks at the life of caste and I just don’t look at the life of Dal­its but I look at the con­di­tion of people who are inter-caste, I look at  Brah­mins and oth­er castes as well to try to give a com­pos­ite pic­ture of the caste sys­tem in India.

 How did you meet Isa­bel Wilk­er­son?

 There was a Dr Ambedkar Con­fer­ence at UMASS, either we met there or at Har­vard, I hos­ted her at Har­vard for a lec­ture. I don’t remem­ber because they were close times. I just don’t have the prop­er recol­lec­tion.

Do you think she suc­cess­fully showed that Amer­ic­an slavery and dis­crim­in­a­tion was about caste rather than race?

 I think that is what most of the people have not com­pletely under­scored or fathomed what she was try­ing to say. Race or caste, they oper­ate in dif­fer­ent tan­gents but they are not purely identic­al, but also they are not that dif­fer­ent. So Isa­bel basic­ally brought out the pos­it­ive nar­rat­ive of what the sys­tem of caste does, pos­it­ive in the sense of not the pos­it­iv­it­ies but the pos­it­ive con­nota­tion of what caste can do and I think she did a really good job. She’s a journ­al­ist so she gives a lot of case stud­ies to back her broad­er argu­ments.

What was it like play­ing your­self in the film Ori­gin?

If you see the movie, you will see that I’m not even act­ing, because the dir­ect­or Ava she is so incred­ible, she is a mas­ter of this field. She just did what she had to do. You know many of the dia­logues that I am giv­ing are impromptu, they are ex tem­pore, I was just doing myself. There was some occa­sions where she gave me some act­ing skills but oth­er than that it was just be your­self, so people who know me, see me in the movie and say you are just being nat­ur­al and I think that is a true assess­ment.

Could you sum up the work of Dr Ambedkar for someone who doesn’t know?

 Dr Ambedkar is one of the 20th century’s pree­m­in­ent human rights cham­pi­ons in the world. He is someone who gave iden­tity, recog­ni­tion, status and rights all in one life, which is incred­ible. You will see people strug­gling to regain their iden­tity and one gen­er­a­tion has gone and you will see people try­ing to gain respect and status and that struggle again is gone, so there are vari­ous phases of struggles but Dr Ambedkar is someone  who offered iden­tity, who made sure they got the status, who ensured that they got their rights and by doing that he  brought them into main­stream. That’s an incred­ible achieve­ment in the 30 and half year long career of Dr Ambedkar. We look at the scale of his work, to lead a mass of 300 mil­lion people out of the caste sys­tem, poverty and depriva­tion and that is an incred­ible feat.  I myself am one of the bene­fi­ciar­ies of his move­ment I got an edu­ca­tion and the reser­va­tion sys­tem sup­ports me and there is an act­ive polit­ic­al move­ment around it so he is the mod­ern proph­et for Dal­its and the com­pan­ion of them.  He is the social, cul­tur­al and polit­ic­al guard­i­an and also he is a spir­itu­al respect for many.

Did Dr Ambedkar every address the caste issues with­in Buddhism?

That’s a very inter­est­ing ques­tion. He talks about the Buddha’s rad­ic­al inter­ven­tion in that is there are no castes, basic­ally the Buddha he talks about is the Buddha that is chal­len­ging the caste sys­tem, that is fight­ing against Brah­man­ism. Now as to your ques­tion I know that there is an issue espe­cially with­in the Sin­halese Buddhist prac­tices about cer­tain castes that exist, but I am not aware of what  Dr Ambedkar says on this. My read­ing on that part is lim­ited and I may have to take a rain check on that ques­tion.

Could you tell us about Dr Mar­tin Luthor King’s vis­it to India?

 MLK went to Ker­ala and the audio clip you hear in the film is him giv­ing the Sunday ser­mon and explain­ing his India trip where he was jux­ta­posed as an untouch­able of Amer­ica, he doesn’t like it but there is a whole his­tory, in fact when his son MLK Jr. III came to Ban­galore, I gave him all these doc­u­ments. I did sig­ni­fic­ant research on that trip and you will see how thick that archive is and how power­ful those stor­ies are. I think that’s what makes the top­ic of such a com­mon interest. People are not aware of so many Inter­con­nec­ted issues Includ­ing black people includ­ing Dalit people.

Has the film already had an impact in India and amongst Indi­an aca­dem­ics?

The film is not released in India so it’s only the dia­spora, what you call the Desi dia­spora, that includes India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal. They’ve been hyped about it. What we see is people in Amer­ica in cinemas mak­ing videos of the scenes and post­ing them on social media so that is cir­cu­lat­ing, but the movie has not been released yet. I think it will have an extremely power­ful response. Even in the UK there is a huge Dalit com­munity and if the PR people mobil­ise it prop­erly they are up for some grabs.

What pro­jects are you work­ing on at the moment and what are your future plans?

I’m writ­ing a book now, Caste a New His­tory of the World. tech­nic­ally I should not be in Ban­galore but in back Mas­sachu­setts writ­ing it but I’ve been delayed, that should be fin­ished soon. I’ve star­ted a web­site www.surajyengde.com where I’ve cre­ated an online resource of Anti-caste lit­er­at­ure.

I want to start an online Dalit bio­graph­ies pro­ject, where I want to put Dalit people. Many of them are not on Wiki­pe­dia includ­ing myself. Many of them are not digit­ally access­ible.  I want to make sure I give a digit­al unique ID for those incred­ible pion­eers and indi­vidu­als in the Dalit com­munity and cre­ate an online data­base. Once I settle down some­where I will work on that.

 All quo­ta­tions from the film are taken from memory and notes made at the screen­ing.

‘ORI­GIN’ is out now in Cinemas 

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DJ Isuru is a music journ­al­ist and broad­caster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series fea­tur­ing the best in Asi­an Under­ground. www.mishtidance.com


DJ Isuru is a music journalist and broadcaster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series featuring the best in Asian Underground. www.mishtidance.com