There's been a steady increase in films that comment on caste through a narrative that deals with inter-caste marriage. Late last year, we got Pavel Navageethan's V1: Murder Case, which was generally underwhelming but undeniably important as a footnote in Tamil-cinema history. It's the first genre-based message movie about caste in the post-Pa Ranjith era. This year, we have, so far, Kanni Maadam and Ettu Thikkum Para and the infamous Draupathi, which has made the most noise because of its reversal of gaze. The other films depict inter-caste marriage to make the point that casteism is a stigma we need to work together to eradicate. Draupathi tells people of the dominant castes to be careful. "Otherwise, they will come and shame us by stealing our girls."
Now, strictly from an academic point of view, a film (i.e. its maker) should be allowed to say whatever he/she wants to say, even if it's something we know and believe to be wrong. At IFFI, last year, I saw Savas Ceviz's Head Burst(Kopfplatzen in German), whose protagonist is a paedophile. If you listen to the "what is it about?" of the film, you know it's something terrible, something that wreaks havoc on its victims (much like the caste system). When I sat down for the film, therefore, my (purely academic) question was: So what's the angle? What is Savas Ceviz going to show me about something I have already made up my mind about?
But Head Burst surprised me. The protagonist Markus knows he is a paedophile, and he goes to a psychiatrist for a "cure". The doctor tells Markus that it's not his "fault" because paedophilia is a predisposition, a sexual orientation that develops during puberty. "You have to live with this your whole life. I am sorry but that's your fate." He adds that he can help Markus control "it", and that he will hopefully not perform any legally punishable acts. But Markus needs to take control of his behaviour. "If a child is hurt, you are responsible."
A film like Head Burst makes you think about something you didn't know there could be a debate about. It shows that one can be a paedophile (i.e. sexually attracted to children) and yet strive not be a sex offender (i.e. one who decides to prey on children). There's a nuance, there. After watching the film, I felt some empathy for Markus. (Earlier, I'd have only felt disgust.) What must it be like to know you are doing something wrong, want to change, but keep finding yourself tempted? A sociopath is blessed, in a manner of speaking, because he/she has no "conscience", no sense of right versus wrong. Markus, on the other hand, is doomed to a life of fathomless misery. He'd probably be better off if someone locked him up in jail and threw away the key.
I wondered if Draupathi, directed by Mohan G, would hold some such surprise. (I knew the chances were slim. Still!) Is there a dominant-caste point of view that's going to make us think at least a little differently about these men who kill the boys who marry their daughters? This won't change what we think about the caste system, which is an evil, period. But at least for academic purposes, will this film help us enter the heads of these men who wallow in caste pride and perhaps point out (like the psychiatrist in Head Burst did) a root cause that goes beyond the obvious?
Alas, Draupathi is a vile mess that's so inept, it would be a comedy if it weren't so tragic. Take this stretch, where the protagonist Rudra Prabhakaran (Richard Rishi) questions a young man — who appears to be a Dalit Christian — if it isn't wrong to think about hooking "a rich girl" and "settling down". Isn't it your fault that you didn't get yourself a decent education? Isn't that why you are stuck in a dead-end job? Instead of working to change your circumstances, why do you seek an overnight solution that will transform your life? There is no nuance. One side is "good". The other side is "evil". That's it.
Another young man says, "Engala maadhiri pasanga padichi vela thedi kashta padaama enjoy pannalaam." (Instead coming up the hard way, "guys like us" can get a good life by marrying these rich dominant-caste girls.) An advocate allied with these young men gets them drunk on their wedding night, so they pass out. Then, he makes the bride (who belongs to a dominant caste) strip and takes a video that he can use to blackmail her family with. An old man weeps that his daughter got married to a boy from an oppressed caste, who took all their money and ran away. On and on and on it goes, about what "they" will do to "our" girls.
There's one scene I found mildly interesting. Draupathi — who is Rudra Prabhakaran's wife — hears about a boy who has been harassing a girl by morphing her face onto nude images. So she goes with her husband and finds this boy playing with his friends. Rudra Prabhakaran ties up this boy's hands, and Draupathi strips him naked, saying, "See how ashamed you feel when you are naked in public. That is how this girl feels, too." (The boy's hands are tied, so he can't even cover his crotch.) For a second, I thought the film was making a solid point about sexual harassment, but then I realised — to my horror — that this scene has a caste angle, too. This is what "they" do. They will morph "our" girls' faces onto naked bodies. "They" need to be put in place.
