In Rajinikanth's Kaala, Pa Ranjith busts clichés regarding Dalit representation in mainstream Tamil cinema

Surendhar MK

June 10, 2018 10:19:38 IST

If you have been carefully following director Pa Ranjith's fiery, stimulating speeches on various political as well as non-political events, you can witness that there are unrepressed anger and a cry of anguish in his thoughts when he speaks for the underprivileged and downtrodden.

Ranjith is one of the very few filmmakers in Tamil cinema who is exceptionally proud of his Dalit identity and has reiterated his Ambedkarite leanings on various occasions. There are umpteen references in Kaala, which could corroborate that Ranjith is someone who walks the talk and continues to bust cliches regarding the representation of Dalits in mainstream Tamil cinema.

When Ranjith-Rajinikanth's first collaboration Kabali opened the floodgates of debates for the no-holds-barred Dalit politics depicted in the film, director and political commentator Karu Palaniappan drew the attention to Ranjith's 2012 directorial debut Attakathi, lauding it as 'the greatest political movie' ever made.

Attakathi featured actor Dinesh as a beef-eating protagonist in a profoundly humorous tone. Can you faintly remember any other Tamil film in the last few decades that shows its hero eating beef? Now, six years after Attakathi, Ranjith places a Dalit character in Kaala who is a 'vegetarian' by choice. While introducing the members of Kaala Karikalan's (Rajinikanth) family in the film, there's a long uninterrupted shot where the terrific Easwari Rao takes a dig at her brawny son Selvam (played by Dhileepan) for always insisting that he needs vegetarian food in a passing remark.

There's a scene in director Bala's Naan Kadavul, where Motta Rajendran says, 'Maattu Kari Thinnaalum Malayalaththan Moolaye Moola' (Even though Malayalis eat beef, they are intelligent). Selvam is the only son of Kaala who has a sturdy physique. He's the one who comes to the rescue of Kaala when he is surrounded by Haridev Abhayankar's (Nana Patekar) goons and takes them to the task. Ranjith succinctly describes that being well-built and radical is not directly proportional to the kind of food one eats, especially beef. This kind of specificity smashes the usual food politics associated with Dalits and the notion that they are invariably meat-eaters. Oh, there's an 'A-1 Beef Shop' signboard right opposite Kaala's home in Dharavi.

Rajinikanth with director Pa. Ranjith/Image from Twitter.

Rajinikanth with director Pa. Ranjith/Image from Twitter.

While some may hold that it's a meaningless trivia in a narrative, there are enough reasons to believe that Ranjith is not someone who inadvertently throws symbols/portraits/figurines/signboards/books of Theendatha Vasantham (Madras), My Father Baliah, Malcolm X, Che Guevara (Kabali), Wangari Mathai, Lenin, Stalin (Kaala) as frames and recurring shots of Ambedkar and Buddha in his films without any purpose.

A lot of parallels have been drawn by writers on how acclaimed Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule's seminal works like Fandry and Sairat fluidly discusses the roots of Dalit identity and how his stories portray Dalit discourse in an explicit tone than Ranjith's movies. It's significant to understand how more mainstream the Tamil film industry is, the kind of stars Ranjith is collaborating with for his projects and the dearth of politically broad-minded producers.

When asked about the pressing need for metaphors and subtexts in a mainstream film like Madras and comparisons with thought-provoking works like Fandry, Ranjith had said, "I have seen people who have asked me to refrain from using the word Ambedkar in dialogues. Some distributors and producers say these kinds of movies won't work. One has to understand the type of circumstances under which we operate. No Tamil film has been made on the whole dynamics of the lives of Dalits. Movies like Vennilla Kabadi Kuzhu did touch Dalit politics slightly. But, it's an undeniable fact that there are no direct films on Dalits. Even if one or two films were made on those lines, did they succeed commercially? I doubt. We can't speak about Dalit politics in films like an open book here. Then, there is censor board. If a day comes when we don't encounter all these issues, then we can make a film like Fandry boldly."

Kollywood remains as an industry where producers still reject direct Dalit references in their films and frown upon dialogues on Ambedkar. In an industry which is quietly dominated by caste lines on various grounds, the interests of voices like Ranjith are of paramount importance. The above explanation from Ranjith indicates why he continues to interpose symbols meticulously in between frames of his films and writers find it difficult to decode his semiotics in a single viewing.

Ranjith's sophomore film Madras beautifully shattered the usual cliches associated with the lifestyle of Dalits. It's the first film where Ranjith attempted to subvert Dalit stereotypes with a wide range of roles. Tamil films had hitherto churned out unkempt villains, smugglers, and illiterates out of North Madras before Ranjith unearthed a bunch of endearing characters who are educated, politically-aware, sophisticated and connoisseurs of sports and music from the same region.

In Kaala, if Ranjith establishes Rajinikanth's home as a Dalit household by showing Nana Patekar refusing to drink water there, besides a flurry of other references, he used the same politics of untouchability in a dinner conversation in Madras when Nandakumar (Kannan) ominously shouts at his wife to prevent Viji (Paval Navageethan) from sitting at the same table with him.

Other recurring motifs in Madras and Kaala are the scenes written to demonstrate the land politics. Ranjith's portrayal of the housing board colony in Madras and the Dharavi in Kaala highlights how people residing in those places are confined to tiny homes. In Madras, Anbu (Kalaiarasan) and Mary (Rithwika) engage in an unrestrained physical intimacy despite their little kid sitting in the nearby room.

In Kaala, women vocally speak about their sexual needs in a riotous stretch. I especially liked the lady who says, 'Ithula Muththam.. Suththam' (There's no room for kissing). An old-aged resident from Dharavi says, 'Saagarathukulla Nallaa Kaal Neetti Padukka Oru Veedu Venum' (Before I die, I need a home where I can stretch my legs freely and sleep peacefully).

In the same sequence, one lady recalls how she fell in love with her husband when she was standing in a public toilet queue. Zarina (Huma Qureshi), while remembering her days in Dharavi, also identifies the same public toilet queue as one of the spots where she and Kaala exchanged loving gazes. This uninhibited portrayal is how Ranjith attempts to refine the Dalit stereotypes that audiences are usually accustomed to in Tamil cinema.

It must be noted that Tamil Nadu has witnessed a spate of violent protests in the past for caste-themed films such as Thevar Magan, Virumaandi (changed from Sandiyar after Dalit organizations protested) and Bharathi Kannama to name a few. In a caste cauldron like Tamil Nadu, where cinema and caste politics are intertwined, it's essential that the representational politics of Dalits and the caste inequality that Ranjith strives to bring to the fore receive our attention.

Updated Date: Jun 10, 2018 10:19 AM