In Mandela (2021), directed by Madonne Ashwin, the eponymous protagonist (played by Yogi Babu), is showered with gifts by two political parties during the election season. The parties, in effect, are headed by half-brothers who take up the job of leading two different caste groups. Since their respective mothers belong to different castes, their sole mission rests upon showing their dominance. They get into fights over trivial things regularly and do not let each other live in peace.
Mandela is initially treated with derision, for he plays a hairstylist. He’s not allowed into the houses of the villagers via the main-door, as he’s a Dalit. When he’s summoned to give haircuts, he’s told to use the side-entrance. And he’s never respected by the townsfolk. He doesn’t rebel anywhere, for he’s helpless. He knows that he’ll be thrown out of the village if he raises his voice. He usually takes these insults with a pinch of salt and moves on. But the teenager who works with him, Kirudha (Mukesh), exhibits his disapproval right from the beginning.
And, Karnan (Dhanush), the hero of Mari Selvaraj’s sophomore movie, Karnan (2021), goes a step ahead and picks up a sword.
In both these films, it’s the younger generation that prefers to bring down the walls of casteism. Karnan and Kirudha do not want to stay silent, or look away. Kirudha doesn’t have the physical strength to engage in a duel – he’s not supported by Mandela either since their livelihood depends on keeping the ties with the rest of the people undamaged. But Karnan is in the prime of his youth. And he won’t go to sleep until he settles scores with those who badmouth his village – and community.
Why do you think Mandela receives kindness and goodies from the two brothers all of a sudden? Did they become the preachers of the anti-caste movement? No! They try to tiptoe into his good books by offering him sweet words and goodies after realizing that his vote decides their fate. His “single” vote can bring one of them into power. But when Mandela says that he can’t choose one brother over another, they start torturing him anew. He’s seen merely as a vote and not as a human being who deserves to enjoy the same rights as the others.
Karnan faces a similar problem. He’s constantly told that his village, Podiyankulam, cannot be furnished with a bus-stop since the residents belong to a Dalit community. Even though the dialogues do not explicitly state that, you can’t miss the underlying message. In one of the arguments that he has with his friend (played by Lal), he explains that he can’t keep quiet because they’re being harassed in multiple forms.
Karnan shakes the foundations of the caste-system through small acts of rebellion and he wishes to take on the forces of evil – police or military, according to him – and see to it that they get justice. Whenever the silver-bearded men from Podiyankulam urge him to stay away from violence, he shuts their choruses down with his angry speeches.
The older members of the village write letters to the government officials asking them to take a look at their plight, whereas the hero rips apart a bus in a later scene to indicate his displeasure – look at the contrasts in their approach. Discrimination happens in several ways and it has hundreds of ugly heads. This isn’t brand new information. In our country, however, systematic discrimination opens new windows for the privileged. It allows them to keep the hierarchy unbroken since it favors them.
Karnan, which is inspired by certain true stories, blends the juices of myth, mysticism, and social commentary quite beautifully. A dead girl becomes a goddess – and a metaphor – in the very same film where the Dalit hero wins a battle against the caste supremacists. Karnan doesn’t waltz into the chambers of victory without losing the people he adores, though. In any tale of blood-meets-blood, there’s loss. And, here, the losses are many! And this is the grand black hole that the two-month-old Telugu romantic drama Uppena slips into.
The Dalit protagonist in Uppena doesn’t get a chance to confront the casteist villain and the climactic resolution involves, instead, just a monologue that makes it seem as though caste isn’t a problem when two people are in love with one another. The movie washes away the caste-identities of the leads in order to make the love story its backbone.
We need more films — and literature — now more than ever to resolutely take anti-caste stances. A college canteen not serving non-vegetarian food, based on the orders issued by the Principal, who’s a Brahmin, is discrimination. Why should his religious beliefs affect the taste-buds of the meat-eaters? Not renting out your house to Dalits, and to people whose gods don’t resemble yours, is discrimination. Yes, even these check-points are discriminatory in nature, for they are non-inclusive. They are deliberately put in place to keep the other communities away. And these are just some of the examples that I’ve personally come across in my day-to-day life.
Now, Selvaraj, with two piping-hot dramas to his credit, the other one being Pariyerum Perumal (2018), is leading the anti-caste pack, along with Pa. Ranjith, Vetrimaaran, and Nagraj Manjule. This is happy news!