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Cast(e)ing Caste in Tamil Cinema

Background:

One wonders, why films such as Ejamaan, Devar Magan, Kilaku Chimailey that praise caste and pay the least amount of respect to the constitution become blockbusters This has been my question for a long time.  Kabali, Madras and Aatakathi, directed by Pa Ranjith are successful commercial films and stand exactly opposed to the dominant movies that I have referred to above. The techniques used in Ranjith’s films will explain  the ways in which caste hindu themes in films have been accepted by the masses. In this writing I try to understand the basis for the success of these two different types of films. In the process I explain how Pa Ranjith’s technique can really be a headache to dominant film makers and in particular to those caste Hindus who are well aware of dalit politics.

Two films, Kabali (2016) and Sairat (2016) have been widely appreciated and discussed. Each has a different story and stands differently to each other. Kabali centres around the heroes’ fight against oppression. Sairat captures the reality of caste system and its rogue nature in how it stands against inter-caste marriages or womens’ empowerment. I have a different take on these two films. With Sairat (2016) one wonders how a film speaking about caste violence becomes a blockbuster. We cannot point to one reason from an individual perspective but we can largely argue that the film reaches to two sets of audiences. We should not forget that Indian audiences are largely divided into dalits and non dalits. The Sairat story appears to satisfy both without over-reaching either of them. For instance, the film shows a Patil man’s caste arrogance, and the helplessness of patil women and dalits in society. If this is the theme, one may ask, if a male member of this rogue patil caste watches this movie what would be his response? Will he feel ashamed? I doubt it. This needs a separate writing and hope someone does it.  

Film critiques emerging from caste Hindu backgrounds find a Gandhian ideology and its strategies to support such films in the name of Swadeshi. They do not question how reddys or kammas earn land, or discuss how these films have shown the least respect for constitutional values.

In this writing I focus on Pa Ranjith’s technique used in his films.  But what he does in the film comes across as unprecedented at least to me. I could not imagine that the present day mass movies too can be exploited to express our political messages. He has done this consistently. If on screen his films discuss caste at 25% then off screen he does the remaining 75% and stands for what he does on screen and gives meaning to the filmic symbolism he has deployed. An act makes his films more political and attracts dalits. The anti-caste shown in his films does not fade away after the roll in the screen stops, rather that is the starting point and discussions spread off screen.

In other words pa ranjith is doing something new or modern or unprecedented. A new method of talking about caste on and off-screen. Giving meaning from outside the screen because people are not used to the language, this new language, confuses everyone.

I suppose this is one of the ways to survive with self respect and fight against the dominant narrative in commercial films. So what is the existing screenplay that is used to discuss caste in commercial films?

Before going further let us reflect on how caste is represented in popular movements? Let me reflect on the Maoist movement, CPI/CPIM. Dalits have been criticizing that these movements are led by caste Hindus (in particular brahmins) and they mobilize dalits under the banner of class and not caste. In other words caste for them is only about their leader’s domination and the rest of the concern is primarily about class. Our academicians too have largely democratized this rogue caste system by theorizing that caste is changing. This has led many to draw similarities between caste and class without problematizing caste. I seriously don’t understand how one can even compare caste and class. Caste is a rogue system that survives only through domination, oppression, and does not subscribe to democratic values at all. Nobody apart from brahmins and caste hindus love this system. Class is completely different to caste; it can have lower class, upper class, middle class and it is not static like caste. Watching Tamil films like devar magan or others taken in praise of the village feudal caste  system and reading social scientists, sociologist, etc work in praise of village panchayat only makes one think whether these armchair intellectuals have stolen their theories from these films.

All progressives, Marxists, liberals, conservatives and caste Hindus are firstly Gandhians who value caste as a Swadeshi invention and protect it in different forms and ways. Maybe this is the reason that progressives, liberals, Indian Marxists are reluctant to debate Baba Saheb Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, who was in the forefront in destroying caste. It is the Gandhian values propagated by these progressives that have created a mainstream understanding that caste names such as Patels, Jats, Chatterjees are democratic names and not rogue ones. It is this that disturbed me during the patel or jat agitations. In these protests these castes showed that they do not care for anyone and no one can stop them. This is the inbuilt behaviour of caste in villages, and now they are exhibiting it on 24 hours news channels shamelessly. Still our academicians, and caste Hindus continue to debate reservations and not the rogue-ness of caste.

