Origin, Ava Duvernay

Love in a Caste-less World in Romance Films ‘Origin’ and ‘Sairat’

Indian cinema has attempted to represent caste and its draconian and routinized policing of love. Needless to say, such films are not romances.

Ava Duvernay
19 January 2024 (US)
Nagraj Manjule
Zee Studios
29 April 2016 (IN)

Love is love is love. Or so the saying goes. As a student of romance narratives in popular media, I think about love and romance all year. Ideas and ideologies about romance color my perception of storytelling. However, I did not expect to see Ava DuVernay’s biographical drama Origin through the lens of romance. As a Dalit woman who has paid attention to the conversations around Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, I assumed that DuVernay’s dramatized adaptation of the book would delve into the infuriating and heart-breaking horrors of US white supremacy, European anti-Semitism, and Hindu caste violence. I wept through this film but left it thinking about love, freedom, and the Buddhist principle of metta or loving-kindness. 

Romantic love is everywhere in Origin, with several couples representing different configurations of it: the fictionalized Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) and her husband Brett (Jon Bernthal), her widowed mother (Emily Yancy), who cherishes memories of her Tuskegee airman husband. There is romance between the German gentile and Jewish couple Wilkerson learns about while researching the Third Reich, and the two anthropologist couples whose work documenting racism in the Deep South helps her sharpen her thesis. Romantic love is seen in Marion Wilkerson (Niecy Nash) and Marion’s husband, who is by her deathbed as his wife’s health declines, Wilkerson’s friend Miss Hale (Audra McDonald), and Miss’ partner in love and parenting. Finally, last but always first—romantic love is shared by Trayvon Martin (played by Myles Frost) during his final phone conversation with Rachel Jeantel, reported as his girlfriend in some news coverage

Origin is haunted by lovers from the past, too. There are the specters of those murdered in gruesome fashion because they “violated the color line” in the segregated United States, those ripped away from loved ones by the slave trade, and finally, the absent romantic couples in the scenes that discuss the continuing atrocities in caste-riddled India.

In a scene where Wilkerson is refining her concept of the pillars holding up the house of caste in the US, Europe, and India, she writes “mating” and “marriage” on a whiteboard. She recalls anti-caste polymath and legal and labor scholar Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s argument that caste endogamy is the central tool used to maintain the artificial divisions of society that is a caste system. (Dr. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary falls on April 14, and April is celebrated worldwide as Dalit History Month.) 

Wilkerson recognizes how real or perceived violations of this edict, which maintains fake social purity and guards the “pure” from the “polluted”, are met with supremacist terrorism. Enforcers from the supremacist group, Origin‘s voiceover tells us, mutilate the bodies of transgressing members of segregated groups to keep them and everyone else in line. Love is not love is not love, after all.

Indian cinema, especially regional cinema, has attempted to represent caste and its draconian and routinized policing of love. Needless to say, such films are not romances, as scholars and readers of popular English-language romance novels define the genre. There is no happy ending or even the promise of one in the protagonists’ lifetime. The 2016 Marathi-language blockbuster Sairat [Untamed], written and directed by Ambedkarite filmmaker Nagraj Manjule, provides one such striking critique of caste apartheid.

Sairat is set in a small town in the interior of western India, in the state of Maharashtra, a microcosm for casteist beliefs and practices. Largely a farming community, its powerbrokers are the wealthy landowners who are high up in the caste hierarchy that is enforced socially and through economic disparities. The locale makes for a regional fable, twice-distanced from the Bollywood brand of escapist transnational globalism.

The film documents a deeply entrenched phenomenon, ironically termed “honor killings“, the punishment frequently meted out on people for marrying or being suspected of romantic interest outside one’s caste. Sairat’s success, despite its localized narrative, proved how deeply the horror of casteist violence resonates across the country and the Indian diaspora. 

Sairat’s female protagonist, a college-going teen, refuses to accept the limits imposed on her not just due to her gender but also her upper caste and upper-class status. But her caste and class-defined roles, along with patriarchal restrictions, drag her and her lover, a fellow college student from the poor hunter-gatherer caste, into a bloody saga. Scared for their lives, the two flee their home for the big city, eventually finding jobs and shelter. They get married, have a child, and appear to have escaped from bigotry. But the nemesis of caste follows the couple in the form of her male relatives, who find and eventually murder them in cold blood—blood that their toddler unknowingly walks through when he returns from a neighbor’s house.  

With Sairat, Manjule suggests that, unlike stories that use a wedding to symbolize the beginning of a happy ever after (a “HEA”, as romance studies term it), a world devoted to caste endogamy cannot be saved by marriage. One might think that since caste is outlawed under the Indian legal system and people who choose to marry across religious lines can do so under the Special Marriage Act (1954), there is some link between marriage and HEA. But marrying across caste boundaries is not done under special legal provisions, nor does it come with a guarantee of protection because caste hierarchy is enforced in social and economic ways.

