There is little exclusively Dalit about Rene’s feminism in Natchathiram Nagargiradhu

Even the few instances through which the film evokes Rene’s Dalit subjectivity come across as weak performative illustrations, failing to capture both the oppression and assertion of a Dalit woman.
Dushara Vijayan as Rene
Dushara Vijayan as Rene
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The phenomenon of Pa Ranjith is significant for the Dalit cultural movement in Indian cinema for many reasons, the most important of which would be his assertive portrayal of Dalit characters as protagonists. Ranjith’s lens made it possible for Dalits to see themselves, their neighbourhood, art and relationships on the big screen, which has hitherto been an exclusive caste Hindu space.

Even in his latest film Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, which was released in the theatres in August and is now available for digital streaming, Ranjith — a pioneer in introducing the Dalit framework to Tamil cinema — attempts to approach a progressive plot premised on a Puducherry-based liberal arts theatre group with his signature anti-caste aesthetic. The film’s plot provides the space to democratically discuss issues such as the caste hierarchy, patriarchy, and caste-based ‘honour’ killings. The group consists of artists from diverse castes, genders and sexualities, adding strength to the story that explores ‘contemporary love’. 

With its unusual plot, the movie is undoubtedly a bold attempt at evoking discussions on caste and gender, which is precisely why it is crucial to critique it through a Dalit feminist lens. So let’s take a deeper look at how Natchathiram Nagargiradhu characterises Rene, its Dalit woman protagonist.

Characterisation of Rene and the problem

Rene, played by Dushara Vijayan, is portrayed as an assertive Ambedkarite woman who is fearless and independent. She is a model and a theatre artist who built herself up by challenging caste norms and discrimination. However, her portrayal — including the place she is at, the people she interacts with, and the vocabulary she engages in — compels me to strongly contend that Rene can just as easily be any other woman. She does not represent Dalit women, nor does her portrayal represent Dalit feminism.

In Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, Ranjith has experimented by relocating a young Dalit woman from the usual backdrop of an oppressive space to a utopian liberal one. It may be noted that this rootlessness has always been a privilege asserted by caste elites, for they don’t have to — or choose not to — bear the burden of their community or family. But the contention here is not about the possibility of a Dalit woman being rootless or occupying liberal spaces. Rather, the question is this: Has this utopia ever really been a liberating space for Dalit women, or is it instead an intimidating space where we are forced to hide our identities and mimic savarnas in the quest for acceptance and recognition?

Even if Rene’s identity in the film is replaced with that of a Brahmin woman, her characterisation, her problems and struggles will all remain the same. Where is the exclusivity in the portrayal of a ‘Dalit’ feminist here? Of course, there are a few instances through which the film evokes her Dalit subjectivity. However, they are all weak performative illustrations that fail to capture both the oppression and assertion of a Dalit woman. 

Rene is shown to flaunt how she eats beef and reads Ambedkar’s texts. It's the sort of anti-caste solidarity exhibited by caste-elite liberals who occupy academic and activist circles. The savarna elites premise their understanding of caste on mere behavioural symbolisms, evading the questions pertaining to Dalit subjectivity. Hence, for them, solidarity is a collection of performances such as exhibiting one’s beef-eating habits and allegiance to Ambedkarite ideals.

Another important instance that addresses Rene’s caste position is the complexities in her relationship. The movie begins with an argument between Rene and her partner Iniyan (Kalidas Jayaram) over Ilaiyaraaja. Iniyan, clearly provoked, uses a casteist slur against Rene, and she eventually breaks up with him. He is portrayed to be obnoxiously possessive of her, questioning her closeness with male friends and her previous sexual relationships. However, even this relationship plot fails to strengthen Rene’s characterisation as a Dalit feminist. In fact, any liberal woman who happens to be in a relationship with a sexist like Iniyan, who controls their partner’s actions, is likely to end up breaking up with him. 

The aforementioned instances can only find their place within caste-elite liberals’ imagination of caste and gender oppression, which falls short of conceiving the struggles exclusive to both political and apolitical Dalit women. 

