The Invisible Other: Caste in Tamil Cinema

Usilampatti: One of most important towns
in Madurai District For some reason they really love Madurai, so much so that when
Madurai District was split.. the people of the town protested
to be joined back with Madurai. What are these guys up to? Hey, how dare you stick this stuff here? -buzz off old man Pull it down, don’t you dare stick
posters of actors who aren’t our caste. There may be many big
stars in Tamil cinema.. but for them it’s only
Prabhu and Karthik. Gandhi maybe the
‘Father of the nation’ but for them it’s ‘Netaji’
Subash Chandra Bose. That’s probably why they’re so passionate
in showing affectionandanger. This town might have a reputation
for female infanticides.. but this is also where young women
are worshiped as their deities. When those girls are seduced by young men in the name of love.. ..this is the fate that awaits them. We send our girls to schools and college.. to get an education and you try to spoil them with your appearance and your gadgets. We should cut up a few like you
so others would learn a lesson! If someone gets caught to men like these,
their fate’s always the same. This is where the men who threaten
their caste’s honour are put to rest. Wonder how many more are
going to have a similar end. What are the films that come to
your mind when you think of caste? Virumandi, Thevar Magan These films centralize caste but.. ..many others bring caste
somewhere in the story -Could you please name
a few like that? Kizhakku Chemayile,
Bharathiraja’s films.. ..and Thangarbachan’s films too. Caste may not be the primary focus.. but it’s always discussed somewhere. Bharathi Kannamma,
Thevar Magan, Naatamai Most Tamil films these days
seem to be about caste -Just name a few then I mean, only 2 out of 10 don’t go into caste.. even ‘love stories’ do that. -I understand, just name a few prominent ones Thevar Magan..Thirunelveli Thirunvelveli, for instance, is all about the Naickers.. their history, their life, the
way they oppressed other castes their disrespectful attitude to other castes etc. Similarly, Thevar Magan is about Thevars, and then films, like Naatamai go into
Gounders Thevar Magan, that’s all. Vamsam, Thevar Magan Thevar Magan, Chinna Gounder films that carried a caste name in their title are the films that to come my mind immediately -What are the castes that you
see most often in Tamil films? Thevars…and among the lower castes I can’t recall their names, but they show them -Do you remember a lower
caste name being mentioned? No, I don’t -Why do you think that is? I think it’s because of my upbringing -No, I meantin films-after all, they mention
Thevars and Gounders explicitly Because those castes are mentioned with pride.. but they’re uncomfortable with lower castes. It’s Thevars that are often featured in films. I know little about the other
castes mostly because of that. Because of this kind of bias, they
think very highly of themselves It’s cinema that does that. Either they should mix up all castes fairly.. or not mention castes at all. Thevar’s continued presence in films.. has elevated their stature and perception. That they’re rich, have everything at their disposal. -that they shouldn’t mess with them?
Yes Sir, Pulivathanam village is also having a fair. They’re too? This police station will be toast. Those guys are Thevars too. They
call them kondayankottai maravars. They’re a violent lot too. Last year they killed their village head. We have to show up then
and try to establish some order. But they wouldn’t care. They wouldn’t
inform us of anything either. I don’t know who’s going to die this year. They mostly just show the uppercastes very few directors have thought about the.. lower castes and tried to bring them into the story.. and only a few films are like that. Otherwise, showing uppercaste
lifestyle is the only thing.. they seem to care about. -Could you name the upper
caste you’re talking about? Sorry, I would rather not say. People from the slums or lower castes.. are always shown in a negative light, as thieves, murderers and as filthy They’re also the butt of most jokes. They choose sewage workers,
washermen and cobblers.. to act out their comedic scenes within a film. Even if they don’t mention the caste names.. they equate lower castes with specific professions. When I watch these films with my peers, an uppercaste student just finds them funny. He’d mock, “oh, is this what you people do?” It isolates us. The films put him in a higher place than I. Classmates find themselves divided over their, caste’s portrayals in films and film songs. Films enable this kind of prejudice Thevar’s honour will go for toss if
he falls at a lower caste’s feet What did you say? Thevar? Who’s a Thevar? You? One doesn’t become Thevar just by wielding.. a sickle and sporting a big moustache. Thevar is one slays a 100 men
to protect a girl’s honour Thevars are our ancestors who were happy, to bring all these people of
other castes into our place and gave them jobs, food, and shelter. Whether we make a profit at
the end of the harvest or not. Thevars are those who happily paid
fair wages to the working people Thevars are those who take pride in gifting.. new clothes and food to the
other castes during festivals Thevars might look fierce,
but they have a kind heart Thevar’s vetti (clothes) could
