For Kollywood, it’s become par for the course to mock Yogi Babu for his looks with slurs like “panni munji vaaya” (pig-face). Such pejoratives have their roots in the casteist dehumanising of dark-skinned, wiry-haired people.

Yogi Babu in Tamil film MandelaCourtesy/SonyMusicSouthVEVO
Flix Film Commentary Sunday, March 06, 2022 - 13:11

Mainstream Tamil cinema has in the last few years, particularly since the films of Pa Ranjith, witnessed a significant shift in how Dalit, Adivasi or Bahujan people are represented on screen. A generation of younger filmmakers, many supported by Ranjith’s Neelam Productions, have registered a strong, anti-caste, Ambedkarite stance coupled with compelling storytelling. While the industry at large seems to have recognised the ‘marketability’ of such films, it still has a long way to go in exorcising casteism from within its own ranks of scriptwriting, lyrics and characterization.

Take the recently released Mahaan. The lacklustre plotline aside, Vikram’s sort-of-intro song brazenly equates a self-absorbed, irresponsible con-man, roaming the city to fulfil his own petty needs, with the nomadic Lambadi tribe. The lines in the song “Evanda Enakku Custody?” by lyricist Vivek, go “namma evlo periya Lambadi” (I'm the greatest Lambadi) in the context of celebrating the hero’s supposed swag for not caring about anything beyond satisfying himself. One would have hoped that Santhosh Narayanan’s (Mahaan music director) long stint of working with anti-caste directors like Pa Ranjith or Mari Selvaraj may have sensitised him against such lyrics.

Dark-skinned and fat: ‘comedy piece’

Even films that superficially claim to defy caste structures like the Yogi Babu-starrer Mandela only serve to further entrench them instead. In Mandela, in which he plays a person from a barber-caste, he is repeatedly called ‘illicha vaayaa’ (simpleton), asked to clean the toilet, until he supposedly turns the tables by hogging for himself ‘freebies’ in exchange for his vote. All of this passes for dark comedy because the film is marketed as political satire. This so-called comedy in the film hinges mainly on the mockery of a marginalised caste man whose characterisation relies heavily on passing off his oppression as humour.

Actually, for Kollywood, it’s become par for the course to mock Yogi Babu for his looks with slurs like “panni munji vaaya” (pig-face). In ‘Summer of 69’, Yogi Babu’s segment in Navarasa, the insult is used freely, multiple times.  There is also a dialogue that goes, “Adhu panni maathiri irrukum aana nai dhaan,” (It looks like a pig, but it’s really a dog), with reference to the actor. Again, in Annabelle Sethupathi, one of the ‘funny’ scenes is of Taapsee Pannu pointing to Yogi Babu and saying “panni munji vaayan?” when he asks her if she remembers who he is.

Such pejoratives have their roots in the casteist dehumanising of dark-skinned, wiry-haired people. Much like the “coon” and “Sambo”  jokes of Jim Crow Era America, they draw on a supremacist ideal of body-type, skin colour and hair. The Jim Crow Era  refers to the late 1800s well into the 1960s in the United States, when laws were in place to enforce segregation and legitimise anti-Black racism. Cultural propaganda by way of books, movies and such, carciaturised African American bodies with tropes like exaggeratedly dark skin-tones or impossibly large lips. The offensive term “coon” is a variation of raccoon, the Jim Crow Museum, points out. “Sambo was depicted as a perpetual child, not capable of living as an independent adult” — an image not dissimilar to Yogi Babu’s character in Mandela. “The coon acted childish, but he was an adult; albeit a good-for-little adult. Sambo was portrayed as a loyal and contented servant. Indeed, Sambo was offered as a defense for slavery and segregation.” 

Just as white suprematism fuelled these bestialised portrayals of Black Americans as unclever and infantile, ‘panni munji vaayan’, ‘ilicha vaayu’, draw on a Bramanical ideal in which those who are not light-skinned, smooth-haired and skinny immediately qualify for mockery. 

Even slightly older films like Jackpot, Sarkar and Bigil, all of which Yogi Babu stars in, seem to have the actor there to serve as a punching bag — both verbal and physical — for the main star’s benefit.

Also read: ‘Summer of 92’ in ‘Navarasa’: A humourless tale dedicated to casteism

For women actors who are dark-skinned, it’s taken for granted that they can only serve the story as objects of ridicule. In Maari 2, for example, the running-joke is that Dhanush pretends to favour dark-skinned Arandhangi Nisha over the light-skinned Sai Pallavi, both of whom play characters called Anandhi, both of whom who are in love with him. Of course, he doesn’t really find Arandhangi Nisha attractive, he does it to annoy Sai Pallavi’s Anandhi. 

For a cinema industry and the larger Tamil culture which considers only light-skinned women attractive, it's distressing, but unsurprising that the idea of dark-skinned women, particularly those who aren’t skinny, having desires and or being desirable themselves is considered laughable on screen.  

Last year’s Sivikarthikeyan-starrer Doctor has many winning moments in terms of comic-timing and story-telling. Those moments don’t include the role cut out for Deepa Shankar who plays a cleaner, who joins the family she works for, in retrieving their child from human traffickers. Most of her scenes depict her as a glutton, stuffing herself even in the most nerve-wracking of moments. Yes, we get it, it’s supposed to be bleak humour. Punching down isn’t funny, though.

