Readers Write In #218: Thoughts on casteism – Fandry, Pariyerum Perumal

Posted on July 6, 2020

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(by Ninad Kulkarni)

A dialogue from Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades, “Jo kabhi nahi jaati woh jati”. (The one element that never castaway is a caste) makes an ever-lasting remark. The practices of casteism are prevalent in the remote areas where education has a far-fetched impact, nevertheless, even urban areas have fallen prey for the practice – it’s bourgeoisie and proletariat. This doesn’t diss the cinema directed by a director from any caste, creed, or religion – but the fact, the oppressed class is being vocalized through an impactful medium known as cinema stands exclusive for development. various attempts have been already made to depict the forever ingrained element of caste in society. In society, where natural habitat requires a balance for the sustainability of the ecosystem, the same pattern follows for cinema as well. There would always be a co-existence of Neeraj Ghaywan = Rohit Shetty, Nagraj Manjule = Sachin Kundalkar and Mari Selvaraj = Mani Ratnam.

There’s a symbiotic relationship between caste and cinema in Tamil Cinema, a trend initiated by Director-Producer Pa. Ranjith with Madras, Kabali, and Kaala. The latter is explicitly vocal about the anguish, anger, and abolishment regarding the caste difference portrayed through a grey face-off between Black Proletariat (Rajinikanth) and White Bourgeoisie (Nana Patekar). It’s interesting to witness the audience reaction for such films, Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal clashed with Mani Ratnam’s multi-starrer Chekka Chivantha Vaanam but it found it voice which soared. Personally, both were superior films but an anti-caste perspective tends to have a large impact given one’s ethos as well as pathos from his/her habitat and education. I began drafting the article after being brutally hit by a stone named Fandry, directed by Nagraj Popatrao Manjule. The Marathi film is about 13-year old boy Jabya hailing from a low-caste of ‘untouchables’ falls in love with a girl Shalu hailing from an upper-caste. By the end, I realized it’s all about your ethos and pathos to receive an impactful blow from an issue-based film. Although, impacting elements may differ, for instance, Ayushmann Khurrana’s character being an upper-caste as well as an outsider in Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 leads the audience into a deeper well. Sometimes, it requires a demi-god Superstar like Rajinikanth to reach the audience who would take away a thing or two other than mere entertainment. Most of the time, it’s the craft of storytelling which makes more noise than the staunch prerequisite of marketing upon stardom, for example, Sairat, Pariyerum Perumal, Masaan, Sarvam Thaala Mayam, etc.

Marathi Cinema and Tamil Cinema saw the debut of two prolific directors who handled casteism in their first films – Nagraj Popatrao Manjule (Fandry) and Mari Selvaraj (Pariyerum Perumal). When Marathi Cinema was in dire need of an anti-caste perspective, without any prejudice Manjule’s Fandry saw a light at the end of the tunnel. While Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal had Pa. Ranjith’s backing as a Producer, who has already set a mark his anti-caste perspective in his directorial Kabali and Kaala. Both films released under the anti-caste perspective have quite similar features in terms of storytelling, ranging from symbolism, father figures, violence, and even humiliation.

Foremost, both films use animals as a cinematic device to drive the story. It’s a pig in Manjule’s Fandry which is seen as an untouchable and bad omen animal. It’s a black dog named Karuppi in Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal which is seen as a free-spirited companion by the protagonist Pariyan who is tied by the train tracks, oppressed by the powerful in the society. Every bit happens around the two animals, Jabya is ashamed being the only family touching pig while karuppi’s death has a lingering effect to propel the anguish of Pariyan. While belonging from starkly different regions in India, both films use the same deity – the Horse Mounting Deity. Humiliation is another central trope in the two films, Jabya faces intense humiliation when his family sets out to capture pigs near the school. Pariyan too constantly faces humiliation through various means including caste discrimination, honor killings, and even the identity of his father.

Fandry features the verse of Saint Chokhamela, “All is not what it seems” which elaborates “rather than looks, caste, or religion, a person’s character is reflected by his qualities” through different examples. The two campuses of school and college are initial institutions cultivating minds that are pledged to be non-discriminant regarding caste, creed, and religion. But, it feels like a utopian concept when both campuses feed on discrimination. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was born in an untouchable caste and ironically became a leader of human rights campaigns in India. Known as the Father of the Indian Constitution, he is an inspiration and a key figure in India, who witnessed and overcame the dreadful effects of the caste system. Cinema isn’t a mere tool of entertainment, it leaps forward in the cultural and sociopolitical representation too. Both the films idolize Dr. Ambedkar in a different manner, Fandry juxtaposes his picture in the school campus over Jabya while in Pariyerum Perumal, Pariyan sets out to become a lawyer like Ambedkar.

Cinema is an audio-visual medium where often visuals serve the purpose of communication more than the words. The lingering effect of Fandry, as well as Pariyerum Perumal, lies upon the final shot which spoke volumes. Frustrated Jabya throws the stone towards the camera, towards the discrimination, towards the society, and towards the audience which makes you think about the violence arising from caste discrimination. The futility of the caste system is similar to the futility of war which consumes human beings into ruthless monsters. Mari Selvaraj begins the film with “Caste and Religion is against humanity”, but the real film begins at its final shot – it depicts two equally filled tea glasses denoting the beginning of a quest and realization for equality.

It’s understandable where the agitation comes from, but the violence leaves behind a dearth of disparity – it makes a striking recall of M. K. Gandhi’s quote, “Eye for an eye makes the world blind.” Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala roars “Educate, Agitate” after a colorful revolution. On similar lines, Vetri Maaran’s Asuran which speaks about caste-based violence features a befitting climax evoking the spirit of Dr. Ambedkar, “They can snatch our farmlands and money, but they cannot seize education”. Enough said.