be dirty, but not his mind The political climate in the 90s altered a few things. Mandal commission report on
reservation for backward castes.. was being put forward actively during this time. As a result the intermediate
feudal castes were able to.. express some sort of victimization at the hands.. of other dominant castes,
especially in politics. This time saw a rise in identity politics. A lot of these castes felt
that it’s a natural response.. ..against Brahmin oppression to
prop up their own identities. In that context caste supremacist attitudes –that of a ruling class
etc.–forwarded by these films went unquestioned or even welcomed.thaatiyare: person of authoritysandiyare: insubordinate As a result, even the villagers who did not
have a reflexive understanding of their caste.. without tangible characteristics
to identify with.. ponder over the possible
signifiers of their caste identity. These films gave a new meaning and provided.. ..a glorified narrative to embrace. These films subconsciously construct a belief.. ..that they were once the ruling class and that others are beneath them etc. Chinna Gounder comes from a family that has
a very sophisticated approach to life. Chinna Gounder, especially,
is wise beyond his age and is.. known for his intricate understanding of things. You can see it for yourself in today’s arbitration. Ok, we’ll leave then. Mahalingam, if people respect
a man’s verdicts more than that of the court’s, I would like to witness it. These casteist sentiments manifest
most dangerously whenever.. there’s a conflict between
the upper and lower castes. It’s an invisible power. That has been cinema’s role. I wouldn’t accuse Tamil cinema as a.. willful perpetrator of casteist propaganda. But they did very little to
change existing attitudes and actively engaged people
with caste through these films. They cleverly exploited it to their own
profit making ends, is my opinion. These guys have been running around with.. spears and swords for over 2000 years. When Netaji Subash Chandra Bose
sought men to fight the British, our (Thevar) men formed the front lines. You can’t expect them drop all that in a day. You need to educate them gradually. But the guys will obviously take
their time to embrace modernity. One thing I noticed after coming to Madurai.. was that cinema + caste=fan clubs (for actors) Fans of the actors are mostly
split among caste lines Take an actor, for instance they identify their caste with that of the actors and organize themselves around that If you pick a fan club, you’ll see that most members belong to the same caste. The way I see it, caste and
cinema meet through the viewers. I think that’s where the real connection lies. So anyone who lands in a hostel
or college in a place like Madurai is forced to seek
his caste identity immediately. Where do you think these students
pick archetypal behaviours to act out their dominant-caste identity. What would you regard as their sources? Cinema is one of the most important
sources, I believe. Because, they don’t really
pick up anything from text. Such records don’t affect them much. And there aren’t many records either. They don’t really read any
kind of history of their caste or their ancestry and
get inspired and such. There are a couple of things: One is that it starts from their household, that’s how our families are constructed. There are many obvious identifiers
of which caste they belong to. They draw a few (of their caste’s)
characteristics from that. But beyond that it’s cinema
that plays a vital role in informing and constructing their
identities, no doubt about it. Tamil cinema has never addressed caste directly. In Hollywood films, for instance, you’ll find that race issues are discussed openly – on both ends. Some directors have made very honest attempts too. So you get a picture that closely reflects reality. But here, because discussing caste
in detail could get complicated, they choose to be a little vague. But they recreate the caste dynamics
through their visuals and characterization, and make it known. So you never have a situation where you are.. ashamed to belong to a dominant caste. Especially, the films that came along with Ejamaan did a terrible job of reconstructing
these glorified identities. Students from villages often already
have values that are regressive college education should try
to break it and reform him but because there’s hardly
any input in that regard they remain the same people
even after coming to a city Back in the 80s our goal was to come to the city, wear jeans and modernize ourselves. There was a compulsion to free
ourselves from our caste identities. Not anymore. Hey listen, he too is Vaanvarayan’s cousin, why can’t you respect him the same? Sir, he may be related and rich, but it’s.. our master who shares our joys and sorrows. Just look, people are walking beside
so they don’t step on his footprints Sir, even the soil from his
footprints is sacred to us No film has shown Dalit castes explicitly They’ve shown Thevars and
Gounders as they are -Even if they do only as slaves Not only that, they actually
never mention the caste name. Whether they are Pallars,
Parayars or Chakkiliyars -Yes, they’ll just say
“the oppressed people” but we don’t know exactly who they are. Even so, you can identify yourselves in the film? -Peraanmai is a good example.
