Actor Suriya’s latest outing Jai Bhim is a legal drama based on true events and revolves around the unfair treatment and discrimination of people from the Irular tribe. The film has been critically acclaimed and largely received a positive response from viewers for portraying the frightening realities of discrimination that people from marginalised communities face. The success of the movie, which was recently released on Amazon Prime Video, has inspired many to look at popular Tamil movies from over the years that have an anti-caste narrative.
Tamil cinema has had a complicated history with respect to anti-caste films. While the 80s saw a couple of films like Sivappu Malli and Alai Osai with Dalit protagonists, these types of movies were few and far between. If there was an anti-caste narrative in a Tamil movie, it would be discussed only from the perspective of upper caste heroes. The 1990s saw the release of films such as Thevar Magan, Nattamai, Yajamaan and Chinna Gounder that glorified upper castes through their messaging. However, in recent times, directors like Vetrimaaran, Pa Ranjith, and Mari Selvaraj have made films that have brought the anti-caste narrative to the fore with hard-hitting and detailed portrayals
Here’s a list of Tamil films, both old and new, that discuss topics ranging from institutionalised caste discrimination to the daily struggles faced by people from marginalised communities.
Five minutes into the film, director Mari Selvaraj presents a clear picture of what’s coming the viewer's way. Pariyerum Perumal opens with visuals displaying the bond between the protagonist Pariyerum Perumal (Kathir) and his dog Karuppi. Before the director takes us closer to the central theme of the film, Karuppi, the beloved dog dies.
Throughout the film, we find Mari Selvaraj weaving in dark metaphors through brief shots that ironically help us see the larger picture. The last scene of Pariyerum Perumal is arguably one of the most intriguing closing shots in Tamil cinema.
In the film, Pariyan, an aspiring lawyer, does not shy away from asking tough questions about power politics and socio-economic hierarchies. As the plot progresses, we get closer and a more disturbing picture of caste divide and inequality, especially when Pariyan is at the receiving end of gut-wrenching violence after he falls in love with Jo (Anandhi), an upper-caste woman. Pariyerum Perumal is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Much like his directorial debut, Mari Selvaraj’s second film Karnan, starring Dhanush in the lead, also garnered critical acclaim for its hard-hitting portrayal of caste. Karnan is streaming on Amazon Prime Video too.
Ore Oru Gramathiley, Gentleman, and a number of Tamil films have taken an anti-reservation (reservation for marginalised groups when it comes to jobs and in educational institutions) stand. The argument is often centered around merit and is presented from the point of view of people from the dominant caste groups who believe that they are missing out on opportunities despite being equally or better qualified.
Offering a different perspective, the late director Jananathan’s Peraanmai features an Adivasi forest guard, coming from a Scheduled Tribe, as the protagonist. Dhruvan (Jayam Ravi), who trains NCC cadets in an academy, is constantly under scrutiny because of getting admission through reservation. The NCC cadres training under him, who are women hailing from privileged backgrounds, as well as his superior do not miss out on an opportunity to pass condescending comments or taunt him.
As the film progresses, it turns into a riveting adventure flick when Dhruvan, along with the women cadets he trains are caught in the midst of a forest range and face the seemingly impossible task of stopping a group of foreigners, who are on a mission to sabotage a rocket launch programme undertaken by the Indian government. Peraanmai is streaming on MX Player.
Death is a leveler, or so we have been told. Many songs, poems and films have spoken about the insignificance and temporary nature of money and titles, since people cannot take these things with them when they die. In the critically acclaimed Tamil movie Manusangada that premiered at the 19th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, director Amshan Kumar challenges this very notion by underlining how that’s not quite the case.
The movie opens with Nelson Mandela’s quote: “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” In the film, Kolappan (Rajeev Anand) wakes up to the news of his father’s demise. He holds it together till he breaks down under the shower, in private. Moments later, we find Kolappan taking charge and dealing with the practicalities of his father’s demise, avoiding any display of emotion. In an attempt to find a way to bury his father with dignity, he reaches out to the local police station, the Revenue Division office, and subsequently the Madras High Court. Every step of the way, he is met with humiliation because of the caste-ridden system.
By basing the story on the struggles faced by a protagonist who wants to give his father a proper burial, the film mirrors the harsh ground realities of how caste-based discrimination deprives people of their right to bury or cremate their kin with dignity. Manusangada is streaming on Netflix.
