Among the four films in the Victim anthology, released recently on the SonyLIV OTT platform, Pa Ranjith’s Dhammam has been receiving wide appreciation from critics and audiences alike. Set in a village, the film talks about caste politics. Sticking to the theme of ‘victim’, Dhammam is based on the Buddhist philosophy of humanity and compassion.
The film opens with a beautiful shot of a Buddha bust in a green field against a tree. As the camera stays still on the bust, a small girl, Kema, sneaks up from behind the statue. Holding the statue’s head, she climbs over its shoulder, spreads her arms wide and pretends to fly, leading to a protest from her father who is offended that she has disrespected “god.” To this, the defiant girl responds: “Buddha himself has declared that there is no god, and you are calling him a god,” leaving the angry father pondering momentarily.
In the current political climate where we hear daily reports of religious sentiments getting hurt, this particular scene has generated a lot of conversation about how the shot suggests metaphorically that the path of Buddhism liberates you and lets you fly. In the context of Dalits, this theme becomes stronger. Many Dalit communities are not even allowed to enter temples, let alone touch and “pollute” them, and here is a Dalit girl playing on the Buddha’s bust and “defiling” it with her feet; and making a commentary against all Brahminical notions of “purity” and “reverence”.
The thought-provoking shot has now been translated into digital artwork, with several appreciating Ranjith’s use of the metaphor and his interpretation of the Buddha.
Sharing the viral image of the girl with imaginary wings on Buddha’s shoulders, writer Vasugi Bhaskar wrote: “Dhammam is philosophy of Buddha. The artwork is the philosophy of the scene.”
Several others also have appreciated the director for reflecting on the principles of Buddhism.
A young girl climbs on top of a bust of Buddha. She’s trying to fly, & her father doesn’t like what he’s seeing, he shouts to her & said, "Why you are playing over our God? The girl replied calmly, "Budhha himself said there is no God.."— Dayanand Kamble (@dayakamPR) August 6, 2022
Watch @beemji's short film #Dhammam pic.twitter.com/gwwfy2G2qO
However, some found the scene objectionable. Strongly condemning Pa Ranjith, the Tamil Nadu Buddhist Sanga Council (TNBSC) threatened to take legal action against the director. TNBSC said that the scene has hurt the religious sentiments of Buddhists and demanded that Ranjith remove the objectionable scene and offer a public apology. It further asked the Tamil Nadu government to ban the scene from being shared online. Stating that several countries consider Buddha a god, TNBSC said that it was not willing to accept any explanation from the director.
Gowthama Sanna, Deputy General Secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), also took offence to the scene.
“When we see the sarcastic responses to the reactions to the scene that insulted the Buddha, we can understand that reasoning has decayed in the land where Buddha and Ambedkar appeared. It is superstitious to believe that Buddha can be approached in any way that is rational. The next step of that superstition is to believe that just by uttering the words Buddha and Ambedkar, one knows everything about them,” he said in a Facebook post.
“Even Ambedkar worshipped the Buddha, but to say that we will climb on his head and believe that it is rational is an expression of supreme ignorance. Also, it is rational to hope that garlanding Ambedkar with slipper garland and desecrating Periyar’s statue will not be included in this (category),” Sanna added.
Poet and activist Jilukara Srinivas, who is also the founder of the Dalit Bahujan Samithi, expressed: “Yes, Buddha is not a god, but to prove this point should someone climb on his shoulders? Is there no other way to put this point across?”
He argued, “Tomorrow, someone will climb on Ambedkar’s statue and say that Ambedkar was not a god. Should we appreciate him then?” He said that to uphold atheism disrespecting the Buddha was not appropriate and demanded that the director delete the scene.