When acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) was searching for someone to portray Indian scholar and social reformer Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in her latest movie, Origin, she wanted someone who could do justice to the role. She wanted someone who could inhabit the part, someone equipped with an arsenal of knowledge about the late anti-caste icon and someone who followed the larger-than-life figure as a disciple.
That someone turned out to be Dr. Gaurav J. Pathania, assistant professor of sociology and peacebuilding at EMU, an anti-caste activist and lifelong Ambedkarite. Pathania, who worked to help Seattle become the first U.S. city to ban caste-based discrimination last year, makes his acting debut when Origin releases in theaters on Jan. 19.
The drama, written and directed by DuVernay and starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, follows journalist Isabel Wilkerson on her journey in writing her 2020 New York Times bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. As Wilkerson, portrayed by Aunjanue-Ellis (King Richard), endures personal losses and dives into her writing, she travels abroad and digs deep into historical examples of caste systems.
From a review in The New York Times: “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 Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (Gaurav J. Pathania), who helped draft India’s Constitution and championed the rights of Dalits, people once deemed ‘untouchables.’”
Ambedkar “is the most important figure in politics in India,” Pathania said during an interview in his Roselawn office last month. A Shepard Fairey-inspired blue-and-red print of Ambedkar, akin to the Obama “Hope” poster, hung on the wall behind his desk. “He’s like the MLK of India, so no political party can do their politics without putting his face on their banners. If you ever go to India, there are thousands of statues of him.”
Ambedkar was born a Dalit, the lowest stratum of India’s caste system, but was able to earn degrees from the University of Mumbai, Columbia University and the London School of Economics — something unheard of for someone in his caste. He would serve as India’s first law minister after its independence from Britain in 1947 as well as chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. He is widely regarded as one of the most educated and revered Indians throughout history.
“Every day of his life was spent bringing some social change and structural change,” Pathania said.
The EMU professor graces the silver screen in Ambedkar’s trademark three-piece suit and tie, his hair slicked back and his eyes behind a pair of thick-rimmed round glasses. If he appears stouter on the screen, it’s because he donned a fat suit for the role. Researchers for the movie spent two years learning all they could about the historic figure. That included studying which books he carried and what types of pens he used.
“There are movies made about Ambedkar in India, in other languages, but this is the first Hollywood movie that offers an introductory portrayal of Ambedkar,” said Pathania, who is originally from India.
Before the cameras started rolling, DuVernay offered some tips to the acting newbie. Pathania recalled: “She told me, ‘You’ve studied this man for your whole life. So, just think about him when you’re on set. You don’t need any training; you have him in your heart.’”
Although his role in Origin has no speaking parts and totals a handful of minutes, the experience offered him a glimpse into the world of filmmaking.
Pathania traveled to Savannah, Georgia, on three separate occasions to film his parts. One of his scenes, set in 1920s-era India, captures him stepping off the boat onto a pier, surrounded by members of the Dalit caste played by local extras.
“The river was about 50 feet deep, so we had lifeguards standing around, and so I learned about all those things,” he said. “Cameras were in every direction; there was even someone standing in the water holding a camera.
“One simple scene might take almost eight hours, the whole day. When it appears on the screen, it appears for a few seconds, but it took all day to film.”
Before arriving at EMU, Pathania taught at Georgetown University, Catholic University of America and George Washington University. He is an anti-caste poet, writer and community builder, and mentors emerging scholars through the Ambedkar International Center Authors’ Lab.
To land the role, Pathania answered an open casting call submitted to the online Ambedkarite community in October 2022. He said he went through a lengthy audition process and was selected from a couple-dozen others.
“I asked Ava, ‘How did you choose me?’” said Pathania. “And, she said, ‘We weren’t just looking for the facial resemblance, but also looking for the scholarly resemblance, because you are a professor and you are an Ambedkarite who has been teaching for a long time and your scholarship is around caste.’”
Pathania has watched the movie several times and said DuVernay has been receptive to the changes he’s suggested. He described Origin as “the most global kind of movie.”
“If you see the cast, there is an English-speaking cast, a German-speaking cast, Hindi, and then now, with the addition of the song I Am by Stan Walker, a member of the New Zealand Maori tribe, I see it as a movie that actually reaches out to the entire world,” he said.
Origin has a runtime of two hours and 15 minutes. It is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving racism, violence, some disturbing images, language and smoking.