Caste and Class Distinction in Bhavni Bhavai

The caste system in India is easy to learn about and yet difficult to understand (Gandhi’s diaries deal with this) whereas the class system is difficult to differentiate but understood easily enough afterwards. Ketan Mehta’s 1980 film Bhavni Bhavai deals with the justifiability of this social stratification. His method of showing the injustice of the caste system blurs the lines of distinction between the castes by having the principal character be a member of both the uppermost and lowest caste. In India this kind of caste permeability is totally forbidden and as narrative structure offended everyone in India and for years Mehta found no one willing to exhibit this film ( Gupta pp180). Furthermore there is an inverse relationship of the hierarchy of the castes and the nobility of their mannerisms during this film. The harijans (or ‘untouchables’) are the sanitation crew of the city and in their absence the city reeks of the smell of the opulent upper class. Within the castes the different classes are noted : the warriors from the rulers in the ksatriya ; the various classes of the sudra are somewhat represented; of the vaisya, only one moneyleader is present in the film; and lastly outside of the castes are the harijans whose tasks seem indistinguishable. Mehta’s subtle contrast of the varying degrees of class within caste in the ksatriya is detectable, yet there really is not much illumination apparent to a foreign audience of the distinction of caste and class beyond that. The notable example of this contrast is the the king and his general’s relationship within their membership of the same class. The king performs the role of a tragically pitiable buffoon. However the general is stern, serious and so power hungry that he conspires at every opportunity against the king. Where one might expect the castes to provide a harmonious union of the interests of the classes there is instead illuminated the facility for competition. Therefore caste is determined by birth and class is determined by competition. The brutally honest depictions of this class struggle is unsettling for Indian audiences who prefer the competition to go unnoticed. Moreover the distinction of caste and class is an uncomfortable analysis for Indian audiences and a puzzling predicament for Western audiences.


Last Updated on 02/02/00
By JR Kerr
Send Comments to


B A C K to Third World Cinema I N D E X