From the MGR-era where the lead character in a movie usually belonged to the upper caste and was seen discussing caste-based issues to the recent Article 15, where a Savarna officer saves Dalits, several films have shown upper-caste protagonists as saviours, who uplift the lives of the oppressed. It is only in recent years, that Tamil cinema is seeing a new wave of films where the stories are narrated from the Dalit-Bahujan perspective. In Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, the hero (played by Rajinikanth) hails from a family that migrated from southern Tamil Nadu to Mumbai’s Dharavi and is a part of the community. He is a don who goes up against the men in power in order to fight for his people’s land.
Inspired by the Hindu epic Ramayana, Pa Ranjith skillfully retells familiar tales from a Dalit-Bahujan point of view. The film is also filled with visual references and metaphors. Images and references to Buddha and Dr BR Ambedkar are seen in the background of several frames in the film. Ranjith challenges the perception of impure vs pure and its caste and class-based connotations, through its hero who represents ‘black’, while the antagonist Hari Dhada (Nana Patekar) is seen as the symbol of ‘white’ throughout the film. The final frame creates a long-lasting impression by showing Ravana’s triumph in an explosion of colours. Kaala is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale
How often do we turn a blind-eye to caste-based violence and discrimination? How does its normalisation affect the lives of the oppressed? Filmmaker Leena Manimekalai’s debut feature film Maadathy: An unfairy Tale, is based on the lives of a family from the Puthirai Vannar community, who are regarded as ‘unseeable’. It is one of the most oppressed sub-caste groups among Dalits. Veni (Semmalar Annam), her husband Sudalai (Patrick Raj) and daughter Yosana (Ajmina Kassim) live in a mountainous forest region, secluded from the village where members from dominant caste groups live.
Veni and her family hide behind trees or don’t come out in daylight, so as to hide from the villagers, who exploit them for labour. Veni is worried about her daughter Yosana who is free-spirited and adventurous. “We are the sacrificial lambs to this village. These human beasts will never let us live in peace,” Veni tells her daughter in a clip from the trailer. As feared, Yosana is forced to pay a high price for existing. The film blends the familiar and gutting tale of caste-based atrocities with the origin story of a village deity – a parallel narrative in the film that brings out the underlying hypocrisy of the god-fearing villagers. The film is available to watch on Neestream.
The Tamil movies of the 90s very rarely saw an anti-caste protagonist. Vincent Selva’s Iraniyan is a rare example of a film from that time that saw a communist, anti-caste hero. Set in the post-independence period, the film starts with Iraniyan (Murali) returning to his native village after being held captive in a British colonial prison. He comes home to realise that the British Raj might have left the country but the feudal system that is detrimental to the villagers, is still intact.
Iraniyan rises to the occasion and locks horns with the landlord Aandaiyan (which translates to ruler) played by Raghuvaran, who has been forcing the villagers into slavery. As the film progresses, the fight between the two intensifies, reflecting the brutal caste and class-based oppression the villagers are subjected to. Does Iraniyan succeed in his attempt to free the villagers from the vicious cycle of oppression that they have been facing for generations? This forms the rest of the story. Iraniyan is partially based on the life of Vattakudi Iraniyan, a communist from the Tanjore district, who fought against caste-based oppression perpetuated by local landlords. The film is available to watch on YouTube.
With its unconventional choice of title, Asuran (demons in Hindu mythology), as well as the opening credits that roll out in fiery red, foreshadowing the violent tale that is about to unravel on screen, Vetrimaaran sets the tone for the film even before we get to the opening shot. In a compelling revenge saga, Asuran narrates the story of Sivasamy (Dhanush), his sons, daughter and wife Pachaiamma (Manju Warrier). Sivasamy lives a quiet life before his elder son Velmurugan (Teejay Arunasalam), a hot-headed youngster who goes head to head with an influential upper-caste family. Intense, raw and hard-hitting, Asuran is a sensitive portrayal of the deeply entrenched caste system and its devastating impact on the oppressed. Asuran is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Unnal Mudiyum Thambi
K Balachander’s Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, which was released in 1988, is a story of an upper-caste protagonist who wakes up to the impact and evils of the caste divide. The film focuses on the hero and his father’s journey towards identifying their privileges that have been guaranteed by their social position and caste. Udhayamoorthy (Kamal) is constantly at loggerheads with his father Marthandam Pillai (Gemini Ganesan), a reputed Carnatic musician. The former criticises Marthandam over his unfair treatment of people from the lower castes. Udhayamoorthy decides to leave his privileges behind and walks out of his house. The rest of the film tracks how a series of events change Marthandam’s views. The movie is available to watch on YouTube.