'Orey Oru Gramathiley' to 'Pariyerum Perumal': Caste-based reservation in Tamil films

While 'Pariyerum Perumal', which showed institutionalised caste discrimination was ignored at the National Awards, 1989 film ‘Orey Oru Gramathiley’ which batted for reservation for EWS, won a National Award even before it released.
'Orey Oru Gramathiley' to 'Pariyerum Perumal': Caste-based reservation in Tamil films
'Orey Oru Gramathiley' to 'Pariyerum Perumal': Caste-based reservation in Tamil films

A Brahmin youth lies down on the road as a speeding bus approaches. A middle-aged woman flings the pallu of her saree into a fire in a dilapidated school kitchen, and burns to death. As this scene from the 1993 film Gentleman cuts from one shot to another, debut filmmaker Shankar Shanmugam builds dread and sympathy in his viewers.

The film released in the backdrop of protests over the 27% reservation allotted for members of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in public sector undertakings and state-level educational institutions across the country. The move by the VP Singh Union government led to unexpected responses, with close to 200 students, even as young as 13, immolating themselves in protest. But even as most of the country was tackling the backlash to the reservation, the state of Tamil Nadu barely batted an eyelid. In 1980, much before the Mandal Commission's report was tabled in Parliament, the Tamil Nadu government had already implemented 69% reservation for all marginalised groups combined in educational institutions and jobs.

"There were absolutely no protests in Tamil Nadu. The Dravidian parties completely supported the move by the Union government," says political analyst and Associate Editor of Frontline, RK Radhakrishnan. He adds that forward castes at the time sensed that their dissent would not be entertained in the political climate of the state.

The discontent, nevertheless, found its way into cinema. And today, as the subject of reservation once again dominates public discussion after the introduction of a 10% quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) – upper caste persons with family income of less than Rs 8 lakh per annum – by the Union BJP government, we trace how Tamil cinema has portrayed the issue in the last 40 years.

Reservation in Tamil cinema

Historians and filmmakers largely agree that the very first Tamil film to directly address caste-based reservation on the big screen was Orey Oru Gramathiley written by Vaali and released in 1989. The film starred actor Lakshmi as a Brahmin protagonist, the daughter of a government employee. A bright student, she pretends to be from the Adi Dravidar community in order to become a Collector. When her lie is exposed and she is taken to court, she argues that her actions were justified.

The movie had arguments which were similar to those made in Parliament this year, when the EWS quota was brought into existence.

"I have no problem giving benefits to Backward Classes. But Backward Classes should not be determined by caste but by economic status," Lakshmi's character angrily argues in court, “There are barristers in the backward community and men in the forward community who transport corpses. The barrister's son keeps getting benefits because he belongs to the backward community, but the son of the man who transports corpses is denied opportunities. The only sin he committed was being born in a forward community.”

The protagonist then falls back on the “merit” argument, failing to acknowledge the privileges that her caste location has given her. And as she speaks, members of the Dalit community, whom she 'served', support her and demand that she be allowed to continue service. The Brahmin protagonist here is portrayed as a saviour of the masses.

Putting the film in perspective, writer and scholar Stalin Rajangam says that the film released close to a decade after Tamil Nadu had enforced 69% reservation – 26.5% seats for Backward Classes, 20% for Most Backward Classes and 19% for Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

"In the years following the implementation of reservation, the forward castes began to realise that the social fabric was slowly changing. Several students from their communities could not get seats in the college of their choice. At the same time, in workplaces, the Backward Classes were now getting positions that they had never held before," explains Stalin, "When a Brahmin or any other forward caste member was still only a Block District Officer or Tahsildar, a person from a Backward Class was suddenly taking up posts at the District Collector level. This upset communities that traditionally held power.”

Further, high unemployment levels in the ‘70s and ‘80s created an impression that jobs which had always belonged to caste Hindus, were being “given” to oppressed communities. The paranoia, however, was far from justified.

According to the World Inequality Database, India's upper caste households –that makes up 22.8% of the population – earned nearly 47% of the national average annual household income, between 1961 and 2012.

Among the upper castes, Brahmins earn 48% above the national average and other forward castes earn 45% above it. SC and ST households, meanwhile, earn 21% and 34% below the national average. The OBC households, which are far better in comparison to other oppressed castes, still earn 8% less than the annual Indian average.

"We must keep in mind that the writer of Orey Oru Gramathiley was a Brahmin – and so were several members of the cast and crew working on it. The film must be seen in that perspective," says Stalin.

The film did not go unchallenged. Members of the Dr Ambedkar People’s Movement and the Republican Party of India protested against its release and the Republican Party even warned of violence in theatres if it was screened. The Tamil Nadu government stopped the release citing potential law and order problems. The filmmakers, however, approached the Supreme Court, which held up their right to speech and expression.

