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How an Indian American Professor Came to Portray the Architect of Indian Constitution in a Hollywood Film Based on ‘Caste’

How an Indian American Professor Came to Portray the Architect of Indian Constitution in a Hollywood Film Based on ‘Caste’

  • Currently an assistant professor of sociology at Eastern Mennonite University, Gaurav Pathania plays B.R. Ambedkar in Ava Duvernay’s film based on Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”

When a U.S.-based friend alerted professor Gaurav J. Pathania of an open casting call by acclaimed filmmaker Ava Duvernay for her film “Origin,” he applied as the team was seeking a person from marginalized communities. Despite being a non-actor, he got the role to portray B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution and social reformer. 

Set partly in India, “Origin,” which explores the history of different oppressed communities, is adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” It revolves around the author, a journalist, who, while “investigating the global phenomenon of caste and its dark influence on society, faces unfathomable personal loss and uncovers the beauty of human resilience,” says the film’s synopsis. 

Gaurav J. Pathania and director Ava Duvernay during the filming of “Origins.”

The New York Times reported that “Origin” includes “segments of varying effectiveness that dramatize Wilkerson’s understanding of specific caste systems.” One is set in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, another in Depression-era Mississippi and a third in India over different time periods. This last interlude focuses on Ambedkar who helped draft India’s Constitution and championed the rights of Dalits. As Pathania claims on X, it is “the first Hollywood film to offer an introductory portrayal of Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar’s life and his anti-caste struggle.”

According to online news site The Mooknayak, Duverney wrote the script of the film in two years after conducting research on caste, racism, and the Holocaust. She travelled to India for her research on caste and was assisted by Dalit advocate Suraj Yengde, who also appears in the film as himself. 

Who is Gaurav Pathania?

An anti-caste poet, writer and community builder, Pathania is currently an assistant professor of sociology and peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he contributes significantly to the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP).He also runs a Global Initiative for Equity and Justice and collaborates with anti-caste, race, and feminist scholars working in the area of higher education and social justice. He also moderates the website and is part of the Ambedkar International Center’s Authors’ Lab, mentoring emerging scholars in the area of caste and social justice. He has previously worked at Georgetown University, George Washington University, and Catholic University of America.

His debut book, “The University as a Site of Resistance: Identity and Student Politics”published by Oxford University Press in 2018, explores the concept of student resistance within the landscape of higher education in India. His poems  carry the twinge of Dalit oppression and are loaded with Dalit assertion.

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In an article in The Boston Globe, on the heels of Seattle becoming the first city in the U.S. to ban caste discrimination, he threw light caste systems and discrimination. “The caste system, with its origins in India and other South Asian nations, is a complex, rigid, and hierarchical structure of privilege based on birth,” he wrote. “Caste should not be part of the ‘American Dream,” he continued. “The caste system is a disease, it’s an evil, it’s anti-civil. Schools, universities and workplaces should be aware of this global problem.”

Pathania was born and brought up in Kurukshetra to an Ambedkarite father who worked in a bank. He told The Mooknayak that during his childhood, “the movement of Kanshi Ram was at its peak, and it helped in developing consciousness.” 

When he joined Jawaharlal Nehru University for his MA in sociology, he was introduced to “new avenues of Ambedkarism through professor Vivek Kumar,” he told The Mooknayak.  He told us that an academician should also engage in activism, especially for a sociologist because we need to know about the people on whom we are doing research,” he said about Kumar to Mooknayak. “I think it is rightly said that once you are in JNU, you are an activist for life. Pathania went on to complete his Ph.D. from JNU in sociology, but his father could not live to see him achieve that feat. “He died just 20 days before my Ph.D. defense,” he told the news site.

“Origin,” opens in theaters on Jan. 19.

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