As you enter director Pa Ranjith's office in Egmore, Chennai, there is a big poster of Pariyerum Perumal on the left. The critically acclaimed film is the first feature length project that Neelam Productions, headed by Pa Ranjith, undertook. Though the film was delayed by several months due to the strike in the Tamil film industry and managed to get only a limited release on September 28, it went on to get rave reviews and eventually became a hit.
In his room in the office building, the director has a black and white portrait of Ambedkar on the wall opposite his chair. There's also a small stone Buddha in the room - expressions of his political beliefs that have found their way to his films. Though Pariyerum Perumal, directed by Mari Selvaraj, is still in the news, Ranjith is not one to rest on his laurels. The director is already in discussions for other upcoming films, including his Bollywood venture.
But the going hasn't been easy for Ranjith, despite doing back to back films with Rajinikanth, arguably the biggest star of his generation that the Tamil film industry has produced. Pariyerum Perumal, for instance, faced a lot of hurdles before it could make it to the screens in theatres across the country.
On Pariyerum Perumal
"There was nobody else who invested money for the film. It was all mine," Pa Ranjith begins with a wry smile. "Nobody wanted to buy the film and release it. We managed to release it in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu but that's all. Nobody knew about this film first of all. We tried many ways to release the film but nothing worked out. Even in Tamil Nadu, there were many places where it didn't release. The only reason they said was that this is a small film and nobody will come to watch a film with unknown faces. It was Vinod of Wunderbar who helped me. Making a movie is very easy but releasing it is the biggest problem."
Pariyerum Perumal speaks of the casteist society we live in and there was talk that this was one of the main reasons why the film struggled to find screens. Ranjith, however, believes that the first step is to establish that such films will find an audience too - something Pariyerum Perumal has done.
While the film has largely received positive reviews, it has also been criticised for pandering to dominant castes at the cost of dehumanising Dalits. In the film, Pariyan (Kathir), a young Dalit law student, is humiliated for his caste identity and his friendship with Jo (Anandhi), a savarna woman. However, although the film depicts the violence unleashed on him in graphic detail, Pariyan does not hit back. He falls into a discomfiting reconciliation with Jo's father.
"There is no bigger believer in Ahimsa than Ambedkar. If Ambedkar had taken the path of violence, India would have broken into tiny fragments long back. He led 6 lakh people to convert to Buddhism. Why couldn't he have led the same number to violence? Why couldn't he have asked people to resort to violence against those who harass them? When he went to Mahad to drink water from the tank, why couldn't he have retaliated with violence when people hit him? But he didn't tell all those people who believed in him to resort to violence. He told them to study. He told them that this is your country, which also has your contributions, you have your rights but you are oppressed now and you need to realise that if you want to come up."
Ranjith further adds that Ambedkar's solution to fight oppression was through legal means and science and technology.
"Ambedkar was a bigger practitioner of Ahimsa than Gandhi," Ranjith asserts. He, however, acknowledges that the film is different from the ones he's made.
"The films I've directed do show Dalit people hitting back. If someone attacks you and then sympathises with you, there's no greater insult, in my opinion. I've made four films which show this and people have accused me of inciting Dalits to hit back. Now when I've produced a film like this, there are those who ask why do this," Ranjith observes. "We need all kinds of films. This film is for those who are surrounded by caste but don't realise it. We need to be able to have a conversation with them."
On caste violence
Ranjith has frequently raised his voice against real life caste atrocities. Two recent incidents that should have shocked Tamil Nadu are the brutal murder of a 13-year-old Dalit girl in Salem, and the alleged rape and death of an adivasi girl in Dharmapuri.
But these incidents, Ranjith says, take their time to get to the mainstream media and by then, the news is already dead.
"The Dalit girl lived in a place with about 10 houses. Even the brutality of the murder didn't turn it into an incident of interest, forget the caste or sexual angle to it. The fact that a young girl was beheaded was of no news value. I feel as soon as we discover that the person who died is Dalit, the doors begin to close. If she hadn't been Dalit, perhaps it would have been big news," he says.
Ranjith points out that when Swathi was murdered in broad daylight at the Nungambakkam station in Chennai, allegedly by her stalker Ramkumar, the incident received a lot of attention in the media because of where it happened and who was murdered.
"If a woman from a slum had been murdered at the same place, it probably wouldn't have become such a big news. Everything about that case is a mystery, we still don't know how Ramkumar actually died, but there is an official account provided by the government which the people believe. As soon as it was revealed that Ramkumar was Dalit, many immediately said that of course he would have done this. But when something like the Salem murder happens, when the accused is from a dominant caste, people don't even think the caste angle is relevant," he says.
Ranjith says that the media, which should have brought the issue to the focus, wasn't interested and it was only after activists and politicians who speak up for Dalit rights agitated that the murder grabbed a few headlines.
