The noise against 'Jai Bhim' must not be seen in isolation. It is in response to the wave of anti-caste films in Tamil cinema that has rattled the conservative, casteist political class and society.

A scene from Mohan G’s ‘Draupathi’A scene from Mohan G’s ‘Draupathi’
Delve Cinema Wednesday, December 22, 2021 - 11:30

The praise for the Tamil film Jai Bhim, starring Suriya, was almost unanimous when it was released in November this year. The film created a sensation, surpassing the ratings of Frank Darabont’s classic The Shawshank Redemption on Internet Movie Database (IMDb), a popular source for movies and TV. TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim deals with the subject of police bias and state violence against a marginalised community. The film particularly garnered wide appreciation from Ambedkarites for enabling the discourse of caste annihilation and for propagating the ideology of BR Ambedkar in its narrative. The praise was equally attributed to Tamil new age cinema for consistently producing films, like Attakathi (2012), Madras (2014), Kabali (2016), Kaala (2018), Pariyerum Perumal (2018), Asuran (2019), Karnan (2021), Sarpatta Parambarai (2021), and Jai Bhim (2021), which have anti-caste themes in varying degrees, a trend which is not prevalent in other major film industries in the country.

Still from Pariyerum Perumal

However, before Suriya could fully soak in all the praise for Jai Bhim, as the film’s producer and one of the actors, he was hounded by the members of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). Initially, Anbumani Ramadoss, PMK’s youth wing leader and son of the PMK’s founder S Ramadoss, shot off a letter to the actor questioning why the film, which is based on a true story, did not retain the original name of the Sub Inspector (SI). His name, Anthonysamy, is changed to Gurumoorthy in the movie. The film had retained the original names of other important characters like Rajakannu (the victim who is brutalised), Chandru (the lawyer) and Perumalsamy (the Inspector General of Police who investigates the case). Further, Anbumani also took objection to a scene where it is insinuated that the SI, who torments and murders an innocent man from a tribal community, belongs to the Vanniyar caste. In the scene, which takes place in the SI’s house, a  calendar is shown in the background bearing the ‘Agni Kalasam’ (a pot of fire),  a symbol of the Vanniyar community. Anbumani’s objection snowballed into a major controversy as the PMK leaders issued violent threats against the actor, forcing the Tamil Nadu police to provide protection at Suriya’s residence in Chennai.

Still from Jai Bhim

Some BJP supporters also joined the clamour against Jai Bhim, raising objections to a scene where actor Prakash Raj (playing the role of IG Perumalsamy) slaps a pawn shop owner during the investigation for speaking in Hindi. Prakash Raj is a vocal critic of the BJP and has attacked the party over several of its policies. BJP leader H Raja criticised Suriya for releasing the film in Hindi, suggesting that the latter's objection to the National Education Policy was thus hollow.  H Raja's tweet read: "The person who says that our children shouldn't study three languages (under NEP) will release his movie (Jai Bhim) in five languages. Let's understand the selfish lot."

The noise against Jai Bhim must not be seen in isolation. It is in response to the wave of anti-caste films in Tamil cinema that has rattled the conservative, casteist political class and society. It is to be noted that the other big film industries, Bollywood and Tollywood, continue to feign ignorance about caste as an issue. Hindi film Dhadak (2018), a remake of the popular Marathi film Sairat, erased caste from the story and replaced it with class. Telugu film Narappa (2021), a remake of Tamil film Asuran, followed suit. 

Barring Jai Bhim, all the anti-caste Tamil films mentioned above have protagonists from the Dalit community, a phenomenon that has now been normalised, thanks to directors Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj and Vetrimaaran. These films also bring to light real-life caste atrocities. Jai Bhim highlights the systemic discrimination faced by Irulars and other Scheduled Tribe communities; Karnan is closely based on the Kodiyankulam caste violence; Pariyerum Perumal has a scene that is eerily similar to the death of Ilavarasan, a Dalit youth in an intercaste relationship who was found dead near a railway track; Asuran is based on Poomani's novel Vekkai, which was inspired by a real-life story.     

Scene from Karnan

While there were Tamil films with Dalit characters in important roles before the current wave, these were only a handful. Pa Ranjith, who made his debut with Attakathi in 2012, directed Madras, Kabali, Kaala and Sarpatta Parambarai, which showed Dalits in a more assertive manner. Prior to Ranjith, very few films had documented the stories of Dalits from such a perspective. “In the entire history of Tamil cinema, Amshan Kumar – eminent filmmaker, writer, and critic – was able to name only a handful of films that focused on Dalits and featured them as important characters: Nandanar (1933), Madurai Veeran (1956), Unnaipol Oruvan (1965), Nathaiyil Muthu (1973), Kann Sivanthal Mann Sivakkum (1983), Pasi (1979), Thanneer Thanneer (1981), Bharathi Kannamma (1997), Kaadhal (2004) and Paradesi (2013),” writes N Kalyan Raman in his essay Dream-world: Reflections on Cinema and Society. 