Sometime back when Partha Chatterjee was interviewed on the same question of ‘caste names’ [surnames] he said:

“caste name is not the only thing that shows your identity…in the past displaying caste names was actually meant claiming certain privilege [pride]..I am not sure that is the same case anymore ..you don’t get.. necessarily gain or get a privilege …the question of marriage and so on is much more complicated..” [3:54-4:20]

Academicians are those who guard Khap Panchayats and village systems, arguing that it is Swadeshi. Films such as devar magan or any other film that focuses on themes around a feudal landlord caste have captured this rogueness more beautifully than our academicians. Can all these films be tabulated under Gandhian cinema? How does one then describe Gandhian cinema?

According to Gandhi, annihilation of caste should happen from the above. He requests the oppressed to wait till the rulers change their heart while the servile castes serve the rulers. Most caste Hindus, whether liberals, Marxists, progressive or hindutva-vadis, all of them want dalits to follow non-violence against the violence executed by caste Hindus.

Most of all the kabali trailer contains a dialogue where Rajni responds to the question “who is kabali?” I am surprised no one has noticed that the same dialogue contains the word “ejamaan” [landlord], which has nothing to do with the scene.

Let me briefly write the story of devar magan. There is a good/bad devar. Interestingly the bad devar believes the court, but the good devar believes in the village panchayat. The choice depends upon which can be exploited for their selfish motives. Police in these films are just like police in Una, where dalits were beaten in front of the police station. They are just the slaves who follow the orders of the good or bad devar. In these films, apart from the tevar caste, rest of the castes would be shown as labourers or workers. They never openly say the caste of the labourer. And they never tell the audience how did the devars earn so much land? In other words these labourers on the screen are there only to strengthen the value of the good devar as opposed to the bad devar. Only the good devar can save the labourers from the bad devars. This is the story in most of the successful village films. The indirect message spread through such films is that court, police and constitution is nothing in front of khap panchayats and village landlords.  

The camera would be fixed on the good devar’s house giving it all the narrative centrality. Land will be the bloodline of the story, though it will not feature as the main theme. All the characters would be organized around the central position of the good devar. Most of such films have a one line agenda to glorify the existing rogueness of the Indian village system and that of caste. Film critiques emerging from caste Hindu backgrounds find a Gandhian ideology and its strategies to support such films in the name of Swadeshi. They do not question how reddys or kammas earn land, or discuss how these films have shown the least respect for constitutional values. These directors through these films give fraudulent hope to dalits in villages that there are good devar/gounders, at the same time indirectly and actually suggesting to dalits that police are only slaves of the devar/gounders. So only the mercy of these devars/gounders can protect dalits from the bad devar/gounders. Simultaneously these directors insert dialogues in praise of such castes, displaying their icons in the background.

I don’t argue that films till now have never spoken of caste discrimination or emancipation; it did but the core of the story is on the basis of the prevalent ideology of a Gandhian approach such as “Swadeshi”, a Hindi film arguing for equality above caste system. The film however progresses with a Gandhian approach, keeping other forms of symbols intact. On top of it the hero himself in the film is shown to be from a caste hindu family.  So these films portray that only a caste hindu can save dalits. Such idea is also a dominant notion in our society.  That is possibly why caste hindus occupy higher positions in all progressive organizations and the academia, while dalits continue to be their subject and are not allowed to be leaders of caste Hindus. In recent times we have seen a few films that are made with the village and the police at the center. Interestingly even in these films, the director makes it clear that both villain and the hero are from the same caste and not that one is a dalit.

casting-caste-gabbar

casting-caste-singham

There are a few good films in Tamil which speak against discrimination and capture the life of an adivasi and dalit. I refer to a few films here and scenes that struck me. Madubana kadai, directed by Kamalakannan, screenplay Ayyappan, the final dialogue in the film is on the oppression of sanitary workers’ life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrVJjsf05l4). It was so open that everyone including the sanitary workers can relate to the dialogue. Though the dialogue fights back against the ill-treatment meted to a sanitary worker, it at the same time justifies the work itself. In other words the dialogue conveys to the public to treat sanitary workers sympathetically and not politically. Peraanmai directed by Jagannathan, talks about the life of an adivasi in the context of reservation and caste. It is an outspoken movie on caste. (watch this good documentary on caste:  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOoI4zNEOmI)  