Finally, and most importantly, comes the illustration of Rene’s childhood, which documents her past traumatic experiences of caste oppression. As a young rural Dalit girl, Rene has faced many incidents of untouchability and humiliation. She was once laughed at by her classmates because her father played Parai in front of her school. Though documentation of such caste atrocities is accurate in the movie, I assert my scepticism over the usage of those stories to justify her position and transformation. This history, rather than making me relate to it, just reminds me of how Dalit histories are continuously appropriated and how Dalit women are always given token representation to legitimise dominant ideas and spaces.

Here, the portrayal of Rene as an individual and the depiction of her choices and transformation should not have been a problem, for she can be whoever she wants to be and adopt whichever form of feminism that suits her interest. But when she is portrayed and justified as an ideal liberated Ambedkarite Dalit woman, this characterisation can only be seen as a forced imposition on Dalit women, which alienates and intimidates us. It especially misleads young Dalit women, curbing their self-reflection and forcing them to mimic savarna feminism.

Ranjith has previously featured remarkable male protagonists such as ‘Attakathi’ Dinakaran and ‘Madras’ Kaali in his films. Dalit men were able to relate to these characters and cherish watching one among them on the big screen. On the other hand, the characterisation of Rene implies that Dalit women have to keep looking up to the traits exhibited by savarna feminists, passed off as that of a ‘Dalit’ woman, and continue to feel as if their existence is inferior and irrelevant within the feminist discourse. Rene can readily be accepted and celebrated by any upper caste feminist because she disturbs only patriarchy in general. She never disturbs the savarna feminist conscience; rather, she represents it.

Rohith and Rene: The problem with the comparison

The 2016 institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student and member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association at the University of Hyderabad, had triggered a massive anti-caste movement across the country. Ranjith, in one of his interviews, drew a connection between the late student leader and Rene for their aspirations to reach the stars, over which I have serious disagreements. 

Rene can only associate herself with the comparatively exclusive utopian and liberal spaces. These kinds of spaces exist in central universities too, and Dalit students from marginalised backgrounds have only seen them from a distance. Though these spaces outwardly project themselves as progressive and inclusive, they merely reflect the idea of savarna liberalism. Their language and interests are free from social ties and commitments, besides being utterly alien to marginalised students. Instead, they only make Dalit students feel inferior and question their existence within those exclusive spaces.

Rohith was not one among them. He was a part of the larger student community; he was one among us. His struggles were ours and so were the movements it led to. Rohith’s aspiration to reach the stars at the moment of writing his suicide note is not the same as Rene’s. In fact, Rohith and Rene belong to two different worlds that are unlikely to have intersected by any chance, even if they happened to live on the same campus. 

The world that liberals occupy is different, so they don’t have the minimal empathy or feel the necessity to engage with marginalised students around them. Yet, the feminism they speak and write about and the research they conduct would be in the names of ‘Dalit’ women. We, on the other hand, simply end up passing by such groups, in the same way any Dalit woman would pass by Rene too, neither having any interest nor confidence in engaging with her. 

Rohith represents a community that struggled to survive within social, structural inequalities and fought against them. In contrast, Rene is on a journey to liberate herself from society, carrying the trauma from her past experiences and simply adapting to the feminism she received from the savarna liberal groups she encounters on her way. If one argues that she has been liberated and transformed, then the question would be how she has transformed and on what terms she has been liberated, which needs at least a minimal justification.

As an individual, Rene can be whoever she wants to be and represent any form of feminism, disturbing and confronting the patriarchal consciousness of this society and its men in particular. Indeed, these discourses are undoubtedly required to shake the world’s dogmatic and patriarchal beliefs. The only reason to critique Rene is in terms of her portrayal as an ‘ideal’ liberated Dalit woman, even as she simply reflects a kind of savarna feminism that is void of the struggles, assertions and liberations of Dalit women. 

Hence, to state again, Rene can be any other woman, and her portrayal can represent any form of feminism. But neither does she represent Dalit women, nor does her portrayal represent Dalit feminism.

Lalitha is currently pursuing her PhD in Urban Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She had also completed her Masters in Sociology from the University of Hyderabad.


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