Dalits’ fist of fury

Arya in ‘Sarpatta Parambarai’   | Photo Credit: Amazon Prime Video

Portraying a Dalit character as the protagonist is a significant development in Tamil cinema. Dalits are now shown as courageous men performing fantastic heroic deeds. In Kabali, the Dalit is the leader of Malaysian migrants. In Kaala, he is the good-hearted mafia don who challenges the authority of the ruling class in Mumbai. In Asuran, he is an angry man who uses violence to protect his family against feudal lords. In Karnan, he is a village rebel who kills a police inspector in a revengeful act of justice. These are violent stories about Dalits’ social struggles, aspirations and quest for justice. In these films, the Dalit characters emerge as the equal claimants of popular heroic virtues.

A beautiful metaphor

In Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai, the hero Kabilan (Arya) stands distinct from earlier Dalit protagonists. We see Kabilan first as a part of an audience at a boxing game. Then from an underdog boxer he overcomes social obstacles to become the ultimate champion of the game. The film thus escapes the typical social burden of the Dalit hero and shows Kabilan as a young sportsperson who plays the game with dedication and grit. Kabilan does not use violence for revenge. Instead, the competitive game of boxing emerges as a beautiful metaphor to represent social conflicts, clan pride and personal passions. Kabilan is not a revenge-hungry young man but a committed disciple of his clan’s boxing coach Rangan (Pasupathy) and enters the ring only to protect the dignity of his people. Though the violence in the boxing ring showcases raw masculinity, it is utilised only to suggest that even ghettoised people can enter into any game and emerge victorious. Kabilan’s punches demonstrate that human spirit and passion cannot be imprisoned by any class or community.

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The new Dalit hero as an aggressive man is different from the stereotypical representations of him as brutalised. However, these new films only change the social location of the conventional hero; they don’t radically alter the idea of the popular hero. The Dalit hero appears as an improvised version of the mainstream hero as he is also depicted as a tormented man. Though these characters often play under the shadows of Dalit symbols like B.R. Ambedkar’s photograph or Buddha’s statue, we are yet to see an authentic portrayal of a Dalit protagonist who can represent Ambedkarite cultural aesthetics and Dalits’ political vision on screen.

The recent portrayals supplement the populist attributes of Tamil cinema and stand agnostic to Ambedkar’s political principles and social ethics. After the Russian revolution, while many western educated elites were influenced by Marxist political ideology and wanted to test socialist ideas in Indian conditions, Ambedkar showed only a passive appreciation towards it. He appreciated the socialist, transformative agenda to address class inequality; however, he disassociated himself from the advocates of revolutionary or anarchic violence against the state or the dominant elites. He understood that the Dalits were the most powerless among the Hindus and any violent challenge to the ruling classes would only invite further alienation, subjugation and brutal repression.

More than imagining a violent conflict between the Dalits and upper caste Hindus, Ambedkar wanted to build a democratic dialogue to achieve a better conception of the modern state and civil society. His primary task was to bring an enlightened consciousness amongst the Dalits so that they can cherish their rights as citizens and claim various entitlements. Ambedkar’s greater goal was not to eliminate the social elites or defeat them in physical battles but to introduce the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity in society. The Dalit social and political assertion must be peaceful, ethical, and engaged with the principles of social justice. In the post-Ambedkar period, Kanshi Ram used constitutional and democratic apparatuses to mobilise the Dalit-Bahujan people for bringing about political change. However, such powerful figures and their movements are yet to find respectable presence on the silver screen. Instead, the recent Dalit protagonists we see are of macho males furiously fighting evil caste supremacy.


Ambedkar’s political ideas stand distinct from the violent masculinity that has been idealised in Indian cinema’s action genre. The emerging Dalit’s heroic avatar too appears as a tacit mimicry of the masculine male fantasy that mainstream Tamil cinema has produced all these years. While there are Dalit characters in cinema now, these portrayals cunningly endorse the dominant cultural narrative that celebrates hedonistic aspirations, militant violence and male superiority. The emerging Dalit cinematic genre can do better if it also challenges the populist narrative structure and liberates cinema from its patriarchal gaze. Sarpatta Parambarai is not an ideal addition here but it is a promising move towards breaking the Dalit hero’s fantasy for violence and revenge.

Harish S. Wankhede is an assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 5:01:52 PM |

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