The new book by Dalit intellectual Stalin Rajangam is a one-of- its-kind analysis of caste portrayal in Tamil films since the late 1970s. Tamil Cinema Punaivil Iyangum Samoogam (Tamil Cinema Society Operating in Illusion) provides fascinating insights into how the political assertion of intermediate caste groups has played out on the big screen. The debate over the representation of the state’s Dalit community in cinema has popped up in the unlikeliest of places – the Rajinikanth blockbuster Kabali. Pa Ranjith’s movie makes veiled references to Rajinikanth’s Dalit lineage, especially in the sequences in which Kabali speaks of the importance of wearing a three-piece suit and claiming power from those who have had it for far too long. There are several views on how deep Kabali’s Dalit subtext cuts, while Ranjith himself has clearly stated that he does not want to be identified solely as a Dalit filmmaker.
In Rangajam’s view, Kabali is a response to the Dharmapuri riots in 2012, in which caste Hindu mobs ransacked Dalit villages after a Vanniyar woman and a Dalit man eloped. Excerpts from an interview.
In your book, you mention that caste portrayals in Tamil cinema can be categorised as films pre and post the Dharmapuri riots. Does ‘Kabali’ fit this categorisation?
I see Kabali as a sort of a response to the hate politics that the Pattali Makkal Katchi unleashed in Tamil Nadu after Dharmapuri. In the film, Rajinikanth, who dons the character of a hero of the oppressed sections, makes specific references to his sartorial preference of a three-piece suit. Dalits see such dressing as a tool of modernity. In another scene, he mentions that he hails from Tindivanam, where PMK founder S Ramadoss lives. In 2012, Ramadoss, as a precursor to his anti-Dalit movement, accused the youth of the community of wearing jeans and sunglasses and orchestrating “love dramas” [initiating inter-caste romance]. The fact that the marriage between Kabali and his wife survives 25 years of separation is a solid counter to this discourse. The influence of Dharmapuri 2012 is starkly evident in the movie.
You write about how films like ‘Sundarapandian’, parts of which glorify caste Hindu honour attached to women of the community, manage to persuade even those not convinced by Ramadoss to accept anti-Dalit politics. By the same yardstick, will ‘Kabali’ make people accept Dalit political ideas?
In Tamil Nadu, there are two rigid sections. Those who accept Dalit politics and those who do not. This is an absolute distinction. But even those who accept Dalit political ideas do it with some ground rules. People do not have any issues as long as the Dalit movement is portrayed as an extension of either the Dravidian or Left movements. The moment the individuality of the Dalit movement is asserted, all hell breaks loose and you see strong opposition.
In Ranjith’s case, you should understand his background. He grew up in Tiruvallur [a northern district in Tamil Nadu] and then North Chennai and imbibed the politics of the Bahujan Samj Party and Poovai Jaganmurthy of Puratchi Bharatam. He has barely any associations with the Periyarite movement. But look at the response. Dravidian intellectuals are asking him why he does not show Periyar in Kabali. This has led to an apology from Ranjith.
As long as films show the unique history and traits of the Dalit movement and disassociate themselves from the OBC dominated non-Brahmin movement, like Kabali did, there will not be acceptance.
The 1970s and ’80s produced strong Leftist movies (‘Kann Sivanthal Mann Sivakkum’, ‘Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu’) as a consequence of the Kizhvenmani massacre of 1969, in which 44 striking Dalit labourers were burnt alive, allegedly on the orders of their employers. Is the same mechanics in operation as far as Dharmapuri goes?
You cannot equate the two for the simple reason that it is still not possible in Tamil cinema to openly discuss Dalit issues by directly referring to the characters as Dalits. But the movies in the ’70s and ’80s had no such problems. They were open about what they said. In films like Visaranai, though the characters playing the victims have great resemblance to Dalits, they are referred to as poor people. This has a lot to do with the question of marketing and the possibility of opposition in the social and political spheres.
The Tamil film fraternity is predominantly OBC, and there will be a backlash in their own circles when the basis of the politics of these communities is questioned. Kabali is an exception. Here is an ageing superstar trying to reinvent himself and break away from the stereotypical characterisations he is used to. In that sense, Rajinikanth sought out the crew of Madras to provide him with a new image. I am very sure that this will not happen often in Tamil cinema, and other stars wouldn’t be this eager. Even in Kabali, the story invariably unfolds in Malaysia.
But you see a situation where even Dalits do not openly talk about their identity despite occupying powerful positions in the industry. Take music composer Ilaiyaraaja – he avoids talking about his caste.
