The verdict in the Sankar murder case has sparked discussions on caste pride in Tamil Nadu once again. Sankar, a Dalit man, was brutally murdered in March 2016 for marrying Kausalya, a woman from the socially dominant Thevar caste. The killers had been hired by her family.
While many have welcomed the verdict which sends out a strong message against 'honour' killings, several have abused Kausalya for supposedly bringing shame and disrepute to her caste and community. The discussions have also led to an examination of how caste pride is reflected in popular culture, especially Tamil cinema.
Glorifying dominant castes
Cinema in Tamil Nadu is an extremely influential medium and over the years, certain caste narratives have been created, sustained and glorified on the big screen.
In Cheran's debut film Bharathi Kannamma, for instance, actor Vijaykumar who plays a Thevar zamindar, delivers a speech on what it means to be a "true" Thevar. He says anyone who carries a sickle or sports a moustache cannot be considered a Thevar and that a real one would be able to protect the "honour" of a woman against hundreds of enemies. He also speaks about the "magnanimity" that a "true" Thevar exhibits towards other castes.
The critically acclaimed Kamal Haasan film Thevar Magan, is vivid in its portrayal of caste pride and songs from the film are still played in Thevar celebrations in the state.
In their paper 'Madurai Formula Films: Caste Pride and Politics in Tamil Cinema', Karthikeyan Damodaran and Hugo Gorringe write:
"The martial nature of Thevars is to the fore in Thevar Magan where signs, weapons and dialogue all speak to the casteâ€™s dominance. The advertising for the film reinforced the association between caste and violence. In Madurai, which has a stronger visual culture than other cities in Tamil Nadu, a 40-foot cut-out was installed showing the Thevar Magan hero brandishing an extra-large sword. More significantly stillâ€”as though to reinforce the association between life and artâ€”the cut-out was positioned so that it faced the huge statue of Muthuramalinga Thevar in the heart of the city. During the annual â€śguru pujaâ€ť (leader worshipâ€”processions and events to mark the anniversary of his birth), when followers of Thevar shut down the city to pay respects to and garland the statue, objections were raised against the cut-out and its glorification of violence. Consequently the sword was removed and placed behind the hoarding for a while. Due to popular pressure, however, it was later restored (Srinivas and Kaali 1998:225). Thus, as early as this, we see the imbrication of cinematic themes with popular forms of action and representation."
Kamal's Virumandi (initially named Sandiyar) also had several instances of caste glorification, including a jallikattu scene that established the actor's masculinity and loyalty to his roots.
In the Rajinikanth film Yejaman, the hero who comes from a dominant caste group is venerated by the people around him to the extent that one of them says nobody even dares to walk in his footprints. The man then presses the sand on which Rajinikanth's character has walked, to his forehead.
Other dominant caste groups like the Gounders have also been glorified in films. The Vijaykanth film Chinna Gounder has a character praising the discerning sense of the Gounders and how the people give more importance to the Chinna Gounder's words than a court of law.
An interesting documentary The Invisible Other: Caste in Tamil Cinema produced, directed and edited by Suresh ET in 2014 throws light on how such representations have become celebrated in the Tamil film industry.
Speaking about such glorified representations in the documentary, Stalin Rajangam, writer and lecturer, American College, Madurai*, says that by the '90s, communities and caste groups that had been classified as 'backward' came to assert themselves politically and claim their identities. This, he says, was because of certain political developments like the Mandal Commission which had been set up in 1979 to bring in reservation quota on the basis of caste. This assertion of identity also led to an acceptance of caste pride among certain sections.
Pointing out that Tamil cinema doesn't often talk about caste directly unlike Hollywood films do about race, R Prabhakar, Assistant Professor, American College, says in the documentary, that cinema psychologically influences our perceptions about caste. He notes that the cinema doesn't associate dominant caste groups with shame but rather celebrates it.
He adds that previously, students who came from rural backgrounds used to abandon their clothes for jeans but that now, they wish to stick to the veshti and hold on to caste symbols.
The Damodaran and Gorringe paper lists a long line of films that have followed Thevar Magan like Thevar Veetu Ponnu, Maravan, Kizhakku Cheemayile, Periya Marudhu, Pasumpon, Ponmana Chelvan, Taj Mahal, Maayi, Diwan, Kaalai, Kaadhal, Ghilli, Sanda Kozhi, Thimiru, ParuthiVeeran, Subramaniapuram, Goripalayam, Saami, Maayandi Kudumbathar, Thittakudi, Milaga, Aadukalam and Sundarapandian which have the "commemoration of a particular dominant caste and its customs" as the film's "central idiom".
The rise of such films, they argue, coincides with a resurgence of anti-Dalit violence. In the same paper, Damodaran and Gorringe write about the reactions that audiences have had to these films.
Cinema halls in Madurai, Theni, and Kovilpatti districts where Bharathi Kannamma was screened were damaged because the film shows a Thevar falling at the feet of Dalits. Kaadhal, which is about 'honour' killings and is based on a real life story, was reportedly received with enthusiasm by the Thevars in cinema halls because they saw the violence as an assertion of their power. The Dalits, on the other hand, felt intimidated by the film.
How are Dalit castes represented?
While dominant caste groups are celebrated on screen, Dalit caste groups are not even mentioned as Dalit on screen. They are simply termed as the marginalised or subjugated.
