Lights, Camera, Conversation… “ ‘Impure’ Tamilians? ”

Posted on October 10, 2014


The reviews for the Tamil film ‘Madras’ suggest that most English-language writers are divorced from a certain kind of reality.

Pa Ranjith’s Madras is the work of a good, thoughtful filmmaker. It’s a supremely well-made film, but not especially well-written. The narrative superstructure is derivative, and Ranjith doesn’t do enough to make his film different. Or so I thought till I posted my review and began to receive comments. The context is this: I saw the film as one of those many films about the nameless, faceless masses that make up the poorer parts of Madras (given this film, it wouldn’t do to call the city Chennai). But where I – and, apparently, almost every other English-language reviewer – saw a generic group of lower-income-group people, commenters have been pointing out instances from the film to make a case that these characters are from a specific community. They’re Dalits.

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I reproduce (with some editorial intervention, for clarity) what a commenter called masilan said, because I think it needs to be heard: “Madras is a film which speaks about contemporary Dalit politics in TN. The character Anbu personifies that section of the Dalit youth who wanted to uplift Dalit society by achieving political power whereas the character Kali stands for that section of Dalits who have used the affirmative policies of the Indian constitution and remain aloof about the condition and empowerment of Dalits. What Kali wants/is concerned about is his happiness alone.”

“Conversations between Anbu and Kali are very important as they send out the message to the audience (Dalits in particular) that what is needed to bring a real change in the conditions of this community is political awareness along with education. Only a person with political awareness (Anbu) will be able to fight against the oppression/injustice the society has done to the Dalits… There are enough instances of scenes and dialogues which scream out loudly that this film is all about Dalits and their politics and how they are kept suppressed eternally. This is also about the betrayal of their own men towards their community… In India, Ambedkar is now reduced to being only a Dalit leader and his photo is seen in Anbu’s house… Anbu’s wife is named Mary and Anbu is shown placing a document before the photo of Mother Mary, suggesting they are Dalit Christians (large numbers of Dalits converted to Christianity to escape the oppression of Hinduism)… Kali is shown reading a book on the atrocities committed on Dalits living in Andhra… Even Thirumavalavan’s (leader of a Dalit-based political party) poster finds its way into the movie.” And so forth.

The question he asked me was: “While all this was so clear, why wasn’t there any reference to this in your review?” The answer is simply that I drew a blank. (And I suppose most other reviewers did too.) We saw and responded to a generic story, but missed out the specifics. These specifics don’t change the film, exactly – at least in the larger sense. The narrative problems remain. The story arc is still derivative. The ending still looks gracelessly tacked on. A couple of songs still feel redundant. And even the Dalit pointers don’t seem to have been integrated all that well – for instance, if the point is to send a signal to the audience, wouldn’t it have made more sense to show the well-meaning Anbu (rather than the self-serving Kali) reading that book about atrocities committed on Dalits? But seen through this reading, how much more interesting the characters become. I see Anbu and Kali in a new light. I see Kali’s engagement ceremony in a new light. I even see why this ending needed to be there, whereas earlier I had casually dismissed it as “a disaster, the result of one of those do-gooder impulses that strikes filmmakers on occasion, when they feel they have to not just make a movie but remake a society.”

Hopefully, the director can be persuaded, at some point, to expand on all this, but what struck me, after this discussion, was how we see the things we’ve been conditioned to see. You can learn to appreciate cinema by watching films made by great directors and poring over sites about cinematography and writing and editing – but that can only tell you how the film is made. And while that is very important, it’s still only half the story. The other half is what the film is about, and picking up on that, as Madras proves, depends on a great many cultural and social factors. A reader on Facebook pointed out that my body of work remains incomplete as none of my writing involves either social or political commentary. I agree with one part of this, that I don’t really talk about these aspects – but I disagree that this makes a review “incomplete,” because there are many ways through which one can approach a film, and screenwriting/aesthetics is my prism, just as someone who speaks about the political and social aspects may not necessarily talk about the filmmaking as such. It’s all these people, with all these concerns and all these viewpoints, that will bring about a corpus of writing that comprehensively represents the film. No single review/reviewer can hope to do that. Commenters have to chip in.

The other cultural factor is that most English-language writers (and therefore reviewers) are divorced from a certain kind of ground reality. They are schooled in English, and they take their cues from English sources – by which I mean, for instance, that a “well-read person” from this milieu is more likely to have read Anna Karenina than Silappadikaram. Socially, too, his milieu is similarly chalked out. Most of the kids in school are like him. Most of the people at his white-collar office are like him. Ideally, it would be both – we would have the best of worlds, bits from here and there. But this rarely happens. I am reminded of an anecdote from my book Conversations with Mani Ratnam, when we were talking about Roja and he recalled the time he narrated the story to the producer K Balachander. KB liked the story but didn’t like the title, which reminded him of a brand of paakku thool, crushed betel nut. “I was amazed,” Ratnam said. “I thought the title represented Kashmir because the rose is something beautiful but with thorns… But he said [it’s like paakku thool]. Trust a pure Tamilian to come up with that.” I asked Ratnam, “Don’t you consider yourself a pure Tamilian?” He smiled and said, “Tamil medium-la padichaa dhaan pure Tamilian.” (“You’re a Tamilian only if you’ve studied in a Tamil-medium school.”) He was being somewhat facetious, but then again, maybe not. Sometimes we become so global that we forget the local.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.