Over the years, Hindi cinema has given a 'signature nod' to the 'untouchables' of society with some good films, some pretentious ones, and some targeting foreign festivals and national awards. Among them one may name films such as Manjhi - The Mountain Man, Ankur, Sujata, Article 15, Court, Bandit Queen, Masaan and many others. The trend began with Achyut Kanya (1936) but the treatment, perspective and approach have evolved for the better over the years.

Swati Mehta, in 'Exploring caste in Hindi cinema' (Meri News, April 04, 2009) pointed out how "the majority of the stakes in the film industry are held by 'higher castes', and their films portray an elitist image and way of life. The culture and traditions shown in the films, for instance, are Brahmanical. Or the concept of class has taken over caste in popular cinema. For instance, in Karan Johar's films or those made by Aditya Chopra, one comes across titles like Raichand, Mehra, Malhotra', mainly 'high caste' rich Punjabi businessmen.

Their marriage ceremonies are shown as based on the Brahmanical tradition where the priest is given supreme importance. Lavish weddings and related ceremonies are another feature, which reflects the feudal nature of Indian society. The rich flamboyance can be attributed to the same."

The ground reality is as brutal as it is cruel. In June 2015, two brothers from Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Brijesh (19) and Raju Saroj (19) cracked the IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology) Entrance exams. The boys ranked among the top 500, but when they came home from the felicitation function by the Chief Minister, they found that their house was pelted with stones.

Their only 'fault' was that they were Dalits. The Saroj brothers are sons of a Pratapgarh-based daily wage labourer. The same month, a minor Dalit girl was allegedly beaten up by 'high caste' women in Ganeshpura village in Chattarpur, Madhya Pradesh, after the victim's shadow fell on a muscleman belonging to their family.

Debutant director Ishrat R. Khan said, "Guthlee is a film that speaks volumes about the state of education and the caste system in rural India in today's day and age. One admits that there have been government-sponsored programmes for educating the Dalit child, but no thanks to the mindsets of the high caste parents who refuse to send their children to a school to study along with Dalit children, the situation remains more or less the same.

The backwardness of the Dalits across the nation keeps them unaware of the constitutional right to education to every child in the country. Guthlee narrates one such untold story. I have tried to highlight the plight of the lower caste people and their inability to get education for their children." The film is produced and presented by Pradeep Rangwani and UV Films.

Young Guthlee and his parents belong to the Chuhra caste. The children are not allowed admission in schools because parents of 'upper-caste' parents do not want their children to study with them. The headmaster of the school, Hari Shankar (Sanjay Mishra) is a Brahmin who also looks down on the Dalit kids and is against admitting them in his school. But Hari Shankar slowly undergoes a change of heart when he sees Guthlee's sharp intelligence and determination to get educated. The administrator of the school, Chaubey, is against admitting Guthlee.

In one scene, when Guthlee's mother asks him why don't all the stars in the sky sparkle like the rest, Guthlee says, "because they are all stuck inside their own gutters." A telling comment on his understanding the worth of his low birth.

Hari Shankar plays a trick to outwit the administrator Chaubey by entering Guthlee in the school sports' sprinting race at a function to celebrate the school getting a sanction to turn into a Higher Secondary school. Guthlee's torn slippers are taken away, and he is forced to wear large-sized shoes, even kicked along the tracks but he wins in the end. The angry administrator is forced to agree to give him admission.

In one touching scene, we find Guthlee looking at the scarecrow wearing a pink shirt in the fields while playing with his friend, Laddoo. The next scene we see him wearing it as the school uniform mandates a pink shirt. When he asks his mother for the shorts, she says he does not need one as the shirt is oversized! The names of the boys, Guthlee meaning "seed" and Laddoo, meaning "sweet" are examples of how random and casual the pattern of christening these deprived kids is.

Guthlee's close friend Laddoo, who joins his father in cleaning gutters and toilets, dies when he slips and falls into an open gutter. This points out the danger of small children joining their fathers in caste-ridden work, when they are supposed to go to school.

The director has chosen a small town as the setting of the film. The open fields, a school poised to get certified for higher secondary, but does not permit admission to children of Dalits, the home of Hari Shankar, an aged bachelor who lives with his demanding and cantankerous mother but loves her a lot, and the ghetto peopled by the manual scavengers and drain cleaners invest the film with the ambience for the film without glamourising it.

The terribly inhuman treatment meted out to the low caste people comes across in some scenes. One is where Mangru (Subrat Dutta), Guthlee's father, is kicked and beaten by a tea-shop owner because he tried to change his leaking tea-cup with an empty glass.

nother scene shows Mangru and his friend being paid less than the agreed sum for cleaning the clogged drain in an upper-caste home. Mangru is insulted for toying with a bicycle standing in the compound of the family as he is an untouchable. But when he is to hand in money which he says is tainted by his touch, the same woman tells him that money is Lakshmi and is never tainted!

The costume, make-up and acting by the actors lifts the film to a different dimension altogether. Subrat Dutta is brilliant as Mangru. Sanjay Mishra gives a very convincing performance as Hari Shankar but the discovery of the film lies in the young boy Dhanay Seth who makes his debut in the title role of Guthlee and the chubby Heet Sharma who plays Laddoo. Kalyanee Mulay as Guthlee's mother is also very good. The background score by Amar Mohile fits into the changing moods of the film very well.

There is no attempt in the script or the dialogue to play on the sentiments of the characters, that would have added needless melodrama to the film. The climax of the running race where Hari Sundar says that if Guthlee wins, the school will admit him, is a bit too much. But almost at once, the visuals show Guthlee flying into freedom with his hands spread wide, face flush with the happiness of his triumph.

The film ends on this note of hope and optimism. Guthlee bagged the Hiralal Memorial Award for the Best Film in Indian Languages at the 27th Kolkata International Film Festival in May this year.