“It’s only till the deer learns to tell its story that the lion is the king of the jungle,” said novelist and screenplay writer Tamil Prabha, when talking about the growing number of anti-caste films in Tamil cinema. Prabha, who has worked on the sports film Sarpatta Parambarai (2021) and the upcoming period drama Thangalaan with Pa Ranjith, has witnessed up close how traditional narratives in Tamil cinema are being challenged by new age directors and it’s been a long time coming.
When late director SP Jananathan’s action adventure film Peranmai (2009), about a forest ranger from a scheduled tribe, went to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), he was forced to make as many as 16 cuts. Many of these were lines that revealed the ubiquitous and institutionalised nature of caste. He was told by the CBFC that there was no need to show caste discrimination in cinema since it no longer existed.
But if caste discrimination was 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 about a young man who is more in love with the idea of love than any woman he meets, 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.
“In Attakathi, Ranjith showcased a Dalit character, his way of life, flaws and so on,” said Prabha. “In Madras (2014), he 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.
After Madras, Ranjith pulled off a remarkable feat for an upcoming director. He made back-to-back films with Tamil cinema’s biggest superstar – Rajinikanth. If the subtext in Attakathi and Madras could escape the notice of a privileged audience, the political overtones and assertion of identity in Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018) were unmissable.
“There is a market for Dalit cinema now. It is viewed as a profitable and successful business,” said Stalin Rajangam, a researcher who has written extensively on Dalit history, literature, cinema and politics. “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.”
The Rise of the Dalit Hero
MG Ramachandran’s Madurai Veeran (1956) is often cited as an early example of a film with a Dalit hero. Based on folklore, the film is about a baby born into a chieftain’s family who is abandoned and later brought up by a couple belonging to the Arunthathiyar caste, a scheduled caste in Tamil Nadu. The film was a blockbuster and earned MGR the loyalty of the Arunthathiyar caste, but as Rajangam pointed out, the origin story of Madurai Veeran makes it clear that he wasn’t actually from a scheduled caste. On the other hand, contemporary anti-caste films have heroes who are unambiguously Dalit, and the politics they represent isn’t dressed up to please anyone. They’re not shown as pitiable subhuman creatures but as characters with agency.
“In the last decade, the discourse around anti-caste cinema has only grown, and the audience has also become more educated about these films. I see that as a victory,” he added. Nothing succeeds like success, and Rajangam noted that directors hailing from other caste locations who have an affinity for progressive politics have also started making anti-caste films. National Award winning director Vetrimaaran, who shot to fame with films like Aadukalam (2011) and Visaranai (2016), is among them.
“In Vetrimaaran’s first film Polladhavan (2007), it is possible to read Dhanush’s character as a Dalit hero, but the director didn’t specify it as such. If he were to make the film today, he wouldn’t have a problem stating it,” said Rajangam. “Further, Polladhavan has many commercial elements, including problematic lines in its songs. But Vetrimaaran has become more responsible and socially conscious now and I see that as an influence of the anti-caste wave.” Vetrimaaran’s Asuran (2019), which is on the land rights of Dalits, is among the biggest hits of his career. He has since made anti-caste films such as Oor Iravu in the Paava Kadhaigal (2020) Netflix anthology film and Viduthalai - Part 1 (2023). TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim (2021), which is based on the real life case of the custodial torture and murder of a man from a scheduled tribe, is another example of how anti-caste cinema is no longer confined to Dalit directors.
The Dominant Caste Narrative
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. “How we watch films as an audience has changed, and this is true of earlier movies and the narratives they promoted too,” said Lawrence. “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.”
Such an understanding of a hero is in sharp contrast to films like Cheran Pandian (1991), Thevar Magan (1992), Chinna Gounder (1992), Yajaman (1993), Nattamai (1994) and so on that have heroes who are from dominant caste communities, and are shown to be generous and compassionate while clinging on to their caste privilege and pride. These films were made in response to the evolving political awareness and participation of Dalit communities, and the growing presence of parties such as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and Puthiya Tamilagam that were centred on caste issues.
Director Thamizh, who made the critically acclaimed film Seththumaan (2022), hails from a village in Salem. As a young Dalit boy who watched these films in the Nineties, he recalled feeling puzzled by the narratives they pushed. “None of the dominant caste families I knew were like the families shown in these films. They were anything but generous towards others in the village. But the films had songs about how everyone is supposed to revere them,” said Thamizh.
Seththumaan, which streamed directly on SonyLIV, revolves on the politics of caste and food. Much like Selvaraj’s Maamannan and Marathi director Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2013), the pig in Seththumaan becomes a metaphor for the violence faced by oppressed castes.