This film paved the path for Gentleman, which faced far less scrutiny because it masqueraded as a modern day Robin Hood tale. At its core, Gentleman was about two promising but poor students – a Brahmin youth Ramesh (played by Vineeth) and his friend Krishnamurthy (also from a forward caste, played by Arjun Sarja) – who are denied medical college seats because of the existing reservation system and corruption in state education. They rank 1 and 2 in the district respectively, but do not make it to the final college list. The arguments made by the characters were similar to the arguments put forth in Orey Oru Gramathiley.

In its 160-minute runtime, the film unapologetically showcased caste symbols – ritual threads, Sanskrit shlokas, and even the manner in which women draped their sarees; and the dialogues simultaneously glorified and painted the upper castes as victims.

The movie was a smashing hit, and praise poured in for the debut director.

"Gentleman did not labour on the point of reservation and did not make the subject very in-your-face. The screenplay was so dense that the average viewer had a lot to focus on," says director CS Amudhan. However, within the film industry, the politics did not go unnoticed. "Kamal Haasan, in an interview, pointed out that when Gentleman was offered to him first, he refused it because of the politics in the film. He said that it was not the right position to take on the subject," he adds.

In the interview, Kamal says that the film, as it was offered to him then, spoke of 'Brahmin militancy' and that he was not comfortable to do such a role. He had also supposedly advised Shankar to rethink his approach.

Ironically, however, the same star had acted in Thevar Magan only the previous year, a film which glorified Thevar caste pride. The film was only the beginning of a series of movies that fell under the over-used 'Madurai Formula' or the 3M films (Murder, Mayhem and Madurai – though they extend to southern districts as a whole).

(Still from Thevar Magan)

But even as storylines on caste pride dominated the screens, the subject of reservation was pushed aside, finding mention only in a few scenes – mostly as jibes targeting those who avail it.

Where did reservation go?

According to experts, this is largely because of three reasons – the first is the caste composition of the film industry; the second is the industry’s unwillingness to discuss discrimination; and finally, the problems movies on caste face ahead of release.

Stalin Rajangam says that the majority of the industry is dominated by members of intermediate castes. "More specifically, communities categorised as Backward Classes hold sway in the fort of cinema," he explains, "They do not want to make films about reservation because they, too, believe they are robbed of opportunities because of the existing system.”

But with 30% of seats and jobs in public undertakings reserved for this class, shouldn't they be supporting reservation? The answer to this question comes from Kaala director Pa Ranjith, who is considered to have started a revolution when it comes to depicting Dalit characters on screen.

"When it comes to the subject of reservation, it has always been caste Hindus versus Dalits," he says, "Not only Brahmins, but even the intermediate castes cannot handle the fact that Dalits are now getting more opportunities for education and employment. If you look at a village in Tamil Nadu even today, you can clearly see it being divided into colony (Dalit settlement) and Ooru (caste Hindu settlement). And while caste Hindus can handle Dalits working in positions below them, to see them grow in a government organisation and economically prosper, is not something they can tolerate.”

Ranjith points out that narratives produced in the industry often demonise reservation. "Even certain backward communities seem to forget that they came up in society through reservation. In the Tamil Movie 7am Arivu, there is a dialogue from Shruthi Haasan’s character, where she says that recommendation, reservation, and corruption are the reasons why capable youths are leaving the country," he recalls, "Basically, the movie is grouping reservation with evils like recommendation and corruption.”

(Still from 7am Arivu)

Stalin Ranjangam adds that subtle insinuations, too, contribute to the rhetoric against reservation. He particularly cites films made by director Shankar.

"In the movie Indian, for instance, the government officials who are corrupt are shown to be dark skinned and Christian," he says, "In Anniyan, the hero is a Brahmin and he is shown to be the only righteous man, while most of the corrupt characters he kills are depicted as members of intermediate castes. In the movie Mudhalvan, Arjun's mother tells him his horoscope matches that of former Chief Minister Rajaji. And in a film where politicians are shown to be corrupt, she hints that after Rajaji (a Brahmin), finally another good man will take the top seat.”

The lack of an alternative narrative, says Aramm director Gopi Nainar, is hardly surprising.

"In Tamil cinema, the reservation system is spoken about from the view of an oppressor. They have no knowledge about the history of the subject. Be it Orey Oru Gramathiley or Gentleman, if you speak to the creators about the subject, they won't be able to elaborate on the arguments. The story of reservation can only be told through a Dalit's viewpoint because they are intrinsically linked to this subject. Every community has the right to take what a system has to offer, but they make sure only Dalits do not have this right," he says.

