By S Anand
02 June, 2005
cinema's affair with politics has been a long-standing one, but a few
things have definitively changed in the last 10 years. Since the 1996
election, when Rajnikanth's open support for the Tamil Maanila Congress-Dravida
Munnetra Kazhagam alliance was considered crucial for J. Jayalalitha's
defeat, to 2004 when Rajnikanth was proved to have zero effect on electoral
politics, the overt cinema-politics linkage appears to have been severed.
But the truth is
that Tamil cinema has merely learnt to craft politics in a different
fashion. How such politics is perceived and received has depended on
the location of the audience in the caste-class, rural-urban axes.
(Love) early this year in Chennai, a low-budget story of teenage love
that surprised the box office, I initially viewed it as the same old
story of heterosexual love told in a refreshingly different manner.
Its recreation of Madurai's small-town ambience and steering clear of
stereotypical approach to conflict and conflict-resolution seemed appealing.
But a more sociologically nuanced reading underlined a danger.
An aspiring filmmaker
friend who watched Kaadhal in a Madurai cinema talked of how Thevars--the
dominant 'backward caste' of the southern districts--in the hall shouted
aloud: 'Fuckers, this will be your fate if you think you can get our
girl.' Dalits watching the movie in the southern districts were intimidated
both by the depiction of the hero and by the participative enthusiasm
of the Thevars among the audience.
Kaadhal does not
explicitly state the caste background of either the boy (Murugan, a
two-wheeler mechanic) or the girl (Iswarya, a class X student). However,
it is made amply clear that director Balaji Sakthivel, a Thevar, is
'authentically' portraying a Thevar subculture in representing Iswarya
and her family. All we know of Murugan is that he lives in a dirty slum--the
door of his house painted an Ambedkarite blue--with his mother.
When Iswarya elopes
with Murugan to Chennai, the director creates clever plot devices to
ensure that the couple is not shown sleeping together in the three nights
they spend in Chennai. The couple spends the first night in the city
by watching a late show of a film and riding a bus all night for want
of a place to rest. Sex is not possible. The next day, Iswarya has her
period and Murugan buys her sanitary pads. The impossibility of sex
is reinforced. The third day they get married, but Iswarya's relatives
separate them and almost beat the life out of Murugan. No sex again.
The director conveys
to the audience that the Thevar girl's virginity is intact. Interestingly,
such a portrayal comes at a time when Selvaraghavan's blockbusters--Thulluvado
Ilamai (The Spring of Youth) and 7G Rainbow Colony--have shown the adolescent
female lead sleeping with the hero but not being keen on marriage.
Sakthivel also gives
us ample scope to decipher Murugan's caste status. To a question from
Iswarya's uncle about what caste he belongs to, Murugan merely says:
'The caste of humanity.' When the uncle claims to belong to the caste
of lions and insists on knowing Murugan's caste, the latter is silent.
Later, when being mauled by the ostensibly Thevar relatives of Iswarya,
he is called a 'low-caste dog'. As the film ends, Iswarya, now an unhappily
wedded mother pillion-riding her same-caste husband, spots Murugan as
a mad man at a traffic signal. This is where some young Thevars in the
audience shout in Madurai's cinemas: 'Keep off our women.
In a decade that
witnessed the entrenchment of the fair-skinned north-Indian heroine
(Khushboo, Naghma, Simran, Jyotika) as the ideal accouterment for the
dark Dravidian hero, Kaadhal pitted a dark Tamil woman (Sandhya) against
a believable, vulnerable man (Bharath). But caste overrode their Tamilness.
Kaadhal and its
success offer several pointers to how Tamil cinema has renegotiated
its relationship with politics. In the early 1990s, a spate of films
sported caste names such as Chinna Gounder, Thevar Magan, Thevar Veettu
Ponnu and Kunguma Pottu Gounder, and several protagonists played traditional
panchayat chiefs strutting their caste identities in a rural-feudal
setting. These films glorified caste and became vehicles of assertion
of pride of the middle castes. Cinema at this juncture reflected the
developments in the political and social realms.
While the southern
districts witnessed bloody clashes between dalits and Hindus, castes
such as Thevars, Vanniars, Naickers and Nadars were asserting themselves
in the public sphere. Cinema cashed in. The song Potri padadi penne/
Thevar-kaladi manne (Praise the land touched by Thevar's feet) in Thevar
Magan, which eulogised Thevars, triggered caste clashes even in college
While in the heydays
of Dravidian ideology--from Annadurai to MGR--cinema was used as a tool
of politics, in the 1990s politics became a tool for cinema. The 2001
assembly election saw the emergence of several parties affiliated to
specific castes and the DMK trucking with them. After the DMK alliance
was routed, these caste-based parties wound up. The strident use of
caste names in film titles and for protagonists also waned. However,
caste identity has come to be stated through cultural markers, dialect,
food and location.