It’s one of the only films in recent times to explore the unfair
nature of those relationships between aboriginal tribes and
the dominant caste officer. The film had presented it really well. We like the scene where he
asks “should a cobbler’s son be a cobbler too?”
“Should they never grow?” We could see that the
film was meant for us Ok, you mentioned Peraanmai, could
you think of any other films like that? -Yes this film called Alai Osai (1985), it had a song that called out to dalit castes and it got censored. -Thevars have dozens of
songs praising them and no one cares, we had one
song and it got censored. It’s still in the audio cassettes
but it was cut out of the film What are some of elements
you see again and again in films that have a caste oriented subject? You live near Paramakkudi, among thevars How does it affect the people from those communities? You think they get excited and rub it in? -Absolutely. They erect massive
hoardings whenever there’s a film from one of their actors
and celebrate it with authority. We’d get stopped in the cinemas if we walk in
with the (sacred) red thread in our wrists. -So the red thread represents Dalits here? Because, in Madras everyone wears it;
even those from the North (India) -It’s pretty bad here
in Ramnad district, they had to ban all
threads for some time They (Thevars) wear yellow thread. Speaking of fan-clubs, today everyone
who’s a part of a multi-caste environment.. likes to form a group that
identifies them with an actor. -Ilayaraja is very famous and
influential music director. He belongs to the Parayar caste,
but he has never said it himself He has never acknowledged his caste and
has always avoided that conversation.. ..Vikram does the same thing too. But why do you choose him over Ilayaraja? -The reason we’re not
celebrating Ilayaraja so much is because he composes music for Thevar films too. So you do pick out their
counterproductive roles? -Indeed, I mean, there’s this
beautiful song sung by him.. …he’s got a wonderful voice
and his compositions are remarkable. When he puts out songs that
praise Thevars, we feel betrayed So if Vikram were to act in a Thevar film.. -Yes, we’d feel the same way Do you agree? If Vikram acts
in films like Chinna Gounder or Thevar Magan, you’d abandon this fan club? -Definitely, no doubt about it
We may still watch his films because he’s a good actor, but
won’t have the same affinity If you take an actor, his fans
mostly belong to his caste If you take Vikram, he works
with the upper castes, dines with them, makes money and
lives away from all this. But people here are split along caste
lines and continue to fight over him. Whenever a ‘Chiyan‘ Vikram’s
film’s out, it’s his caste members who throng the
theatres more than others Recently when I went to watch Paruthi Veeran, every time Thevars were mentioned
the Thevar guys who were seated — they take up an entire section
usually — were going crazy It makes you wonder why you
even went to watch the film. Cinema is doing that to people. My opinion is that cinema encourages caste It only wants to encourage
casteism and make money out of it. That’s cinema. Once we finish our film we
send it for certification. The censor board is constituted
of 30 or so members and they select 3 out of
them to certify your film. Now, we don’t know what their
backgrounds are, whether they have any understanding of Tamil Nadu’s culture,
caste makeup or what have you. They don’t necessarily understand the tone
I’ve employed in conveying some things. I had quite some trouble
getting E (2005) certified, so I knew Peraanmai (2009)
wouldn’t go smoothly. They made 16 cuts to the original film. And in Peraanmai I had tried
to explore caste deeper For instance: the caste based inequality that exists among students
in a college setting is one. The equation is different when
it’s in a Government’s office. And it’s different in the police department. The police department is supposed
to be disciplined etc., right? You have a set hierarchy where each one
takes orders from his superiors by nature. Caste plays an even more dangerous role in such an institution that is inherently hierarchical. You cannot talk back to a higher ranked officer.. general and even more so
when caste comes into play They (censor board) took
issue with my portrayal and ended up cutting all that off. I couldn’t say a lot of what
I wanted to, as a result. Because, by removing one shot out of the
scene the entire meaning stands altered. Cinema is a highly sensitive medium;
you have to handle it carefully or you’ll convey the wrong message. I had a scene in which the girls
discuss the ‘Manu’ in detail What the ‘Manu’ (scripture)
says about different castes.. One of them says, “this man shouldn’t
even read, how could he teach us?” But the whole scene was removed. Just teach us what we need to
know to protect the country. You cannot protect a country just
with guns and military strategy Country is nothing but the working people. Without a keen understanding
of political economy we cannot protect our culture, language,
literature or anything. We don’t want to be involved in politics. These lectures maybe better
served in a (party) gathering Aren’t you coming with us? -We like what he’s teaching.