Exactly my point. You should look at the period during which he emerged. There are enough stories about how he struggled in his first few years. In fact, I often feel the overdose of religion and spirituality you see in Ilaiyaraaja is probably a way to overcome the prejudices that come with this caste identity. But all said and done, history will see Ilaiyaraaja’s contribution as a substantial one by this community. Also, it is not necessary that every Dalit should be overtly political.
In the ’80s, Tamil cinema saw the so-called “smell of the native” (‘Mann Vasanai’) movies made by directors like Bharathiraja. You write about how modernity interacts with orthodoxy in these films through urban characters. Later, they evolved into the blatantly casteist movies of the ’90s that glorify intermediate castes (‘Thevar Magan’, ‘Yejaman’, ‘Chinna Gounder’). What is the main difference between the older films and the current ones?
The major change is where the story is situated. In the ’80s and the ’90s, Tamil films romanticised village life. Rather than bringing out the simplicity, the characters were given larger-than-life personas. You had this strong machismo (Murattu Kalai, Sakalakala Vallavan), and directors were restricted by the need to adhere strictly to the social traditions of the communities while constructing the characters. Though they did convey some reformist ideas (Vedam Pudidu), they did not aggressively challenge the caste structure of the village.
The films have now moved from the villages to the cities and towns. Ranjith’s own film Attakathi and those like Chennai 28 are wonderful examples of how the image of the male protagonist is constantly being deflated and brought very close to reality. There is also the cosmopolitan nature of the urban space, which has helped directors bring out the nuances of community relationships. What the films based on villages should have done, the movies today are doing it in an urban setting.
This, I feel, is a major shift. Ranjith’s Madras directly dealt with the politics of public space. Aesthetically too, there is a difference in the way the surroundings are shown. The artificiality has come down to a great extent due to the demands of the script and the characters (Pudhupettai).
Is there a danger of films like ‘Kabali’ giving way to the glorification of the Dalit community as a category?
There is a marked difference between the politics of caste Hindus and Dalits. As a political idea, the Dalit movement can never glorify caste. It is only annihilation of caste that the movement strives for. I do not see the possibility of a Thevar Magan in the Dalit framework. That would actually be highly contradictory to Ambedkarite politics.
I am curious about your take on the roles played by Dhanush such as in ‘Pudhupettai’ and ‘Aadukalam’.
Dhanush’s emergence in Tamil cinema is an important milestone and it also happened at an important juncture. His characters have helped more open discussions of sexuality in films. Good examples are Thulluvadho Ilamai and Kadhal Konden. The same period also saw 7G Rainbow Colony, made by his brother [Selvaraghavan]. Dhanush has also, by his physical appearance, shattered the long-held notions of how a hero should look. The ordinary youth relate to his characters as they see themselves in him. But portrayal of subaltern characters aside, I see a serious problem in the handling of gender in his roles. The Kolaveri Di format reinforces a patriarchal mindset. Here is where I think Dalit-Ambedkarite ideas help, ideas which his characters, despite being subaltern, have failed to imbibe in most instances.
So could Dalit political ideas counter sexism in movies?
There is a sociological context. The gender equation in the community is quite unique. Women labour as much as men and if you study this community carefully, there is more agency for the woman. If you take Kabali, you see how Radhika Apte’s role has been constructed. She stands right next to Rajinikanth during the protest for better wages. It is she who gives him the three-piece suit. The relationship is more equal. When did you last see Rajini the superstar listen to a woman while making important decisions? The usual sermon on how “good” a woman should be, which are considered a common element of Rajinikanth’s movies, is completely missing.
But even in Kabali, I feel it has not gone the full distance. For example, both the female characters are white-skinned. This association of beauty with the white skin needs to be challenged.
There are also non-Dalit directors who have examined subaltern lives. Director Bala’s films have received critical acclaim.
I can tell you what is problematic with many of Bala’s movies. His characters, though subaltern, are completely disassociated from the social context. For example, in Pithamagan, Vikram’s character of an undertaker does not show you anything about the community and the social travails faced by people at the bottom of the caste structure. Bala stops with the narration of the personal and skips the social. There is also the language of violence in Bala’s movies which many be connected with his own background of being a Thevar and his experiences of watching closely the events that have unfolded in his community over decades.
What is the way forward for films based on Dalit politics?
The reverse of what I mentioned for Bala’s movies. Films that carry Dalit ideas often restrict themselves to dialogue and props to communicate these ideas. The life of the Dalit does not get enough space. There has to be a balance where the personal life of the oppressed gets substantial space along with the social context. Such a construction will see the emergence of the tale of the subaltern with full force on the screen. Also, with the success of Kabali, I hope more producers come forward to make films about the stories of Dalits.