The emergence and success of filmmakers belonging to the Scheduled Caste has created an irreversible change in Tamil cinema. At least three filmmakers — Pa. Ranjith ( Attakathi, Madras, Kabali and Kaala ), Gopi Nainar ( Aramm ), and Mari Selvaraj ( Pariyerum Perumal ) — have had an unprecedented impact on the film industry. They have managed to raise critical questions on representation of oppressed and minority castes on screen, effecting a lasting change on stereotypical representations in the last few decades.
Writer Stalin Rajangam, whose works have focussed on representation of caste in Tamil cinema over the years, points to the now-famous line from Kabali that actor Rajinikanth utters that he is not the same ‘cinematic’ subservient Kabali seen in Nambiar’s films but ‘THE’ Kabali. “That line was not just spoken by Rajinikanth as the character Kabali. It is a question posed to Tamil cinema on how certain characters were portrayed for very long,” he said.
The major shift in thinking has been the fact that the Dalits —who were represented as passive victims for long in cinema — have become assertive heroes. Many critics feel that the success of Ranjith’s films has resulted in a situation where ‘assertive’ Dalit characters in movies such as Vetrimaaran’s smash hit Asuran , featuring Dhanush, are here to stay. Ranjith has faced much criticism that he is trying to create a certain narrative of ‘assertive, heroic Dalit’ characters simply to suit a commercial film narrative rather than reflect the actually reality.
From the horse’s mouth
Chatting in his Egmore office in the midst of working on his next film about boxing in North Chennai, Ranjith says that ‘assertive Dalit characters’ are a plenty in real life too, but they have been deliberately sidelined in cinema.
“Take for example, [Panditha] Iyothee Thasar. He should be seen an example, right? Why should I not see Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar as an example? He showed that, despite coming from an oppressed community, he could write the Constitution of the country. My own grandfather lived his life as Kaala. That’s how I saw him while growing up,” he said. “I wanted to create an alternative image of assertive Dalits, which did not exist in Tamil cinema. I only had the stereotypical ‘victim’ Dalit in the films. The former can be empowering and aspirational. [The slain] ‘Melavalavu’ Murugesan bravely contested in the [panchayat] elections after an election boycott. Was he not an assertive, brave person? There are many examples like that,” he added.
Ever since he debuted with Attakathi and helmed Madras that superbly focussed on the intricacies of grass-root party politics in North Chennai, Ranjith’s life has changed dramatically in the last few years.
Ranjith has also doubled up as an activist (off-screen) where he has raised his voice on vexatious issues such as NEET and criticised how the plight of Dalits in society has been consistently ignored, by civil society and in politics.
“I understand how important it is to speak up and create space for others. When I started out, I just wanted to make a film that reflects my point of view. I had more freedom as an assistant director. I don’t have that now. There is a certain identity that I have acquired over the years; an image that imposes on me certain filters and censors,” he said.
One of the issues with being known as a filmmaker who is also a committed anti-caste activist, is that the film as an art often gets pushed to the back in favour of the political messaging that the film provides to the audience.
“I became a filmmaker because I liked this medium. But, my dialogues and political messaging have become more popular than my ability as a filmmaker. In the beginning, I was very sad. I always wondered why nobody spoke about the screenplay-structure of Attakathi and why it didn’t receive the same kind of adulation as Madras . I was astonished because the latter is a commercial film. It had everything: friendship, love etc (laughs),” he said.
Attakathi is his most favourite work. “It was my life. It had a lot of truth. In the intermission block in Madras , Kaali’s character assaults Perumal. The audience clapped for it. I was shocked: when an innocent person is attacking someone, you must be shocked, right? There are a lot of things in Kabali — I thought I must talk about how old people relate to love in their later lives but only certain dialogues — especially about Ambedkar and ‘kaal mela kaal pottu ukkaruven da’ became very popular.”
Politics of art
Ranjith said that he is waging a battle to find a balance between making good cinema and articulating his politics. “In Kaala , I was extremely satisfied with the climax portions for a commercial film. In the last 20 years, I wanted to create a hero for the society, not a ‘cinema’ hero. But, I learnt they wanted a ‘cinematic’ hero. I am sad but it is still great that people are discussing the political message. I am waging a battle to find a balance between the two and bridge it.”
Acknowledging that the emergence of filmmakers from Dalit backgrounds is a significant change, director Gopi Nainar is not very sure that it points to democratisation of Tamil cinema. “Karl Marx has already expounded this issue: if there is a book speaking about the perils of capitalism, the capitalists themselves will sell it. If Dalit cinema is winning, it means there is a market for it. But, this is also its fall,” he argues.
He explains: “Cinema has two owners: creators and investors. Investors think about the seats in front of the screen but the creator thinks about the image on the screen. The question is: who has the control of the market?”
Gopi laments that the capitalists in Tamil cinema have always been focussed on ‘commercialisation’ of cinema — dictating content and reorganising certain aspects of film narrative to maximise profits — and raises concern about ‘Dalit cinema’ getting trapped into this circle of commercialisation.
“ Puranas were made into movies because people already liked it. Then, Dravidian movement resulted in lot of movies with social awareness. Then slowly, they were thrown out too; the market began dictating where songs should come, where a raunchy item number should come. All this was not done by artistes, but the market. What do we do if Dalit cinema also becomes compromised like this?” he asked.
