Paradesi : A Distortion Of The Political History Of Dalits
By Gouthama Siddarthan
30 April, 2013
A recent film which hit the screens in Tamilnadu " Paradesi, " a destitute wanderer literally in Tamil, for which the director Bala has been applauded by mainstream media, while some have gone to the extent of touting it as a world class film. We shall look upon critically whether the film deserves such kudos.
The film director, Bala has quite a reputation. His previous films, " Sethu," "Nandha," "Pithamagan," "Naan Kadavul " have all earned praise for depicting the story and language of the marginalised people. Usually the characters in his movies were always those neglected by society, the mentally unstable, the liars, and the thieves...those considered non-humans by this society. Through this he created counter aesthetics. However director Bala has also come under some strong criticism in equal measure to the praise. For instance, In " Naan Kadavul " his portrayals of the Agoris of Kasi have come under criticism for its Hindutva overtone. The film's script was prepared by a writer who wears his Hindutva notions on his sleeves, writer Jayamohan, who also writes in Tamil. When looked into in detail, a finer view operates in the narration of this movie, " Paradesi " too.
Before we go into that, let us see the history of the tea estate workers upon whom the film operates.
Here he comes, here comes he…a foreign city bred fellow…
He enchanted me with the promise of good rice gruel and turned me into a destitute migrant for it!
Says a song... from Malaysian Tamil poem encylopedia
People who leave his own land to the Unheard or unknown land are found in plenty of folksongs, folktales, documents, research papers, stories and in epics.
In the 19 th century, when Europe kept an entrenched slavery system as part of their social life, a system of slavery also prevailed in the Tamil speaking region and was even worse than that in Europe . Yet it was easy to administer the slavery system here without any complications unlike in Europe simply by invoking Manu. In Europe , however implementing slavery required the use of whip lashes, chains on hands and feet and imprisonment. In the Tamil speaking regions, untouchability and residential employment methods were the unseen chains that bound the slave to the master. The farm slaves of the Tamil region only appeared outwardly freer than the European slaves.
But just as Tamil poet Sekkizhaar says in “ Thirunaalai Poovar Puranam ” (hymn 13: 1-7)
“ The permitted caste settlements of Parayars are taken as the right to food
And thus becomes a denote to employment”
Without naming one as a slave and seemingly having let people live their free lives, this form of slavery made employment obligatory under the upper castes in return for a little land to live in and the tag untouchable which offered a modern twisted term for slavery.
The father of India 's constitution, Dr B R Ambedkar had stated that “untouchability is the Indian form of slavery. One can shake away slavery through law; however there is no escape from untouchability”.
In the current century after the abolition of slavery in Europe , the white colonial owners of rich cash crop estates of tea, coffee and rubber in Sri Lanka and Malaysia realized that they require work hands in large numbers. To fulfil the requirement the system called “contract labour” was created. To cater to this labour system pre-planned artificial famines took place. A number of writers in English and in Tamil have penned this in detail.
Those who were most affected in the 1876-78 famine that began in the British controlled Deccan Plateau, which includes the modern day Tamil Nadu, were the Dalits who faced terrible racial oppression and were forced to live on the fringes of society in Tamil Nadu. The famine of that period affected people's lives in terrible ways. However, as the Dalits had been living continuously in a reduced state of permanent famine there is not much evidence to prove that the famine as such affected the Dalits and was the sole cause of their exit from the country. At best the famine was just another reason for them to choose to leave.
The Dalits were also taken in by the words of the estate recruiter Kangani, `the agent-supervisor' that untouchability was non-existent in their place of work. Looking for an exit and inspired by the promise of a different world, the Dalits of Tamil Nadu signed themselves up as contract-coolies.
Thus, their blood and toil went on to make the white man's brew in the estates and gardens in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka .
The agent-supervisors were those whom the white estate owners could depend upon completely to carry their instructions, remaining faithful to them, endowed with muscular bodies and thuggish looks, adept in deceit and always ready to be scheming with no effort at all. Handpicked carefully, such men were converted into their agents. These men travelled far and spoke very cleverly and hired people with their sweet talk. Subsequently they ruled over them with an iron hand and extracted work. They also ensured that the coolies brought here will never escape, nor they unionized themselves or expressed opposition. The agents did almost every other odd job that was required of their white masters including acting as a supplier of the coolie women whom their master would prefer.
