'Ennada Politics Pandringa' or 'EPP' as it’s popularly called, a weekly round-up of the news laced with biting satire, scripted and performed by Sneha.

Sneha Belcin in Ennada Politics Pandringa, Neelam Social
Flix Interview Friday, September 24, 2021 - 20:57

Neelam Social, a YouTube channel that speaks about social justice whether it is caste, gender or queer issues, is one of the several ventures under director Pa Ranjith’s Neelam banner. The channel began in 2019 with Prashant Ramasamy who is now the creative lead, a skeletal crew and several freelancers. Initially there were many challenges in moving towards the vision Neelam Social had in mind. In 2020, the team grew larger with a focus to be inclusive of women and trans person’s voices, it was at this point that the channel found a format that works as well as it does now. In a then newly launched segment called Munnurai, Sneha Belcin came on to do short explainer videos on terms like “gaslighting” or “body-shaming”, speaking about the underlying violence and dubious politics of such words. While initially sending in scripts in advance to Prashant who also pitched in with advice on ways to make the content more relatable to people in Tamil Nadu, Munnurai soon became a project she completely did on her own. 

This year, Neelam Social began another segment called Ennada Politics Pandringa or EPP as it’s popularly called, a weekly round-up of the news laced with biting satire, scripted and performed by Sneha.

TNM spoke to Sneha Belcin on the conception of EPP, who they hope to reach, the challenges of speaking up for social justice and anti-caste politics and her personal journey to find her current ideologies.

How did Ennada Politics Pandringa start? How important is humour as a form of mobilisation?

In April or May this year, I came across a few Tamil YouTube channels that do explainer videos responding to events in the news cylce. It struck me how right-wing they were, while claiming to be “centrists”. I could see that this supposed centrism was only a cover for their support of right-wing parties. Then, what they were projecting as “political satire” was not mockery of those who held power. It would be of people in Opposition or it would be of vulnerable groups. Their humour and politics were misplaced. Comedy is not meant for mocking the powerless. Attacking individuals without addressing systemic failures is inherently flawed. If people could easily gain views from problematic humour, I thought maybe we could do a show that brought together satire and an informed understanding of political realities. The show must question power and its systems. That was the spark.

I initially thought of something along the lines of Trevor Noah’s show, but it soon became clear that the exact same structure wouldn’t quite fit the culture here. I pitched the idea of a political satire show, wrote a script and performed it for people in the office, which they liked.

The first episode was more of a trial—we didn’t cover too many topics, but it grew from there and quickly fell into its current format. The right-wing has a robust system to spread their propaganda, from WhatsApp groups to IT cells functioning on social media. Those who speak of liberation don’t have the same scale of reach with people. EPP is an attempt to bridge that gap. When there are still many who understand that caste exists, but ask us questions like “but what can you do about it?”, the answer is to create a space that can pose those questions to power.

You focus on mainstream news that people may already have seen in newspaper headlines or on news channels—so whom are you primarily hoping for as an audience? People who are apolitical? Or those who have a basic inclination for progressive anti-caste politics?

The kind of YouTube channels I was mentioning earlier, many of which sensationalise something sordid like a death or banal issues draw large numbers of viewers. EPP believes that we can educate those people with our videos, they’re whom we have in mind, mainly those who are uniformed.

Another concern that Neelam Social has is for our ideologies to reach YouTube users in villages. That’s also why I use a lot of proverbs while talking.

 The idea of EPP is that we can get people to think about the politics behind news events and who are the specific people in power who need to be questioned for a particular issue. Thirdly, the segment hopes to push Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan people to start speaking the politics that liberates them.

Anyway, I don’t believe that there’s any such stance as “apolitical”. That’s why I don’t think of them as a particular sub-set of viewers. Those who identify as apolitical are only backing the powerful, so when I mock power I also by default mock them.

What is the writing and research process like for each episode? Who pitches in, who does the scripting? How much of it is spontaneous?