We’re not joining you. (unison) Yes. Girls, please, listen to me. Hey, your job was to teach physical
education not ‘mental education’. What’s your score in mathematics?
-80, sir You dear?
-91, Sir. and you?
-89, Sir. What about science?
-73, Sir. Sir, I scored 86. –Censored by CBFC– Don’t think for a second that you could be their
guru, they don’t even accept you as their teacher Morning, sir. We’ve brought
some fresh produce for you They bring all this every week. We’re leaving sir
-yeah, be gone These guys are Dhuruvan’s relatives. Would you like to try to some bananas? Dhuruva, could you get your brother
to polish these shoes? -Yes, sir What they said was…by the way, there is
this popular view that needs to be addressed. ..they said: “all this caste
inequality does not exist anymore, why would you want to portray that
in a film and incite hatred?” I was accused of conjuring up something
that does not exist, in Peraanmai. I contended: this censor board
committee does not have.. representatives from the lower castes or the tribes. If one of them had said the same
thing, I would have agreed. But all 3 of them belonged to the upper castes. And these people insist that the
inequalities have declined a lot and that the lower castes are also
getting educated and have good jobs. A complex ideology and its social reality is
dismissed outright by their presumption. They said, “I know of this lower
caste girl who’s now an IAS officer and then another one who
is now working for NASA” etc. Yes, it’s true. But, they use these examples to dismiss the grievances and inequalities
of an entire community… …these are the people chairing
the censor board for my film. And they accuse me of inciting communal hatred. That’s the reason they cited
to make all those cuts. As a result, my film did not have
the clarity I would have liked. For instance, anyone can
glorify another individual, caste, group, religion or ethnicity. No one has an objection to that. But in the process, you cannot denigrate another actually, factual or not, you just cannot denigrate Leave denigrating, you cannot
even mention a Dalit caste name. Doesn’t matter if the tone is positive or negative.
You just can’t say it. The same with vulgar words too. This is how we should see
Jananathan’s case (Peraanmai). All the cuts made were based on this rule. You could say you support a caste,
but it shouldn’t hurt others. But other than that, we didn’t restrict his
freedom of expression anywhere in the film. We had one of Tamilanban’s poem in our.. undergraduate Tamil course this semester titled, “Andha nandhanai eritha neruppin micham”
(Remains of the fire that consumed Nandhan) The poem asks pointed questions
such as: Who’s called a paraiyan? Why do you call him that? Why
do you divide by caste? etc. The caste Hindu lecturers refused
to teach it because of those words. They argued over it with me. They objected to choosing this poem for the course. But I didn’t select the poem. It
was another caste Hindu Professor. But they arguewith me
just because I’m Dalit. I retorted: “these are all words that
are still very much in use in villages people are still called
‘hey paraya!’ ‘hey chakkili’ ‘hey pallaa!” etc., as an expression of uppercaste pride. And yet you say you don’t want to introduce this
text to your students?” And their answer is: all that was back
in the days, it’s no longer relevant. You have a syllabus set by the university for a reason, but then they try to bypass and skip it saying “the students will get through the paper without this chapter so why bother?” This attitude reflects their casteist
mindset more than anything else. If we cannot even teach and
discuss what is a social reality for millions of
people even today, because you think the language is rough
or vulgar, it underlines the upper caste hypocrisy
that clouds our society. Really? This savage is going to be our trainer? You would have known how parts of India are
still really backward seeing his village. From a group of complete illiterates,
this one person has come up. He availed the seat reserved for his people,
just reading under a kerosene lamp. They don’t eat the kind of food we do… –Censored by CBFC– I’m saying all this just to encourage you. If I were to make a film about the lower castes or the oppressed castes,
I would need to show.. how brutally they were treated.
