Caste, Capitalism, and Collaboration: A Dalitgiri Perspective on Nag Ashwin's 'Kalki 2898 AD'

Kalki 2898 AD offers a profound commentary on caste, capitalism, and environmental sustainability.By depicting the friendship between Asvathama and Karna, the movie suggests that collaboration across social divisions is essential for a better future.
In this movie, the three characters (Krishna, Asvathama, and Karna) represent three classes of Indian society.
In this movie, the three characters (Krishna, Asvathama, and Karna) represent three classes of Indian society.

Being a scholar of Dalit issues in India, I am always in search of new narratives and perspectives. Nag Ashwin is the director of the Indian Telugu-language epic science fiction film Kalki 2898 AD, produced by C. Aswani Dutt. The ensemble cast includes Deepika Padukone, Prabhas, Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Haasan, and Disha Patani. The trailer of Kalki 2898 AD, which I watched on June 22, 2024, piqued my curiosity.

In the trailer, I noticed characters from the Mahabharata, such as Lord Krishna, Asvathama, and Karna. These characters hold significant roles in the epic. This raised questions about how the movie would justify these mythological figures in the contemporary scenario.

While I am not an expert in the Mahabharata or Indian mythology, I have seen Ramanand Sagar’s television serials Ramayan and Shri Krishna in the 1990s. Additionally, I have been researching Dalit issues for a decade, particularly the various equations and layers of caste in Haryana.

My research background constantly drives me to analyze world events from a Dalit perspective.

On June 28, 2024, I watched Kalki with my friends, motivated by the trailer. Our group included individuals from scheduled castes, other backward classes, and general categories, representing various sections of society. As we entered the mall, the names Lord Krishna, Asvathama, and Karna repeatedly came to mind.

The movie begins with a scene from the Mahabharata's war. Karna (played by Prabhas) charges in on his chariot, and Lord Krishna (whose face is blurred) criticizes Asvathama (played by Amitabh Bachchan) for killing Ghatotkacha through conspiracy. Ghatotkacha, the son of Pandava Bhima and the demoness Hidimbi, is a half-human, half-demon hybrid.

In this context, I consider Ghatotkacha a Dalit, based on the theory of pure blood by extremist Hindus. Lord Krishna curses Asvathama, predicting that while the Pandavas will die, Asvathama will suffer eternally, yet in the future, he will have a duty to protect the mother of God (played by Deepika Padukone).

The movie then transitions to a new era, depicting a highly advanced civilization with artificial intelligence, driverless vehicles, and severe environmental degradation. The Ganga river is dry, and the land is barren, highlighting the urgent need for sustainable development.

Symbolism and Representation

In this movie, the three characters (Lord Krishna, Asvathama, and Karna) represent three classes of Indian society. Firstly, Hinduism or Hindutva is represented by Lord Krishna, and the director’s understanding of Hinduism/Hindutva is in-depth.

The face of Lord Krishna is blurred by the director, echoing Sashi Tharoor's idea in his book Why I Am a Hindu that the question of God's existence can have multiple acceptable answers, reflecting the inclusivity of Hindu religion. However, the most complex feature of Indian society or Hindu religion is the caste system, which creates a hierarchy in society and divides it into thousands of groups.

Asvathama, the son of Dronacharya who fought on the side of the Kauravas, represents the Savarna class in the contemporary scenario. Karna represents the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Other Backward Classes (OBC), as he faced the hidden threat of his birth identity, similar to what millions of SCs have faced for centuries.

Readers might question how he also represents the Other Backward Classes. My answer is that, despite his skill and honesty, he did not receive his rightful place in society. The Pandavas did not accept him as a Kshatriya, the traditionally governing or warrior class in Hindu India, which holds the second-highest ceremonial position among the four varnas.

Critique of Capitalism

The movie critiques hard-core capitalism, represented by the fictional "Complex" state. The ruler of this state (played by Kamal Haasan) poses as a saint but exploits women's fertility for profit. In this capitalist state, human rights and the rights of marginalized people are disregarded, and individual utility determines one's value.

The movie portrays a multicultural and multi ethnic society in the fictional Sambhla state, where surnames are irrelevant. Ultimately, Asvathama and Karna unite to save the mother (symbolizing Earth) and her unborn child, emphasizing the need for collective effort and the abolition of all forms of discrimination for human survival.

-The Author Dr. Krishan Kumar is a scholar based in Haryana specializing in Dalits and Marginalized Studies and founder of International Ambedkarites’ Network

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