British director Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) was back in the news during the Lok Sabha elections, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that “nobody knew” of Mahatma Gandhi outside India until the film’s release. At least in one respect, Attenborough’s Oscar-decorated movie failed: its narrative erased an important historical figure and Gandhi’s arch-rival – Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, the Dalit giant and architect of the Indian Constitution.

Only a few filmmakers have recorded the Ambedkarite movement. Apart from biopics about Babasaheb, there are documentaries such as Stalin K’s India Untouched (2007) and Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade (2011). But these films were made only recently. The credit for documenting the movement goes to French filmmaker Arnaud Mandagarn. In 1985, Mandagarn made Untouchable, possibly the first documentary on Ambedkar and Dalit issues.

I stumbled upon Mandagarn while attending a political gathering in March in Mumbai. At a stall selling Dalit literature, I saw an old book written by Dr Savita Ambedkar, Dr Ambedkar’s second wife, whom we lovingly call “Maisaheb”.

The book had a photo of her with a foreigner and Vijay Survale, who has the largest archive of Dr BR Ambedkar’s work. An internet search revealed the foreigner’s identity: French filmmaker Arnaud Mandagarn.

Arnaud Mandagarn (centre). Courtesy Arnaud Mandagarn.

Although Mandagarn had made several documentaries in India as well as in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, I had a hard time finding his film on Ambedkar. I got in touch with various filmmakers and academicians in India and abroad, but I couldn’t find a contact for Mandagarn.

I had all but given up when professor Radhika Govindraj at the University of Washington in Seattle gave me a lead. She introduced me to French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot, who in turn put me in touch with Mandagarn. The filmmaker was generous enough to send me both a link to his film and archival photos.

Mandagarn has a humanitarian perspective that is often missing in films about Dalits made by dominant caste filmmakers. The 10-minute-long Untouchable begins with a voiceover that says, I will show you another India that is Dalit India and how Dalits suffer due to caste oppression.

The focus is on Savita Ambedkar and the Dalit Panthers. The film ends at Chaityabhumi, Babasaheb’s memorial in Dadar in Mumbai. Untouchable shows Savita Ambedkar and a few anti-caste activists, including a young Ramdas Athawale (the minister of state in the National Democratic Alliance government) entering Chaityabhumi.

A shot from the film showing the Dalit Panther party office. Courtesy Arnaud Mandagarn.

I have been travelling widely with my own documentary Chaityabhumi, which has given me an opportunity to interact with global audiences. The international interest in Babasaheb is refreshing.

While Mahatma Gandhi remains one of the most important Indian political figures for the world, there is now growing interest in people’s leaders and the Indian caste system. This is evinced by the Hollywood film Origin (2023), a biopic by Black filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

Origin explores the writing of Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, about caste systems in India, the United States and Germany. I can already see a shift from Gandhi to Ambedkar.

Somnath Waghmare is a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker and PhD Scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai. He is the co-founder of the Ambedkarite song documentation project The Ambedkar Age Digital Bookmobile, and founder of Begumpura Productions.

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New documentary ‘Chaityabhumi’ reveals Ambedkar memorial’s centrality in the Dalit imagination