The trailer suggests that men from lower caste groups "lure" upper caste women into forming exploitative, undesirable relationships with them.

Response to trailer of Draupathi exposes casteist mindset of society
Flix Opinion Saturday, January 04, 2020 - 16:38

In recent times, Tamil cinema has witnessed a shift in how caste violence and inter-caste love are represented. While previously, the narratives were mostly from an upper caste perspective that either upheld caste hierarchies or showed the upper caste hero as a saviour of the oppressed, there are now films where marginalised castes are shown to assert themselves. Director Pa Ranjith, who also founded Neelam Productions, is at the forefront of those driving this change in the industry. 

However, films that openly celebrate caste pride continue to be made. The latest to join the list is Mohan G's Draupathi, starring Rishi Richard and Sheela in lead roles. Actor Karunas is also part of the cast. The trailer, which released on Friday, suggests that men from lower caste groups "lure" upper caste women into forming exploitative, undesirable relationships with them. And the overwhelmingly positive response to the trailer exposes the deeply casteist and communal mindset that prevails in Tamil Nadu despite its history of vibrant anti-caste politics. It only goes to underline all the more, the need for voices like Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj and others to speak louder

The trailer, which claims to be based on real life incidents, bizarrely begins with the words of Martin Luther King Jr:  'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere', and goes on to present the hero Prabhakaran (Rishi Richard) as an accused who killed his wife's sister and her husband for marrying out of caste. His character seems to be that of a "brave" vigilante who kills those who "cheat" upper caste women in the guise of love. 

The trailer has blatantly casteist lines, with the hero saying, "You not studying is your fault. Ask your conscience and tell me, don't you think what you're doing is wrong?". In response, the man he's addressing says, "My Annan (older brother) has said you should not back down if they beat you. It's only if you marry a girl from a big family that your life will be great." Prabhakaran is then seen telling another character that the minds of "boys like Jack" have been poisoned and that it's only a "revolution" that can set things right.

The trailer shows a young woman who has eloped with a man, presumably from a lower caste, pleading with him not to make a "video" of hers (perhaps inspired by the Pollachi sexual assault case). "My father will die if he sees it," she says. And to this, his response is that her father would have died anyway when he heard that she'd eloped with him.

In 2013, Ilavarasan, a Dalit youth who was in a relationship with Divya, a woman from the dominant Vanniyar caste, was found dead on the railway tracks in a suspected case of caste killing. The Draupathi trailer makes a sly reference to the case and other similar instances, with a young man wooing a woman from an upper caste family, confessing that he was asked to do this. "They said if I don't do it, they will kill me, throw me on the railway tracks and put the blame on him (Prabhakaran)," he says. The trailer also has Karunas, who seems to be playing a lawyer, saying, "People who are of lower stature should be killed brutally like this only. You don't worry about anything, I will appear on your behalf."

The violent, casteist dialogues are not limited to the male actors. Actor Sheela Rajkumar plays Prabhakaran's wife. In a scene in the trailer, she points to a naked man tied up and lying on the ground and says, "Is nudity a shame only for women, why, don't you have it (shame)?" Later, she's seen saying, "Both land and women are important to us. Anyone who lays a hand on either will be killed. What did you think?"

As anti-caste revolutionary BR Ambedkar pointed out, gender and caste are inextricably linked. It is through the bodies of women that caste and notions of "honour" are propagated, and Draupathi once again reiterates the idea that women are a community's property, not rational individuals who can make decisions for themselves. The trailer tries to project the film as pro-women but entirely denies their agency and paints them instead as naive victims of a larger conspiracy. 

There's also a jibe at the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, with Prabhakaran threatening violence against two men who say that the youth who's married a woman from the former's family is under their protection. In response to his threats, one of the men says, "Do it, that will also work to our favour only."

Like the "love jihad" conspiracy theory floated by Hindutva groups to attack Muslim men who are in romantic relationships with Hindu women, Draupathi suggests that men who are ostracised lure upper caste women to find their way back to acceptance.

According to the credits on YouTube, the film's crowd-funding was organised by GM Film Corporation. The comments section is full of casteist remarks lauding the makers, with several users expressing the support of their community for the film. 

There are also several who've claimed that the caste atrocities against Dalits in anti-caste films like Asuran and Pariyerum Perumal are a thing of the past and that Draupathi shows the "angst" of those who have daughters in the present times.

Many users appear to have missed the fundamental fact that films in the former category speak up about caste in order to dismantle it, unlike films like Draupathi where the intent clearly is to uphold the caste order. In other words, anti-caste films from the perspective of the oppressed aim to annihilate caste, prioritising humanity above everything else. Films that celebrate caste pride do the opposite - they wish to retain the status quo, reiterating that the oppressed should "know their place". 

Director Mohan G, who has been actively promoting the film, has also retweeted a poster of the film that says, "There ARE castes, little one. It's a sin to say which community is higher and which is lower" - a play on the words of Tamil poet Bharathiyar who wrote, "There are no castes, little one. It's a sin to say which community is higher and which is lower." The words on the poster imply that as long as people stay within their caste groups, there is no problem, pretending that equality is possible within a system that is founded on hierarchy and oppression.

In another tweet, the filmmaker has retweeted a recent ad by 3 Roses which shows a father accepting his daughter's inter-caste love with the comment, "Start a revolution by getting sacks and sacks of tea and distributing a cup of tea to fathers on all roads, comrades. But mix salt instead of sugar...let those fathers get some dignity (rosham) also."

Many trackers in the film industry have promoted Draupathi as a "bold attempt". 

The way the trailer has been eagerly embraced demonstrates the discomfort that anti-caste films have generated in recent times. And this only goes to prove the need for more such progressive films to be made.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She has also authored several books for children.

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