Normally 70% of the script is ready the day before shoot. Before that we collect the news of the week. There is research that some issues will require, such as when we spoke about the evictions in KP Park, Vyasarpadi etc. under the resettlement programmes. In that case, we had to look back at the timeline of events, know who led the protests and what are the demands of residents.

Then, we hold a discussion of what events we can talk about jokingly, which ones will have to be more serious. If a vulnerable group has faced some form of discrimination, then I obviously will not make jokes while addressing that incident. So, we work on the comedy aspect first. After that it’s finding out who is to be questioned for a specific event we intend to speak about. On the day of the shoot, we check the headlines to see if there is something that absolutely needs to be included in the episode.

In terms of scripting, there’s no singular process. Sometimes I write them on my own, other times Aathirai, Abinaya and Kanishka pitch in. Prashant comes up with many of the punchlines. A degree of spontaneity does happen during the shoot itself. We edit and put out the video on the same day of the shoot.

What are the challenges you face in getting EPP to people? In terms of viewership, reach, trolling, censorship or YouTube algorithms?  What have you found works best against these challenges?

We face a lot of hyper-criticism, yes. I’ll give an example. A casteist film like Draupathi comes out. The makers of such films and their enablers are given the benefit of the doubt that maybe they’re not actually being casteist. But a popular Instagram page posted a byte of me speaking against the film and called me a fascist. Dalit artists are constantly criticised for speaking out against casteism. Yet, we’re supposed to view it as just business when an actor willingly stars in casteist films.

This barrage of hyper-criticism can be exhausting and demoralising. Pa Ranjith keeps us going at such points. He’ll say that even our allies will keep criticising us, we can take what’s useful from that and just keep doing the work we do. The major driving force behind facing the challenges we face is Ranjith’s spirit and how it’s spread through all of Neelam’s ventures.

I’m not clear on the algorithms, but another challenge we face as an office that mostly has women staff is from the men we have to deal with either for administrative work or for research or anything else. There is a tendency to infantilise us and treat us like we wouldn’t know about any of the issues. Our solution is to be more assertive; we end up having to be straight-backed 24 x 7.

A personal question, if I may. How did Sneha Belcin come in to her current politicisation?

Honestly, because of my mental health concerns there are large gaps in my memory of growing up. I can’t say specifically when I started becoming more political. My household was abusive growing up, my mother, younger sister and I lived in fear constantly. The restrictions placed on me by my father, who is an alcoholic, made me a very lonely child. I couldn’t go out to play or have many friends. My mother went back to work when my sister had barely learnt to speak, so it was up to me to take care of her. Reading became the only solace. I’d say a half-baked feminism first formed from the books and magazines I’d read. Later, Dr Ambedkar’s writings were what helped me process self-worth issues and become more politicised.

Social media as I grew older has played its role in giving a space to talk about issues, especially in the lack of other platforms.

The personal cost of progressive politics can be huge. Often it leads to another kind of loneliness, in my experience. What do you think about this?

I found friendships dwindling the more I spoke out about political issues. Or they’d be only a few willing to sustain engagement. Even something, say as simple as a Facebook post, I’d note the number of comments and likes to a mundane photo, but if I wrote about caste or gender justice, most people wouldn’t care. There are also instances when you see friends continue to maintain their relationships with popular public figures who have deeply flawed politics. I’d ask them, I’m okay with you being friends with this person, but why do you remain silent when they’re putting out bigoted content? But when I asked this, it was me that those friends slowly moved away from. Eventually, you find that you’re doing this work while being quite alone.

Historically, this is what happens to those who speak for social justice. Dr Ambedkar faced this. He’d be invited to speak at a function, but then the organisers would demand changes to his speech beforehand or just retract their invitation. You can see from so much of writing that he was always having to predict the type of criticism he’d face and include points in defence. It disheartens me when I read that. How lonely he must have been at times.

I understood that loneliness is unavoidable when you start or join a movement. But it also gives you integrity. For example, if you have to stay loyal to your misogynistic friends, you cannot be part of a movement. So, I’d rather just say my ideologies are more important. You know, you realise at some point that in a strange way, you’re part of a collection of lonely people all staying true to their politics.