In a film industry that greatly shaped and reflected Tamil Nadu’s political landscape and caste equations, one vital missing component was that of the Dalit — among the most marginalised sections of society. In recent years, a growing band of directors is drastically changing the script to put this ‘outcaste’ front and centre
“If your problem is that I am progressing, then I will indeed progress.
“Iwill wear a coat and suit.
“Iwill cross my legs and sit with style and a flourish.
“Deal with it, or die.”
The year is 2016. The film is Kabali. The director, Pa Ranjith. The actor, Rajinikanth. And the character is Dalit.
Two years later, the Dalit is once against the protagonist in Tamil cinema. It is not just Kaala, a film released in June. Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal, produced by Ranjith, will be released on September 28.
And October 17 will mark the grand release of the Dhanush-starrer Vada Chennai, directed by Vetri Maaran. Both films revolve around Dalit themes.
Tamil cinema is unspooling a new genre of films, all directed by brilliant, mostly young filmmakers, that are filling theatres across the state and putting Dalits centre stage.
Cinema undoubtedly reflects a slice of society. But Tamil cinema, more than any other regional industry in India, has played a significant role in shaping the history and politics of Tamil Nadu. What began in the 1920s as a movement for social justice — primarily against Brahmin domination in the erstwhile Madras Presidency — soon transformed into the Dravidian movement, started by ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy. The ideology of Periyar’s organisation, Dravidar Kazhagam, and later its political arm, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), was taken to the masses through cinema, powered by mesmeric heroes and dialogue.
The MGR-Sivaji era
Tellingly, however, the Dalit caste did not figure in a major way in the movement. The anti-Brahminical struggle propelled the intermediate castes — those above the so-called lower castes but below the Brahmin and other upper castes — into positions of power. But the “outcastes” remained just that.
“The Dalit characters in the films of that era were poor, wretched souls who needed to be ‘rescued’ by the hero — whether it was MGR [Ramachandran] or Sivaji Ganesan,” says Pa Ranjith, referring to the two biggest stars of the time. “In those films, the aggressor was from the intermediate caste and the saviour too was of the same caste. The problem and the solution both came from the intermediate caste. The Dalit had no role in the film except as a figure of pity,” he adds.
The portrayal of Dalits was stereotypical — oppressed, but without a spark of rebellion. They wore very little clothing, with many in just a komanam or loincloth. A few wore veshtis (dhotis) but no shirts. And they were the darkest of the dark-skinned Tamilians in the films. In Kabali, Ranjith takes on this stereotyping with roaring derision. Warming up for a fight scene, Rajinikanth mouths these lines: “In Tamil films you have a character with a huge mole on his cheek, who twirls his moustache, wears a lungi… and as soon as Nambiar (the actor famous for his villain roles) shouts, ‘Eh, Kabali’, the character would bow low and say, ‘Yes, Master’… Did you think I am that kind of Kabali?” Then, gesturing toward himself in his spiffy suit — a nod to Dalit rights icon BR Ambedkar’s attire of choice, and today the Ambedkarite movement’s mark of pride and resistance — Rajini growls menacingly, “Kabali, da (I’m this Kabali)!”
Caste and Tamil cinema
During the 1980s and ’90s, caste began to appear as a divisive factor on the big screen. This was the time MGR and Sivaji had been replaced by the newer stars — Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. A host of other actors such as Vijaykanth, Mohan, Ramarajan and Bhagyaraj, too, entered the scene. Among the many feted directors of the time were K Balachander, P Bharathiraja and Mani Ratnam.
Balachander chose to show overpowering Brahmin heroes who “educated” the “others”, whereas Bharathiraja set his stories among the grassroots — his characters belonged to the Tamil village and the dominant non-Brahmin castes.
In his first film, 16 Vayadhinile (1977), his villages and the castes peopling them were ambiguous. After that, however, clearly delineated caste identities began to creep into his cinema, and the lines were no longer drawn in sand.
A native of Madurai, in southern TN, Bharathiraja helped groom a number of younger directors from his hometown. All of them went on to make films that centred around the life and politics of that region, where the Thevar caste is dominant.
Similarly, actor-director K Bhagyaraj introduced to the film world a host of cast members, crew and directors from his hometown, Coimbatore. Their films prominently featured the caste politics back home, where the Gounder caste is dominant.
Bharathiraja’s Mudhal Mariyadhai (1985) revolves around a Dalit girl (played by actor Radha), who loves an upper caste man (Sivaji Ganesan). Although he loves her too, he is unable to reciprocate her feelings as he is unhappily married. The villagers gossip about them. The outspoken Dalit girl, however, has to pay the price of “forbidden” love. She murders the film’s villain, as he was out to destroy Ganesan’s reputation, and goes to jail. By the time she is released, Ganesan is on his deathbed.
This theme of “forbidden” inter-caste love soon became the mainstay of many films, complete with swift retributions. In 1997, Cheran’sBharathi Kannammahas Kannamma (Meena), belonging to the Thevar caste, in love with Bharathi (Parthiban), a Dalit youth who works for her father.
As the lovers elope, they are hunted down by the furious Thevars. “We gave you the land to live on and you try to marry into our family. How can we keep quiet at this? Thevars are not cowards who will shed tears of anguish… We will kill them and drink their blood,” declares the girl’s father.
The film was not released in Madurai, over fears that it might incite violent caste clashes. The film shows Kannamma committing suicide, and the distraught Bharathi following suit by jumping into her funeral pyre. The repentant father gives bags of grain to Dalit families as penance for his wrongs.
