Caste in Tamil cinema, a story in four acts
While the movie 'Asuran' has started a discussion on how Tamil cinema has handled the reality of caste, Kollywood seems to have four eras of portraying caste.
TIRUCHY: The success of Dhanush-starrer Asuran has sparked a discussion on how Tamil cinema has handled the reality of caste, with a section of reviewers praising the film as being part of a recent trend mainstreaming Dalit narratives. While the issue of caste is implicit in the film's souce Vekkai, the novel written by Poomani who belongs to a Dalit community, director Vetrimaran has made it explicit, by focusing on panchami lands.
The recent trend, initiated by Pa Ranjith with Madras (2014), Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018) directed by him and Pariyerum Perumal (2018) produced by him, is part of Tamil cinema's evolution in its treatment of caste. Broadly, the history of Tamil cinema could be split into four phases in this context.
In the first phase of Tamil cinema - pre-1950s - most films centred narratives of persons from upper caste communities. The upper caste location of the protagonists could be identified from their surnames. Films such as Sevasadanam (1938), Uthamaputhiran (1940), Sabapathy (1941) and Vazhkkai (1949) belong to these period. Still, some of these films subtly addressed caste practices.
In Nallathambi (1949), for instance, Kalaivanar NS Krishnan performs Kinthanar Kathakalatchepam about a Dalit boy who pursues his higher education in a city and then returns to his village, a narrative bearing similarities to Dr BR Ambedkar’s life story. The film also features a song praising trains for treating members of all caste groups as equal by allowing all people to sit together.
Several films in this period also centered around women of the Devadasi community. An example is Krishnabhakti, which was released in 1949, two years after the passage of the Madras Devadasis Act. When a king approaches the a woman from the community, played by TR Rajakumari, she boldly asks him to marry her. Stunned, the king points out to which community she belongs and she responds with a flurry of rationalist questions.
Towards the end of this period, cinema theatres started opening in rural areas as well. "The cinema hall was the first performance centre in which all the Tamils sat under the same roof," writes Sri Lankan Tamil historian K Sivathamby.
According to late historian MSS Pandian, in his book 'The Image Trap', this was in contrast to how seating of the audience during other cultural performances in rural Tamil Nadu was based on one’s caste position.
This shift required filmmakers to cater to all communities. It also coincided with the growth of the Dravidian movement. The movement was notable for its use of plays, and then films, to propagate its ideology, noted Srirangam-based old-film enthusiast Natarajan. As a result, in the second phase after 1950, Tamil films started speaking of more vocally of social equality.
The 1956 movie 'Madurai Veeran', written by Kannadasan, is a significant example. The hero played by MGR belongs to the lowest rung of the society. When he rescues the princess at one point, he is slapped for daring to touch her despite being 'untouchable'. His character was read as Arunthathiyar ensuring an enduring love for him from the Dalit community, which later helped in his political career.
Penn (1954), Thaikku Pin Thaaram (1956) and Thayilla Pillai (1961) were significant films in this period which touched on caste. Thayilla Pillai was written by late DMK chief MK Karunanidhi, whose Parasakthi (1952) is a landmark film in bringing Dravidian ideology to mainstream cinema.
The stance taken in these films, in favour of social equality, continued well into the late 1980s. In fact, Orey Ratham (1987), written by Karunanidhi, featured his son and current DMK chief MK Stalin as a Dalit who faces discrimination while travelling in a bullock cart driven by a upper caste man.
However, Kamal Haasan's Thevar Magan (1992) ushered in the third phase marked by films which glorified certain intermediate castes. This phase coincided with the emergence of caste-based political outfits in the State. Thevar Magan, which starred Kamal and Sivaji Ganesan, featured a song which became an anthem for members of the Thevar community.
Interestingly, earlier movies of Sivaji had semiotic references to caste and were critical of it. In Muthal Mariyathai (1985), for instance, his character marries off a relative of his to a girl from a lower caste. He, too, begins a relationship with a lower caste woman.
A flurry of films were seen in the 1990s focusing on members of other intermediate castes. These included Vijayakanth’s Chinna Gounder (1992), Rajinikanth’s Ejamaan (1993), Mammooty’s Marumalarchi (1998) and Sarathkumar’s Nattamai (1994).
In virtually all these films, people of different communities are portrayed as bowing before the hero - belonging to a particular caste - with respect as they walk on streets. Many of them also feature servants from lower castes hold umbrellas for the hero.
In Ejamaan, villagers are even shown taking a pinch of dirt from the footmark left by the hero and smearing it like holy ash on their foreheads. Speaking of this period, Vijay Varadharaj of YouTube channel Temple Monkeys, says Pollachi, Madurai and Theni became shooting spots only after the emergence of these films glorifying such communities.
Such movies have also been made in more recent times, subtly portraying caste pride as in Singam (2010) and Sandakozhi (2005) or overtly like in Devarattam (2019). According to film critic ‘Nizhal’ Thirunavukkarasu, even in the third phase, some movies, such as Bharathi Kannamma (1997) questioned caste discrimination.
"Sadly, they could not earn popular acclaim and struggled to do well in the box-office. But nowadays, directors like Pa Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj manage to make films that do well at the box-office also," he noted.
However, he points out that comedy tracks in Tamil cinema have often represented a subaltern perspective. "More than heroes, comedian Goundamani has criticised caste discrimination in several films. In fact, he has donned the characters of low-rung working class men in most of his movies. From a character who works at a graveyard to a barber to a washerman, he has represented subaltern people on screens," he said.
In Rakkayi Koyil, for instance, Goundamani, playing a barber, is served tea in a coconut shell at a upper caste chieftain’s house. "You are drinking from a silver tumbler. At least, you could have served us in a plastic cup. For how long, will we drink out of a coconut shell," he asks.
In recent years, films from a Dalit perspective, represented by Pa Ranjith's success, have brought discussions on caste in Tamil films to the fore, noted Varadharaj. This marks a fourth phase. "Films like Madras, Pariyerum Perumal and Asuran are cultural counters to the films centred upon intermediate castes. Similarly, films like Kabali and Kaala are cinematic counters to the films like Chinna Gounder and Thevar Magan," said film critic Subagunarajan.
However, writer Imayam believed that Kollywood had a long way. Imayam's novel on honour killing, Pethavan, is being made into a film titled Munthirikadu. "Usually in Tamil cinema, Dalits are portrayed as meek people or as arrogant people. Films often have sequences in which an intermediate caste protagonist helps the Dalits gain dignity or equality. Only in recent times, after Dalit artistes entered the industry, are a few films from the Dalit perspective coming up. Even now, Tamil cinema has a problem in showing a leading protagonist as Dalit. Only in Pariyerum Perumal is the hero openly portrayed as Dalit. Though a few Dalit artistes are making films now, I feel they are too functioning under pressure and within certain limitations," he says.
Villupuram MP and VCK general-secretary D Ravikumar summed up the evolution of caste representation in Tamil cinema by saing, "Tamil films in the 1930s were based on Puranas and were more Brahminical. In the 1950s, during the peak of the Dravidian movement, Tamil films took an anti-Brahminical stance. At the same time, Tamil cinema was slowly transitioning into realism in terms of stories. Hence films of that period approached caste from a humanistic angle. MGR played such roles. After 1980s, films explicitly started showing backward caste names. In recent times, directors like Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj are making films from Dalit perspectives. These films have brought in flexibility in a caste-rigid industry. In Hollywood, there were ghetto-centric movies showing the stories of 'coloured' people. Periyerum Perumal is the only movie in Tamil of that type. Asuran has only capitalised on this new trend."