The growth of Digital filmmaking has helped Tamil cinema greatly when it comes to showcasing caste-based atrocities that are so common even today in many parts of India. Long gone are the days when only the upper caste had the money to fund films which made sure that such themes never made it on to celluloid. One could only have glimpses of such atrocities mentioned in the standalone comedy tracks of a Koundamani or a Vivek. Independent filmmakers armed with a digital camera brought and are continuing to bring narratives that challenge the status-quo and expose the dirt nestled deep within. However, I am pretty sure there is still a battle being waged to get past the distributors and the theatre owners to release such films.
In the 2000s, the works of Suseenthiran, Thangar Bachchan, and S. P. Jananathan should be noted as they have been able to break these shackles and give the audience a glimpse of what still goes on in the interiors of the country. While their films may not have used the cinematic medium to the hilt, their content still is talked about in various forums and theses which discuss the representation of casteist violence in Tamizh cinema.
In the 2010s, Pa Ranjith and Vetrimaaran have carried their ideologies forward by speaking out whenever possible and supporting such cinema. Their voices are being heard so much more than their predecessors due to the growth of social media channels where they have found allies in abundance. While Ranjith has been explicit and ruthless in his takedown of caste and the associated violence in terms of honour killings and land grabbing through his films, it is his first production directed by Mari Selvaraj, Pariyerum Perumal that brings out of his war cry of “Educate. Agitate” in the best way possible on the silver-screen. The film uses the cinematic medium brilliantly while never straying away from its core philosophy. It would be interesting to see what Mari Selvaraj can come up with in his planned sophomore venture with Dhanush.
While the works of Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj seem thoroughly heartfelt and personal, it is very interesting to look at the perspective of Vetrimaaran, someone who has grown up in better circumstances than the above two. Through each of his five films, there is a clear upward trajectory in his understanding of the cinematic medium, narrative techniques and ability to bridge the critic-commerce divide. Considering the 3 films of his which are set outside the metro city of Chennai, Aadukalam, Visaranai (partly) and Asuran, we see the immense research that has gone into creating the Madurai milieu, the caste & class divide, and the cock-fighting tradition in Aadukalam. We, the audience are entirely invested in the protagonist and feel for his naivety in dealing with his jealous teacher. The film is more a coming-of-age tale set on the protagonist as he blunders his way to his destiny, playing with emotions directly rather than using it as a tool to validate the violence within the character. In the two other films that he has adapted from novels, we see that Vetri the screenplay writer has clearly been an observer rather than experiencing the life of the protagonist. As a result, he feels the need to amplify the violence in order to make the audience invest in the respective protagonists even though his mastery over the craft (especially the shot division and the edit) is incredibly good that he still makes it seem very organic and not manipulative. But if you strip the narrative, you see that Vetri has played it cleverly so that it does not seem like he is giving an outsider’s perspective.
In Asuran especially, the restraint Vetri puts on his protagonist is so good that the explosion of violence from him near the intermission, with a rousing background score to support, seems the perfect place for the son to start realizing the value of patience from his father. The foreshadowing with numerous throwaway lines in the first half also makes sure the audience is aware of the beast within the character. Even though the themes of land grabbing, untouchability and upper caste dominance prevail in the films of both Pa Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj, the audience relish Vetri’s films more as he can mix the commerce with the raw content with incomparable efficiency. However, it must be said that the feeling of having travelled together with the protagonist as a participant comes in the films of Pa Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj. In case of Vetrimaaran, apart from perhaps Aadukalam, the audience are always held at an arm’s length in the post of a curious observer.
Yet, for all his remarkable control and confidence in his content and craft, it is undeniably sad to see Vetrimaaran stooping to remove the caste reference on receipt of a complaint from Karunas, the leader of Mukkulathor Puli Padai, a caste based political party. It is quite the irony that he is the real-life dad of Dhanush’s second son in the film (Chidambaram), who is portrayed as an aggressor against the upper caste folks in the film. One can only hope that the decision to heed this request came from the producer and not the director.
Column written by Anand S.