*Some spoilers ahead
When I interviewed Mari Selvaraj a few months ago about Pariyerum Perumal, he told me that the film centers around the dog Karuppi, where she goes and what she does. Within moments of the film starting, Karuppi meets with a gruesome death. This isn’t a big spoiler because the lyrics of the song ‘Karuppi’ (music by Santhosh Narayanan) that released a long time ago vividly describe what happens to her – she is left to die on the railway tracks. The lines remind one of Ilavarasan, a Dalit youth who married a woman from a dominant caste and was found dead on the railway track, and the trajectory of the plot affirms that this is no coincidence.
The video of the song, which came out a few days before the film hit the screens, also showed us Karuppi’s funeral. So, I was left wondering how this film, which tracks the life of Pariyerum Perumal, a young Dalit man from Puliyamkulam (Mari Selvaraj's hometown), would return to Karuppi. How will she come back on screen, when she’s so conclusively dead?
She does return, at a moment and place I did not expect her to, and her leaping run left me with a lump in my throat.
It brought back memories of my own college days, when I belonged to the privileged group of students in class who had got admission through “merit” and were bemused by how and why students who did not know a word of English were admitted to a literature programme. It would take years before my eyes were opened to the violence of caste around me, my ridiculous and unforgivable ignorance of it, and the lack of empathy that I had exhibited in my first year of college.
As Pariyerum Perumal (Kathir) struggles to understand what his professors are saying, Mari Selvaraj first lets us laugh at the scene. His hero is genuinely bewildered by the law professors’ insistence on teaching in English when he’s sure most of the class (including his best friend Anand, played by Yogi Babu) does not understand a word of what’s being taught. Anand advises him to draw “eggs” in his book so that the professor (who wears a prominent caste marker on his forehead) does not pull them up. But the professor catches him – until this point, this is a regular college comedy scene – and calls him “mutta podara quota kozhi” – a hen that came in through reservation and is laying eggs. Pariyan doesn’t take the humiliation lying down. He grabs the notebooks of his classmates and asks the professor to see what everyone else has written, including the “merit” students, before being ordered out of the room.
The discrimination that Dalit students face in educational institutions has come under much discussion in mainstream media after the suicide of Hyderabad University scholar Rohith Vemula. However, a majority of people from privileged castes continue to believe that caste exists because of the reservation system and not the other way around. Pariyan meets Jyothi (Anandhi), a naive young woman from a dominant caste, who asks him a simple question – why did he want to enter the law college and become an advocate? Pariyan’s response is closely tied to his caste identity. He tells her about an old man from his hometown and caste group, who is humiliated by a policeman for daring to question his actions. It’s the old man who tells Pariyan that he must become a lawyer if he is to become a voice that will be heard. Jo, as Jyothi is called, is surprised by his story. Her tale is straightforward – she studied well and was told by her father to take up law. Though they are from neighbouring places, their growing up experiences are distinctly different, thanks to their respective caste locations. For Pariyan, even telling out loud what his father does for a living is a matter of shame. For Jo, her bigoted father is a figure of love.
Pariyan’s choice of profession is also a nod to anti-caste revolutionary BR Ambedkar who studied law and went on to become the father of the Constitution. When Pariyan joins the college, his principal advises him to study well and become an achiever. When he asks Pariyan to repeat what he had just said, the latter says, “You said we can become doctor if we study well.” We laugh at Pariyan’s seeming ignorance, but he clarifies that what he meant was that he could become "doctor", like Ambedkar. Mari Selvaraj constantly gives us moments like this – when we assume Pariyan doesn’t know any better, only to realise that he does. We still confuse knowledge of English with intelligence, forgetting that mastering a language accessible only to a few is not the same as being aware about the world around us.
In fact, it is Jo, who teaches Pariyan English, who is blissfully ignorant of her immediate surroundings and the violence that lies underneath the surface. Because she can afford to be so. I found Jo’s chirpy ignorance hard to buy. I wanted her to take charge at some point, see what her family is made of, reach out to Pariyan and make amends. To the end, she remains a “devadhai” who is largely unaware of what her family has done to Pariyan.
Is this characterisation deliberate to capture the irresponsibility with which Savarna women have led their Dalit partners to violence from their families, without realising the danger that they’re exposing them to? Or is this Mari Selvaraj’s way of showcasing how intertwined patriarchy and caste are? But aren’t women also a part of this patriarchal, casteist society and shouldn’t they fight it, too? I wish there had been more fleshed out women characters in the film or at least that Jo had been less angelic and more believable. The ending left me troubled, with two male characters discussing the future, with both agreeing that Jo should continue to be kept in the dark and protected. It’s almost as if she’s the primary victim of this violence and not Pariyan, who has actually been repeatedly targeted for his caste.
Though I wasn’t convinced by the heroine’s characterisation, I was pleased to see Yogi Babu playing a comic role without indulging in body shaming for once. There are no references to his skin colour, weight, or hair. As Anand, the actor proves that he is immensely capable of drawing laughs from the audience and doesn't need to dehumanise himself in order to accomplish this.
Pa Ranjith’s first production is markedly different from his last two directorials – Kaala and Kabali – which have showcased the oppressed as powerful and challenging the mainstream. Pariyerum Perumal is brutal in its representation of caste atrocities (including a scene when a man pees on Pariyan to put him in his place) but it also gives us a realistically defiant hero. Till the end of the film, we cannot tell if the world around Pariyan will let him live or not. The song ‘Naan yaar’ explodes on screen, brilliantly surreal in visualisation, as it announces loud and clear that Dalit lives matter. Blue, the colour of Dalit resistance, spills into the frames, drawing spontaneous applause from the audience and uplifting Pariyan despite the everyday insults heaped on him. You expect at this point that Pariyan will somehow give back a resounding response to his tormentors but that’s not where Mari Selvaraj takes the film. It would perhaps have made for a more satisfying viewing experience but the director appears to have been keen not to let his hero take to such retaliation.
There’s a lot that the Mari Selvaraj film leaves unsaid. For example, the first poster on a wall that we're shown announces the death of KR Narayanan, India’s first Dalit President. The poster is soon buried under other death announcements, all of them due to caste violence. We understand that though someone from an oppressed caste has made it to such a position of power, it has done little to dismantle caste structures and oppression. When a caste fiend who has killed several Dalit people dies, the headline below the poster announcing his death says India has won. When Pariyan tries to move his place in class, from the back to the front, Jo’s relative tries to push him to his original seat. Pariyan fights back, saying that his position from now on is in the front – to be sure, it isn’t just the bench that he’s talking about.
Pariyan’s principal, who always wears a tie and is smartly dressed, reprimands Pariyan when needed but he also understands the student’s anger. Like him, the principal too is from an oppressed caste and did not have an easy time in college – “I used to be chased around like a pig that they eat”. But, he says, look at me now – years later, he’s a college principal who has to be respected by everyone, including the vermilion sporting professor who’d called Pariyan a “quota kozhi”.
Towards the end, Pariyan smashes the windshield of a car and yells out his angst, his decision to lead his life the way he wants to. Though he’s talking to a character inside the car, it feels as if he has ripped open the screen and is shouting to the audience. The glass lies shattered and we’re forced to look at him, hear his voice. You know then that Karuppi is far from dead.