‘Maamannan’: shedding light on Dalits in Dravidian politics

The political heir of DMK playing the protagonist’s role raises hope that the acknowledgement of caste-based discrimination within progressive parties will lead to more interventions in reaffirming the founding principles of equality and justice within the Dravidian movement

July 14, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 06:09 pm IST

A screengrab from ‘Maamannan’

A screengrab from ‘Maamannan’

There has always been a long-lasting conjugal relationship between the Tamil celluloid industry and Dravidian politics. Cinema has been the umbilical cord of Dravidian parties for mobilisation and political propaganda. Many leaders and Chief Ministers have cultivated voting citizens based on their images from the celluloid world. As Tamil film historian Thodore Baskaran said, films are an essential part of mass campaigns by political parties.

The focus of Dravidian parties in its initial days were on non-Brahmin movements, self-respect, democracy and equality. Even though Tamil films dealt with many similar topics related to social reforms, the caste conflict between non-Brahmins and Dalits was yet to be fully explored in depth. The recent movie Maamannan was one such significant attempt in critically evaluating the position of Dalits within dominant Dravidian political parties.

A reflection of current parties?

Mari Selvaraj’s third movie Maamannan has received many positive reviews and generated a multi-layered discussion on intra-party dialectics on casteism. The protagonists of the film — namely Vadivelu as Maamannan, Udhayanidhi Stalin as Athiveeran, Keerty Suresh as Leela and Fahadh Faasil as Rathnavelu — portray the objective condition of casteism within Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu. It lays bare the weakness of Dravidian parties in formulating a path towards annihilation of caste or at the very least eradicating the practice of untouchability among their leaders and cadres through ideological orientation.

The movie has generated debate and discussion among the public as well as in political circles. It unravels the hidden truth about Dravidian party leaders’ treatment towards their colleagues who belong to the Dalit community. Though there have been narratives about this reality in a few Tamil literary fictions, particularly by writers such as Imayam, Perumal Murugan, Sivagami and others, this movie has opened up such discussions among the public. This is, indeed, the major success of the movie.

Some have identified the movie with the experience of former Assembly Speaker P. Dhanapal of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, while in some others the movie invoked memories of how Thol. Thirumavalavan, Member of Parliament and President of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), was restricted from entering certain villages in the Chidambaram constituency from where he contested the Lok Sabha elections. Furthermore, some are even speculating whether the main caste Hindu character in the movie is a senior leader of the AIADMK.

Major themes

Certain situations in the movie are poignantly depicted through dialogue such as the helplessness of Maamannan with respect to his caste Hindu mentor Salem Sundaram. Later, the heated argument between Rathnavelu and Athiveeran about sitting at par with each other turns into an assertion of self-respect in the face of continued hegemonic caste practices. Rathnavelu tells Athiveeran that the reason why he offered him a seat to sit along with him is because of his politics (arasiyal) while the same offer is not extended to Athiveeran’s father due to his own dominant caste Hindu identity (adayalam). It is rare for Tamil cinema to show so daringly such a sequence which showcases the everyday nature of caste politics. Similarly, the movie holds conversations about reserved constituencies, Dalit political representatives and how and why caste Hindu leaders invest and groom Dalit leaders to control Dalit self-assertion. The director and the actors deserve our appreciation for insistently depicting naked caste politics in commercial cinema.

ALSO READ: No more movies: Udhayanidhi Stalin on quitting acting after ‘Maamannan,’ and his political road ahead

The film examines how for the sake of ‘caste pride’, casteist Hindu leaders will go to any extent through violence or even murder. These instances remind the audience of the protracted on-going caste killings in the State. Additionally, Mari Selvaraj captures the politics of name calling in a casteist society. He exposes how fellow caste Hindu leaders address Dalit leader Maamannan as Maanu meaning soil, (in a derogatory manner) by cloaking it under the pretence of affection. Only his son, Athiveeran, calls him by his full name.

The depiction of women in this movie is also perceptive. Particularly, the eyes of Maamannan’s wife, Veerayi and Rathnavelu’s wife, Jothi speak volumes.

Caste in the Kongu region

In the past, a few movies like Muthal Vasantham, Chinna Thambi Periya Thambi and Chinna Gounder have portrayed the casteism of western Tamil Nadu. These movies were either satirical or glorified the feudal system prevailing in the Kongu region. In fact, unlike other regions — south or north of Tamil Nadu — the western region has caste fanatics, who are active outside the domain of politics in other spheres. It is well-known that caste Hindus hold a monopoly over ownership of land, businesses, educational institutions and government positions along with enormous political power in this region. The disparity between the caste Hindus and Dalits is huge and challenging them is not easy. In fact, the Kongu region is the epitome of caste Hindu supremacy.

Udhayanidhi Stalin and Keerthy Suresh in a still from ‘Maamannan’

Udhayanidhi Stalin and Keerthy Suresh in a still from ‘Maamannan’

Additionally, Salem, Namakkal, Dharmapuri, Erode, Karur and Kovai are known for its various residential private educational institutions mostly owned by caste Hindus, which Perumal Muragan once called “poultry schools”. Therefore, it is no mystery why the director made the central conflict around free coaching centres and private commercial institutions. The rift begins when Leela and her friends start running a free coaching centre for poor students which is seen as detrimental to private commercial institutions.

Even though various researchers have explored the position of Dalits within Dravidian parties and the kind of discrimination they face, the film medium has not explored this domain to its full potential. As Hugo Gorringe has highlighted, in his book Untouchable Citizens: Dalits Movements and Democratization in Tamil Nadu, land reforms and other social reforms of the 1960s mainly benefited the intermediate caste.

The continuation of spatial segregation in the form of cheris (slums), denying access to social spheres like temples, crematorium, land and other public facilities still continue without concrete intervention. Gorringe highlights that in the 2001 elections, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) cadres stayed away from supporting the Dalit Panther of India party at the ground level even though it stood under the DMK symbol.

Eminent Dravidian politics expert the late M. S. S. Pandian noted that Dalits in Tamil Nadu consider DMK politicians as people who betrayed them. Maamannan thoroughly exposes this political scuffle between the caste Hindus and Dalits within the party.

A ray of hope

The movie also registers positive messages. Dalits should come out of their fear psychosis and submissive attitude. They should learn to resist indignity by upholding self-respect. For self-defence, they should learn martial art and discipline.

Furthermore, the movie is able to drive home the point that despite prevalence of caste rigidity, there is still hope. They are people who overcome such rigid boundaries and support genuine leadership which leads to the victory of Maamannan amid all hindrances. The movie shows that there is still space and scope to promote a radically different kind of politics for the future.

The political heir of DMK playing the protagonist role raises hope that the acknowledgement of caste-based discrimination within Dravidian politics will lead to more interventions in reaffirming the founding principles of equality and justice within the Dravidian movement. But it is not so easy to bring out such a radical reform within Dravidian parties. The film has kept the hope alive, but realising it will be an arduous journey.

C. Lakshmanan is retd. Associate Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and Convenor, Dalit Intellectual Collective, and Venkatanarayanan S. teaches at Christ University, Bengaluru

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