Who gets love in popular culture? I have been thinking about that question for a decade now. Last Friday, I watched a film that surprised me in ways I had never imagined. Pa Ranjith’s latest film, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, which translates to ‘a star shoots across’, seems to answer all our questions about the idea of contemporary love. Trust me, there is an interpretation for everyone – inter-caste, inter-faith, queer love, inclusivity, sexuality, woman as a category, genderless casteless love. The way Ranjith sees urban Indian society is refreshing, authentic and political. He embodies the power of a conversation into one of the finest scenes in Indian cinema.
Theatre director Subeer (Regin Rose) wants to put together a play on love. And there begins a conversation leading to various interpretations, heated discussion and face-offs that unmask people’s politics and standpoints. Subeer has opened a can of worms. Set in Auroville, Pondicherry, the theatre backdrop serves as the microcosm of modern Indian society and the idea of community and allyship.
Madeline, a French woman, argues that love is a universal feeling. Sylvia, a trans woman played by Sherin Celine Mathew, discusses the idea of exclusion and the acceptance of love from her partner Joel. It’s a great tragedy that Sherin died by suicide in real life. Praveen and Diana are for genderless, casteless love. Arjun’s idea of love is a filmy stereotype filled with scheming and deceit. Diana thinks love is freedom to find oneself. Iniyan thinks love is not romantic, it’s painful. David interjects: “...but there are also people who kill their children in the name of love”. He is talking about ‘honour killings’!
Rene speaks of structural inequalities, caste conditioning and branding of a community when it comes to love. Love is certainly political. Another hits out at the ideology: “Once you kill the ideology that is behind such killings, there shouldn’t be any problem. Love is ideological”.
The progression of dialogues and politics is a constant contradiction from what has been told in stories of love in popular culture and is authentic for the very reason that it represents people from the margins. A casteless, genderless love. Love that is inclusive. These are stories of people’s experiences and their transgressions, from the lens of binaries. As a matter of fact, Ranjith casts Sherin, a trans woman herself, to play Sylvia. His cinema is inclusive and Ambedkarite, raising existential questions as a person from a community and as an artist at large, proving the point that cinema is a cultural, ideological apparatus and that representation really matters.
The tone of the film is set right from the start. The movie opens with a top angle shot with Nina Simone’s song ‘Feeling Good’ playing in the background, revealing to you Rene (Dushara Vijayan) and Iniyan (Kalidas Jayaram) in bed, exhausted. They have just made love. Rene pauses the music and poses a question to a tired Iniyan, “Should we get married?” A sleepy Iniyan answers, “Let’s.” She wonders about the significance of marriage. “But, what’s love if it sustains only because of an institution of marriage, not otherwise. That won’t do for me.” Iniyan seconds her mindlessly, “Let’s not then!”
Lying next to him, feeling his skin, Rene starts singing an Ilaiyaraaja song, which irritates Iniyan. He asks her to stop, he is sleepy but she isn’t. He shuts her mouth, she continues singing. He loses his cool and throws a fit. Rene takes offence, “What ya? You can listen to Nina Simone but you can’t listen to Ilaiyaraaja?” Iniyan answers, “I don’t want to listen to any song. I want to sleep.” But she provokes him further and continues singing. Iniyan yells, “Tamil!” An attack on Rene because her name is Tamizh. She explains the correct pronunciation of her name, “It’s not Tamil. It’s Tamizh. Call me Rene. It is I who decide how I should be addressed.” She continues singing. Irritated, Iniyan takes another dig at Ilaiyaraaja. “Birds of a feather flock together.” That’s the trait of a casteist person. Rene is aware that she and Iniyan are ideologically opposite but she plays it cool, rather in a defiant and calm way. She says, “You know your problem is not Ilaiyaraaja. It’s me!”
Iniyan and Rene’s personalities establish their ideological standpoints and yet they are attracted to each other like water and fire. Iniyan disses the maestro, while for Rene, Ilaiyaraaja symbolises empowerment despite his caste identity. But Iniyan can’t fathom the comparison between Simone and Ilaiyaraaja. The fight gets out of hand and Iniyan makes another casteist comment, “All said and done, your nature won’t change!” “The nature of my caste you mean?” Rene shoots back. “Just now when you were licking me, my caste nature didn’t matter to you.” An angry Iniyan pushes her yelling, “Die bitch!” Rene falls. But this heroine just doesn’t deal with the fall, she is one of those who will hit you back if her integrity is attacked, and that’s just what Rene does. Next, you see Rene walking in the middle of the night on the road holding a photo of Buddha and her phone case, a pride flag representative of the LGBTQIA+ politics of inclusivity. They have obviously broken up.
