Readers Write In #76: Thamizh Cinema – Punaivil Iyangum Samoogam

Posted on May 27, 2019

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Is cinema merely a reflection of society or does it reinforce the existing beliefs of a society?

This is the question left lingering in my mind after reading ‘Thamizh Cinema – Punaivil Iyangum Samoogam’ (Society living in Fiction). Stalin Rajangam’s book is an interesting collection of essays about Tamil cinema, its many layers and the effects it has on Tamil society.

How is cinema perceived in our society? Stalin Rajangam uses cinema posters, banners and interactions with common folk and fans alike to understand how cinema is perceived by people. The problem with this approach is obvious immediately. It is anecdotal and the inference cannot be applied to the entire community. Still, the book gives a picture of the kind of effect cinema can have on our society. For example, when the movie ‘Bharathi Kannamma’ released, posters cropped up with the message: “Cheran veetu pondatti, Thevan veetu vaippaatti” (loosely translating to “Cheran’s wife is Thevan’s mistress”). This was to protest against showing a Thevar caste heroine in love with a Dalit hero – a perceived threat to strict caste structures. But is this the perception of a small, fringe group or is it more widespread than that?

The fascinating part of the book is the author’s observations of subtle caste and political references in Tamil films. Is he reading too much into unintentional depictions? Maybe, but the layers in these narration can only be picked up by someone who has a very good understanding of local culture and politics. For example, the 2004 ‘Kadhal’ movie opens with Muthuramalinga Thevar statue in the background and ends under a Periyar statue. The statues are not necessarily mere backgrounds here. The presence of Muthuramalinga Thevar statue underlines the dominant caste of the area where the story takes place. The Periyar statue reiterates the popular political propaganda – the role of Dravidian movement against the caste system.

But are these references problematic? The problem Stalin Rajangam sees in these depictions is that they are one sided. Mostly favouring the dominant caste. While the heroine’s family and their background has been portrayed faithfully, her lover’s character, in spite of being the protagonist, is shown in a generic fashion. This is in a realistic movie like ‘Kadhal’. It is indeed difficult to know the intentions of the director, but Rajangam wonders if characters like these are deliberately generalised to avoid pushback from dominant communities. This push back could also affect the sellability of the movie resulting in movie makers playing it safe. There is no doubt that the realistic representation of the culture and practices make for a better movie watching experience. But the one sided nature of it could be viewed as glorification and justification of the practices of these singled out communities.

Stalin Rajangam traces back this pattern of highlighting the lifestyle and culture of one particular caste, usually the dominant one, to the “Mann Vasanai” movement of the 80s Tamil Cinema. The period when village centric movies started portraying village life realistically, beginning with Bharathiraja’s ‘Mann Vasanai’. A realistic village movie requires a faithful portrayal of village culture, festivals and other celebrations. In Tamil Nadu’s villages, these power positions are usually held by the dominant caste. So a realistic village movie intentionally or unintentionally becomes a portrayal of the values and practices of the dominant caste. Alongside this fine attention to detail, a mere generic depiction of other characters, especially the oppressed ones, makes these movies almost an ethnography of the dominant caste.

In his view, these realistic village cinemas seldom questioned the social structure and value system they portrayed. Even in the movies that appear to be progressive, the enquiry is limited and is operated within a framework. The lowest castes questioning the middle castes is almost missing. In Bharathiraja’s ‘Muthal Mariyathai’, the Thevar protagonist Sivaji Ganesan magnanimously marries his marumagan(nephew) to a woman from a lower caste. On the other hand, in almost every scene when her father meets Sivaji, he falls down at his feet. While the movie tries to be progressive at one level, at another level it still shows the Arunthathiyar father falling at the feet of a Thevar. In the same movie, the protagonist marries a transgressed woman to protect their caste and family pride, but never accepts her as his wife because of her past. While the former scene portrays the caste hierarchy, the latter shows a need to maintain Kula Gouravam (Caste Honour).

In rare scenarios when this social structure and values are questioned, Rajangam points out that the opposition is from an outsider who does not belong to the village. In ‘Muthal Mariyathai’ it is Radha’s character Kuyil, an outsider of this village, who questions Sivaji’s casteism. This questioning is progressive but it also upholds the village structure where people from within do not challenge the prevailing authority and values. In another Bharathiraja movie, ‘Vedham Puthithu’, the progressiveness is in the form of questioning Brahmin values by the middle castes. In addition to be trying to progressive, this narration also shows the middle caste in a good light, as the opposers of caste division. This is a popular theme of the Periyar movement and its political successor – The Dravidian Parties. Now contrast this with the famous scene from the same movie where Balu Thevar is confronted about his caste surname. Here the character is a Brahmin. While Brahminism is questioned by a group considered to be oppressed by them i.e the middle castes, the middle castes authority is not questioned by the group considered to be oppressed by them i.e. Dalits. Instead it is questioned by someone above their social stratum. The movie here again implies who can and cannot challenge the social hierarchy. Rajangam agrees that a lower caste character asking this question may not fit in this narration. But elsewhere in the book, he also argues that the flow of the story is in the hands of the makers. Even in movies based on real events, the creators have the space to decide what to show and how to show.