Such films have scenes of caste discrimination relating through dialogues or scenes and also they show icons of dalit figures in the background. In recent times showing pictures of Ambedkar in the background is quite normal but not as normal as that of Gandhi. The recent film Appa directed by Samuthirakani shows Dr. Baba Saheb’s Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar’s picture in the background and also one of the character says she is from Ambedkar nagar.  Interestingly none have noticed such references, including the online Youtube reviewers. This may be because no one wants to notice it or just wants it to go unnoticed. At the same time reviewers have noted all the symbolism in Kabali and many were casteist  in their responses. Among most of the YouTube reviewers, Prasanth’s views interested me. He usually gives an opinion that may be described as liberal progressive and Indian Marxist. His opinion would be similar that of any progressive in Tamil Nadu. He says there are good things in the film and explains about the positive points in Kabali.  Then he talks about the negative points. Says:

“first negative is Ranjith.  Ranjith! give us 100 films that like of Madras [a movie that speaks very less of caste directly]. You speak about caste..any castes, outcastes, speak about India, Pakistan, or speak about Bangladesh..we are not bothered. You are free to do anything you want. [but]Give a good movie and speak about it Ranjith. Don’t make movies just to speak. This movie [Kabali] after a certain point [the movie] is like a political party meeting. It comes to a level to think whether it is a movie or a propaganda. You[Pa Ranjith] are referring to some caste [in the movie] that I don’t know. Instead of telling openly the caste name, you bring [use] ‘Tamilan’ identity…you say Tamilians are divided.

…too much boring dialogues that denotes to caste, too much revolutionary dialogues. Too many dialogues in the movie, as though you claiming copywriter for the revolution…There is a dialogue on Ambedkar choosing to wear suit. I agree, but if you keep all dialogues of these types in the movie, how will we get entertained. I have not come to school to take a lesson, but to a movie to get entertained. You have come  and put your thoughts and made a movie. Whom did you make a movie with?, Super star a massive image cult. Just imagine how much sad it would be. I sincerely felt sad to my heart…

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrPKy4ofNXI)    (4:04 – 5:43)

From the above opinion it is clear that what Pa Ranjith said in the film is understood by Tamils who follow the ongoing anti caste debates. In the film there are only a few dialogues that speak against the caste system without referring to the rogue castes. That is what makes Kabali unique and helps it escape from the Censor board without having to cut scenes and dialogues.

A few dialogues in Kabali are a clear reference to the ongoing anti-caste debates in Tamil Nadu. For example Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) a political party of vanniyars (OBC) who have been at the forefront in mobilizing caste hindus against inter-caste marriages and forming parties of non-dalits to oppose inter caste marriages. PMK has been accused of many honor killings, especially that of Illavarasan. They also campaigned against dalits’ wearing jeans, T-Shirts to woo non-dalit girls. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) protested against this in 2012.

http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Madurai/vck-stages-novel-protest/article4222403.ece

“Several students came half-dressed on the road to highlight the PMK leader’s remarks that Dalit youths were trying to entice young girls of other castes by sporting jeans trousers, t-shirts and sneakers.” link

casting-caste-vck-protest

It is in this context I see the dialogue of Rajini saying I will sit, if needed cross legged, and if it irritates anyone, then I will still do it. He makes the same claim about wearing suits.

Most of all the kabali trailer contains a dialogue where Rajni responds to the question “who is kabali?” I am surprised no one has noticed that the same dialogue contains the word “ejamaan” [landlord], which has nothing to do with the scene. In the film this word is not given a context. In my view dalits are most often especially in villages are controlled by ‘Ejamaan’s [feudal castes] and in recent times even in PMK political speeches dalits are referred to with caste slurs. This dialogue and the word ejamaan is used as a response to such slurs. The same technique is used by Ranjith in his Aatakathi movie. In the movie there are scenes of hero’s father blabbering after getting drunk, this blabber and the monologue refers to dalit communities assertion and the crucedness of rogue caste power.  In another place hero’s brother asks curry and beef curry is referred. This is Pa Ranjith’s signature of bringing into the screen of dialogues, references to anti caste . Many dalits in Tamil Nadu did recognize this dialogue and started using particular SC names in the place of kabali. In addition the lyrics of the song Neruppu-da has a tone of retaliation.