Ranjith has reversed the gaze of popular culture’s ‘submissive good girl’ heroine. Here the connotations are assigned from an ideological standpoint and they are amply symbolic. Played brilliantly by Dushara Vijayan, Rene is not a one-dimensional woman running around men or around trees on screen. She is a self-assured woman, intimidating and hot. Here is your young, angry Ambedkarite heroine, who thinks, is empathetic, compassionate, knows her politics and acts on it too. This is Ranjith’s boldest heroine and I just loved that about her.
During one of the scenes, Arjun (Kalaiyarasan) questions – as most liberal do, rarely aware that there is a completely different imagination of the nation that is separate from that of Right or Left ideology – “You a communist?” “I’m an Ambedkarite,” says Rene as she digs into a plate of beef fry. And, that’s a win for us as a community. Rene, the girl with blue hair and septum ring, is an agent of Ambedkarite ideology, whose character and role will go down in the history of Indian cinema as the first assertive political heroine. She is truly symbolic.
Rene reminded me of Puyal aka Stormy, Ranjith’s previous heroine in his film Kaala, the ultra angry political activist, played by Anjali Patil. When communal violence erupts in Dharavi, Stormy is the woman who has the courage to hit back at the police who had stripped her in public. Rene is a calmer version. She is an actor and model who is seen reading Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma and shows remarkable empathy and a scientific temperament. She is conscious to the point where when Arjun crosses his boundaries with her, she thoughtfully gives him a chance to correct himself. “Political correctness will not come in a day’s time,” she says. “He should face each of us. Face his mistakes. If he goes away, he will never learn. I think this is the best space and place for him to correct himself. He must stay,” she says.
Ranjith gives Rene exceptional agency. She is a woman of today, beyond the stereotypical idea of a woman seen as a site of sexuality, morality, perversion, etc. This woman is ideological. She is critical of popular culture’s stereotypes, branding and the structural hierarchies’ persistent casteist attack on her community.
In Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, caste has been explored at an ideological level. It is not physical this time. If it is, it is through his ideological nemesis – Iniyan, the fair, good-looking dominant caste man who loves Nina Simone but looks down on Ilaiyaraaja. Iniyan can afford to see the beauty of tea plantations, but Rene questions the slavery and exploitation of three generations of marginalised communities behind the production of tea.
Arjun is the second type, an aspiring actor who comes from a dominant caste and finds it really hard to fit in. His parents want him to get married to Roshni (Vinsu Rachel Sam). But Arjun, being a misogynistic, casteist, homophobic and transphobic cis heterosexual male, is conditioned to see in binaries and cracks uncomfortable jokes around trans woman Sylvia, and gay couple Diana and Praveen, who are all part of the theatre group. Arjun’s toxic comments about transphobia, homophobia and consent are repeatedly questioned by the other characters who ask him: “Where did you learn that?” The third is the ultra violent, fascist protector of culture, Master Cat, who embodies the vicious nature of caste ideology.
All three display variations of violence – Iniyan at an intellectual level, Arjun when he makes transphobic, homophobic remarks, and Master Cat in attempting to destroy their play itself. Does the play happen? It does, but at the cost of violence. The whole system is involved. The police are involved. That’s your repressive state apparatus, which squashes anyone who asserts or questions their politics. Assertion is countered by violence because the system understands the politics all too well.
Ranjith illustrates ‘honour killings’ are caste killings through the testimony of the characters in the play – Wild Cat/ Domestic Cat. He blurs the line between theatre and film, using various forms such as puppetry to make a point. He poses questions to Indian society and the intellectual class at large in the way he explores his story and the issue of ‘honour killings’.
Identity is explored from various perspectives. After Rene allows Arjun space for transformation, he questions her one day, “Who are you, Rene? Are you the one that you show to the world or are you the one hiding behind your image?”
Rene recalls how hauntingly caste has followed her her entire life. There were several instances – when she had to step down into slush for upper caste men in her village; when she was abused with casteist slurs for bathing in a public pond, her honour and dignity torn to pieces as she ran back home semi-naked. Another time when she was threatened for picking tamarind fruit; when her choice food of beef was mocked by her peers and teachers; when she was looked down upon because her father played the Parai in public; when she was harassed for holding a scholarship; and the final nail in the coffin when Iniyan, her liberal upper caste lover and an artist, attacks her because of her social identity and because he cannot tolerate a woman who thinks and owns her identity.