In the recent Suseenthiran film Maveeran Kittu, a Dalit youth falls in love with a dominant caste group, but the film does not mention caste names and only vaguely refers to the two groups as 'higher' and 'lower'.
In the documentary, filmmaker SP Jananthan who made Jayam Ravi's Peranmai discusses his difficulties in getting the film made.
He shares that the film had to go through 16 cuts because of which the politics in it looks imbalanced. Initially, the director says, there were scenes that show how caste is everywhere - among the students, office staff, and even the police. But much of this was removed. The film has Jayam Ravi playing a tribal forest guard who is looked down upon by his students because of his caste.
When Jananthan asked the CBFC why he had to make these cuts, he was reportedly told that caste discrimination no longer existed and that there was no need to show it on screen.
Responding to Jananthan is Babu Ramasamy, former regional director of the CBFC, who explains that the guideline they follow is that it is all right to "praise' any caste but that no caste must be denigrated. This means, he says, even the word 'Dalit' cannot be used.
There is a lot of confusion about the term 'Dalit' in public discourse, with several thinking that the term in itself is an 'insult' when it is not so. In fact, the word is embraced by the oppressed as an assertion of their identity.
But this understanding has clearly not permeated the CBFC.
In the documentary, director Thangabachan says in his film Azhagi, he was asked to chop out a picture of Ambedkar in a school building (he is hesitant to mention who insisted on this). The shot appears after a scene in which two children fight over a book, with one child, who comes from a marginalised group, asking if people like him cannot study.
The documentary doesn't stop with an analysis of such films but also examines what kind of a psychological impact it creates on the audience.
A Dalit student speaking on camera says that he finds it very difficult to enjoy films like Paruthiveeran where members of dominant caste groups sit together in the theatre and cheer for certain dialogues.
"I end up wondering why I came for this film," he says.
It's not just cinema. The discomfort with handling Dalit subjects exists across the board. In the documentary, Aranga Mallika, Associate Professor, Ethiraj College, says that her colleagues, who belong to dominant castes, did not want to teach a text like Andha Nandhanani Eritha Neruppin Micham because it has the names of certain caste groups.
However, actor Nasser points out that it's very difficult to make a realistic film about caste oppression without offending sentiments since certain words and situations have to be shown if the film is to have verisimilitude.
Writer, journalist and director Gnani Sankaran says that in a volatile society such as ours, such representations can have consequences and that until about 25 years ago, the names of castes wouldn't even be mentioned in the Tamil media if there had been a clash.
Balasubramaniam Jeyapal, Assistant Professor, Madurai Kamaraj University, acknowledges that such tensions might come up but says the CBFC is only bothered when there's a sizable number of people belonging to a certain section.
"Why did they allow the word 'kurathi' in Paruthiveeran then?" he questions.
Caste on ground
Actor Vikram's film Deiva Thirumagal was originally titled Deiva Thirumagan. However, the title had to be changed following protests from the Thevars.
Vikram, who is half-Hindu and half-Christian, is considered to be Dalit. The Thevars had objected to the use of the title at the time, stating that it insulted their leader Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar who was called by the name in their community. The Damodar and Gorringe paper as well as the documentary mention the episode.
The film industry, like the rest of society, is divided along caste lines. In the documentary, Jananthan speaks of the "namba aalu" culture within it. That is, people from a certain caste keep recommending and promoting the work of others who belong to their same caste group. He adds that except the Dalits, every other caste group is organised and functions like a clique. The Dalits in the industry do not openly lay claim to their identity.
C Lakshmanan, Assistant Professor, MIDS, points out that film production is in the hands of the dominant caste groups which ensure that the "graded inequality" remains the same. Besides, there is a power nexus between the cinema industry and politics, which strengthens these rigid structures further.
Speaking of film as a business, Nasser says that it's only after a film is marketed that it starts making money. The film should therefore be a product that has willing buyers.
Dalit leader Thol Thirumavalavan of the VCK says distributors were not willing to take up a Dalit newspaper, let alone films.
Balasubramaniam sums it up: Just as it's easy for a Thevar or Gounder to find social acceptance but not for a Dalit, a film about Thevars or Gounders will find social acceptance but not one about Dalits.
While a genius like Ilaiyarajaa, who comes from the Dalit community, may be celebrated, it's still very difficult for people from marginalised groups to enter the industry and survive within the caste-ridden networks.
The documentary ends on a note of hope - the Pa Ranjith film Madras, which was rich in Dalit symbols and subtext and went on to become a commercial success. While the film did not mention the word 'Dalit' anywhere, it ushered in a new era on screen.
Ranjith went on to make Kabali with Rajinikanth. Once again, the film had plenty of Dalit symbols and subtext. It also made Tamil Nadu's biggest star give voice to Ambedkar on the big screen in a never before seen way.
In an interview to TNM, Pa Ranjith had said, "I was very interested to see the different kinds of criticism that the film (Kabali) earned. I haven't made a film that has pleased everyone but I don't think I can. I might be able to add some elements that make the film more interesting, but more acceptable? I don't think so. The whole fight is about who will accept you and who will not, so I cannot be a good man to everyone. If it's a war, the enemy has to be fought."
The caste divisions within the film industry have given the audience certain narratives over the years. With the emergence of directors like Ranjith, however, the old guard's authority has come under challenge.
*All designations mentioned are according to the 2014 documentary