The film's toned down approach to caste realities, with the apparent intention of subverting the anti-caste spirit, is as hypocritical as calling the murders of inter-caste couples an "issue between families".

Stills from the Daggubati Venkatesh starred Narappa movieImage: Amazon Prime Video/Facebook
Flix Film Commentary Thursday, July 22, 2021 - 21:30

When an original work of art is easily available and accessible, few people would choose a flawed imitation. It is therefore common sense that anyone who is aware of social realities would choose Asuran over the Telugu remake, Narappa. The Vetri Maaran directorial starring Dhanush in Tamil was remade by Sreekanth Addala as Narappa in Telugu, with Daggubati Venkatesh in the titular role. Keeping aside the criticism that Asuran received with regard to its portrayal of violence against Dalits and the retaliation (since the contours of anti-caste cinema are still being debated), it can be said that Asuran was largely hailed for showcasing the spirit of anti-caste struggles, and the lives of Dalits who have been dehumanised throughout history. 

Narappa, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, has good performances from Venkatesh, Priyamani, Rao Ramesh, Karthik Rathnam, Rajeev Kanakala, and Nassar. However, though Narappa is a mostly faithful remake, the miniscule changes have made it a shameful misrepresentation of caste and the bloodshed that it causes. Just minutes into the story, which has at its heart caste realities and the significance of land in the lives of Dalits, the voice-over announces, "The poor have no caste and religion, and the rich have no goodwill and humanity". The line makes a mockery of sociological realities in India. By reducing the original film which was based on novelist Poomani's Vekkai and also sourced from incidents like the Dalit massacres of Karamchedu (1985) and Kilvenmani (1968), the director has sugarcoated the story. The intentional caste blindness can only be seen as an effort to deny historical caste discrimination, with the voice-over neglecting to mention the many brutal forms that casteism can take. 
 
In the film, Sundaramma (Priyamani), Narappa's wife, asserts her right over an agricultural well and an argument ensues between her and a group of dominant caste men. A similar incident took place in Karamchedu of Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh in July 1985. Thirty six years ago, a Dalit woman named Munnangi Suvartamma asserted her right over a public tank, triggering the wrath of landlords from the Kamma caste. They indulged in an overnight massacre, killing six Dalit men and raping three Dalit women.
 
Following this, in 1987, Daggubati Chenchu Ramaiah, a Kamma landlord, was killed by the People's War Group (PWG) for his alleged role in the massacre. Ironically, over three and a half decades later, Suresh Productions, which is owned by one of the Daggubati families in the Telugu film industry, has teamed up with V Creations to remake a film that has eerie similarities to a historical incident in which a Daggubati landlord allegedly participated. And it has another Daggubati, Venkatesh, playing the lead.
 
The Telugu industry has a penchant for distorting and manipulating caste realities and Narappa, too, has tried to evade the discussion around caste. Such a convenient distortion of social history in favour of the status quo is nothing short of a betrayal of the oppressed castes and communities. Nobody from these sections asked Sreekanth Addala to remake an anti-caste film and ruin its spirit by reducing it to a typical Telugu film that shows the fight between two families of the same caste or an inter familial love story or yet another film about exiled princes and queens.
 
There is no need to mince words when saying that Narappa is an artistic murder of history as it comforts the caste Hindu oppressors with an unapologetic voice-over that reduces the whole anti-caste assertion vs caste terrorism into a fight between two families. It is a joke that the filmmakers seem to have cracked on the face of history and Dalits who have just started telling their side of the story through different media, including cinema. 
 
Cinema is a powerful medium that can be a potential agent for social transformation. Narappa was an opportunity to narrate an honest story from history, basing it on real episodes from which the original movie was sourced. But not only has it managed to ruin the original, it has also left no space for others to make a faithful remake in Telugu. Those who disagree must ask themselves if any poor dominant caste woman has ever been flogged and paraded with slippers on her head just because she wore them (one of the scenes in the film)? Caste is bloody caste. It has to be shown like it is, and hiding it on screen doesn't make this country, especially Telugunadu, a caste free space. 
 
The film's toned down approach, with the apparent intention of subverting the anti-caste spirit, is as hypocritical as calling the murders of inter-caste couples an "issue between families". When caste Hindu men kill such couples, many hypocrites deny that these are caste crimes (much like the voice-over in Narappa) and cleverly say that it is an "issue between families" and add that "the couple committed a mistake by falling in love and disregarding their families' wishes." While they may outwardly condemn the murders, they also blame the victims in the process, justifying the killings.
 
In the last scene of Narappa, the hero blames himself and his wife for not taking care of Sinabba (the son who goes on to commit a murder) and their daughter Bujji. How can any family which has lost their eldest son to such brutal violence, and whose land is under threat, go on functioning as if nothing had happened? The scene is similar to Asuran, but there, it is placed firmly in the context of caste violence and how it's difficult to escape from its clutches, destroying entire families in the process. Without that, in Narappa, the labelling of the material and emotional barriers created by the oppressor as the mistakes of the oppressed, is a classic violence normalisation technique.
 
This is not a mere case of 'lost in translation'. The film also omits images that stand for the anti-caste struggle. For example, Dr BR Ambedkar's portrait in a court scene in Asuran has been effaced in the Telugu remake.
 
Like any art form, cinema too represents a certain politics. Some justify injustice and the status quo, others oppose it. Some merely treat it as escapism and don't wish to "hurt" anyone and get hurt commercially themselves. Narappa, through simple wordplay like 'rich' (dhanavanthulu, balavanthulu) and ' pedodu' (poor), and a loose term like jaathi (conveniently translated to 'community' in the subtitles), has chosen to keep aside the reality of CASTE though the entire story revolves around it. 
 
In the final scene, Narappa's words to his son, where he says "nobody can take away education from you" unlike land or money, echoes Ambedkar's anti-caste vision of "educate, agitate, organise". But by stripping Narappa of his Dalit identity, the director has only mocked the original scene. The director has also failed to do justice to the class politics through which he has chosen to tell the story as the artificial class identities all through only remind one of what is unsaid ― caste. 
 
The film can be termed as a successful attempt to expose the dishonest storytelling that exists in the Telugu industry. Let's not forget that land is taken away from people because they're Dalits, they're paraded because they're Dalits, they're humiliated and made to carry slippers on their heads, denied education because they're Dalits.The Malas, Madigas, Paraiyars and others are called "untouchable" because they're Dalits. This is not because of class conflict. History and society would have been very different if all this friction was merely "class conflict".
 

(Views expressed are the author's own. Charan Teja covers the two Telugu states and writes predominantly on caste, politics and forest-environmental rights.)

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