Filmmaker Pa. Ranjith emerged onto the scene 10 years ago but Tamil cinema is still grappling with the unprecedented impact he continues to have on film narratives, culture and politics. In just 10 years, Pa. Ranjith has put anti-caste politics in the front and centre of Tamil cinema, which had previously normalised the glorification of dominant and upper caste characters and feudal society that they inhabit, their lives and culture.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Tamil cinema was churning out movies that were centred around a dominant caste — a male with immense social power within the village. Films such as Ejamaan, Nattamai, Chinna Gounder, Thevar Magan and others justified the caste — Hindu male’s glory and power derived from the remnants of the feudal system and the narratives would typically call the audience to imagine the past in the present. These films have had a deep social and political impact, particularly in the southern and western districts of Tamil Nadu, where each of the socially and politically dominant castes had their own on-screen heroes.
Ranjith’s success in mainstream Tamil cinema has meant that Dalit culture, traditions and anti-caste politics have become an important part of the mainstream. Credit to Ranjith, the filmmakers of today — both young and old — are bound by the code of social justice and it is no more acceptable to portray Dalit characters, women, transgenders, queer from the disadvantaged sections of the society negatively on screen.
When producers were reluctant to fund these movies, the success of Ranjith’s movies had opened up the space for filmmakers from disadvantaged sections to tell their stories.
Right from his film Attakathi, though not as stridently political or ideological as his other films, Pa. Ranjith has steadily featured assertive Dalit characters, who swear by their anti-caste politics inspired by B.R. Ambedkar and many other Tamil political icons such as Iyothee Thass and so on.
While Attakathi, which was an enjoyable film about a youth failing repeatedly in pursuit of love, showcased the colourful life and culture in the villages around Chennai, it wasn't noticed for these reasons.
It was his second film, Madras, featuring actor Karthi, which put Ranjith on the map for his politics. It was a searing critique of Dravidian politics from the ground-up. It featured ambitious and politically conscious Dalit characters and its narrative critiqued mainstream Tamil politics for setting aside its emancipatory ideals for meagre political gains. The film notably re-imagined ‘North Madras’ as a place where software engineers, and hip-hop artists thrive rather than as a den of rowdies and drug peddlers.
Flagging key demands
Though his next two films were with actor Rajinikanth, who is the most saleable actor in Tamil cinema at the time, he still managed to flag issues about land rights, which is one of the central demands of Dalits.
Set in the Emergency era, Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai focussed on the boxing culture and traditions of North Madras. In this film, he explored the impact of Dravidian politics and showcased the impact the split of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) (into DMK and AIADMK) had on families and politics. Sarpatta... is one of Ranjith’s complete films both politically and aesthetically. The Dalit protagonist’s journey from a wide-eyed and hardworking protege to a wayward path and finally to redemption by self motivation captures Ranjith’s Ambedkarite message and provides a thorough character arc.
Despite working with mainstream actors with a huge fan base, Ranjith’s movies reshaped the ethos of the traditional hero. While the heroes in the 1990s and 2000s would discipline the women in their house, Ranjith’s heroes would often learn from the women in their lives. Kaali from Madras, Karikaalan from Kaala and Kabilan from Sarpatta Parambarai were regular men who were shown vulnerable on screen. His politically conscious and considerate protagonists do not derive their strength from toxic masculinity.
Ranjith’s latest movie, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, is perhaps his boldest and the most experimental he has ever been in his career. This film is a collision of different worldviews — a woke progressive collective theatre group is forced to deal with a deeply conservative aspiring film actor as they try to stage a play about love and how society negotiates love when it steps outside traditional social boundaries. In this film, he has also boldly hit back against allegations of ‘Nadaga Kadhal’ by conservatives, Tamil Nadu’s version of ‘Love Jihad’, where Dalit boys were accused of deliberately picking caste-Hindu girls to marry them.
Interestingly, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu also looks inward — it critiques progressive spaces for their ‘hardened values’ of political correctness and forces them to question their own biases. While he has faced criticism that his politics in movies and his speeches in real-life have been debated more in press and elsewhere than his filmmaking craft, he has addressed it in his last two movies — Sarpatta Parambarai and Natchathiram Nagargirathu.
Sarpatta Parambarai was a pure no-frills attached genre-film (a sports drama) and the latest film is an experimental film which tries to build a bridge between cinema and theatre.
Ranjith’s work in the last 10 years has opened up the space for other filmmakers with similar political leanings to break into Tamil cinema. Ranjith has not stopped with just films; he has also founded Neelam Panpattu Maiyam (Neelam Cultural Centre), which promotes arts, education and culture focussed on anti-caste politics.
Filmmaker Mari Selvaraj has been one of the most promising filmmakers who has emerged from Neelam Productions. His films, Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan, which speak about the struggles and triumphs of Dalits living in southern districts of Tamil Nadu, received rave reviews and were hugely successful at the box office.
One of the recent films, Writer, made by Franklin Jacob, spoke about the struggles faced by a Dalit-Christian youth after he is caught in a police conspiracy. Filmmaker Vetrimaaran’s recent smash hit, Asuran, which told the story of a Dalit father fighting to keep his son safe, was yet another reminder that Ranjith has altered the landscape of Tamil cinema irrevocably.
Facing a push-back
Ranjith’s success has also led to a push-back from the conservatives. Several films such as Draupathi and Rudra Thandavam were against Dalit politics, Dalit leaders and political parties by reiterating the political conspiracies put forward by conservative parties such as ‘Nadaga Kadhal’.
There is a scene in Natchathiram Nagargirathu where Rene (the protagonist) takes a deeply conservative dominant caste male, Arjun (Kalaiyarasan) for a meal and tells him, point blank, that she eats beef and she is an Ambedkarite, making him uncomfortable and making him almost say, “Why did you have to say this? Why can’t you just keep quiet?”
This scene pretty much encapsulates Ranjith's career; he makes direct, uncompromising and uncomfortably anti-caste movies. And he is winning.