The struggle on screen

In 2009, the Jayam Ravi starrer Peranmai hit the screens in Tamil Nadu, after a major hassle with the CBFC. The film's director, SP Jananathan, was forced to make 16 cuts in the film to ensure its release. The film revolves around an Adivasi forest guard (Dhruvan) who instructs NCC cadets at a local college. Dhruvan is from a Scheduled Tribe and despite his qualifications, his tribal background makes him the butt of jokes at the academy.

While the women students say that he shouldn't be teaching them because he’s an Adivasi, his superior insults him constantly in front of the students. The subject of 'merit' arises when his senior officer asks him for his Class 12 scores and points out that they’re lower than the scores of the women who are from privileged backgrounds.

Speaking to TNM, director Jananathan says, "I’m from a very impoverished household and belong to a backward community. I have eight siblings and I am the only one who got a degree. It was very difficult for me to study because I had no help at home and not enough money to get tutored. I felt the pain of being a first-generation learner and I thought if it was this hard for me, imagine the situation of someone from an SC or ST community."

Institutionalised caste discrimination, as shown in Peranmai, is a reality, as we’ve seen in Rohith Vemula’s case as well as Dr Payal Tadvi. Director Jananathan says he aimed to show that even after getting an education and being employed, the discrimination doesn't stop.

"The censor board cut off several lines in the film that show the deep-rooted casteism in all spheres of life," says Jananathan. When questioned, the board reportedly said that caste discrimination no longer exists and that there was no need to show it on screen. And while it was okay to 'praise' any caste, no caste must be denigrated.

In the 2003 film Kadhal Konden, director Selvaraghavan countered the narrative that a student who gets a college seat through reservation is undeserving.

"When a professor in college spots a sleeping Dhanush, who plays a lower caste orphan, he immediately insults him on how he got into the institution," says Stalin Rajangam, "The professor would have written a problem on the board and assumed that the boy can’t solve it because he got a “free seat”.”

But by showing Dhanush’s character solving the problem, the film portrayed that the automatic judgement that comes with his social status is wrong.

Similarly, last year, Mari Selvaraj's Pariyerum Perumal produced by Pa Ranjith, showed a Dalit student being reprimanded for not being able to follow the English in Law school. "How does someone like you get a law college seat? What are you going to study law and do? Herd cows in a suit?" a professor asks, encouraging other caste Hindu students to laugh, "You are a chick that has come through quota.”

An angry Pariyan then grabs the books of his dominant caste classmates and demands that the professor read what they have written, even as he is removed from the class. A quick glance at their books reveals that most caste Hindu students were pretending to write, too. They, however, did not face the same persecution.

Ranjith believes that the time is ripe for more films to be made on reservation. "The political powers in the Union government will try to implement EWS everywhere – and not just Dalits, even caste Hindus will be affected by it. In the next 10 years, we can definitely expect to see more content on reservation, conflicts and other caste related issues. We have already set the base for it," he says.

In fact, Gopi Nainar reveals that he is already in the process of shooting a film on how reservation has failed the oppressed castes. “It is a low budget film but we have started work on it,” he tells TNM.

Cost and censorship

Making films on caste and caste-based reservation, however, requires a support system within the industry.

"A film like Pariyerum Perumal could be made because our producer Ranjith supported us. He said the movie has to be released and the message put out there even if it leads to a financial loss. It takes that kind of resolve to portray the existing caste discrimination and release films of this nature. The movie just happened to do better than we expected," says Mari Selvaraj.

But finances are not the only hurdle that such films face. Leena Manimekalai, who recently finished shooting a film on a community termed 'Unseeables' in Tirunelveli, had to approach the Film Tribunal after the CBFC rejected her film.

"I have made three films on the subject of caste and faced obstacles from the Censor Board every single time," she says. "The board in fact banned my first film on Dalits where they identify themselves as Paraiyars, and said that it was unfit for screening. But when a movie's title can say 'Thevar Magan', why can't a Dalit assert his or her identity?" she asks.

Leena says that for mainstream movies where crores are spent, the risk of facing censor trouble is not worth taking and the makers self-censor themselves.

Pariyerum Perumal, however, did not face any trouble at the CBFC. "But that is only because of the manner in which Mari Selvaraj made the film. He managed to put out the message without naming anyone or putting them down," Ranjith says.

He also points out that though the CBFC did not find Pariyerum Perumal to be a problematic film, it did not get any recognition at the National Awards.

On the other hand, Orey Oru Gramathiley, which batted for the reservation of EWS, won a National Award even before it actually released in 1989.

And this, in itself, offers plenty of insight on how skewed the scales are. 

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