‘Kabali’ film is a response to the 2012 Dharmapuri caste riots, says Dalit scholar Stalin Rajangam

The new book by Dalit intellectual Stalin Rajangam is a one-of- its-kind analysis of caste portrayal in Tamil films since the late 1970s. Tamil Cinema Punaivil Iyangum Samoogam (Tamil Cinema Society Operating in Illusion) provides fascinating insights into how the political assertion of intermediate caste groups has played out on the big screen. The debate over the representation of the state’s Dalit community in cinema has popped up in the unlikeliest of places – the Rajinikanth blockbuster Kabali. Pa Ranjith’s movie makes veiled references to Rajinikanth’s Dalit lineage, especially in the sequences in which Kabali speaks of the importance of wearing a three-piece suit and claiming power from those who have had it for far too long. There are several views on how deep Kabali’s Dalit subtext cuts, while Ranjith himself has clearly stated that he does not want to be identified solely as a Dalit filmmaker.

In Rangajam’s view, Kabali is a response to the Dharmapuri riots in 2012, in which caste Hindu mobs ransacked Dalit villages after a Vanniyar woman and a Dalit man eloped. Excerpts from an interview.

In your book, you mention that caste portrayals in Tamil cinema can be categorised as filmspreand post the Dharmapuririots. Does ‘Kabali’ fit this categorisation?
I see Kabali as a sort of a response to the hate politics that the Pattali Makkal Katchi unleashed in Tamil Nadu after Dharmapuri. In the film, Rajinikanth, who dons the character of a hero of the oppressed sections, makes specific references to his sartorial preference of a three-piece suit. Dalits see such dressing as a tool of modernity. In another scene, he mentions that he hails from Tindivanam, where PMK founder S Ramadoss lives. In 2012, Ramadoss, as a precursor to his anti-Dalit movement, accused the youth of the community of wearing jeans and sunglasses and orchestrating “love dramas” [initiating inter-caste romance]. The fact that the marriage between Kabali and his wife survives 25 years of separation is a solid counter to this discourse. The influence of Dharmapuri 2012 is starkly evident in the movie.

You write about how films like ‘Sundarapandian’, parts of which glorify caste Hindu honour attached to women of the community, manage to persuade even those not convinced by Ramadoss to accept anti-Dalit politics. By the same yardstick, will ‘Kabali’ make people accept Dalit political ideas?
In Tamil Nadu, there are two rigid sections. Those who accept Dalit politics and those who do not. This is an absolute distinction. But even those who accept Dalit political ideas do it with some ground rules. People do not have any issues as long as the Dalit movement is portrayed as an extension of either the Dravidian or Left movements. The moment the individuality of the Dalit movement is asserted, all hell breaks loose and you see strong opposition.

In Ranjith’s case, you should understand his background. He grew up in Tiruvallur [a northern district in Tamil Nadu] and then North Chennai and imbibed the politics of the Bahujan Samj Partyand Poovai Jaganmurthy of Puratchi Bharatam. He has barely any associations with the Periyarite movement. But look at the response. Dravidian intellectuals are asking him why he does not show Periyar in Kabali. This has led to an apology from Ranjith.

As long as films show the unique history and traits of the Dalit movement and disassociate themselves from the OBC dominated non-Brahmin movement, like Kabali did, there will not be acceptance.

The 1970s and ’80s produced strong Leftist movies (‘KannSivanthal MannSivakkum’, ‘VarumaiyinNiramSivappu’) as a consequence of theKizhvenmanimassacre of 1969, in which 44 striking Dalit labourers were burnt alive, allegedly on the orders of their employers. Is the same mechanics in operation as far as Dharmapurigoes?
You cannot equate the two for the simple reason that it is still not possible in Tamil cinema to openly discuss Dalit issues by directly referring to the characters as Dalits. But the movies in the ’70s and ’80s had no such problems. They were open about what they said. In films like Visaranai, though the characters playing the victims have great resemblance to Dalits, they are referred to as poor people. This has a lot to do with the question of marketing and the possibility of opposition in the social and political spheres.

The Tamil film fraternity is predominantly OBC, and there will be a backlash in their own circles when the basis of the politics of these communities is questioned. Kabali is an exception. Here is an ageing superstar trying to reinvent himself and break away from the stereotypical characterisations he is used to. In that sense, Rajinikanth sought out the crew of Madras to provide him with a new image. I am very sure that this will not happen often in Tamil cinema, and other stars wouldn’t be this eager. Even in Kabali, the story invariably unfolds in Malaysia.

But you see a situation where even Dalits do not openly talk about their identity despite occupying powerful positions in the industry. Take music composerIlaiyaraaja – he avoids talking about his caste.
Exactly my point. You should look at the period during which he emerged. There are enough stories about how he struggled in his first few years. In fact, I often feel the overdose of religion and spirituality you see in Ilaiyaraajais probably a way to overcome the prejudices that come with this caste identity. But all said and done, history will see Ilaiyaraaja’s contribution as a substantial one by this community. Also, it is not necessary that every Dalit should be overtly political.

In the ’80s, Tamil cinema saw the so-called “smell of the native” (MannVasanai) movies made by directors like Bharathiraja. You write about how modernity interacts with orthodoxy in these films through urban characters. Later, they evolved into the blatantlycasteistmovies of the ’90s that glorify intermediate castes (‘ThevarMagan’, ‘Yejaman’, ‘Chinna Gounder’). What is the main difference between the older films and the current ones?
The major change is where the story is situated. In the ’80s and the ’90s, Tamil films romanticised village life. Rather than bringing out the simplicity, the characters were given larger-than-life personas. You had this strong machismo (Murattu Kalai,Sakalakala Vallavan), and directors were restricted by the need to adhere strictly to the social traditions of the communities while constructing the characters. Though they did convey some reformist ideas (VedamPudidu), they did not aggressively challenge the caste structure of the village.

The films have now moved from the villages to the cities and towns. Ranjith’s own film Attakathi and those like Chennai 28 are wonderful examples of how the image of the male protagonist is constantly being deflated and brought very close to reality. There is also the cosmopolitan nature of the urban space, which has helped directors bring out the nuances of community relationships. What the films based on villages should have done, the movies today are doing it in an urban setting.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply