Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Caste and Tamil Cinema: Where is this leading to?

Like how romance, action and thriller genre flicks are immortal, Tamil cinema, on and off, has also seen movies that have either glorified caste system or mocked it.

The latest release of Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal, from Pa Ranjith’s production house ‘Neelam’, joins the club of caste abolition movies. Subsequently, it also has triggered some serious debates on communalism being projected on the screen.

Ever since mankind started to evolve art forms, their sole responsibility was to reflect the social roots and customs.

In that row, cinema, which is the most influential and commercial art form from the 20th century and thereafter, too, has not failed to follow the convention of documenting the lifestyle of the land from which it is made.

Looking back at the beginning stages of the contemporary cinema era, writers like Kalaivanar N S Krishnan, M Karunanidhi, and Tiruvarur K Thangaraj had been pioneers in breaking many stereotypes of the social construct through their writing. Since then, cinema has been caught in debates that took society towards change.

However, on subjects like caste pride and abolition, some strong content started to come up in the retro period through filmmakers like K Balachander, Bharathiraja, Bhagyaraj.

Of all, Bharathiraja’s Vedam Pudhidhu had set a new age, bold depiction of caste system prevailing in the rural areas.

Even now, the impact of dialogues like, "Balungradhu unga peru… Devarngardhu neenga padichu vaanguna pattamaa?" suits society even 30 years since Bharathiraja’s Vedam Pudhidhu hit the screens in 1987.

Similarly, Bhagyaraj’s Idhu Namma Aalu (1988) had a serious take on caste discrimination in society. Raising criticism against the Brahmin community, the movie had a very surprising collaboration of writer Bhagyaraj and director Balakumaran, veteran novelist. I believe since it was directed by Balakumaran that too in a period when the saffron domination was at a puny level, there was not any serious opposition for the script written by 'non-Brahmin' Bhaghyaraj.

It was during the same period that there were movies like Devar Magan (1994), Seevalaperi Pandi (1994).

Though the movies were not about caste discrimination, they seriously spoke about caste pride. It is still alleged that many communal clashes took place in south Tamilnadu after the release of Devar Magan.

Since the late ‘90s and beginning of 21st century, there have been movies like Chinna Gounder, Sooryavamsam, Virumandi, Dasavatharam, Sundarapandian, Paruthiveeran, Annakodi, Kodiveeran, Marudhu, Kuttipuli, Kidaari, Kabali, Kaala among many that elevated caste pride or led to violence across the State. These movies, when looked on a generic perception, would be dealing with a plot of a family drama or an action thriller.

But when read between the lines, they carry sequences of caste pride. For instance, Kamal Haasan’s Dasavatharam, despite being considered and promoted as an atheist’s agenda film, speaks a lot about Brahmin pride as hero Govind Ramasamy (Kamal), who often gets into trouble, is rescued by someone or something that is metaphored with a Brahminical identity – a lorry with a picture of Lord Krishna or carrying the name Sri Ramajayam, tsunami being evoked by ‘Lord Perumal’ to destroy a synthetic virus, are a few in point.

But, there were also movies like Bharathi Kannamma, Kaadhal, Maathi Yosi, Aadhalaal Kaadhal Seiveer, Uriyadi, Maaveeran Kittu, Attakaththi, Madras, Goli Soda 2, Annanukku Jey, and Manusangadatha took a serious dig at communalism, by showing how caste system exists very cruelly in Tamilnadu.

Annanukku Jey, starring Dinesh, is the recent best example for this. The way it delivers the struggles of a toddy-tapping community after the ban on natural toddy by the government that sells artificial liquor is more about their pain than pride.

Compared to movies like Kabali or Kaala, those like Attakaththi, Annanukku Jey, Manusangada or Madras have portrayed the real obstacles of the oppressed section in a very strong way.

With those two types of movies being made in a sublime structure, there were also some movies that pointed directly to some castes.

Suseenthiran’s Jeeva criticised the Brahmin domination in cricket in Tamilnadu. In Pariyerum Perumal, the heroine’s dad owns a car that has ‘Kattappaal’ written on it. Kattappaal refers to a section of Kallar community in southern Tamilnadu. Likewise, Vikram Sugumaran’s Madha Yaanai Koottam had dialogues that referred to the Kallar community.

One of my colleagues told me recently, "I was brought up in a caste-free way as I did not know the identities of any of my friends. As these movies that are actually intended to abolish caste started impacting on us, my friends began to mock at me, mentioning my community which is said to be aristocratic. This is where the confusion prevails. The movies literally have started to trigger casteism that has been lying low so far.”

There are movies that are yet to release with the names, Sabash Naidu, Kutra Parambarai, Devar Magan 2 and Devaraattam, carrying caste identities.

My growing fear is that instead of helping the idea of caste abolition, movies seem to be instigating divisive forces.

- Santhosh Mathevan,
Chennai, October 16, 2018.

A part or complete version of this article by Santhosh Mathevan has appeared in newstodaynet.com. This note is completely based on the perceptions of Santhosh Mathevan alone. This does not reflect the views of two or more people or a community. Queries and criticism shall be addressed to the writer only.