In return, the agent enjoyed enormous benefits and perks apart from a salary. From monetary perks to property, the agent stood endowed. That apart, he also took a cut from each coolie's salary as owed to the agent. He also had a free hand to sexually exploit any number of coolie women. And for these allowances that appeared to be straight out of their imagined paradise, the agents were prepared to go to any lengths and for any tasks.
The coolies pruned the tea plants, plucked the tea leaves and coffee beans and took them for weighing. If what they plucked weighed less than what was fixed for the coolie, or if the accountant stated so, the coolie's wage was halved. There was even a word for it “Araip-paer-poduthal” (given in half) whereby the wage was entered in the notebook as halved.
If the wage was halved, the agent does not get his due. The agent in turn exhibits ruthlessness against the particular coolie. When the coolie's productivity goes up the agent too stands to benefit accordingly.
Another folk song involving the Plantation Tamils of Sri Lanka goes thus
“ I dug six seven pits and stood thus my hipbones aching as broke
The murderous agent screamed as if inadequate”
The word coolie became the only name of the settlers. When the British Parliament legislated against slavery, the white man went around it by bringing in the coolie system, an alternate form of slavery. Elites over the ages have often circumvented obstruction to their old ways by just reinventing a new term but kept the unfair system alive in a more vigorous form. Legally it appeared that coolies were not slaves. However they were no different from slaves. It was a clever ploy of the European masters.
(The modern day IT Sector reflects similarity to the coolie system with the corporate sector acting as a modern day agent, the employees unconscious that they are nothing more than glorified slaves at the end of the day.)
It is behind this very lengthy background and context that “ Paradesi ” needs to be viewed in.
The director sets forth to tell the pathetic life of tea estate coolies a century ago through the life of one such estate coolie, a naïve youth, Ottuporukki alias Rasa and a women Angamma and the people from a fictional place called “ Saalur .” The happy life at Saalur turns into a nightmare once it enters the tea estates - the agonizing hellish world of the tea estates are brought out in powerful sorrowful portraitures. Oottuporukki leaves a pining Angamma at Saalur and comes away to work in the tea garden. The cruelty of the agent, the sexual exploitation of the white man, the unbearable work load and having survived it all at the end of his contract period, when Ottuporukki prepares to leave for his native place, the most terrible violence is unleashed on him. He is threatened and beaten into submission to accept the slavery system. As if this was not enough, nature too conspires by way of the spread of the dreaded cholera, diarrhea and other diseases upon the colony of coolies. There descends a white doctor among the coolies to save them. However the doctor exhibits a preference for proselytizing his profession and shows more zeal to convert the coolies to Christianity amid their misery..It is from this hell that the hero attempts to run away and gets caught and as a punishment the nerve on his heel is cut off to prevent further escape. And just when he loses all faith in a possible escape, his wife and child reach the place and stay to share in his sorrows and the agony in a manner of kinship which the director chisels out in a poetic sorrow.
The movie is an inspired take from the novel “ Eriyum Panikkadu ” (Burning forests of mist).
Originally, it was P H Daniel who studied to be a doctor who had written the novel titled “Red Tea” in English which was translated by Era. Murugavel to Tamil as “ Eriyum Panikkadu .”
In 1940 P H Daniel who worked as a medical officer in Vaalpaarai Kaaramalai estate in Tamil Nadu, while practicing his profession there, was a witness to the system of oppression and slavery in the estate. Opposing it, he founded the " Thenindhiya Thotta Utthiyogasthargal Sangam " (South Indian Tea Workers Union) and voiced the problems and issues dogging the coolies.
The novel begins with the life of a Dalit couple Karuppan - Valli, residents of a small village in Tirunelveli district. Every chapter in the book begins with a quotation from Charles Dickens to Saul Bellow, William James, Gandhi to The Bible as per its suitability.