“Yes, I’m shattered glass but I have recreated myself with arrogance, clarity and assurance. I’d like to think of myself as a much stronger and braver person. Yes, this is my social identity.” There is certainly nothing more powerful than the agency of a broken woman who has repeatedly built herself, and Rene is that for me. All the stereotyping of the community, especially Dalit women, is burnt down to ashes in the assertion of Rene’s social identity in this one scene. Clearly pain does create a space for transformation, unlearning and reconstruction. You see that in Rene. You see that in Iniyan and Arjun.
What’s interesting about this film is that women are seen both annihilating and perpetuating caste hierarchy. On a visit back home, Arjun tells his family that he is in love with Rene. A question of the girl’s caste immediately pops up. Arjun, whose heart has shifted recently, loses his cool. His mother insists she cannot talk to his father unless she knows the girl’s caste. Next moment, all hell breaks loose as she enters the kitchen teary-eyed. Concerned, her daughters ask her the cause and she says, “Your brother is going to get us killed. He is in love with a Scheduled Caste girl.” One of Arjun’s sisters says, “We should get them married if they love each other. Love is normal.” She is dissed by her mother and sister.
Arjun’s mother also forces him to agree to marrying Roshni who is from their caste. She justifies and takes pride in the caste killing of her aunt by her great great grandfather. She even pretends to kill herself to blackmail her son. Once Arjun yields to her wishes, she asks for lemon and green chillies to perform a ritual to ward off negative energy – in this case, Rene.
The sister who is pro-love signifies that she wants to break away from caste, but the mother and other women want to preserve it. It is self-explanatory that women are the biggest victims of caste and also the biggest vehicles of caste perpetuation because caste pride and honour reside in the body of women. But then there are also those, like Rene, who want to end the pretence and annihilate caste. So many of us want to. One of the boldest and equally blasphemous scenes which evokes laughter is when Arjun’s dying grandmother says, “I don’t want my grandson’s life to be ruined as mine was.” She too is the victim of patriarchy and Brahminical ideology. Ambedkar said that women are the gateways of the caste system. Their autonomy over their sexuality will annihilate caste and untouchability.
This is Ranjith’s best film for sure. There are several other reasons to watch this film. Ranjith is in tune with the times, with what’s happening now in the history of Indian cinema when the state is going through so much. He is relevant and how! Representation matters. Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is everything that you question, aspire to ask and achieve in terms of representation. Therefore, for me, this film is a movement of inclusivity. Art brings up questions. What you see, you can talk about it. You can reference knowledge. Therefore, producing such a film also creates a pedagogy of understanding the impact of image-making in cinema, and Ranjith gives us a glimpse of Ambedkarite community and an assertive heroine.
Ranjith continuously reverses the language of cinema in his aesthetics, gaze, culture that is formed by shared histories, collective experience, solidarity and a movement of assertion. His images are that of a painter. He plays with colours and themes. He explores his nemesis in white as he did in Kaala. Haridev Abhyankar is obsessed with purity and same is the case with Master Cat, the protector of culture, in this film. The colour scheme, this visual language is a departure for Ranjith too. It reminded me of Wong Kar-wai’s visual style.
The way editor Selva RK transitions the Rene and Iniyan section seamlessly (in ‘Kadhalar’) made me wonder if the scene was written in the screenplay as is or was it edited like that. Music director Tenma’s score is reminiscent of AR Rahman’s Roja in some odd ways, giving an ample feeling of peace, cosmos, disco, and also passion in ‘Kadhalar’. The rap song ‘Rangarattinam’ that goes ‘We are the brightest, greatest, wisest, righteous future, we are the movers, we are the shakers’ is ideology and lived experience dancing in your face, owning it all, loving it all. I loved the production design, costume and lighting. Especially the mural of Buddha and the way it is illuminated as the door opens. It is symbolic. When Iniyan comes to see Rene at the start of their relationship, Rene is playing with an elephant, which is synonymous with Bahujan politics and the symbol of the Bahujan Samaj Party.
Watching Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is an existential, visceral, spiritual and intellectual experience. I haven’t seen anything like it before but I did imagine there could be a film like this.
Jyoti Nisha is a Mumbai-based academic, writer, screenwriter and filmmaker with a focus on cinema, gaze, caste, gender and media, and has 10 years of experience in print, radio and TV. She worked as a director’s assistant to Neeraj Ghaywan for his short Geeli Pucchi, a part of Netflix’s Ajeeb Daastaans anthology. Nisha directed, produced and crowdfunded her upcoming feature-length documentary film, Dr. Ambedkar: Now and Then, in collaboration with Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions. She currently works as a Producing faculty at Whistling Woods International.