How the farmer has been reduced to a punch dialogue in Tamil cinema

From the ‘mother sentiment’, films have now moved to ‘farmer sentiment’, and it’s time directors look past gimmicks like this and focus on the story instead.
How the farmer has been reduced to a punch dialogue in Tamil cinema
How the farmer has been reduced to a punch dialogue in Tamil cinema
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The introductory sequence for the hero of CS Amudhan's Tamizh Padam 2 involves actor Shiva ramming a flying car into a coconut tree to help a "farmer in distress" get his coconuts. He then utters a few lines about how much he respects farmers and thinks about them always. To the uninitiated, Tamizh Padam 2 is a film that parodies mainstream Tamil cinema. This in itself should give one a sense of how overused the "farmer sentiment" is in contemporary Tamil films.

While "mother sentiment" used to be the go-to-formula to milk tears from the audience, the current trend is to throw in a few lines about the greatness of farmers, with the hero facing the audience and delivering the "punch" dialogue.

Take last week's release, Sivakarthikeyan's Seemaraja. The film has Sivakarthikeyan playing an idle prince who goes around distributing money to whoever wishes him. While the entire film panders to feudal structures and the idea of rajas ruling over their "kingdoms", the hero also delivers populist dialogues on farmers, accompanied by the action of removing and putting his sunglasses on. The farmers in his town wish to sell their land, but the idle prince will not let them because he knows best for some reason. His solution is for them to hold on to their land and wait for the rains. 

One of this year's blockbusters is Karthi's Kadaikutty Singam, which is about a young farmer and his large family. Karthi travels on a bike which has 'Vivasayee' written on the nameplate. From the hero stopping a bus which refused to take in an old woman with a huge sack of produce, to him speaking about the glories of farming at a college, the film has several such "mass" scenes. Interestingly, Kadaikutty Singam is among the few films which haven't portrayed farmers as impoverished people - the hero, in fact, says that he earns over Rs 1 lakh a month.

However, the film only uses farming as a prop. The main plot is about whom the hero will marry – his nieces or the woman he's in love with – and the obstacles in his path. The film could have been about a software engineer with a large and problematic family and it wouldn't have made any difference to the storyline.

Vijay's Kaththi (2014) was about an MNC which cheats farmers off their agricultural lands. The film spoke about farmer suicides and had the hero (in double action) fighting on behalf of the farmers to regain their land. He also delivers a blistering speech about the indifference of the urban population towards the agrarian crisis. Kaththi was what Kollywood likes to call a "message" film made in a mainstream format. While the plot was tied to the situation of farmers, it did not dwell into the agrarian crisis more than providing our hero a mission to fight for.

It's probably the enormous success of this film, coupled with the general public mood (on social media especially) after the jallikattu protests of 2017, which have made the "farmer sentiment" so popular on screen. In fact, jallikattu has become a symbol of resistance and several Tamil films have recently included the sport in a scene or two to showcase the hero's masculinity, including Vijay's Mersal and Vijay Sethupathi's Karuppan. Music composers like Yuvan Shankar Raja, GV Prakash and Santosh Narayanan have also released tracks which are in praise of the sport. 

Previously, we have had films like MGR's Vivasayee and Prabhu's Uzhavan, which had the hero playing a farmer. However, as films moved from rural to urban setups, the farmer became just a part of the backdrop, if at all he was in the film to begin with. In contemporary cinema, rural setups are usually used to narrate stories about caste violence, communal clashes, or simply about rival goon gangs. Occasionally, there have been films like Joker and Aramm which have spoken about the urban-rural divide. However, there have been only a handful of recent films like Merku Thodarchi Malai, which have looked at the lives of farmers and farm labourers from an insider perspective rather than using it as an opportunity for "mass" appeal.

While the agrarian crisis definitely needs the attention of the public, it has been reduced to a mere whistle-inducer in commercial Tamil films. The insincerity is glaring and considering it has made its way to Tamizh Padam 2, it's high time directors and "mass" stars looked for some other sentiment to exploit. Or actually did the hard work of writing scripts that are genuine and go beyond gimmicks.

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