Doctor also of course had the stock North-Madras-according-to-Tamil-cinema characters, who are either criminals or simpletons or both. They get the Yogi-Babu-gets-beaten-up ‘comedy’ track in early, and his character only leaves you conflicted as the film progresses. 

North Madras on screen – still a dark den of criminality

Despite the success of Ranjith’s Madras and the near-unanimous praise Sarpatta Parambarai received, the northern part of the city — which largely comprises working-class, lowered-caste populations — continues to be stereotyped as a hotbed of violent criminality. Even the director’s attempts to change the mainstream view of dark-skin into something empowering gets conscripted into vague tokenism. For years it’s been common enough for the hero to sport the Madras-Tamil dialect, but with the same amount of depth as African-American English is co-opted by white people.  

“Aamma alukka irupom, karuppa kalaiyaruppom,” Vijay sings in Bigil as he swaggers into sight through neon lights bouncing off dramatic fog. It means, “yes, we’re dirty and we’re black/dark and beautiful.” And the film goes on to proceed in this exceedingly contradicting vein, more or less. Dark is beautiful? But only if you’re a man? Heroine must be pale as always? (okay, yes, this is director Atlee who once tried to pass off a white, British woman as a south Indian in Theri). But wait, actually not all men either, Yogi Babu still gets slapped around. The dark-skinned woman footballer is fat-shamed, likened to a charging buffalo during the make-or-break football match in the climax sequence. Oh, and people who live in the slums are all “dirty?”

Starting from Bigil’s poor grasp on women’s empowerment, the whole film is a lesson in contradicting its politics about gender or class or caste in every other scene. Despite the glimpses of humanity that come through in Rayappan (Vijay playing Vijay’s own father) as he talks about the childhood circumstances that force him into rowdyism, North Madras in the film is a cookie-cutter repetition of Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai, with its warring, blood-thirsty factions. A north Indian upper-caste man called Sharma is the aggressor, someone whose casteism is shown in the way he sanitises his hands every time he touches anyone he considers ‘unclean’. Yet, the film seems unaware of  its own casteism in its lyrics or treatment of select characters or portrayal of North Madras. The film can be credited for attempting to emphasise the need for sports quotas, only, it seems too afraid to openly take that stance. Maybe this hesitation stems from  the industry’s long-standing grudge against reservation? 

A meritless argument against reservation

Unfortunately, Kollywood’s attempts to portray caste-based reservation as antithetical to merit continues to have a market. Take last year’s Yennanga Sir Unga Sattam. The film rehashes the politics of Gentleman (1993): the ‘poor’ Brahmin who loses out to ‘undeserving’ Scheduled Caste candidates when trying to find a job in TNPSC (Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission). “Ezhaigal la enna poonal pottava, poonal podaathavaa?” (how can there be a difference between a Brahmin and a non-Brahmin among the poor), says the poor Brahmin character, mouthing director Prabhu Jayaram’s support for the inadequately formulated Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota introduced by the current Union Government.

Writer Shalin Maria Lawrence says that Tamil cinema on one hand shows lowered caste people as dirty, uneducated, undeserving, rowdies and as criminals, on the other hand, “Brahmins are depicted as honest, noble souls. An honest person is almost always a Brahmin man. Tamizhan, Vetham Puthithu, Anniyan, there are so many examples. Even non-Brahmin directors tend to show Brahmins as innocent and as victims of reservation. This hasn’t changed.” Shalin adds that despite the entry into Kollywood of a handful of anti-caste filmmakers, “the biases of directors, screenwriters and actors continue to reflect in movies. See how the police are depicted. Their extrajudicial violence, the way they demean people in their speech are shown as the veeram (bravery) of dominant castes.”

Cops and victims

The industry’s obsession with police-heroes is long-running. As Shalin points out, not only are their violent measures lauded, often their caste-location is signalled not-so-subtly. They come from intermediate castes who have self-styled notions of honour and bravery. This particular depiction of intermediate caste heroes as police officers or otherwise has been contested by film commentators for almost as long as it first raised its head back in the 1980s and 1990s. In the instances these heroes are policemen, the people they hunt are from working-class, lowered caste backgrounds. These villains are devoid of humanity and are mostly brutes who will later be bloodily executed. Theeran Athigaram Ondru, starring Karthi and directed by H Vinoth for example, ran into trouble for its depiction of the Bawariya community, a denotified tribe. They were shown as violent brutes, justifying this opinion with reference to the real-life Criminal Tribes Act — a cruel colonial-era legacy of criminalising entire communities that even today has its echoes in the Habitual Offenders Act.

In recent years, with the success of multiple cop-dramas led by nearly all of the industry’s big male stars, the genre has taken a particularly noxious turn, if Mohan G’s Rudra Thandavam is any measure to go by. This is the same director who turned into a full-length movie, PMK chief Ramadoss’ baseless allegations that Dalit men are “wearing jeans and tricking upper-caste women into falling in love with them.”

Unfortunately, films like Jai Bhim or Visaaranai, which are widely viewed as an answer to the police-hero films that intermarry toxic masculinity with caste pride, also ultimately fail because they rob agency from those affected by police brutality. The extended torture sequences cater to a particular caste-gaze that can only view the marginalised as helpless, distraught victims. Is it anti-caste or just another form of stereotyping when a community is boiled down to a singular aspect of their existence, rather than seeking to emphasise their personhood?

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