Director Vetri Maaran points out that in most Tamil films, Dalit characters were shown as unquestioningly accepting their so-called place in society. And those who did question, ended up dead, he adds.
Dalit women, in particular, were poorly represented, he rues. When present at all in a film, their role was limited to being at the receiving end of derogatory remarks on their skin tone or eating habits or cleanliness.
Breath of fresh air
The recent clutch of Dalit-centric Tamil films is path-breaking in more ways than one. Besides the four-time National Award-winner Vetri Maaran and the commercially successful Ranjith, newer directors such as Gopi Nainar are making films that refuse to conform to caste codes. With its strong rural Dalit characters, Nainar’s Aramm (2017) makes a political statement about the powerful state’s indifference to the marginalised.
“As creative people, we need to have social awareness,” says Ranjith. “I am very happy that many directors… are creating this much-needed social awareness.”
Most of them happen to be from Chennai. Relatively well-to-do and socially aware, they are turning the prevailing narrative on its head. Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj are Dalits, and their films reflect their lived realities and ideology.
Vetri Maaran’s films largely focus on social ills while hinting at the Dalit identity. His Visaranai (2015) was about police atrocity against a Dalit man.
“Very few films have been made with Dalit lifestyle as their central theme. There have been pro-Dalit films in the past, but it took nearly a hundred years to have someone like Ranjith make politically-correct Dalit films,” says Maaran.
Rise of Dalit activism
Ranjith had debuted with Attakatthiin 2012, and followed it up withMadras (2014) — both films dealt with urban and semi-urban Dalit life, and were critically acclaimed.
The significance, says Maaran, lies in the fact that Dalit stories are being told by Dalits. “These are not just films sympathetic to Dalits, but films on the lives and rights of the oppressed made by the oppressed themselves… which gives it legitimacy. This is a movement of Dalit liberation through films, in my opinion,” he adds.
Much before the rise of Dalit-themed films, Dalit literature had begun to storm the mainstream in the 1990s, thanks to fiery writers such as Ravikumar. Around the same time, Thol Thirumavalavan and his Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) party began to demand equal rights for Dalits, specifically the Paraiyar sub-caste. In southern TN, another Dalit sub-caste, the Pallars, began agitating for their rights. It was also a time of frequent caste clashes and violence.
But cinema remained impervious to Dalit concerns. Director RV Udayakumar’s superhit Chinna Gounder (1992) has the comic duo Goundamani and Senthil poking fun at the Dalit characters in the film. Senthil’s character even tricks a Dalit man of his veshti, leaving him squatting on the ground in just his loincloth. Goundamani’s character insults him further by deriding his looks.
In Vettri Kodi Kattu (2000), a character is shown cleaning toilets — a job traditionally forced on the Dalit community — in Dubai, and another character chides him saying, “Don’t come near me, you smell bad…” and, in what is meant to be humour, asks whether he “clean the toilets of camels”.
And where the Dalit narrative did manage to surface in a film, it was usually distorted. The 1997 film Aravindhan, directed by T Nagarajan, shows a radical Dalit leader killed for revolting against zamindars (landlords). When the zamindars refer to them as dogs, the Dalits stop working for them. This story was strongly reminiscent of the 1969 massacre at Keezhvenmani village, in Thanjavur district, where zamindars burnt the huts of Dalit workers, killing 42 of them. Except, in the reel version, the radical Dalit leader was gunned down by the police and his murder was avenged by a member of the upper caste.
A decade later, director Ameer’s Paruthiveeran showed a Thevar girl gang-raped and killed for daring to fall in love with a mixed-caste man.
Tamil cinema certainly has no dearth of films that celebrate the common man and his struggle against oppression by the rich. Like MGR, Rajinikanth has donned the roles of a milkman, an auto driver and an unemployed villager, all of whom fight to alter the status quo. But it is only with director Ranjith that the superstar has spoken out as a Dalit in his cinematic outing.
“All actors with political aspirations have played roles where they are for the Dalits and the marginalised,” says Maaran. “But in their quest for box office numbers, all the top actors have also played roles that glorify one of the oppressive castes,” he adds.
Among the rare bursts of social awareness back then was director V Sekhar’s Onna Irukka Kathukkanum (1992), which shows a village headmaster (Sivakumar) teaching Dalit children to read and write, defying upper caste diktats against it. When one of the Dalit children is poisoned to death by dominant caste members, the Dalits rise against their oppression with renewed awareness.
“In the olden days, Dalits were stereotypically a Muniya or a Kabali,” smiles Ranjith. “In recent times, their portrayal has changed a little. They are still black-skinned, they have long hair, which is streaked with colour. They are ‘naagareegamaana rowdigal’ (civilised rowdies),” he says. In his own work, the stereotype of disgust is celebrated. For instance, in his film Kaala, black — the skin tone and dirt associated with Dalits — becomes the symbol of labour and revolt.
A voiceover in the film intones: “Kaala na karuppu… kaalan… karikaalan… sanda pottu kaakuravan [Kaala (in Hindi) means black… kaalan or karikaalan (a celebrated king of the Chola dynasty)… is the warrior who protects].” The film’s finale is rousing — an uprising of Dalits. If Kabali sought to educate Dalits, Kaala teaches them to agitate. Ranjith’s next is likely to be the most fiery of his films yet.
Sandhya Ravishankar is an independent journalist based in Chennai