Political, intensely human, and firmly anti-caste: A celebration of the new wave of Tamil cinema

By Vishal Vasanthakumar

Tamil cinema has been a significant part of life in Tamil Nadu for a long time, closely tied to its politics and culture. For decades, several scholars have documented Tamil cinema’s ties to politics, its portrayal of various subaltern characters, and the chasm between Bollywood cinema and “southern” or “regional” cinema.

In the early 1950s, Tamil cinema primarily revolved around themes of devotion and India’s freedom struggle, before being used as the medium of choice to disseminate political ideas. Political stalwarts of the state – including CN Annadurai, M Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran – all found their way to political power through their problematisation and visualising the grievances of the marginalised and oppressed.

If one were to look at Tamil cinema not just from its evolution as an artistic genre but also as a political genre, we can characterise the politics of Tamil cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s as Dravidian. The Dravidian movement used cinema as an essential propaganda tool with films containing overt political messaging of empowerment, self-respect and commentary on various social issues.

However, from the 1980s onwards, the state witnessed renewed and intense caste-based violence in different parts, and this was reflected keenly in its cinema. So, Tamil cinema of the 1980s and until the 2010s saw the boom of nativist, caste-identity oriented films that valourised and depicted caste-based characters. Many of these films centred around what scholars Karthikeyan Damodaran and Hugo Gorringe called “Madurai formula films”, where the films revolved around “murder, mayhem and Madurai”.

These films, often based in Madurai, were defined by the glorification of violence and the depiction of a caste hero – mostly of an intermediate caste – as a man who could save the honour of his particular caste community. Prominent films included Thevar Magan (Kamal Haasan, 1992), Pasumpon (Bharathi Raja, 1995), Taj Mahal (1999), Kaadhal (Balaji Sakthivel, 2004), Ghilli (Dharani, 2004), Paruthi Veeran (Ameer, 2007), and Subramaniapuram (Sasikumar, 2008).

Most of these films followed a formulaic approach of referring to Madurai as a hotbed of caste violence, avenging male or caste honour, and depicting plenty of gore and violence with the hero mostly coming out on top.

In a paper he wrote about Dalit cinema, prominent Dalit scholar Suraj Yengde remarked that the “Indian film industry is an inherently caste-based, biased, mechanised product of technological industrialisation in which Dalit inclusion is not a moral concern.”

Until recently, that seemed to be a trend in Tamil cinema as well. A lot of Tamil films until the early 2010s depicted Dalit characters as downtrodden, exploited and always in need of help. These films portrayed the marginalised as needy and without agency, waiting for a saviour to come free them from the shackles of the oppression they are facing.

Humanisation of the Dalit character

Madras (Pa Ranjith, 2014) heralded the emergence of a new wave of Tamil cinema which was unapologetically rooted in an anti-caste, working-class and humanised subaltern discourse. Directors like Ranjith, Vetrimaaran, Mari Selvaraj, Ameer and Gopi Nainar brought in a range of films from 2014 onwards that sought to humanise the Dalit character by showing the agency they have and exercise while also depicting the brutal oppression they face from state machinery and a casteist society.

Madras, for instance, showcases everyday Dalit lives in North Madras while also reclaiming that part of the city which has for long been ghettoised and depicted as a seat of rowdyism and mafia.

Another notable example is Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal which released in 2019. It’s the story of a young Dalit boy in Tirunelveli, a district with a long history of caste violence, who enrols to study law and falls in love with a dominant caste girl. The movie is a searing depiction of endogamy, the protagonist’s humiliation for having the “audacity” to fall in love with a dominant caste girl, and how he overcomes it. Unlike the previous era of Tamil cinema where Dalit characters needed saving, Pariyerum Perumal is shown with agency, self-respect and justice-seeking, while still showing the casteist mindset of the oppressor.

Other notable films include Pa Ranjith’s Rajinikanth starrers Kabali and Kaala, and Vetrimaaran’s Asuran, which is an adaptation of the Tamil novel Vekkai.

However, 2021 can be claimed as the year of the mainstreaming and humanisation of the Dalit character. Blockbuster hits such as Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim, Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai and smaller hits like Mandela, Writer and Maadathy have created a new mainstream in Tamil cinema – of empowered subaltern characters rising against stifling caste oppression.

Most of these films even go beyond valourising the hero. For example, in the climax of Karnan, the protagonist – despite having killed the “villain”, who is a casteist corrupt police official – is portrayed as someone whose world has been rocked by violence and tragedy.

Similarly, Madonne Ashwin’s Mandela – a film about an oppressed caste barber suddenly wooed by different dominant caste political parties for one decisive vote that can win an election – is a satirical take on politics and caste but strikes a chord by engaging in the agency of the oppressed caste barber.

Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy is the story of an adolescent girl born into an “unseeable” community (Purithai Vaanar caste) and her subsequent apotheosis.

Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai is a sports drama that revolves around the life of a Dalit labourer who rises to become a famous boxer in North Madras. Here, the protagonist is shown as a young boxer with agency, a fighter with determination and grit. More importantly, he is not portrayed as an infallible, unvanquishable saviour, but as a human being who is as susceptible to the circumstances around him as anyone else. The film is based on a political backdrop of the Emergency of the late 1970s and has multiple visual references to DMK, Periyar and Ambedkar.

The hero cop vs villain cop narrative

A popular character and trope that has been considered essential for any Tamil actor to establish himself into superstardom has been that of a chest-thumping hero cop.

Every major actor has played at least one titular role as a macho cop who maims and/or kills the villain. Suriya in Kaaka Kaaka (2003) and the Singham franchise (2010, 2013, 2017), Vikram in Saamy (2003), Kamal Haasan in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu (2006), Ajith in Yennai Arindhal (2015), Vijay in Thupakki (2013) and Theri (2016), Karthi in Theeran Adhigaram Ondru (2017), Sivakarthikeyan in Kaaki Sattai (2015), Madhavan in Vikram Vedha (2017), Vijay Sethupathi in Sethupathy (2016) – all have played the role of the saviour cop, with overt political messaging that the police are saviours.

But with this radical new wave in Tamil cinema heralded by Ranjith, Vetrimaaran and Mari Selvaraj, with a firm anti-caste discourse, the police are portrayed as key propagators of caste violence.

In Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, the movie is replete with scenes of the police burning down an entire village. A police inspector is seen brutally beating a group of oppressed caste village elders. TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim is also about the casteist mindset of the police against Irular tribes.

Finally, Franklin Jacob’s Writer (produced by Pa Ranjith) adds to the stable of the “villain cop” films and is perhaps one of the most important portrayals of the cruelty of state power being concentrated in the hands of casteist cops. The movie revolves around a Dalit PhD scholar who is researching police suicides, and an honest constable who unwittingly gets entangled in a huge mess which results in the extrajudicial killing of the PhD scholar. Here too, the constable is shown as a vulnerable victim of his circumstances while the antagonist, an IPS officer (a metaphor for state power), is depicted as a deeply casteist and corrupt policeman.

With all these films being critically acclaimed or becoming commercial hits, we may be seeing a new era of Tamil cinema, an era which continues to be elaborately political but more intensely human.

Also Read: Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan and Tamil cinema’s tryst with caste

Also Read: Sarpatta Parambarai: Pa Ranjith continues his quest to smash stereotypes

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