Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: In Pariyerum Perumal, love is the only meaningful resistance in a caste-society

Coming out of our caste-mentality is a freedom, but most of us fear this freedom, especially those who benefit by it. Pariyerum Perumal provides us the courage to emerge from this fear.

Yogesh Maitreya August 28, 2020 09:23:32 IST
Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: In Pariyerum Perumal, love is the only meaningful resistance in a caste-society

Historically, Indian cinema exploited the labour of Dalits in its making, whilst erasing or appropriating their stories. This was not an accidental practice. When their stories were told on screen, it would be by savarnas who also played their characters with patriarchal, sexist and casteist undertones.

The scenario has slowly changed, and the identity of Dalit characters in cinema — directed by a Dalit (and a few non-Dalit) filmmakers — has become explicit, transcending boundaries of caste and class. These filmmakers have helped shape visual storytelling that combines “justice with aesthetics”.

“Justice with aesthetics” was rarely present in cinema made by savarnas, or it was seldom honest. Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers have filled this gap, while creating a new wave of cinema that is more appealing to a Dalit-Bahujan audience.

In this series, we examine 10 Indian films that count not only among the finest cinema the country has produced, but are also intertwined with justice, politics, and aesthetic.

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“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”

On reading James Baldwin for the first time a few years ago, I realised that in love — at least in inter-caste love — romance is the least widespread element. I understood why Baldwin, as a Black man, was saying what he was.

The idea of “love as battle and war” has been romantically injected into the minds of caste-Indians by mainstream Bollywood cinema; most times, with a very poor understanding of what love means in the caste-society of which these movies are part and parcel. Baldwin sees love as a way of shedding the social, cultural and psychological prejudices we uphold, against a person we are in love with.

Pariyerum Perumal (2018) directed by Mari Selvaraj, is a cult movie in this sense. It is not only a symbol of resistance against caste; it is more profound that this: it is a symbol of mature love. Because love is the greatest and the only meaningful resistance in caste society.

Coming out of our caste-mentality is a freedom, but most of us fear this freedom, especially those who benefit by it. Pariyerum Perumal provides us the courage to emerge from this fear.

***

Pariyerum Perumal aka Pariyan (played by Kathir) is a Dalit living in a village — a segregated settlement — near Tirunelveli. He’s clever and works hard at his studies. He knows his world. As the movie begins, we witness him with his pet dog Karuppi. Karuppi is Pariyan’s constant companion. Imagine the world of a Dalit man, in which rejection and humiliation are common, where he is despised by his fellow humans in a caste-society. But animals do not discriminate. So it is not difficult to understand just what Karuppi means to Pariyan.

Indian cinema and the Dalit identity In Pariyerum Perumal love is the only meaningful resistance in a castesociety

Still from Pariyerum Perumal

In a heinous assault, some upper cast hooligans tie Karuppi to the railway tracks where he is crushed by an oncoming train. Pariyan somehow overcomes his grief over Karuppi’s loss and makes his way into law college, a place that represents his dreams, to be like Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Here, he faces difficulties in understanding the teachers’ instructions, imparted in English. English — in the life of a brilliant Dalit student — becomes more than a language. It becomes a cultural tool by which those from dominant castes mock him. Several of his classmates do not understand English, yet Pariyan is the only one mocked and hated by his teachers for flagging the issue.

***

Pariyan’s honesty catches the attention of Jothi Mahalakshmi or Jo (played by Anandhi) who belongs to the dominant feudal caste. Pariyan tells Jo his problem, and she offers to help. As they English, they talk, laugh, share moments and stories from the past, and it leads to a feeling of love within them. It is as organic as the earth begetting trees, or bees being attracted to flowers.

When Jo invites only Pariyan to her sister’s wedding, her father becomes suspicious. He makes inquiries about Pariyan and finds out he is a Dalit. At the wedding, Jo’s father sends her away from the venue on some pretext and corners he just-arrived Pariyan. “You both study together, does that make you equal?” he asks Pariyan. The Constitution of India made Jo and Pariyan equal, as human beings capable of loving whoever they want. But Jo’s feudal, dominant caste father refuses to uphold constitutional values. For him, caste-norms are everything. He has Pariyan beaten up by some thugs and relatives; they urinate on him. Pariyan is in shock.

The incident leaves Pariyan in a dilemma. He tries to use alcohol to get over it, but it doesn’t help. He cannot tell Jo what has happened because that would make her father a villain in her eyes. At the same time, Pariyan is dealing with an issue concerning his own father, who works as a drag queen. When his father visits his college and is humiliated and partly disrobed by the upper caste students, Pariyan’s feelings are deeply wounded. But Jo stands by him through it all.

***

Jo is like a flower in Pariyan’s difficult life. But her father hires a henchman to kill Pariyan, who fails to carry out the murder. Pariyan is also attacked by Jo’s relatives and her father. He fights back, but spares Jo’s father, telling the older man that if Jo were to know about his violent intentions and actions, she would never forgive him.

Even at the height of his righteous rage, Pariyan does not lose hope and behaves like a visionary. He displays a maturity and sensibility heroes in Indian cinema rarely possess. Perhaps he knows that for the society Dr Ambedkar envisioned, it is necessary to kill caste, not castiests.

Jo’s father meets Pariyan in college. They sit in the canteen, while Jo brings white tea (with milk) for her father and black tea for Pariyan. They drink tea together. Jo’s father tells him, “We can see [about the future]. We do not know what will happen”, to which Pariyan replies, “As long as you remain the same and expect me to remain a dog, nothing will change”. Jo, her father, and Pariyan begin to walk away. The frame focuses on the empty cups of white and black tea: the beginning of a dialogue towards the annihilation of caste.

***

The movie ends with hope, directing us to a possible bloodless revolution — the dream of Dr Ambedkar. While audiences across India, numbering in the millions, pay money to watch movies which provide them an escape from the truth, Pariyerum Perumal introduces us to the beauty of truth — and the necessity of an anti-caste way of life.

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Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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