If RaRa, as the film is being referred to in short, throws in dialogues like 'cows are more valuable than humans', what conclusions are we to draw?

Still from Raame Aandalum Raavane Aandalu on AmazonPrimeScreengrab/AmazonPrimeVideoIndia
Flix Film Commentary Saturday, October 02, 2021 - 13:19

Raame Aandalu, Raavane Aandalum, a tale of two affectionately raised bulls, provides cover for dubious politics. These are times when the vilification of those who eat beef by upper-caste Hindus has increased manifold… even a rumour of possessing beef has shown to lead to lynchings in some parts of the country. The human cost of accusations of cattle-smuggling and vigilantes indulging in ‘cow-protection’ are distressingly high. At this juncture, if RaRa, as the film is being referred to in short, throws in dialogues like “manusha payala vida maadu dhaan osathi” (cows are more valuable than humans) what conclusions are we to draw?

Cows, bulls and beef

Koonimuthu (Mithun Manickam) and Veerayi (Ramya Pandian) are a poor couple living in a southern Tamil Nadu village. Their two bulls, Velaiyan and Karrupan, are like children to them. The bulls are stolen by a vengeful politician, sending the couple on a desperate search. The village has scores of infrastructural problems such as lack of electricity, schools, water and roads. The premise, with deeper understanding of such issues, could have been used to tell a powerful story. Instead, at every step, while carefully showing bulls and not cows as the beloved animals, it takes nasty digs at those who do consume beef. Koonimuthu, walking around on the lookout for the bulls, wanders into a beef market. The music hits desolate notes. The protagonist, shaken and horrified, flees the area to sob his heart out on a bridge. The audience is supposed to be moved by this sequence.

Firstly, those of us who consume beef are not eating your bulls. Secondly, it’s quite rich describing a beef market as a site of trauma, when it’s actually communities who traditionally eat beef who are traumatised every day in this country. The sequence is openly casteist and anti-minority religions, regardless of throw away dialogues like “to hell with caste and religion” earlier in the film. The superficial, shallow gesturing in the film, though it repeatedly speaks of problematic politics, is irksome.

Later, it turns out that Vellaiyan and Karrupan have wound up in the hands of cattle-smugglers who are Malayali. This on-the-nose reference to beef eating again would have been missed by no one. Koonimuthu tries to beat them up and rescue his bulls, but to max out the poignancy element of a climax scene, his bulls end up having to rescue him instead. This apparently circles back to the “cows are more valuable than humans” dialogue at the beginning of the film. The particular sequence has all the necessary cinematic qualities for setting up a grand plot-twist and big reveal in the mystery of the missing bulls. Just in case you had any doubts about how villainous the villains are.  

Apart from using bulls to speak the propaganda that the right-wing is generally spouting about cows, the director has taken painstaking efforts to ensure he himself isn’t mistaken for one of them. Comedy about demonetisation is thrown in (at the cost of small-scale north Indian shopkeepers, as if they were any less affected by the policy). “Hindi-theriyadu poda”, that became a protest cry against Hindi-imposition, is force-fitted into a truly random situation — a Swiggy delivery executive who shows up in the middle of nowhere, (no really, there isn’t a building or even a tree in sight) gets an earful when he tries to speak to the protagonists in Hindi.

Comedy at the cost of vulnerable communities isn't really funny. Hindi-imposition and demonetisation were done to us by those in power. Not small shopkeepers or exploited delivery workers.

Filmmakers and saviour complexes

As I mentioned earlier, the village that Veerayi and Koonimuth live in, has few infrastructural facilities. The access to schools, connectivity or water is near non-existent. They are unaware that several crore rupees in public funds meant for infrastructure building has been swindled by politicians. Enter the one brave journalist (Vani Bojan) from the big city, who decides to fight the system to right these wrongs. How does she begin going about that? By shaming the whole village, while standing over the body of an old man, at his funeral. She shouts at them — tells them they’re clueless about their own rights; informs them that they’re to blame for their problems, not politicians. The villagers just stand around looking sheepish. Throughout they have no agency, but are shown as charming but essentially foolish. I’d strongly urge Tamil directors so deeply concerned about farmers to educate themselves on rural grassroot movements. While doing that, also please figure out concepts like agency and representation. 

The aim may have been to show a strong female character in Vani Bojan, but the dehumanising of the villagers whom she imperiously speaks for, isn’t quite the way to do it. Apart from a few scenes when Veerayi has some cutting things to say to an MLA, the villagers are largely shown as clueless simpletons. This is, frankly, feudalist.

Of course, journalists routinely report on structural failures outside of the world they come from. That’s our job. There’s a vast difference, however, between speaking truth to power and belittling the very people whose rights you’re purportedly fighting for.

Karnan, was also a film about what infrastructure as simple as a bus stand means to a community. No saviours came from outside to patronise the people of that village. They spoke for themselves. Mari Selvaraj did not caricaturise the rural south. He showed off their strength and fierce politicisation to the world. It’s high time the Tamil film fraternity understood the need to stop turning trauma into spectacle for the privileged, while robbing vulnerable communities of agency or intelligence when representing them on screen.   

 

RaRa is produced by Suriya and Jyotika. In the four-film lineup they have with Prime, Jai Bhim is due for release in November. It worries me if the film, despite its powerful title, will run into similar problems of saviour-complex and problematic representation. Suriya is admirably one of a small handful of celebrities who speaks out about political injustice. He has on many occasions shown a keen understanding of the problems caused by those in power and repeatedly stood in solidarity against them. So, I hope that he will also understand the deep flaws in a film he backed. 

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