Dhinah Chandra Mohan's short film Modi and a Beer has been creating ripples on social media ever since it was released on YouTube on Monday. Presented by Pa Ranjith's Neelam, the film is a conversation between a couple which begins casually, turns into a heated argument, and ends with the two of them calling it quits.
It's a conversation that happens often in real life, but has rarely found its way to cinema, given how cautious filmmakers are about politically loaded subjects. Actors Deepthi and Rishikanth play Shruti and Arun, an inter-caste couple that's on the verge of getting married. The woman, a Tamil Brahmin, is dressed in orange, while the man, who is from an OBC caste, is dressed in black. The colours clearly reflect their political affinities but what makes the film interesting – and complicated – is the intersection of gender and caste which is not an easy space to navigate.
With two flawed, very real characters, the film has led to a lot of discussion on social media. TNM spoke to Dhinah to understand what he had in mind while writing the film.
There are many reactions to your short film on social media. Did you expect to cause such a stir?
Yes, I did expect it. I also knew that people would respond in a certain way to some of the lines, but I retained them because that's what my characters would say. It's natural for the characters to speak that way.
Did you find it difficult to write a complicated conversation like this, where two people belonging to different genders, caste groups, and political ideologies are also in love?
I won't say that it was difficult. We've seen many films where couples argue and break up. I had certain things I wanted to say which formed the skeleton of my draft. It took about five days for me to finalise the script.
Shruti has a casteist mindset while Arun has a sexist outlook. But the film begins with a quote from Periyar on how men treat women which makes some think her narrative deserves more sympathy...
This idea for the film began with an incident. I grew up in the Cauvery delta region in a Dravidian family with a DMK background. I have followed Dravidian leaders and their ideologies very closely. I have read a lot of Suba Veerapandian's writing and I was his admirer. But when singer Chinmayi accused Vairamuthu of sexual harassment, many DMK men supported Vairamuthu and spoke against her. Suba Veerapandian sir also tweeted about this – he was taking a jibe at her, implying that she should have spoken about this earlier, and asking how come she realised she was abused only years later. I found this tweet to be very wrong. A victim can speak about what happened to her whenever she's comfortable. But after people like Suba Veerapandian started talking like this, people below them in the hierarchy found it very easy to shame her. There's nobody who has read more of Periyar and Ambedkar than Suba Veerapandian. I've seen how many books he has in house. He's a man with a lot of clarity.
That's when I thought that when it comes to women, men who may be very aware otherwise, become just like the average man. That was the take-off point for me. Someone who has read the work of a feminist like Periyar can be anti-feminist himself. Caste oppression exists – one caste oppresses another – but when it comes to suppressing women, all castes do it. But despite this, I feel people who are anti-caste don't speak enough about women's rights. That's the core from which this film emerged.
Would you say that both Shruti and Arun are half-baked in their politics?
Yes. As far as we're concerned, their politics isn't fully formed. But they are clear about their political stands. Shruti is a BJP supporter. She is Brahminical, she's someone who would dislike Dravidian parties. She's a 'half-boil' who thinks it's her right to interfere in other people's food preferences. She likes to think of herself as a very 'pure' person. She stops Arun from having a beer, she tries to control what he should like and how he should lead his life. Both my characters are flawed and it's not necessary for only two perfect people to fall in love.
This film has three acts. They start with politics at the national level – they discuss Modi, the BJP, Muslims etc. Then they move to politics closer home – caste politics in Tamil Nadu. And in the third act, they come even closer – the politics of gender.
While writing this script, did you imagine your characters having had similar arguments in the past?
I actually wrote a script for a full feature film. About two characters who grow up in different places and backgrounds, meet and fall in love. Problems crop up and reach an explosion point in the first half. But how do they find each other again? The second half looks at how their political views mature and their understanding changes. They become open-minded. They do get married in the end!
So do you plan to shoot the rest of the film?
Yes. What you saw is till the interval point. I have included names like Modi, Rangaraj Pandey, S Ve Shekar etc in this film which I couldn't have done if it was to be sent to the CBFC for a theatrical release. I wanted to shoot whatever I had written. I have the full draft ready with me.
Before the Periyar quote appears, we see a pair of rabbits and someone picks up the white rabbit. What's the significance of this?
There's a Zen quote which compares words and thoughts with rabbits. Just as how a rabbit hops from one place to another, so too with words and thoughts. One argument leads to another. In the film, the two rabbits are my characters. They are going after each other but a hand separates them. That hand can be anything – casteism, nationalism, religion, whatever.
What role does alcohol play?
The beer plays a very important role. Arun wouldn't have spoken so much on an ordinary day. He was having his final beer in the afternoon, which gives one a bigger high because the stomach will be empty. The conversation keeps building up, and I showed the beer bottle to imply that it was listening to their argument.
But some have interpreted this to mean that it's the alcohol which leads to problems between them!
Haha. In fact, this is what I have told my family. That this is a film to warn people against alcohol use (laughs).
At the end of the film, Shruti says that she neither slept with Ashwin nor Arun, as if that establishes her 'character' and superiority over her boyfriend. But doesn't this again reduce women to their morality?
I knew that such discussions would come up while I was writing the film. We value 'purity' highly in our society, beginning from how we wash a glass. I'm not saying only Brahmins do this but these notions are Brahminical. Shruti is not a feminist who has clarity about her politics. She is orthodox though she is elite. I didn't write those lines wanting them to be politically correct or wrong. I wrote them because this is what she would say. I would even say that the couple would have been closer if they'd also had a sexual relationship. She is a problematic character who thinks her character lies in her virginity.
When Vikram Sugumaran kept the title Madha Yaanai Koottam for his film, he wasn't trying to glorify Thevars. It means elephants which have taken leave of their senses. But the community took it to be a badge of their pride and celebrated it. The filmmaker has spoken about this. I look at Shruti's lines too like this – it wasn't a glorification of her 'purity' but to reveal her flaws.That said, we have to understand that there are all kinds of people and we cannot judge them for their choices. When the film 96 released, I saw many asking why Jaanu didn't sleep with Ram. But not everybody thinks the same – it doesn't mean that if you will behave in a certain way in a situation, everybody else will do the same.
The film begins with thanks to Roman Polanski and Balu Mahendra. Some have pointed out that neither of them has a great track record when it comes to women. Don't you find that contradictory?
I learnt filmmaking from Balu Mahendra. I studied in his Cinema Pattarai. I will always be grateful to him for that. As for Roman Polanski, his film Carnage, where a conversation between two sets of parents over a conflict escalates, has really inspired me. Alaipayuthey also has a similar scene, where Karthik's parents visit Shakti's home. I have learnt film language from these two filmmakers, which is why I thanked both of them. It's their work which has influenced me, and what they did in their personal lives cannot dilute that.
How did Neelam get involved?
After studying under Balu Mahendra, I worked with Chimbu Deven sir as an assistant director in a film that didn't take off. I was working with other directors randomly when I made this short film like a pilot project. I approached many channels with this film – it even made it to the list of 50 best short films put together by Behindwoods. But what happened was, they wanted 22 cuts to release the film. If that many cuts were required, I'd rather release it directly in theatres. I thought the film would become pointless. I also approached some other forward thinking YouTube channels but they wanted something or the other to be removed because they were worried about legal issues.
It was through Chimbu Deven sir that I approached Pa Ranjith for releasing the film. It was just last week that I sent him the private link of the film. As soon as he watched it, he called me and spoke for about 45 minutes. He liked it very much and decided to release it because such discussions have not come up before this.