I would need to use the words and actions
that bring it out. But there will be a major opposition to that. Even in the films that you mentioned (in
America) these things were possible only after the abolishment of
slavery, decrease in racial tensions and some sense of social
equality had been established. So such (racially) charged portrayals are
less likely to cause social unrest. But ours is still very much a volatile society and a film that is blatant in its critique of anything.. will definitely cause violent clashes. The government or the censor board
cannot ignore these in making a decision. A process to check or stop them will hence exist and I don’t see it as a barrier to creative freedom. Even in print media, about 20-30 years ago, whenever there were caste based riots, the reports have always omitted the names of the castes involved in the clash. Reason being: the news item could trigger
caste-riots in another part of the state Our society has these issues. We cannot ignore them
while framing our rules. True, such films will create
social tension, no doubt about it. But it will only happen the first time. Besides, when are you going to prepare
them to accept such expressions? When you recreate social reality
as is, it will shock the audience but only the first time such a film comes out. I’m sure it was shocking (to Kuravars) when the
word ‘Kurathi’ was used in Paruthiveeran (2006). It didn’t create any social tension
then because of their low numbers. So the censor board doesn’t
seem to care either. Kuravan is actually not just a caste
name it’s used by many as a curse word. But the same censor board does not allow
mentioning Pallars, Paraiyars or Arundhathiyars. Obviously they fear bigger
backlash from those communities. Or, on the other hand, they may
fear that such a presentation would cause a positive transformation. If the artists of the day take it as a challenge to make a film that tackles this, it could be done. Or as you mentioned, Thirumavalavan or
Krishnaswamy could themselves do it too. I’m sure they have the money to make at
least two films. And that’s all you need. It could spur a transformation and it’s
fine if a few die in the process. There’s a scene in my film Azhagi
(2002): Dhanalakshmi works at a place and her little son would happen to
pick up a book there and read it. The landlord’s son would pluck the book away.. and the boy would ask
“shouldn’t we read at all?” Shanmugam would notice all this and would
take this boy to a school for admission. I open that shot with a picture
of Ambedkar in the classroom. And ‘they’ asked me to remove
that shot (showing Ambedkar). I can’t tell you who asked me to do it. I got really upset. I pleaded “It’s just 2 feet of film…50 frames,
please let it be.” -“No, it’s just that people feel uncomfortable
looking at Ambedkar”, they said. I was shocked. I insisted that I won’t show a
classroom without Ambedkar. I said, I did so much for you (in the film),
now you have to accept Ambedkar’s shot for me. I don’t know what else you could
say to someone like that. They asked me to do it after it was certified by CBFC. After a lot of back and forth of arguing and
pleading, I managed to have 16 frames. So this is the current state of things. Even I would like make films that at least record the
presence of these castes – dominant and oppressed. But, honestly speaking, I don’t
think it’s possible now. We can’t blame just the censor board for this. The current Tamil populace lacks
the maturity to embrace it. You take some foreign countries, you’ll find that
the government steps into protect such films. We don’t have a space like that. Because, the government wants avoid the repurcusssions. Every group looks like a vote bank
through the government’s prism. They’ll always want to keep everyone happy. There’s no organization to defend these films. We had this film called, Dheiva Thirumagan (2011)
– (God’s own male-child) Its director Vijay is known
for making unoriginal films. He’s not someone important. He has never shown any keen
interest in any social issues. It’s just another film as far he’s concerned. Now, in this film, actor Vikram — who’s