Ranjith consistently uses Ambedkar’s picture throughout in his films and also engages with the current politics.

Pa Ranjith is different because he does not try to confuse his audiences, like what Samuthirakani does in Appa. Though he shows the book on Ambedkar and displays images of ambedkar. But it doesn’t attain any prominence like other pictures such as that of Vivekananda. Ranjith consistently uses Ambedkar’s picture throughout in his films and also engages with the current politics. Like in Madras he said it is a film about dalits joining hands against the political parties and in the process they are receiving social education on Ambedkar. This movie also talks about how dalit women are being cheated by caste hindu men. It actually engages with the present debates on inter-caste love.

In other words these directors removed the camera from the caste Hindu house and kept the camera with the masses with egalitarian principle instead of the caste subject. Certainly Babasaheb Ambedkar is yet to reach the large dalit population on the ground, and such display might not have much impact in the contemporary politics, as his figure is appropriated by different political parties. However his ideas would still be a threat. Not to forget that even Shankar’s film Sivaji has displayed Baba sahib in the background. These symbols and icons can be an initial phase of the radical change that we should expect from these directors. A few dialogues are clear references to the caste violence and the debates that were popular among the public. However, these are indirect references, which may not find an audience without someone who is conscious to guide. It is this act of the director that interests me. While the large masses said it as a good movie, online reviewers found the dialogues of Rajini are a direct reference to the recent happenings in the Tamil political arena. As a result, the online reviewers have rejected the film and also abused it.

The producer Dhanu doesn’t seem to be much worried as the masses paid him back for the film he invested in. Let us consider a dialogue, openly referring to anti caste references against  rogue castes then the censor board would object to it. I don’t argue that this is the best way to make films but I argue this can be one of the methods to be used in upcoming films. Other film directors working on caste and Pa Ranjith making movies on caste are quite different. Ranjith always asserts his dalit identity openly outside the screen so even the indirect references in films are connected to him.

Conclusion

In his films, Pa.Ranjith uses the same old technique used by the caste hindu film directors to glorify rogue castes. However, he takes the camera and fixes it on a dalit subject and he politicizes the subject along with dialogues, pictures and colors behind the subject. He does this approach indirectly making it blatant to those who can understand this symbolism, in a way he tends to write story and the script for the masses but the icons, symbolism, dialogues are references to the contemporary dalit politics, attracting the dalits who are political. In Kabali he makes it blatant by bringing references to Gandhi and Ambedkar.  This interests me as it counters the Gandhian form of narrative in the mainstream films. However one has to wait and see how Pa Ranjith will show village and caste in his movies. In relation to representation of dalit women in his movies, one has to wait for Pa Ranjith to shift his camera from dalit male. Among all Pa Ranjith in his recent interview objected to call his movies as dalit movies. He said when movies on devar’s are not called as devar movie then movies on dalits should not be called as dalits. This is a dominant view to equate dalit to particular castes among the Scheduled Castes. Prof. Satyanarayana in his article  “Social Inequality and Human dignity” argues “Dalit movement contested caste power and violence by invoking human dignity based on ‘Dalit’ identity” This identity is not based on caste but a universal identity. Dr.Parthasarathy in his article “Dalit: the making of a political subject” discusses the different terminology used by dalit movements with such clarity. Pertaining to dalits he argues with references to Babasaheb that dalit was used by ambedkar to distinguish that dalits are not part of hindu society. And Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) took dalit has a political subject. Dalit movement that emerged during 90s questioned the egalitarian values in these movements and started terming that these movement refer to one particular caste as they don’t discuss all the scheduled caste in the same manner.

So we the present generation should try to remove dalit from the caste category and try to uphold the dalit category above individual caste references. In other words the category dalit should allow every scheduled caste to accept the prevalent discrimination and hierarchy in among Scheduled castes. And we should discuss this not as a paraiyar/mala/mahar/chamar etc but as a dalit.

Jai Bhim !

Ravichandran Bathran is the founder of Dalit Camera. He is a research fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.

He can be contacted at ravi.ciefl@gmail.com.