These punishments run the gamut from public stripping and beatings, ritual rape, and death to redlining, ex-communication, and other exclusions, such as ignoring affirmative action policies and microaggressions from fellow citizens related to clothing, accents, and food practices. In other words, while caste-motivated murders of couples are tragically routine in India, even more endemic is the non-violent but ideological obedience that people give to caste endogamy and aspirational casteism (performing behaviors associated with a higher caste, such as vegetarianism). 

Not only are marriages almost always arranged between families of the same caste, but many stick to their specific sub-caste. This practice is visible in the matrimonial classifieds in newspapers and websites and present (whether unsaid or stated in coded language) in shows like Indian Matchmaking. Astrological birth charts (kundalis) and priests function to normalize, and even romanticize, this practice, including among the allegedly progressive TikTok generation in the Indian diaspora (under hashtags like kundalimatching).

DuVernay’s Origin does not touch on this facet of caste in India and rightly focuses on one of the worst manifestations of casteism—the inhumane labor of cleaning human excrement that is forced on members of the lowest caste. She does, however, frame it within the context of the love and compassion that the community shows to each other in the performance of this horror—one worker meticulously oiling the body of another before lowering him into a literal cesspool of shit and gently wiping his face as he lifts it out of the muck to breathe in between lifting out shovelfuls of feces. (The scene continues the motif of loving touch established earlier in Origin when Wilkerson gently massages her aging mother’s limbs.)

As the usually fiery anti-caste scholar Suraj Yengde (playing himself) gently says in his conversation with Wilkerson during her dramatized visit to India, the oppressed offer compassion and love in our search for a more humane society. This is the model for collective liberation.

Origin adds to this call, asking us to face caste so that we may replace it with an equitable world built on our obligation to each other’s welfare. Origin ends with Wilkerson in her mother’s house, which is renovated and ready for sale. She muses that we have all inherited the house of caste and are heirs to its rotten foundations. It is up to us to look at the cracks and fix them, irrespective of whether we caused them or not. 

That moment in Origin reminds me of an editorial that Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution and the man responsible for its earliest labor and women’s rights legislation, wrote in the periodical Bahishkrut Bharat in 1928, asking readers for support for his mission. In it, he holds up the fortitude shown by his wife, Rama: 

while this author was studying abroad, she worked round the clock to run the household (and continues to do so now due to [my] penury even after [my] return from abroad), and unflinchingly carried heavy loads of cow dung on her head

Those privations meant that he lost her early, and memorialized her support in the preface to his work Thoughts on Pakistan (1941) in this dedication, a letter to a lost love and comrade about working together in order to remake a broken world. 


As a token of my appreciation of her goodness of heart, her nobility of mind and her purity of character and also for the cool fortitude and readiness to suffer along with me which she showed in those friendless days of want and worries which fell to our lot. It is a letter to a lost love and comrade about working together in order to remake a broken world. 

This same love motivated another anti-caste reformist couple that I was thinking of last Valentine’s Day: Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule. Born in 1827, Jyotiba Phule saw the inequities of the caste system around him through the framework of the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. (Origin observes that Ambedkar also saw similarities between African Americans and Indian Dalits during his time as a student in Harlem in the early 20th century). Phule dedicated his anti-caste treatise, Gulamgiri [Slavery], to the enslaved brethren of the “shudra” (downtrodden) caste, terming them the “good people of the United States.” 

Convinced that education was a weapon against patriarchy and the caste system, Savitribai and Jyotiba Phul began schools in Pune, the city where I obtained my Master’s degree and where my university now bears her name. That the two committed to this work, including establishing the Satyashodhak Samaj (Truth-Seeker Society) against the vituperation and violence of casteists around them, is a testament to the power of their united love in service of reclaiming human dignity. It is another letter from her to him, written in 1868, that says it best:

To the Embodiment of Truth, My Lord Jotiba,

Savitri salutes you!

I received your letter. We are fine here. I will come by the fifth of next month. Do not worry on this count. Meanwhile, a strange thing happened here. The story goes like this. One Ganesh, a Brahman, would go around villages, performing religious rites and telling people their fortunes. This was his bread and butter. Ganesh and a teenage girl named Sharja who is from the Mahar (untouchable) community fell in love. She was six months pregnant when people came to know about this affair. The enraged people caught them, and paraded them through the village, threatening to bump them off.

I came to know about their murderous plan. I rushed to the spot and scared them away, pointing out the grave consequences of killing the lovers under British law. They changed their mind after listening to me.

Sadubhau angrily said that the wily Brahman boy and the untouchable girl should leave the village. Both the victims agreed to this. My intervention saved the couple who gratefully fell at my feet and started crying. Somehow I consoled and pacified them. Now I am sending both of them to you. What else to write?


As Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri and all Ambedkarites striving for a caste-less world say, love is love is love if we will make it so.