Pushback from within the film industry

But just as there is resistance to this change outside the film industry, there is a pushback from within too. Movies that glorify caste pride are increasingly being made, taking jibes at the new wave. Some of these films include Sundarapandian (2012), Kutti Puli (2013), the Sandakozhi series (2005, 2018), Devarattam (2019), Draupathi (2020) and Rudra Thandavam (2021). 

Still from Devarattam

These films typically take a stance against interfaith relationships, justify violence against those who transgress casteist norms and glorify the pride of dominant castes. For instance, director Mohan G's two films Draupathi (a crowd-funded movie) and Rudra Thandavam leave nothing to the imagination about the director’s intent. While Draupathi propagates the conspiracy theory of Dalit men “luring” dominant caste women (similar to the baseless 'love jihad' allegations made by the right-wing) and ruining their family’s “prestige,” Rudra Thandavam puts forth the idea that Scheduled Caste members exploit the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act, now renamed as the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. These films mirror the propaganda of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a party with predominantly Vanniyar community members, which is categorised as Most Backward Class. In fact, Mohan G has admitted that he made Draupathi inspired by PMK founder Ramadoss’s speech against ‘poli thirumanam’(meaning 'fake marriage’, a term invented by the PMK to describe the marriage between a Dalit man and a dominant caste woman). Interestingly, both Draupathi and Jai Bhim are available on the same Over-the-Top platform, Amazon Prime Video.

The intermediate castes like Thevars, Vanniyars, and others use the label of “Aanda paramabarai” (clan that ruled) to assert their superiority over other communities. “It is a phenomenon that’s borne out of political compulsion and necessity. In the hierarchical social order, they do it to gain a sense of upward mobility and claim superiority over castes lower in the order. At the same time, they disassociate themselves from any markers of marginality,” says Karthikeyan Damodaran, research fellow at University of Göttingen,  who co-authored a research paper titled Madurai Formula Films: Caste Pride and Politics in Tamil Cinema

This largely intermediate castes phenomenon in Tamil Nadu has now spread across various castes who make such claims. “In some way or the other, the Dravidian movement, particularly the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, is responsible for this predicament as they pioneered what is called 'commemorative symbolism', engaging in the politicisation of symbols from the past, be it rulers, warriors or medieval heroes. They did it under the guise of Tamil and Dravidian nationalism and now we have reached a stage where it has become a necessity for every caste to have its ancient or medieval heroes. If not, they ought to invent one,” Karthikeyan adds.

Assertion of caste identities

The Vanniyars, who were numerically strong but economically backward, launched a series of violent agitations and protests during 1986–88, demanding that they be included in the MBC category. The successive DMK government in 1989 agreed to their demand. This agitation led to the birth of the Pattali Makkal Katchi. Around the same time, during the Ambedkar centenary celebrations in 1989, came a phase of Dalit assertion in Tamil Nadu with the formation of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Party (VCK) in 1990. Puthiya Thamizhagam, another Dalit party was formed in 1998, writes Kalyan Raman.

According to Kalyan Raman, the Dravidian parties created a climate where the top end of the BC list in the social, administrative and political spheres came to depend on the assertion of their caste identities. “The manifestation of this climate was distinctly different from the earlier representation of village communities and their caste divisions in Tamil cinema. Gone was the poignancy of caste, as in Muthal Mariyathai (1985) or highlighting the issues caused by the caste system, as in Vedam Puthithu. Instead, there was a new, brute assertion of caste identity, invariably accompanied by physical violence. The caste-based power structure of village communities was portrayed favourably and often celebrated,” he writes. In Muthal Mariyathai, the male lead character Malaichami (played by actor Sivaji Ganesan), the village chief, leads a sad married life. Malaichami meets Kuyil (played by actor Radha), a woman from an oppressed caste family. They share a special relationship that scandalises the village. Though they eventually develop feelings for each other, the two never get to live together. In Vedam Puthithu, Balu Thevar (played by actor Sathyaraj), a man from the dominant community who realises his caste privilege, and dies fighting caste discrimination between the Brahmins and Thevars.     