“Does Dalit cinema needs a star to speak its politics? Who will see it? Who will act in it? What is the point in such a Dalit cinema which is severely marketised? In Dalit cinema, we are talking about a story of liberation. When I think that it needs a star, I am polishing my story accordingly. The story will slightly deform. If Dalit cinema is subjected to market pressures, then it won’t be speaking the language of liberation,” Gopi explains.
Critical view of caste
Karthick RM, Assistant Professor, teaching political science, at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, says the slew of assertive and successful anti-caste movies are a reflection of shifts in the society. “Of late, anti-casteism has become a trend in Tamil cinema, which also reflects broader shifts in society. Where once films glorifying dominant caste groups achieved much success, of late, that does not seem to be the case. On the other hand, anti-caste films have won both critical acclaim and commercial success,” he said.
“Ranjith is definitely a key figure, but others like Mari Selvaraj, Balaji Shaktivel and Vetri Maaran have also contributed to this trend. Films like Kaadhal and Pariyerum Perumal seek to show the brutal aspects of caste reality, while Kabali and Asuran are more geared to produce a cathartic effect. A particularly significant film was Vikram Sugumaran’s Madha Yaanai Kootam which provided a critical semi-ethnographic look on the practices of an intermediate caste in south Tamil Nadu, without relying on usual stock characters that such films tend to use. Films like these enable to have bold, creative discussions on caste in the public,” he added.
Mr Stalin Rajangam finds a lot of value in Gopi’s concerns in ‘marketisation of Dalit cinema’ and urges the younger filmmakers to be wary of it when working with big stars.
However, he said that the developments in this decade are significant in the sense that it is being championed by politically sensitive youngsters conscious about their identity and politics.
“In the movies made between 1930s and 1950, committed Gandhians who made films such as Thyaga Bhoomi and Harijana Pen Lakshmi had social concern and always represented Dalits. While I don’t agree with the manner in which they were portrayed, it did its best. Later on, it was M.G. Ramachandran who used to play subaltern characters; the films wouldn’t speak directly about caste, but he would play characters whose reality was closer to Dalits,” he pointed out.
“In the 80s, the identities were not sharply enunciated but films such as Sivappu Malli and Alai Osai had Dalit characters as heroes. In Alai Osai , Vijayakant says, before he starts singing ‘Poradada Vaalendhada’, that he will argue with the local landlord to allow everyone into the temple as ‘Caste is something that came recently’,” he pointed out.
“Love stories also had a caste component: the boy will be principled but will come from a poor family. He will be in love with the Pannaiyar’s (landlord) daughter, and the villain will be her relative who is supposed to marry her. It is in the 90s when Tamil cinema went downhill. The villains of the 80s became heroes. If you look closely, Tamil cinema has always discussed caste inequalities,” Mr Stalin said.
What is more important is the capital accumulation in the hands of Dalit artistes. “The capital accrued by Ranjith has created a major change. This has resulted in more political movies and enabled inclusion of lot of assistant directors, technicians, lyricists from similar backgrounds,” he said.
Agreeing to disagree
Ranjith is aware that he has to make movies even to those who have an opposite view point in matters of caste in society and is constantly thinking about how to reach out to that person as well to make him an ally.
“Only when they see my film, they realise that their politics is diametrically opposite to mine. They realise that I am making them a ‘convict’ complicit in discrimination in the society. But, I hope they start thinking: ‘I have these ideas and I must reconsider my beliefs’,” he said.
All kinds of voices — an appeal, assertion and other kinds of voices — are necessary. “People ask me: Why are your films not speaking a language where the lead protagonist demands ‘empathy’: My films are direct and characters are assertive. Both films are needed, in my opinion. I have produced Pariyerum Perumal : I didn’t impose my opinion on Mari Selvaraj. Gundu is also like that, it talks about a much bigger issue in nature. We need many voices which would hopefully force people think that this needs urgent attention. But, I don’t think this is possible simply through cinema alone — we need movements on the ground — something that Dravidian movement did so brilliantly. People have gone to a place where they think all this — talking about it — is unnecessary. They are happy to live their lives as it is. I am trying to say these things exist and we need to fight it,” he said.
Does he think that one has to be a Dalit to make a film about issues faced by the community?
“If someone else can understand my pain and make a film, it is great. There are, however, things that have to be considered whether such empathy is possible. One of my assistants told me ‘ Anna, unga padathula naan illa (I am not there in your film)’. I was taken aback, then I encouraged him to make a movie. When I make a movie about issues I have faced in my life, it would obviously be more authentic. But, it is possible to understand an overall problem and make a good movie. The layers of the problem can only understand when one has experienced it,” he said.
Propounding on the need for more representation, he said, “We need more representation and we need more voices. Even if you have supported and professed the politics of the oppressed, you have to cede space when they say they want to speak. There is nothing more violent than occupying someone else’s space. There are 2000 and more Dalit castes in India. Some of them have come to the forefront owing to the mass numbers. There are many castes without numbers. But, when they talk, we are feeling anxious. Their voice makes us anxious. It happens to me as well. So, we have to subject ourselves to self-criticism. We have to let people come to the front and speak their mind. I am trying to do that.”