“I made Seththumaan because I felt it’s important for people to understand how caste is everywhere, including in one’s food. The minute someone says they eat beef or pork or that they’re vegetarian, the statement immediately acquires a caste connotation,” said Thamizh, noting that he wished to break the cultural assumptions around the pig as an animal and consequently, the act of eating it. “I don’t know if the way the pig has been reimagined in our films will destroy the caste hierarchy. But I feel people’s perspective towards this animal and all that it represents will shift. Calling someone ‘panni moonji vaaya’ (pig-faced) was common in Tamil films, but I believe that won’t be the case going forward,” he added.
A Righteous Anger
Even as these new age anti-caste films have largely won praise from film critics and made good money at the box-office, they have also been criticised for either glorifying violence – films like Kabali, Asuran, Karnan (2021) – or depicting it to such an extent that it becomes “trauma porn” – films such as Pariyerum Perumal (2018), Jai Bhim or Viduthalai – Part 1. Maamannan, the latest in this line, has the dominant caste villain (Fahadh Faasil) repeatedly bludgeoning a dog and later a man.
However, Shalin Maria Lawrence said one should not expect all directors to have the same film language. “Ranjith comes from North Madras where he has witnessed assertive Dalit politics. The characters he’s created are influenced by what he’s seen. Mari Selvaraj [who hails from Thoothukudi] is from the Pallar caste, a group that has repeatedly been subjected to violence. The anger we see in his films is natural,” said Lawrence.
Another example is director Gopi Nainar who made Aramm (2017), a political drama about an IAS officer (Nayanthara) who is in charge of the rescue operation of a child who has fallen into a borewell. “Nainar is Dalit and also comes from North Madras, a part of the city that’s highly affected by industrialization and climate change. He’s a grassroots activist, and when he made a film, he brought in the environmental aspect of caste,” she said.
Tamil Prabha is on the same page as Lawrence about this. “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,” said Prabha.
Stalin Rajangam, however, felt that filmmakers should be able to portray violence more sensitively in their films. “Extreme depictions of Dalits undergoing violence can make them feel powerless. It’s difficult to watch these films – important films – with children too. Is it necessary to show Fahadh Faasil repeatedly hitting a dog?” asked Rajangam.
An anti-caste filmmaker who was widely appreciated for how he portrayed caste violence in his film is Deepak, who made the courtroom drama Witness (2022). The film, which streamed directly on SonyLIV, is about a young swimmer who is forced to enter a manhole without any safety gear and dies as a result. In contrast to Anubhav Sinha’s Hindi film Article 15 (2019), which has a close-up shot of a man emerging from a clogged drain to evoke sympathy, Deepak refused to shoot such a scene.
“I was very clear that I did not want to show such violence in voyeuristic detail. Isn’t it enough to tell people that a teenager was forced into performing such an inhuman act and that he died? Isn’t it tragic enough already?” he said. Determined to maintain the dignity of his characters on screen, Deepak resisted pressure to include shots that would show the young man’s suffering blatantly. “People did tell me to shoot the scene and keep it in case the production house asks for it. But I felt the whole purpose of my film would fall through if I did so. I also knew that there would be pressure to include the scene in the final edit if at all I shot it,” he said.
The Deer Has Learnt to Sing
Barring Ranjith’s experimental romantic musical drama Natchathiram Nagargiradhu (2022) and Nainar’s Aramm, the majority of anti-caste films that have come out so far are centred on male protagonists. Witness differs in this aspect too – the film is about the swimmer’s mother, Indrani (Rohini), who fights for justice due to her son, and Parvathi (Shraddha Srinath), a socially mobile architect who supports her. “I have worked with many female directors and cinematographers such as Fowzia Fathima who are extremely assertive. It’s my view that women are not afraid to articulate their thoughts and speak directly unlike men,” said Deepak, adding that the character of Indrani, a sanitation worker, is based on a real person who works for Greater Chennai Corporation.
The anti-caste wave in Tamil cinema has also influenced other southern industries where films with characters who are clearly from marginalised castes are being made – Palasa 1978 (2022) and Dasara (2023) in Telugu, Kammatipaadam (2016), Ayyappanum Koshiyum (2020) and Puzhu (2022) in Malayalam, and Kantara (2022) in Kannada are a few examples. In other words, the deer has learnt to sing and the lion is no longer king.
That there is a wave of anti-caste films in the Tamil film industry is also evident in the opposition that these films and filmmakers get from colleagues. Mohan G and Muthaiah, for instance, have made films that celebrate caste pride and portray intercaste relationships as false and unreliable.
“The film industry is a microcosm of society, so we must expect this to happen,” said Rajangam. “When Dalits organise themselves to fight for their rights, dominant castes will organise themselves to ensure that their power isn’t diluted. But I don’t view this negatively. It’s a part of the discourse. It’s another thing that these films don’t have the imaginative power or the technical finesse of the anti-caste wave films to appeal to the audience beyond their respective communities.”