When Ram's Kattradhu Thamizh released in 2007, it provoked sharp responses from viewers. The story revolves around Prabhakar (Jiiva), a postgraduate in Tamil, who slowly devolves into insanity as he is unable to keep pace with the rapidly changing society around him, brought in by globalisation and the subsequent IT boom that widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Prabhakar, called Prabha, finds himself at odds with the world as he discovers that his education is considered to be of no use. At a time when the National Education Policy 2020 is being criticised for its focus on 'vocational education' that experts say will edge out underprivileged students from higher education, it's interesting to revisit a film that looked at the state of language and arts education at the turn of the millennium.
While several viewers appreciated Ram for taking on a subject that has seldom been discussed on screen, and critics raved about the craft of the film, many others found it to be a moralistic discourse that unfairly targeted software professionals and the BPO industry. Although the film, at its heart, is a love story between two young people who become social outcasts due to circumstances, it is placed within the context of a society that views education as job-centric rather than as a means to enrich an individual. Certain skills become highly valued overnight, leading to instant prosperity while others, who made different choices, are pushed to the sidelines, with a price for their dignity.
Fourteen years since its release, Kattradhu Thamizh continues to pop up in discussions around education policies in the country. With the National Education Policy 2020 leading to a tussle between the Union government and several states, it is worth revisiting the 2007 film. Though Kattradhu Thamizh is often cited as an example of a film that upheld linguistic jingoism, Ram has clarified in subsequent interviews that his emphasis was not on the importance of Tamil per se, but what happens to a society where the arts and the humanities that encourage individuality and creativity are crushed in favour of an education system that creates employees for the service industry.
In an interview to The Hindu, Ram said, "Kattradhu Thamizh was misread by a lot of people, as though it were a film against those in the software industry. The arts and humanities departments are being sidelined all over the world, not just in India. Kattradhu Thamizh is about what would happen if arts and humanities are neglected in favour of the service industry, creating severe economic inequality. The result is the creation of sociopaths."
Critics of the NEP say that there are corporate interests behind the nationwide education policy, and that it is geared towards creating a 'knowledge economy' where multinational companies can exploit India's high youth population. Such a system, they fear, will only sharpen the divide between the privileged and the underprivileged, pushing marginalised groups further down and benefiting only those who already have access to opportunities. While several Tamil films in the past have explored unemployment and the struggle for a job (K Balachander and Kamal Haasan's Varumayin Niram Sivappu, for instance), Kattradhu Thamizh was among the first to capture the angst in the new millennium, and point the finger at globalisation and how it has changed our ideas about education and employability.
Prabha, who is already affected by traumatic childhood incidents, finds a father figure in his Tamil teacher. When the latter passes away in an accident, he decides to study Tamil himself. Interestingly, Ram's hero also deliberately slips into English often during his narration. The two languages are not presented as opposing cultural forces or as a battle between modernity and tradition. Rather, the film is a commentary on how human worth is calculated in a capitalist economy where education itself has become a commodity.
When Prabha tells people that he's decided to study Tamil, their first assumption is that he must have cleared Class 12 after numerous attempts or that he must have scored low marks. From Anandhi (Anjali), the girl he loves, to the Tamil professor at college (director Mari Selvaraj, then Ram's assistant director, appears in this scene as a fellow student), everyone believes that nobody would want to study Tamil unless they were without a choice. The policemen who harass him also find it funny that he's a Tamil teacher.
At college, Prabha's roommate is Anantharangan, a Brahmin student enrolled in Computer Science. Rangan immediately stereotypes Prabha as a 'Munuswamy' (a derogatory name given to those who don't know English and are not westernised), without bothering to get to know him. Even as the Thamizh Thai Vaazhthu plays in the background, Prabha faces numerous insults before he can secure a job in a school as a Tamil teacher. Later in the film, Prabha is astonished to discover that Rangan now has a job that pays him Rs 2 lakh per month while Prabha is struggling to earn Rs 2,000 in his teacher's job. Like him, his classmates from the Tamil course are left working in small, underpaid jobs that have pushed them to the margins of society.
When Prabha visits Rangan at his posh IT company, he's unable to comprehend how and why the latter has become so successful when he was a mediocre student. The scenes in the IT company are intercut with scenes from Prabha's workplace which are in marked contrast. Another scene from the film that has stayed with viewers is the one between Prabha and a BPO employee. While the latter can put on an American accent at the drop of a hat, he finds it difficult to comprehend a poem written by Bharathi and says it "sounds close to Tamil".
Unable to bear the constant pressure to make money, the insults to his education and his traumatic childhood, Prabha loses his bearings and becomes a psychopath. He makes a final confession on camera to a television anchor whom he's kidnapped (Karunas). The handheld camera used to narrate the story produces an unsettling effect as the viewer watches the events from Prabha's point of view, drawing empathy even if one cannot really agree with his deeds.
An aspect of the film that is way too jarring, however, is its attitude towards women and how they choose to dress in a globalised world. In multiple instances, we see the director chastising women for their dressing choices â€” when Prabha runs into Rangan at a clothing store, he comments that though the latter went to London, he still sports his naamam. Rangan replies that he cannot give it up since it's his 'culture'. Just then, Rangan's fiancee, a fashionably dressed young woman, appears and Prabha shoots a judgmental glance that implies that this isn't 'culture' either. Later, when he goes to Rangan's office, he sees a woman employee wearing a T-shirt that says 'Touch me here if you dare' and actually gropes her as part of his rant against the system. He also indulges in some good old victim blaming in his testimony to the TV anchor, saying that women who wear T-shirts with such slogans must expect men to harass them. At the end of the film, when the public reacts to his testimony, we see a woman wearing a T-shirt with the words 'Unbutton me here' slamming Prabha's words â€” but by then, the viewer is meant to be in agreement with the hero's philosophy, not question it.
Ram has since defended the portrayal by saying it was the character's "sexual poverty" that led him to behave that way, but the directorial bias becomes evident in how such women are contrasted to the heroine. Anandhi, Prabha's childhood friend, becomes a sex worker due to circumstances and he 'rescues' her from a brothel. However, her 'innocence' is constantly reiterated. She's presented as child-like, someone who won't ever wear sleeveless clothes and eventually chooses to die along with Prabha. What of Anandhi's dreams? Her education? Her agency? The film has no answers to these questions. It also tends to be quite black and white in its portrayal of the IT industry, stereotyping the employees as people who use words like 'dude' and order burgers for lunch.
Ram's subsequent films Thanga Meenkal and Taramani complete his trilogy on the education system. Thanga Meenkal looks at a father-daughter relationship in an education system that's fast becoming privatised while Taramani is on a single mother working in the IT industry and the upheavals in her life. All three films generated heated discussions and extreme reactions, with the audience either loving the films or hating them. Watching Kattradhu Thamizh after fourteen years, there's certainly much that hasn't aged well but there's also plenty that is still relevant in an society where education continues to be on sale.
You can watch the film on YouTube here: