Caste and class in popular Tamil cinema

Posted on April 23, 2015


Observing and interpreting class or caste markers in the discussion of a film isn’t the same as celebrating them.

I co-wrote a screenplay some years ago, and we named the hero Rahul. We hadn’t thought about Rahul’s caste.  The only thing he was, in our minds, was young – and Rahul sounded like a young name. We sent an early draft of the script around, and the first bit of advice we got was to change the protagonist’s name because it “was too Brahminical”. We were stunned. But there it was, the perception that the name sounded like it belonged to a particular caste and, therefore, that the film would not go down well with the masses.

Another incident (and there are many more): A distributor asked a filmmaker to remove scenes of the heroine (a classical singer) with a tampura because the audience would think the film was about a privileged girl – not necessarily Brahmin, but someone belonging to an educated, upper-class background. As the Rajinikanth character said of the Shobana character in Thalapathy: “Paattu paadara ponnu. Bharatanatyam aadura ponnu”. In other words, not one of the masses.

It’s probably no surprise that this perception exists in the film industry, for Tamil cinema is inextricably linked with Tamil politics, and populist politics has, over decades, vilified the Other. And because our filmmakers and mass heroes take their cue from politics (some of them seek out careers in politics), it makes sense to align with the majority. It makes sense to target the Other — in this case, the upper-middle or upper classes and the ‘higher’ castes — in films. We saw this recently in Velai Illa Pattadhari, where the villain was named Arun Subramaniam and was super-rich, sneering at the middle-class character played by Dhanush, who represented the majority, the “masses”. David needs a Goliath. The Dhanush character needs an Arun Subramaniam to vanquish. It’s all part of the wish-fulfilment fantasy. It’s why most of our heroes play characters who can’t speak English, or speak pidgin English, don’t do well in school, and often have blue-collar jobs.

As a critic, I find this interesting, since I believe that one of the jobs of cinema/ art is to hold up a mirror to society. Tamil cinema routinely showcases the interplay between the roles of the privileged and the under-privileged in society. So if Velai Illa Pattadhari is such a hit, it means that the fantasy rings true with the majority of the cinema-going public. A critic needs to talk about this. We are surrounded by caste/ class considerations, and it is inevitable that they show up in our films as well. To not have these come up during the discussion of a film is a little like expecting characters to not smoke or drink on screen, when smoking and drinking is very much a part of life outside the screen.

It is in this context that I noted in my recent review of Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani that the milieu portrayed was “classy” or upmarket, showing an upper-middle class hero and upper-class heroine, and that at least some of the characters seem to be playing Brahmins. This is a mere observation, a statement of fact. It neither celebrates the aspect nor says it’s wrong.

Some of the feedback the review has received, though, has left me stunned, even given the fact that we live in a culture of outrage where anything and everything is cause for taking offence. I have been accused of looking at the film through a “casteist” lens, of “stooping to the level of referring to surnames”. But as a critic, one observes all aspects of a film, and the upper-class setting is just another aspect, like cinematography, acting, or direction. Observing something isn’t the same as celebrating it.

In Tamil Nadu, there is a price cap on tickets, which makes it unviable to make niche movies that cater solely to the A centres, movies such as Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or Wake Up Sid, so producers largely insist on making films that can sell in all markets. The audience, too, has changed over the years. O Kadhal Kanmani might not have stood out so much in the K. Balachander era, when films routinely addressed an upper-middleclass audience, which has largely shrunk. Given the very different audience that frequents cinema halls today, choosing to make a film where the I-want-to-be-rich hero talks of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg rather Tata or Birla (names more readily recognised by the masses) is interesting. It means the film is not afraid to be niche. This would be a problem if Tamil cinema always focused only on the upper classes but given the healthy representation of the underprivileged in Tamil films, it is just an interesting choice.

If there is anything I am celebrating, it isn’t the existence of a certain milieu or the choice of it for the film, but the unapologetic and pitch-perfect portrayal of it. The urbanised, upper-class protagonists are not exoticised as they are in other Tamil films, behaving in odd ways or wearing unrecognisable clothes. They are normal, instantly recognisable people. In the context of Tamil cinema, this portrayal is a big win.

Cinema exerts such an influence in the State that cinematic representation of a class or caste practically results in a form of codification, and a lot of the time, some lazy stereotypes are codified. The image of a Thevar from Madurai as someone who’s filled with bloodlust and never seen without a sickle is as problematic as the image of, say, a Tamil Brahmin from Chennai sporting a tuft and with a wife who steps out of the bath in a nine-yard Kanjivaram.

Noticing a realistic portrayal of a particular caste or class should not be problematic. Why is it legitimate to look at, say, Thevar Magan and the recent, under-appreciated Thilagar as stories of Thevars, but an expression of bias to notice the cultural markers in O Kadhal Kanmani? Why is it okay to acknowledge the Dalit angle in Madras, despite the director not making any explicit references, but a problem to notice the Carnatic music in O Kadhal Kanmani? Why is a discussion of a film or a book about the subaltern necessarily more “worthy”? Isn’t the mark of a robust film culture the presence of films about all castes, all classes, and all walks of life? Isn’t that how many of us, who only come into contact with what’s around us, see what lies beyond us?

But even if we brush aside the social connotations, it makes sense for a critic to point out things that make cinematic sense. Take The Godfather. It isn’t just the depiction of a gangster family. It is the depiction of an Italian-Catholic gangster family, and this sort of specificity adds to the film’s texturing, as in the famous baptism scene. Every community comes with its own quirks, habits and practices, and the more attuned a film is to these specifics, the more unique it becomes. It becomes less generic and more rooted. And cultural rootedness is one of the things that tell you how good a film is. In a way, films like O Kadhal Kanmani and Kalyana Samayal Sadham are as vital, as rooted as the films Bharathiraja made. Class or caste cannot be wished away simply by not being portrayed in films, or by not being mentioned in reviews.

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2015 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.