With Jai Bhim, Tamil cinema yet again depicts caste realities more vigorously than any other contemporary film industry

There is a perception that Malayalam film industry is ahead of Tamil cinema in depicting caste realities but the former never does so as explicitly, and with leading stars that ensures wide dissemination.

Kunal Ray November 15, 2021 08:02:04 IST
With Jai Bhim, Tamil cinema yet again depicts caste realities more vigorously than any other contemporary film industry

There is perhaps no other contemporary Indian cinema that can match the vigour of Tamil cinema in its portrayal of caste realities. This has been a sustained effort of a group of young filmmakers from Tamil Nadu who have repeatedly showcased caste-based atrocities, violence, and gross human rights violation through their films.

Caste issues is the mainstay of their films. At the same time, these films also help us to understand Dalit culture – songs, rituals, food, and folk art, thereby acting as a source of cultural education. One could also argue that this cinematic outlook is a possible outcome of the influence of the various progressive socio-political movements such as the anti-caste struggles that have occurred in the state. Several of these films also highlight the involvement of mainstream political parties in anti-caste movements.

Needless to say that Tamil Nadu is also a state which has propelled several film actors to political stardom. Cinema was always used as a convenient political tool. The recent spate of Tamil films bear witness and archive the systemic humiliation suffered by generations of lower castes, and their misery is far from over. The visuals in these films are also designed in such a way that the oppression is not easily erased from the minds of the viewers. I still shudder while thinking about a scene from Asuran where the central lead played by Dhanush is forced to prostrate outside every upper caste home in the village pleading for forgiveness.

 In the last couple of years itself, Tamil cinema has given us films like Asuran, Karnan, Sarpatta Parambarai and the most recent addition, Jai Bhim which has generated wide discussion. There are many films that could be added to this list – Manusangada, Visaranai, Kaala Karikalan, Kaaka Muttai, Pariyerum Perumal amongst others. Several of these also feature leading mainstream actors and employ tropes of commercial cinema, which further interests a large audience to such cinematic offerings.

The large crowds come to see their favorite stars who have a message for them. Does the audience transform after such a cinematic experience? Perhaps not but the presence of the stars helps these films to be seen and discussed in considerable detail, which in itself is a big gain.

Further, the involvement of mainstream actors also invites significant media attention. A case in point could be Jai Bhim (streaming on Amazon Prime Video India), which has been seen by many because of its lead actor, superstar Suriya. This is noteworthy in a film culture like Tamil cinema which makes a visible distinction between art house and commercial cinema almost impossible. For instance, a film like Vada Chennai – would you call it commercial or art-house or a combination of both? Or are those distinctions even necessary?

In Jai Bhim, Suriya plays a lawyer fighting for the rights of the oppressed. The film is melodramatic in parts but the message is not lost on the viewers. The fight of the central character, and the injustice suffered by the tribes who are regularly rounded up in false cases and thrown into prison, is well exposed by the film. Besides, its politics is unmistakable. Contemporary Tamil cinema’s edge in discussing caste-based oppression could be attributed to various factors such as the caste identity of filmmakers like Pa Ranjith and Vetrimaran, who make films with a defined focus of exposing caste oppression. They also produce films of many younger filmmakers, thereby energising the creation of a collective of anti-caste filmmakers working in Tamil cinema. Cinema thus becomes an organised movement. After all, who can deny the reach of cinema and its consequences? So why not use the most popular cultural vehicle to annihilate caste?

There is a lot of discussion about Malayalam cinema, and rightly so, for its brilliance in various aspects of filmmaking and focus on local stories with powerful performances. Even during the COVID-induced lockdown, Malayalam cinema continued to create impressive films like Joji, which was also discussed in the foreign press for its refreshing take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. However, when it comes to caste, even new-generation Malayalam cinema has been rather muted in its response. Caste is never discussed as explicitly as seen in Tamil cinema.

A recent Malayalam film like Nayattu, for instance, offers a very conservative view of caste by portraying caste-based politics in a problematic way or as the root cause of trouble as seen in the film. Perhaps some of Bijukumar Damodaran’s films make an exception – Perariyathavar has been widely discussed in this context, which depicts the travails of a garbage collector and his eight-year-old son. Damodaran’s films, however, do not feature leading stars of Malayalam cinema, who are at the forefront of the new-generation cinema experiments. His are essentially small films, and their impact cannot be as great as the Tamil films mentioned in the article.

Dare you ask about contemporary Hindi cinema? The silence is deafening.

Kunal Ray is a culture critic. He teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.

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