Attakathi to Maamannan: The Rise of Anti-Caste Films in Tamil Cinema

Sowmya Rajendran

 If caste discrimination is a thing of the past, why did it take till 2012 to show a character in a Tamil film eating beef? Pa Ranjith’s Attakathi (2012) can be passed off as a fun romcom, but it also marked a milestone in Tamil cinema. This was the first time a Dalit man’s way of life was presented without apology.

Novelist and screenplay writer Tamil Prabha said, “In Madras (2014), Pa Ranjith took us into Dravidian politics and how the power struggles within it play out. The chair you see in Mari Selvaraj’s recently released film Maamannan (2023) is the wall in Madras.” 

The writer is referring to a pivotal scene in Maamannan – a rewrite of Thevar Magan (1992) – where a Dalit legislator’s son insists that his father sit on a chair before a dominant caste politician of the same party. In Madras, the conflict is over a wall that two political parties try to claim. 

Stalin Rajangam, a researcher who has written extensively on Dalit history, literature, cinema and politics said, “It’s not that caste wasn’t present in older films. It would be there in a dialogue, song, scene or even be central to the plot. But these films didn’t translate to the kind of success formula that we’re seeing today.”

Dalit feminist, activist and writer Shalin Maria Lawrence said the success of anti-caste films is important, but equally significant is the impact these films have had on how the audience is watching other movies as well. “Many directors today feel the compulsion to include an anti-caste dialogue or scene in their films. A hero has to be someone who takes an anti-caste stance, someone without caste pride.”

Even as new age anti-caste films have largely won praise, they have also been criticised for either glorifying violence – films like Kabali, Asuran, Karnan – or depicting it to such an extent that it becomes “trauma porn” – films such as Pariyerum Perumal, Jai Bhim or Viduthalai Part 1.

However, Tamil Prabha said, “I’m personally not in favour of depicting violence extensively, but we can’t tell a creator what their voice should be. We should let them speak first, and build a discourse around it.”