Kalyan Raman says that one of the first films which reflected the political situation of power being transferred to the intermediate caste was Kamal Haasan’s Thevar Magan (1992), which glorified the Thevar caste (dominant caste). The song ‘Potri paadadi penne, thevar kaaladi manne’ in praise of Thevars, continues to be scrutinised by anti-caste activists. In the film, Shakthivel (Kamal Haasan), a young man from the Thevar community, returns to his native village after going abroad for college. A feud between his family and his uncle’s family leads to constant tension in the village, often resulting in violence.  The film ends in brutal violence, with Shakthivel beheading his cousin.

‘PMK using cinema as a propaganda medium’ 

In Tamil Nadu, cinema has played a huge role in the political and cultural spheres. Historically, Karthikeyan points out, cinema has been a great vehicle for political propaganda. Post-2010, after the emergence of Pa Ranjith, movies that talk about Dalit lives, films with Dalit symbolism, and assertive dialogues uttered by Dalit characters are on the rise. This is seen as a threat by the PMK according to the author of Thamizh Cinema, Stalin Rajangam, who says that the PMK views this as Dalits organising themselves culturally.

“Not just Dalit directors like Pa Ranjith or Mari Selvaraj, even directors from other communities like Vetrimaaran are making films with main characters as Dalits.  They are using symbols and images of BR Ambedkar, which has led to fear in the PMK as it is detrimental to their politics. In order to counter that, they have roped in Mohan G,” says Stalin Rajangam. He adds, “Dalits have a story to tell: about their oppression, about their daily problems, about their history, whereas Mohan G’s films are all propaganda based on hate politics. On the ground, they need to celebrate something, so they are using Mohan G’s films.” Stalin notes that Mohan G should not be seen in isolation. "Many others will come forward to make these hate films, as now there seems to be a market for it. Unless, someone like Periyar, a non-Dalit, aligns with Dalits and speaks against the hate politics, a change is not possible,” he says.

Still from Madras

Cinema, according to Karthikeyan, “provides legitimacy to certain castes to assert their caste identities and supremacy and normalise them. This new trend of hate films is just an attempt to stop and divert the ‘new wave’ ushered in by films that challenge those existing celebratory and glorifying narratives of dominant castes.” 

Karthikeyan says that even before the formation of the PMK, there were incidents of violence and caste atrocities against Dalits. “But what the PMK and Vanniyar Sangam did through political assertion and use of caste symbols, is intensifying a sense of caste pride among the Vanniyars, while furthering antagonism between them and the Dalits,” he adds.

Explaining how cinema is being used to foment hatred against Dalits, he says, “The PMK has failed terribly in constructing an anti-Dalit psyche in Tamil Nadu, as they now stand isolated both politically and also by their own community. This political abandonment is what made them pick on films and related trivial issues to prove that they are still the vanguards of their caste.”

Though these hate films are neither aesthetically appealing in terms of filmmaking techniques nor ideologically grounded to challenge the new wave films, the adulation that these films invoke among the youth and the caste pride that they fan is not a healthy sign, Karthikeyan points out. 

BJP, an ally of the PMK, supporting hate films

Not just the PMK, the BJP too uses cinema to grab headlines and try to increase their base in the state. Their objections to Jai Bhim must be seen in this context. Previously,  BJP leader H Raja had vocally supported Mohan G's controversial films, which have right-wing propaganda.  In Draupathi, the conspiracy theory spewed is similar to the 'love jihad' bogey while in Rudhra Thandavam, the narrative is against providing reservation to people who convert from Hinduism. Vijay's Mersal (2017), which has a scene where the actor's character asks for a hospital to be built instead of a temple, was given a communal spin by the BJP, with H Raja suggesting that the dialogue existed because of Vijay's Christian identity. The film's dialogues that make fun of the Goods and Services Tax and Digital India also came under attack from the BJP, they demanded that these scenes be cut.

“The role of the BJP in TN politics is negligible. They take opportunities like this, attend film screenings and side with casteist forces. Both PMK and BJP’s politics is invested in the notions of caste and religious majoritarianism and they converge at a point where their anti-Dalitness gets reflected," Karthikeyan says. “The BJP is trying hard to portray itself as a representative of all Hindus, including Dalits, but it hardly has any takers in Tamil Nadu. The PMK and other caste-based outfits in the western and southern regions have long been demanding to do away with the Prevention of Atrocities Act or to make major amendments. It's just that their political demand has got a voice in the most influential medium of cinema. However, the BJP will not commit itself to it due to political repercussions," Karthikeyan adds.

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