In a state and country where women’s sexuality is tightly controlled because of ideas of “honour” associated with caste, what “protection” can those infused with caste pride offer them?

How Devarattam uses sexual violence as a prop to fan caste pride
Flix Opinion Tuesday, May 07, 2019 - 16:29

Muthiah’s Devarattam, which released on May Day last week, is yet another film which uses sexual violence against women as a prop to showcase its hero’s masculinity. But what makes it worse than the scores of films that have come out in the past and have done exactly the same thing is that it is also infused with caste pride.

Gautham Karthik plays Vetri, who hails from a large Thevar family in Madurai. From his introduction scene when he’s shown beating up a bunch of people and sending them to Mars, Vetri’s penchant for violence is glorified as “veeram” (bravery) throughout the narrative and connected to his Thevar lineage. The plot, if one can call it that, has to do with a young woman who is gangraped and Vetri’s bloody revenge for this act as well as several other acts of violence (you’re likely to lose count of how many people are slashed with an aruval in the film).

Glorifying caste pride

The Thevars, a dominant caste group that enjoys considerable political clout in the state, have been glorified in Tamil cinema repeatedly – Kamal Haasan’s Thevar Magan is still a popular film in the community, with songs like “Potri padadi penney, Thevar kaaladi manney” (Oh woman, worship the ground beneath the feet of the Thevar and sing in his praise) being played in family functions and cultural events even now, nearly 30 years after its release.

Kamal later starred in Virumaandi, once again playing a Thevar hero. In fact, Mari Selvaraj, director of the critically acclaimed film Pariyerum Perumal, which follows the life of a young Dalit law student, had penned a sharp open letter to Kamal Haasan in 2010, and called him out on his confused politics – on one side, he repeatedly claims to be “casteless” but on the other, he continues to propagate the caste pride of certain communities.

Several Tamil films, especially ones set in Madurai, have either explicitly or subtly centred around the Thevar community and violence. For instance, Balaji Sakthivel’s Kadhal, which was on an intercaste couple, did not specify their caste names. However, from the sociocultural location depicted in the film, it was obvious that the young woman comes from a powerful Thevar family. The film was supposed to be anti-caste and make the audience shun the caste killings that plague the state. However, in several parts of south Tamil Nadu, it was celebrated as an assertion of Thevar power over other caste groups, particularly the Dalit community with whom they continue to have several clashes.

Devarattam is an unapologetic celebration of Thevar pride, with several shots of their leader U Muthuramalingam Thevar entering the frames at strategic points when the hero is about to unleash his “veeram”. Muthuramalingam Thevar, a freedom fighter and spiritual leader about whom many legends exist in the Thevar community, was born on October 30, 1908. His birth anniversary is celebrated as Thevar Jayanthi, and though the day has often triggered caste violence, politicians in the state usually attend celebrations so as to stay in the good books of the Thevar community.

In Devarattam, director Muthiah plays a clever game, massaging the ego of the Thevar community by referring to their “heroism” constantly and justifying this by exhorting them to become the “protectors” of women. To put it in the hero’s words, “We should show them that we can pierce ears and also use knives.” In doing so, the film attempts to look progressive but fails miserably at every step.

The misogyny in Devarattam

Vetri, for instance, is the youngest of seven siblings. He has six older sisters (no marks for guessing why his parents tried till Vetri was born) who “sacrifice” their education so that he can study and build a career for himself. The injustice meted out to the girls in the family is romanticised as love, and Vetri grows up to become an entitled brat whose first response to anything is violence though he is a qualified lawyer.

In his introduction sequence, Vetri beats up a bunch of men for sexually harassing women. At the police station, he rattles off a series of legal sections under which the men should be booked, adding that it’s unfair that the quantum of punishment for such acts is lesser than what he’d get for beating the men up. Taking the law into his hands is his preferred modus operandi, so when a young woman is gangraped and videographed (in a horrendously insensitive recreation of the Pollachi sexual assault videos), Vetri becomes even more violent than his usual self.