The hero, thus, acquires the aura of a Shankar protagonist . He sets out on a series of vigilante killings. He's captured. The cop calls him "jaathi veri pudicha naaye", but he soon retracts his words because the hero launches into a sympathy-creating Shankar-style second-half flashback. The film seems to be about fake marriages conducted at registrar offices, but it's really a fear-mongering exercise that asks dominant-caste people to ensure their girls don't get conned by these uniformly evil "others". That's its venomous message. The point isn't whether such a film should be allowed to release. There are political outfits making similarly venomous speeches. There are WhatsApp groups espousing similarly venomous thoughts. On social media, you find people engaging in similarly venomous discourse. So why should a film not do this?
But even if that's the argument, there needs to be some nuance — like in Ettu Thikkum Para, directed by Keera. The finesse is certainly not in the filmmaking. (As in Draupathi, the screenplay is a mess.) There are several narrative threads, but let's focus only on the one that revolves around an inter-caste marriage, between Anitha (like the heroine of Draupathi, she's a dominant-caste girl from Vizhupuram) and Dileepan (a Dalit). The set-up is provocative. A few boys gather outside Anitha's home and mutter things like "Ponna thookka vandhirukom". Anitha joins them, and they take her to Dileepan. The driver of the car taking them away from home is also a Dalit: "avanga aalu".
But this is where some nuance seeps into the proceedings. The next morning, when Anitha's parents find out and begin to wail about their "shame", the neighbours gather around. One of them says, "There have been so many inter-caste marriages, so what's the big deal so with this one?" Someone says, "Well, they have come up in life and we are still where we were!" So the first man says, "So they worked hard and came up. You do that, too." He is shut up by the second man, who says: "Are you a Naxalite?" But at least, there's some conversation happening. Unlike Draupathi, there's at least another point of view being put forth.
And like Head Burst, Ettu Thikkum Para makes you stop for a second and think about something: If you know that running away with a Dalit boy is going to make your people come after you, find you, and beat up and perhaps even kill the boy, do you owe it to "society" — not to mention the boy — to not pursue such a relationship? Samuthirakani plays a lawyer named Ambedkar (but, of course!), and he poses this question to Anitha. "The love you have for Dileepan today will lessen over time. What then? Do you think all this trauma and bloodshed will have been worth it?"
These are loaded questions, which are in themselves a kind of fear-mongering exercise. It is a form of bullying. But unlike Draupathi, at least the film asks questions instead of simply saying — over and over — that "they" are bad. If Anitha and Dileepan decide to get together, they've at least been forced to consider the possible repercussions of their actions. What's interesting (and lop-sided) is that Anitha, and not Dileepan, makes the choice for them. She has less to lose than him. If found, she will probably get away with a few slaps and some verbal abuse, but he may lose his life, and his family could be affected, too. But like I said, with the kind of screenwriting in Ettu Thikkum Para, this may be too much nuance to expect.
Kanni Maadam, directed by Bose Venkat, turned out to be the best of the bunch — and not just in comparison. I could have lived without the huge score and the excessive melodrama towards the end, but for the most part, this is a genuinely engaging, well-written, well-made drama that — like Balaji Sakthivel's Kadhal — folds the issues into a story instead of letting the issues become the story. This time, the boy (Kathir) is from a dominant caste. He elopes with Malar, and like in Kadhal, they struggle to make a life together in a new city. There's another Kadhal-like development, when Malar says they should postpone having sex until they are well-settled. I wondered, first, if this was a ploy to prevent the "mixing of blood", but they do end up having sex, and it turns out that Malar was serious about settling down first before getting on with the other aspects of their lives.
We know there's going to be some kind of tragedy because Kathir's people are hunting for the couple, but it occurs in a most unexpected way. (This is where you appreciate the effort in writing.) It turns out that there is another narrative thread in this film, and that's caste-based, too — and that's what causes the real tragedy. Here's the underlying question: What if you are from a dominant caste and you want to "atone" for your casteist father's sins? This is a narrative angle we haven't seen so far, and it drives the character named Anbu, an auto driver who lives in the same area as Malar and Kathir.
"Indha kaalathulayuma jaathi paakaraanga?" asks 'Councillor' Akka, a memorably colourful character who rents out rooms. The implication may be that people in melting-pot cities don't care about caste as long as you pay your rent on time (or show up for work on time, or whatever), whereas in smaller towns and villages, the segregations are more obvious. I don't think it's a spoiler to say Kanni Maadam ends like Kadhal/Sairat. I don't think it's possible — yet — to make a movie about inter-caste marriages and leave the audience with a happy ending. Tragedy drives home a message far more forcefully.
But from a purely cinematic (i.e. narrative) viewpoint, and purely for argument's sake, is it possible to make a movie about an inter-caste marriage, where the characters live happily ever after? Like the adage says: Living well is the best revenge. But this is perhaps easier to ponder about than actually see on screen, for the film industry is still dominated by caste forces. I mean, a filmmaker as senior and well-regarded as Vetri Maaran is forced to make changes to his film Asuran, by removing the term "aanda parambarai." I mean, if we can't even say it, how can we show it?