considered Dalit — plays the lead role. We don’t know if he really is Dalit or not. He’s never spoken about it and he doesn’t have to. But because he’sconsideredas Dalit by
many, there comes an opposition to the film. Reason: “Dheiva Thirumagan is an honorary
title for Muthuramalinga Thevar, So to name a film after its lead who is mentally
challenged (the character) is to insult our leader.” That was the opposition’s argument. But viewed as a whole, their
actual objection arose more due to the fact that Vikram is considered
as Dalit taking on a Thevar leader’s title. So the film’s title was changed as result of the
protests. From Dheiva Thirumagan to
Dheiva Thirumagal (God’s own female-child). To me, it’s a meaningless change, but it was done. The true reason behind the protest was that it was
a response to protests by Dalit organizations back in 2004 to change the title
of Sandiyar to Virumaandi (2004). But those protests against Sandiyar
were the result of the caste politics engendered by Thevar Magan and
the likes throughout the 90s. The protests from the dominant castes
have no understanding of this history. They just engage in this kind
of inter caste one-upmanship. And to counter their move the
Dalits in some of the villages erect hoardings that carried the
original title in defiance. So you have these protests that are for and
against castes being staged here simultaneously. There’s that, and.. -Sorry, just a quick question When Dalit organizations protest against
these things, how does the media present it? If a Dalit organization protests against a film
because of the provocative, casteist elements.. the media, in general, tries to blunt the
intent and intensity of such protests. Dalit organizations have a view on everything.
Anytime they notice something they think hurts their cause or sentiments, they’ll
express their views one way or another. They have every right to do so. But the media consciously tries to diminish
the significance of those protests. They present those protests as meaningless. This trend is applicable even to recent
issues around the film Aarakshan (2011). Castes in India is not two tiered
or 3 tiered, there are 4 Varnas Varna is different from castes, though. Within each Varna you have
so many castes and hierarchies. Dr Ambedkar presented an excellent exposition on this. He called it “graded inequality”. Everyone has someone under them. So virtually everyone’s superior to someone. Why would they want to abandon their
sense of superiority or privilege? Tamil films have not tried to go into
any of this and it’s no surprise. You just have to look at who’s
controlling the industry. Who’s producing the films, who’s funding them.. ..which social group is holding the reins etc. You cannot expect that very group to be
introspective, and work towards social change. It’s something might happen on a rare occasion. There are a lot of people
producing films these days. But most of them seem to
belong to the feudal castes. The same seems true for film directors too. How do you see this make-up working? I mean, the viewers are mostly the same group too. Are things the way they are because films are
produced, directed and consumed by the same people? No, I don’t agree that viewers are the same.
-I mean, Dalits just form about 20% of the population The downtrodden actually patronize
their films in a major way. The film makers target them too, with
cheap ingredients like sex and violence. It’s in human nature to be drawn
by these things, after all. So they do form a big part of the audience. And it is that which sustains the stardom of many actors. As for caste makeup, what you said about
the industry is very much true. I didn’t expect it to be this bad. There is lobbying around caste inside the industry. Once you discuss the story, screenplay
and everything (with the producer) they’d add “By the way, he’s from our caste” So you become favourable to that producer. This equation operates quietly under the surface. It’s true, I’ve observed it myself. There’s a group among feudal castes — I don’t
need to name them, I’m sure you understand. A director from the caste would
have a few assistants from his own. Out of, say, 4 assistants under him he’d
recommend the 2 who are from his caste. He’s enthusiastic about promoting those 2.
