Let me pause to make one thing clear about what I, personally, think of centrism in politics: you only function as roadblocks to social justice.

Yennanga Sir Unga Sattam film screengrabScreengrab/ThinkMusicIndia
Flix Film Commentary Saturday, October 30, 2021 - 16:23

Director Prabhu Jayaram in the press meet before the release of his Yennanga Sir Unga Sattam said that he is searching for his centrist position. The film was touted as a political satire that would talk about how people from all castes can become archakas in temples. If that sounded like the stance was going to be a progressive one, it was only half the description from the filmmaker’s side. From the trailer, it was already quite obvious that the film attacks caste-based reservation in education and jobs. Like Shankar’s Gentleman (1993), it is an impetus to the myth of the “poor, hardworking and deserving Brahmin who loses out to Bahujan candidates because of reservation.” I should probably clarify that from me, a comparison to Gentleman and its brood of films spinning narratives about the imagined victimhood of Brahmins, is not a compliment.

One of the many grating dialogues in the film is from a Brahmin character saying “naa mattum yein uyira koduthu padikkanum” why must I alone wear out my life studying? In a similar vein, another, “It’s not enough if Brahmins just study, you have to put your heart and soul into it. That’s the only way you can get a decent life.”

Does the director mean to say only Brahmins study hard and Bahujan students who avail reservation don’t? Are we to understand, that this falls back to the routine excuse of “merit” that Brahmins and other upper-castes keep bringing up? Intriguing dialogue to put in, in a state where young Bahujan lives have been put at risk by an exam like NEET which is inconsiderate of caste inequalities.

Let me pause to make one thing clear about what I, personally, think of centrism in politics: you only function as roadblocks to social justice. Centrism in its elusive chase for a “both sides argument”, strengthens the oppressor; gives wings to the privileged. 

In the issue of caste, Brahmins and Bahujans are not affected by caste in the same ways. While dealing with a system of graded inequality, lopsided representation, generational wealth and access, how do you arrive at a conclusion that those at the very top are victims? I use Bahujan here to mean SC/ST/OBC people who are all eligible for reservation.  

Another dialogue in the film: a child asks the question, “What does SC quota mean?” “SC means Scheduled Caste” answers his grandmother (Rohini Molleti), who is a TNPSC (Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission) official. “They are people who are struggling to make ends meet. You remember our rickshaw-puller uncle? People like him,” she says. Is there an on overlap between working class people and Dalit people? Yes. Is class the way to explain a caste-based official category? No. It already conveniently warps the representation of caste and class relations. The film perpetrates a delusion that class supersedes caste in India. The reality is far more complex in a country that is, at its rawest self, a caste society. Class is not a perfect armour against caste.

The exchange doesn’t stop there. She tries to explain reservation to her grandson using swimming as a metaphor. “You’re very good at swimming, but would it be fair to get someone who has never seen the sea or even a pond to compete against you?” Reservation is like giving that person a life jacket and saying “its enough if they swim 800 metres, while you swim a mile.” To which the grandson tritely responds, “How is that fair, won’t the person who actually knows how to swim be angry?”

Again, “merit” raises its ugly head. The only conclusion to draw from such an exchange is that the director believes those who come into education or jobs via reservation lack capability or talent in their field unlike those in the general category.

The crux of the film is that a Brahmin man from a poor family, repeatedly fails to get a TNPSC job, despite performing well in the interviews because of reservation. This is then compared to a Dalit priest who wants to become an archakar in a Kumbakonam temple, which he has the right to, according to the rules of Tamil Nadu’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department. This is an old law, a part of the state’s Dravidian ideologies. When the DMK came to power this year, 208 people that included 24 trained archakas from non-Brahmin castes, were appointed to temples that fall under the management of the HR&CE. The appointments led to discontent and was challenged in court.

Some of that discontent and casteism is shown in Yennanga Sir Unga Sattam. A family of rich Brahmins holding sway over the temple the Dalit priest wants to join, repeatedly attempt to block him, throw casteist slurs at him.

Prabhu Jayram means to equate the hierarchy, hate and exclusion encoded in the Manusmriti that legitimises Brahmin superiority to a social justice scheme meant to undo that very system of oppression. If you see reservation and sanathan dharma in the same light, you’re casteist too.

Reservation is not a poverty-alleviation scheme, as has been pointed out many, many times before. Reservation is not some charitable gesture from the state. Reservation does not dilute talent. It is to right generations of casteist injustice, ensure equal access. How many more reports must there be about deliberate SC/ST/OBC vacancies in academic jobs? How many more institutional murders of reserved category students will it take before filmmakers bother to understand the fundamentals of reservation? How much longer does the burden of explaining reservation to upper castes and /or centrists have to fall on Bahujan students as they simultaneously deal with the trauma of institutional discrimination? Addressed directly to all of those opposed to caste-based reservation, how much more anger and pain will you continue to extract out of Bahujan candidates to satisfy your own inadequate understanding of caste-class dynamics?

The film takes an excruciatingly long time to arrive at this part of its politics, dedicating its entire first half to the many romances of a tiresomely regressive protagonist. This pre-interval portion almost works to anaesthetise the viewer with boredom and confusion so that by the time the film arrives at its opinions on caste-based reservation, you’re nearly past the point of caring. It’s even unclear if the director has deliberately written JP (played by RS Karthick), an instantly dislikeable character, as spoof or as his version of an anti-hero the audience is supposed to root for.

The transition into the second half is pegged by a blackboard with Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the constitution written on it. Yet, it abjectly fails to understand that equality cannot exist without taking into consideration caste locations. That is the reason there are additional protective laws for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe people. If you don’t understand equity and equality, if you lack awareness and reading on caste issues, please don’t make smug movies with half-baked understanding.

Prabhu Jayram’s conclusion in his film is that reservation should be class-based and not caste-based. "Why should there be a difference between Brahmins and non-Brahmins among poor people? There should be a separate quota for these poor, whatever caste they are from,” says the Brahmin TNPSC aspirant in the climax sequence.

Yennanga Sir Unga Sattam, a new-age Gentleman, is fuel to the upper caste supporters of the EWS (Economically Weaker Sections) quota. The director can deny this all he likes as he did in his press meet, but regardless, it is anti-reservation upper castes who will praise his film. His stance at this press meet for a “creamy layer” in reservation is flawed. Unlike the filmmaker, those who have dedicated their lives to dismantling caste inequalities have already extensively pointed out the inherent problems of the existing “creamy layer” system for OBCs. Rather than use caste as entertainment that upper-caste sections will no doubt help sell, filmmakers would do themselves and society a service if they bothered to be more informed.

Such flawed understanding spurns the decades of efforts towards social justice by Periyarist and Ambedkarite ideals, intentionally or unintentionally, flying its flag high for the Union government’s attempts to appease its upper caste vote bank.

Yennanga Sir Unga Sattam is streaming now on SonLiv.