Ironically, however, the film makes use of every opportunity to put down women. From using patriarchal terms like “keduthuttan” (spoilt) for sexual assault and suggesting that one should be born to Kannagi (who is venerated as the symbol of chastity) and not Kantha (a “slut”), to having the hero claim that turning away from violence is to “act like a woman”, the writing shows no understanding whatsoever of rape culture.

It also indulges in victim blaming, by having one of the minor villains secretly take videos of women in malls when saying things like: “It’s so convenient for us that women don’t wear duppattas, isn’t it?” Although the line comes from a negative character, the idea isn’t challenged by anyone. Moreover, it is the young woman, who objects to the same man’s attempt to molest her friend, who ends up getting abducted and gangraped by him and his friends. Later, her father rues the fact that he’d once been so proud of his daughter’s outspoken nature.

Conforming to the caste hierarchy

His brothers-in-law, in contrast to Vetri, are not interested in violence. However, this attitude is represented as shameful. For instance, one of his brothers-in-law manages a public toilet. In a particular scene, he tells Vetri that even though he comes from such a famed lineage, he’d rather manage a toilet than indulge in the violence that the community is known for.

In India, where several occupations, especially those associated with sanitation, are caste-based, it’s not difficult to guess why the director went with such a reference. Later in the film, Vetri proves them all wrong – because of their “lack of spine”, his eldest sister Paechi and her husband are murdered in cold blood. Vetri’s logic is that their murders could have been prevented if only he’d not been sent away “like a pombala” and had been allowed to kill the villain first.

But Vetri has his revenge nevertheless, successfully beheading the villain and storing the latter’s head in the fridge before his sister and brother-in-law are cremated. Because that’s how macho he is.

Devarattam also toes the line when it comes to romance. The heroine Madhu (Manjima Mohan) is from the same caste as Vetri though this is not spelled out. In a throwaway line to her friends, she says, “Kandavudan kadhal pannalam, aana kandavana ellam kadhal pannakoodadhu”. Meaning, love at first sight is fine but you shouldn’t fall in love with any Tom, Dick or Harry. It may sound like a casual, confused phrase but given the context of Devarattam, there can be no doubt about who “kandavan” refers to – men outside the community, especially those who are lower in the caste hierarchy.

The film completely fails to acknowledge that women are doubly oppressed by caste, and that it is through women’s bodies that caste is propagated. In a state and country where women’s sexuality is tightly controlled because of ideas of “honour” associated with caste, what “protection” can those infused with caste pride offer them? Wasn’t it the caste pride of the Thevar community which led to Gowsalya’s ostracism and the subsequent murder of her then husband Shankar, who hailed from a Dalit caste? Isn’t it the caste pride of dominant caste groups which has led to thousands of such shameful examples, where women are treated as the property of men, and intercaste love results in bloodshed?

The film ends on a note from the director, asking “real” men to “protect” women instead of “raping” them. This message at the end of the torturous journey that is Devarattam only contributes towards infantilising women and denying them their agency, leaving it up to men once again to do as they see fit with their playthings.

Speaking at a press meet before the release of Devarattam, producer Gnanavel Raja had cheerfully said that Devarattam was indeed a film about a certain caste and that he saw nothing wrong in this because he’d also worked on Pa Ranjith’s Attakathi (distributor) which represents the caste group that Ranjith comes from. But surely, there’s a sea of a difference between representing a marginalised caste on screen and glorifying the caste pride of a dominant caste? One is about listening to voices that have been oppressed for centuries, and the other is about amplifying and even justifying the oppressor.

Devarattam, despite Gautham Karthik’s poor show at the box office thus far, has given him his career’s biggest opening. And according to reports, the “family entertainer” is running to packed shows and eliciting wild cheers from the audience, particularly in south Tamil Nadu. On TikTok, too, several videos with people from the Thevar community, including children, mouthing lines from Devarattam have surfaced. Who is surprised?

Sowmya Rajendran is a journalist who writes on gender, culture and cinema. She also writes books for children.