He wants to see them grow in the industry. He doesn’t pay much attention to the other 2. So this casteist kinship exists in the
industry without overt posturing. We know that each zone has its major caste group. I’m told that a caste from the southern Tamil Nadu
now control almost 70% of the industry. -Could you name the caste? You know who I’m talking about..those who
valorize thugs and miscreants in their films. Portraying a hooligan, a
delinquent, a low know, ones who conflate all that with valour,
that’s the caste I’m talking about. It’s a travesty. But this caste is growing and they’re
only going to ensure growth of their own. Caste is no longer a barrier for growth
in Tamil Cinema. Talent matters more. -Doesn’t that contradict what you said earlier? No that was about entering the industry. I have now entered the industry and I have
worked as an assistant in several films already. Having worked in both Malayalam and Tamil industries, and because I’m dark (skinned) and my name being
Graphein Black, everyone thought I was Christian. So the question of my caste did not arise then. But once they found I’m Hindu and
belong to the Vanniyar caste, I had to deal with a few problems
both in films and in media. The problems are pronounced after a
stage: when I attempt to produce, or direct a film, your caste is
definitely a factor in you progressing. When you meet a producer, you’re
expected to state your caste. I consider myself a communist and I don’t
like to state or discuss my caste. But it’s undeniable that it exists in the industry. While studying at Pune they’d ask my surname often
and I’d proudly state that we no longer use
surnames (often it’s the caste name). I truly believed that I came
from a much more evolved (Tamil) society. Looking at Tamil cinema, we all know
it was once in the hands of Brahmins. It’s now recorded history. And then members of other castes emerged
as an alternative to the Brahmins. And then those castes did the same
things that the Brahmins did. ..especially with regard to
employing assistant directors etc., they’re running it more or less
like an organized business. To answer your question — if caste is
a factor for growth in Tamil cinema.. it isn’t, but then I’d say so because
I know someone from my caste.. is already making films and
I feel that I would, too. I feel encouraged by that fact. Whether I participate in it or not. As he mentioned, I’m an atheist myself,
have a liberal world view etc., but even so I’m aware
of my privilege. -And even if you avoid it, if someone makes an offer
based on your caste, you can’t decline, can you? No, you can’t. I have always stayed out of it.
That’s been my practice. Even if they cozy up to me on that
basis I just turn my back on them. I have actually done it several times. -Hasn’it it affected you adversely because
you refused to extend your hands? Not really, because my growth wasn’t due to my caste. I didn’t need it then and I don’t need it now. Although many do seem to want to have
their castes backing just in case, especially when you get into
some trouble in the industry. The expectation then is that a big shot
from your caste would bail you out. That’s how they get trapped into caste groups. The only people who don’t have
cliques are the SCs (Dalits) I’m not just making it up, that’s the truth. The ones who made it in don’t act like they are Dalit.
Something really disheartening. They don’t form any cliques either. That’s the current condition. I wish they formed a group of their
own like the backward castes. After all they are the most
oppressed, socially and economically. They are the ones who have
the ethical right to do it. –Self-Censored by Vijay TV– There’s a wall in one of the villages near Madurai. An ‘Untouchable’s Wall’ where you have dominant
castes on one side and Dalits on the other. This is not going to change overnight. Change will not happen all that swiftly, because this
construct is deeply embedded in everyone’s minds, and in the system itself like a wall. We need to break that wall first. We won’t be able to. No, I agree with you. But how do we do it? Dalits need to embrace their identities
with pride and be open about it. The upper castes don’t have to do that. Change should begin from those most affected. Kalappiran, how do you see this? The true nature of the problem is very simple. What’s been the recent political strategy here:
non-Dalits unifying against the Dalits. That has been the problem. There may be hundreds of castes but there are
only two that matter: Dalit or Non-Dalit. The way forward is for Dalits
to proclaim their castes. To answer your question as
to how many in the industry identify themselves as Dalits
once they grow in the industry..’s only 0.1% who do it.