On Thevar Magan and caste glorification
Even as films like Kabali, Kaala, and Pariyerum Perumal speak of caste violence, there are others which glorify caste pride. In fact, actor and politician Kamal Haasan has announced a sequel to Thevar Magan, which some say is an attempt to increase his voter base in the state. What does Ranjith make of Kamal's decision?
"Freedom of expression is there for everyone. Nobody can say that you shouldn't make a film about a certain community. I actually think it's important to make such films. Madha Yanai Kootam, for instance, is an important film which led to a lot of discussion and it offers a lot of details to people who're interested in studying society - about food, culture, and so on. But films which glorify caste, we should ask what effect it has on society. When society is still divided on caste lines, such films will create only worse consequences. Artistes should have social responsibility and it is this that we've been continuously talking about," he says.
It's clear from the way he speaks that Pa Ranjith is a man with a mission. He wants to make films on forgotten heroes, narrate stories that don't catch the eye of the mainstream.
His Bollywood film is going to be on tribal leader Birsa Munda who fought the British in pre-Independence India.
"The research work is going on now. We haven't decided on the cast or any of the other details now. It's being produced by Namah Pictures which made Beyond the Clouds. We're hoping to shoot from May next year," he says.
Why the jump from Tamil to Hindi? Is it to capture a larger audience?
"I feel this will be a very important film. And cinema isn't restricted by language. It's a visual medium. I was inspired to enter cinema because of The Battle of Algiers. My Tamil films have travelled across the country, but yes, I do feel that for a subject like this to reach everywhere in India, Hindi would work better," he says.
Another project that Ranjith is expected to be working on is a web series on Silk Smitha, who mostly acted in erotic roles in southern films.
"Yes, we're working on it. But I still haven't decided on it. I was approached for it and that's what came out as news. I still haven't confirmed," he says.
Among the biggest names to come out of the #MeToo movement in India is actor Nana Patekar, who played the role of the antagonist in Ranjith's Kaala.
The director says, "I look at the #MeToo movement as a very important one. It's not about where one should talk - one should have the right to speak about the violence one has experienced anywhere. There's also space to prove whether an allegation is true or not. Unfortunately, social media tends to be reactionary but this shouldn't take away anything from the movement. But yes, even in #MeToo, the issue gains attention only when it is about celebrities. At the same time, women in their workplaces, on roads, in public transport face sexual harassment and men know this. But they say #MeToo is about publicity...and some women actors also say they've never gone through this. I feel such statements reduce the power of the movement. Others will never come forward to speak about your problems, you should use every platform you get to speak about your problems," he says.
While in Bollywood, the repercussions for those accused have been felt, with big names like Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar halting projects, there have been no such fall-outs in the south. As someone committed to social justice, would Ranjith take a stance not to work with those facing allegations of sexual harassment?
"I did come across this news and it is something I'm thinking about. If someone has been accused of doing something terrible, we should consider whether we should work with them again," he says.
Sarkar and censorship
Ranjith was among the first from the Tamil film industry to tweet about the Sarkar controversy. The Vijay film has been attacked by the AIADMK for taking jibes at the state government.
"The censor, to begin with, is very biased. You can't say at all that they're against the government. It's not rebellious in nature and neither does it care only for films with a social consciousness that people need to watch. It is a pro-government body and it is especially so in Tamil Nadu, I would say. But yes, when it comes to art, they don't always interfere, like for Pariyerum Perumal, it was the censor board which allowed it. But there's this film on the Coimbatore blasts called Thelivuppathaiyin Neesa Thooram which has not received clearance yet. It's directed by Aravind," he says.
Ranjith also notes that it isn't as if the CBFC clears only films with the right politics - plenty of movies which glorify caste pride or religious fervour, mock people from LGBT communities have found their way to the screens.
"We cannot say all these movies were superb. I don't think people in the censors are there because of their understanding of the politics of cinema. So it's a lie that just because a film has been cleared by them, it's appropriate for the people to watch. Beyond this, there should be a way in which a government which wants to object to a film that criticises it operates. It shouldn't be through violence, threats, or through authority. If a criticism is placed before the government, it should address it in a proper way," he says.
Although Ranjith is yet to watch Sarkar, the reason he has taken objection to the censorship is because of the attack on democracy.
"Though we keep saying we live in a democracy, every such incident questions whether we really live in a democracy," he says.
Interestingly, Ranjith's Kaala, which was a scathing criticism of saffron politics and the nexus between governments and corporate entities which grab lands from the oppressed, did not attract any explicit response from the political establishment.
"I was surprised by their lack of reaction," Ranjith laughs. "Kaala was very direct in what it wanted to say. But maybe they didn't want to launch an attack and attract attention to what was being said in the film."