In the last five
years, marginal castes hitherto invisible in Tamil cinema, such as Vanniyars,
have found a space via filmmakers like Thangar Bachan (Azhagi, Solla
Maranda Kathai and Thendral). Their rise coincides with the coming of
age of the Vanniyar-based Pattaali Makkal Katchi led by S. Ramadoss.
Like Kaadhal, Bachan's films do not spell out but imply the caste ethos.
Parallel to such
'regional', caste-oriented aspirations, Mani Rathnam emerged as someone
who took on 'national' issues. While the Dravidian cinema scripted by
DMK stalwarts like C.N. Annadurai (Velakkari 1949) and M. Karunanidhi
(Parasakthi 1952) had engaged with local issues of non-Brahmin assertion,
language, and self-respect, a tradition that continued up to MGR's oeuvre,
Mani Rathnam, after initially dabbling in dramas and love stories, sought
to herald the arrival of the Tamil as a national citizen. This coincided
with the emergence of the DMK and AIADMK as national players in alliance
Roja (1992) with
its anti-Muslim bias was attuned to Hindutva-style cultural nationalism
in the year of the Babri Masjid demolition. After making Bombay (1994),
he even agreed to cuts demanded by Balasaheb Thackeray. The film offered
a romantic recipe for communal harmony and endorsed Thackeray's view
of the Muslim victim as accused. Rathnam's films, running only in 'A'
centres in Tamil Nadu, had style and technical wizardry but were backed
by little substance. His apparently deracinated urban protagonists speak
in murmurs in dim, back-lit rooms. In Kannathil Muthammittal, flooded
by picture-postcard images, he gives the short shrift to both the Eelam
and adoption issues.
Around the same
time, Bala, a fresh directorial voice, made Nanda which captured the
same Rameswaram with an imagination that eluded Kannathil.
The contrast is
most telling between Sakthivel's Kaadhal and Rathnam's Alaypayudhe (remade
as Saathiya in Hindi).While Kaadhal captures the real struggles that
a couple faces in a city, Alaypayudhe's couple moves into an unfinished
building decked with Fab India furnishings. Rathnam may be slick but
offers no progressive relief: his heroines bear the brunt of burdensome
elements of tradition. Till marriage they are child-like, sing, dance
and frolic. After marriage and loss of innocence, they become obsessed
with their thali (mangalsutra).
The past decade
also spelled the death of a few genres that flourished in the 1970s
and 1980s: the rural-background film (of Bharathiraja, S.P. Muthuraman,
Kasthuri Raja), the social melodrama (of Visu, V. Sekhar), and the relationships
dramas of K. Balachander. The emergence of Sun TV as the most powerful
medium in Tamil society since 1995 led to television weaning away most
of the women audience from cinema halls.
Every day from 7.30
p.m. to 10.00 p.m. various kinds of soaps keep most Tamil households
hooked. Filmmakers like Balachander have in fact switched to directing
and producing serials. Cinema thus came to be burdened with the task
of attracting a predominantly young, male audience not drawn to TV serials.
It was around this time that caste appeal came to be made via cinema
to one segment, and depoliticised entertainment was lapped up by others.
The high point of
such entertainment has been the masala formula mastered by Vijay, the
highest paid Tamil actor who has churned out at least three hits annually
in the last five years. Distributors call him 'collection king'. With
minimal acting abilities, Vijay, shorn of any caste affiliation, does
the same fight-love-dance-comedy routine in film after film and ensures
that he is watched. This kind of cinema passes for a celebration of
'youthfulness', but in fact represents the political apathy of the younger
The Vijay formula
films also indicate that following successive Dravidian party regimes
and the prospering of the upper strata of non-Brahmins, the Tamils can
forget about waging political struggles and simply sit back and enjoy.
The angst of Gunasekaran-Sivaji Ganesan's character-in the DMK vehicle
Parasakthi has no place today. The angry, rebellious, anti-establishment
voices of the seventies and early eighties have become the establishment.
The youth, contained and contented despite high unemployment levels,
seem to meekly accept Vijay's message of 'enjoy life'.
Tamil cinema remains
an embarrassment confined to Tamil Nadu.