He correlates these one sided village movies with the increase in arrival of the new directors and producers from southern Tamil Nadu where these castes dominate. The success of these movies resulted in more such realistic village movies sometimes even from directors and producers not belonging to these castes. Kamal Hassan’s ‘Thevar Magan’ and the subsequent ‘Virumandi’ are examples for this. He points out to posters implying Kamal Hassan, a Brahmin by birth, as one among the Thevars after the release of these movies. The trend that started in ‘Mann Vasanai’ keeps continuing and is reflected even in the 2012 ‘Sundarapandian’. Comparing this with Rajini’s characters, he writes that he hasn’t seen the actor associated to specific caste groups. He believes that the Super Star status of Rajini might have prevented him associating to a particular caste group (Rajini’s first collaboration with Pa.Ranjit is yet to release when this book came out).

Stalin Rajangam agrees that a movie has to work within the framework of a story. So the narration has its limitations. But he wonders if the non-representation of Dalits in these movies is intentional. Either due to the caste pride of these makers or in the fear of market failure. It is in this background, the portrayals of Dalit life in Pa.Ranjit’s ‘Attakathi’ and his subsequent movies gains significance.

Even while criticising the limitations of these realistic village movies, the author recognises the importance of fine filmmaking with realistic portrayals. He associates the low impact of the 2013 film ‘Gouravam’ with this. Lack of depth in characters and unrealistic portrayals didn’t help the movie in spite of voicing against casteism. Here he makes another interesting observation about the approach taken by ‘Varuthapadatha Valibar Sangam’. Instead of taking a serious stance against Honour Killing and caste pride, the movie uses satire.

Apart from the depiction of caste in Tamil Cinema, the book includes an essay on Vadivelu’s characters, a very short essay on how Ilaiyaraja  hypothetically and inadvertently contributed to the anti-Hindi movement and the depiction of Tamil identity in ‘7aum Arivu’. All of them make an interesting read, in particular the commentary on the portrayal of Bodhidharma in ‘7aum Arivu’.

What worked for me in the book is the fine observations and the tracing of caste portrayals in Tamil cinema. The part I found difficult to believe was, some of the intentions attributed to the creators. In ‘Kadhal’ the author believes there is a deliberate attempt to show the heroine is virgin even after she ran away with her lover. This allows her to get remarried without bringing dishonour to their caste pride. I find some of these assumptions too far fetched. The other problem with the book is it requires some serious editing including verifying the release years and character names of the movies listed. The editing will make the book easier to read and help convey the points succinctly.

In spite of these limitations I believe this is an important book on Tamil cinema. I wish this book opens up a conversation leading to further analysis about Tamil cinema’s social and political layers, and the effect it has on society.

To write this post, I speed watched ‘Mudhal Mariyathai’. While I was looking for the references made by the author, another scene took me by surprise. Towards the end of the movie, hearing his relatives plotting against Kuyil, Sivaji, the protagonist, utters a dialogue in anger. “Naan Maaplai ah irukka virumbala da, Manushanaa irukka virumbren” (I prefer to be a human rather than your son-in-law) and  continues “Irukka edam kuduthaa kidaikka rendu aadu kekra eena saathi paiyan naan illa. Suthamaana Thevan” (I am not like the low caste people who keep asking for more when offered a place to stay. I am an unadulterated Thevan). This scene made me wonder the place for such a dialogue in this movie. If there is anything that I took away from this book, it is this – a more conscious enquiry on what a movie says and why.

About Stalin Rajangam:

Stalin Rajangam is an Assistant Professor in the American College, Madurai. The first time I came to know about Stalin Rajangam was during the Jallikattu protest when he wrote about casteism in Jallikattu. But it was through writer Jeyamohan’s blog that I got introduced to his works. Among other works, he has also authored a book on the Tamil Nadu Dalit Movement titled ‘Ezutaak Kilavi – Vazhi Marikkum Varalatru Anubavangal’.

(by Eswarprasath Jayaraman)