That’s what I’ve observed. -Why do you think that is? They wouldn’t respect you anymore. For example, I may interact with
him assuming that he’s my caste, the moment I know he’s a Dalit, the nature
of my interaction would change immediately. Today a Chettiyar has an easier
time making a film, right from the way he approaches the producers
to everything that follows. I’ve heard of few Dalit directors but
have not identified themselves as such. Cinema will always accept people
who are extraordinarily talented — yes, like Ilayaraja — but for the rest
it’s always a challenge just to enter. Even if they somehow make it into the industry they’ll have to
operate within the confines of conventional cinema. I don’t think they’ll be able to
make films like what Spike Lee did. If a Tamil film is likely to do well because
of a Dalit character, they’ll sell that too. It could happen, depending on the market value. We have to keep in mind that 30
years ago or so, we didn’t imagine the kind of films that came in the 90s and even
now, because we just had films about Brahmins. Or we would have Mudhaliyars..Pillai characters etc. The socio-political changes since
enabled the presence of dominant, intermediate castes in film
— like Gounders and Thevars. A similar change is possible in the next 20 years. There need not be any films for Dalits, it’ll be great
if there aren’t any films about any of the castes. Be it our caste, other caste or whatever, there are
so many good stories that don’t involve caste. But when there are so many films for them,
we wish there are films for Dalits too. -If a political party like the VCK were to produce
films that are Dalit centric, what are its obstacles? Well, beyond production, we have marketing
and distribution. It’s very important. The whole machinery in that regard is in the
hands those who have an anti-Dalit agenda. A few years ago we wanted to have our party
magazine called ‘Thaai Man’ (Mother Earth) and wanted to sell it to
everyone through the usual shops. So we took it the person who’s in charge of distributing
all the magazines to different vendors in Chennai. He looked at the magazine and just put it aside. He said: “We cannot do it…we
cannot put up a magazine that has Thirumavalavan’s face in the cover,
a Dalit magazine in our shops” He just refused outright. Our hopes of having the magazine popularized
among everyone was nipped in the bud. So nobody would want to touch a film
with Dalit politics and presentation. It will not be distributed widely or screened anywhere. No one would invest in doomed ventures like that. You might be able to make a (Dalit) film somehow:
mortgaging your house, selling your valuable jewelry etc., But the money you’ve invested would
produce returns only when you market it. That’s what makes the next film possible. But we don’t have a conducive climate for that. This just reflects the society itself.
There’s no difference. This what I feel: In a society where everyone’s accepting
of a Gounder, a film about Gounders is accepted. The society’s accepting of a Thevar,
a film about Thevars is accepted. The society rejects a Dalit individual, a
film about Dalits will be rejected too. It’s not that complicated. Cinema is not
that different from the rest of the society. Ilayaraja, who revolutionized the musical landscape
in Tamil Nadu, should be identified only as such. He will be forgotten over night the day if
he tried to embrace his Dalit identity. Now, where would you fit in Dalit
cinema in this social reality? -I wanted to ask you about the screening
of the film Ambedkar (2000) Because many believe that you didn’t show
enough enthusiasm in taking it to the masses. They’re not sure if even many of your
party members have watched the film yet. Of course, we did.
We went as a group and watched the film. That’s all we could do, I
cannot spend my time and money trying to screen the film
in every neighbourhood. -It’s just that they feel that film would have had a deep
impact on the society had it been disseminated properly. This kind of criticism is uninformed. We ask our party members and they watch
the film out of their own interest. Other than that, we also ask
the film to be screened in several theatres for 1 or 2
days so others could watch it. That’s all we could do. -Do you think it’s worthwhile? Of course, it is, but what could be done?
There are practical limitations. For one, most theatres owned
by people opposed to Ambedkar. And other theatres feared serious backlash and
refused to screen, what more can you do? Even today, it’s mainstream Tamil
cinema that has sway over Tamil people. Be it those here in Tamil Nadu or the diaspora Tamils. There’s not much space for
non-mainstream films anywhere. Besides, when you speak of alternate
cinema, you need to understand that it’s only going to reach those who
are already knowledgeable in this area. It’s possible to get it out there only if there’s a
movement and we screen in every village. If cinema had been handled properly, as it
should have been, it could have brought about… …this may sound exaggerated, but it could
have done what Periyar (EV Ramasamy) did. In fact, that’s what cinema has
done in many foreign countries. The reason it did not happen is because cinema
and politics are intertwined here in Tamil Nadu. People in cinema are in politics and vice versa. Media’s influence in this society is
more concentrated than anywhere else. So no one wants to relinquish the kind of control and
potential that films provide for their politics. If you clean the film industry, politics will follow
suit. If you can’t clean cinema, politics can’t be either. You think the whole problem is about the wall? Sengannan died because he defied
the old order by talking back. Krishnan is so rich and powerful but
why’s he still hanging on to this wall?’s because of the authority this wall stands for. Gone are the days of free ride. You know how many have died, and
yet it carries his father’s image. I don’t fear their threats, I’m taking
the wall back for all our dead. Education alone is not adequate to address
mutual respect and other social issues. It needs to be complemented by socio-political
consciousness and a rational mind. Shall we begin?

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