Natchathiram Nagargiradhu: Attempt to see love with intersectionality of caste & gender

Indian cinema has always tried to romanticise the concept of love and paint a rosy picture. Love that is deeply rooted in intersectionality is neither dealt with nor discussed in mainstream cinema, writes the author.
A scene from Natchathiram Nagargiradhu
A scene from Natchathiram Nagargiradhu
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Director Pa Ranjith’s film Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is a unique, intriguing and uncompromising contemporary love story. It is a new attempt by Ranjith to explore love as a full-fledged theme with underlying complexities. The movie can be viewed at two levels — reel and real story. The real is the love story revolving around Rene, and reel is the enactment of a play on (dis)honour killings titled ‘Love between Wild and Domestic Cat’ (kaattu poonai and naatu poonai). In order to enact the story, the troupe members discuss and come up with a story surrounding love with intricacies of caste and gender. In the process of producing the play, the way these members see a morphosis in their own life forms the crux of the story.

In Indian cinema, ‘love’ is mostly explored through the lens of privileged caste cishet male protagonists. This movie is the first bold attempt to understand ‘love’ with the intersectionality of class, caste and gender, through the lead character Rene — a Dalit woman who identifies as an Ambedkarite. Rene is portrayed as a confident, strong-willed, witty and modern woman. Her character is moulded through her past experiences coupled with her reading and reflection. She does not abide by the typical gender norms and refuses to compromise her political beliefs in her personal life. This is witnessed in her reaction to the derisive caste remark made by her partner. Her well-dressed manner also reminds us of Babasaheb Dr BR Ambedkar’s attire, which in itself is a political statement. Such women who are politically conscious, who cannot be dominated/controlled are admired but are not preferred in relationships. These characteristics form the reality of most well-educated, politically aware Dalit women. This certainly may not be the experience of all Dalit women but it is also an experience of some Dalit women.

Another interesting character, Arjun, is depicted as a casteist, misogynistic and stereotypical man hailing from a dominant caste, who is a reflection of mainstream society. Arjun's conversations with his fellow cast members showcase the contradictions existing in society. He is given redemption by the protagonist, and makes use of the opportunity to mend his ways.

In contrast, Iniyan, who represents progressive sections of society, is fraught with internal contradictions and hypocrisy. The so-called progressive people who discuss international politics, listen to Black music and stand against racism are also the ones who are deep-rooted in caste practices and uphold caste consciousness in the name of culture and values. This is wonderfully brought out in the conversation between Iniyan and Rene, where the former expresses disdain for Ilaiyaraaja and awe for Nina Simone.

Love can be differently construed and constructed by every individual. Indian cinema has always tried to romanticise the concept of love and paint a rosy picture. Love that is deeply rooted in intersectionality is neither dealt with nor discussed in mainstream cinema. Even if it is portrayed in a few movies, it always deals with superficial problems prevalent in relationships. For example, the power dynamics between the male and female in a relationship are discussed from the vantagepoint of gender roles and class. But how caste and gender are interconnected and what role that plays in these relationships is a very significant aspect that Natchathiram Nagargiradhu has tried to ponder upon.

Read TNM’s review of Natchathiram Nagargiradhu: Pa Ranjith lights a spark to defy old ideas of love

The inter-caste relation receives wide opposition and scepticism from the casteist lot. Especially, inter-caste relationships aren’t a problem but being in relationship with a Dalit is a problem. For the anti-caste proponents, even though inter-caste relationships are widely considered to be one of the powerful tools to tackle caste consciousness, the power dynamics that exist between the inter-caste couples remains a sore spot. The conversations between Rene and Iniyan are just a reflection of the caste experiences of inter-caste couples. This kind of scepticism is a threat to the anti-caste objective at large, but still there is a need to understand why this scepticism arises in the first place, exclusively in case of a Dalit woman. The scepticism comes from the abuse, fear, abandonment, uncertainty, continuous tests and pressure that are forced upon her throughout the relationships. Dalit women undergo three layers of oppression from caste, class and gender within such relationships.

On the other hand, if a Dalit man and a caste Hindu girl are in a relationship, it is either termed ‘fake love’ (nadaga kaadhal) or could lead to a caste murder. If the relationship persists surpassing these challenges, the man is put to test and compelled to prove himself time and again, either by his partner or her family. This exerts continuous pressure on Dalit men to prove themselves as worthy partners. Do inter-caste relationships transcend caste differences or become imitations of the oppressors’ cultures? How the Dalit community deals with these kinds of challenges without compromising their self-respect and also on the path of caste annihilation needs to be introspected.

For most people who are not aware of the multi-dimensions of love, this movie will be an eye-opener. And for the people who think they are politically conscious, this movie will help to introspect from the caste and gender standpoints. Because politically conscious people are not always perfect. They also have their own contradictions within and outside. Learning to be politically conscious is not a day’s phenomenon but a consistent engagement with oneself and the world. This message is smoothly conveyed in the film through different characters.

Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, as the title suggests, is a reminder for humankind that stars make us look so insignificant in the vast expanse of the universe. That stars move and so do our lives. We are just unable to break free from the norms that humans make whereas love knows no bounds.

The film clearly envisages the vision of Buddha and Babasaheb Ambedkar’s egalitarian society through various symbolic representations (shots of books such as The Buddha and His Dhamma and Castes in India by Dr Ambedkar; Buddha wall painting).

The climax of the film reflects the intolerant nature of our society, which fears engaging on the critical aspects of social order, while on the other hand the film also gives optimism and emphasises the importance of having dialogues on decisive facets. A progressive attempt, this movie can neither be negated nor left unheeded. What is needed is engagement. Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is taking a step closer to creating a casteless and gender-just society.

Manju Priya K is pursuing PhD in Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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