Describing the social life distinct to the scheduled castes, the novel shows the tragedy of Karuppan's life and how he falls for the artful words of an uppercaste agent Sundarapandian and signs up to be a contract labourer along with his wife. They are then caught in the life of slavery and striking despair upon realization of the impossibility of exiting this life. Karuppan gets beaten up every day, his wife comes under constant pressure of sexual harassment and in a very elaborate manner the pathos of the situation travels alongside the detailing of beauty. When Karuppan, Valli and the other coolies fall sick of cholera it brings in a doctor named Abraham who offers medicine as well as kindness. The doctor takes up the cause of the health of the coolies with the white masters. The settlement of coolies briefly comes to life due to Abraham which is a matter of great consolation to Karuppan. But just when Karuppan begins to melt in the act of kindness, Valli dies changing everything for him and slips the place back into a permanent, forever hell.
Neither the novel's beauty, nor the dark agony appears to have been transferred despite the fine detailing that has gone into the picturization of the film. It stays as flat as a documentary which skims just the surface.
I am not trying to say that the film, if it had brought out the essence of every single line in the novel would have made an artful package. Rather my question is why this feeling of agony and the taste of beauty failed to translate into the film? Where lies the problem?
Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" was made into a film by an Austrian-American film maker Max Reinhardt.
Commenting on Max Reinhardt's film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream , France Werfel states that undoubtedly it was the sterile copying of the exterior world with its streets, interiors, railroad stations, restaurants, motorcars, and beaches which until now had obstructed the elevation of the film to the realm of art. "The film has not yet realized its true meaning, its real possibilities . . . these consist in its unique faculty to express by natural means and with incomparable persuasiveness all that is fairylike, marvelous, supernatural."
Life's most melting moments which would have added more weight to the techniques of picturization and to the soul of the story were not to be seen in the film. In the final pages of the novel, Valli is shown to be struggling with death and at that moment tells Karuppan that she wants to eat meat curry in rice and asks him to prepare it. Karuppan feeds her the meat curry rice and that itself proves to drive her to death.
Such juxtaposing of the tragic moments of life with the beauty of narration is found missing here. While moving in with the agony, the novel does not stop with that. The narrative also notices the birds of the tea gardens, the variety of insects, the flowers and the fragrance they give out while blooming, the pebbles and the gushing stream. The fog, thick enough to hide a person, is also brought in to twine with the agony and pain of ill treatment. Similar scenes and moments though were possible in the film; it appears that the director rejects it. For instance, such a scene could have been constructed in the narration while showing the 48 day travel.
The moments of art in a novel is different. A film's similar moments are not the same. I am not unaware of the variations. The moments that could have become an art were disparate in the film which as a consequence never came anywhere towards reaching a central point in the film. A reason could be that the background, that could do justice to the setting of the story, was not chosen to suit the working of the film script and an honest story telling had not been attempted. When the director took noticeable effort in choosing a script with an emotional pull in it, he nevertheless failed to construct the screenplay with the same honesty he displays in choosing the script. How such matters failed the notice of the director definitely needs to be discussed.
Director Bala, who had taken a liking to the film's screenplay writer, Tamil novelist and short story writer, Naanjil Naadan's short story "Idalakudi Rasa," has changed the first half of the film to reflect the milieu presented in the short story. Even the names of the characters in the film undergo changes to suit Naadan's short story. The film's slide begins then. "Idalakudi Rasa" is a story of an uppercaste Saiva Vellalar caste tradition of making fun of an innocent character who lives off the food he begs from each household among his kin.
How does that uppercaste mockery fit in with Saalur's poverty stricken people who live on the edges of society?
When Ottuporukki gets thrashed for sitting on a bench and his wage denied to him, his identity as a Dalit is only vaguely given.
When the director could, through elaborate scenes establish that the Christian missionaries were more focussed on conversion rather than offering treatment which ushered in their arrival there in the first place and gets to establish it with even the added facility of a " Kuththu" song (Item Number) why did he skim the surface while recording the untouchability factor that prevailed in the tea estates? In the whole film there is just one scene that fleetingly touches upon untouchability.
The people are shown in the earlier part of the film as leading a life of great revelry and prosperity. In their marriages, rice is shown to be brought in plenty and thrown into a great heap. There is Paniyaram (a rice sweet fried in oil). The older men drink and revel as they settle themselves in rope cots with a pot of toddy to drink.
If that is so, the question arises as to which caste the people of Saalur belong to? If the history of tea estate workers are shown as people not living on the edges of society, then begins Hindutva's worst politics of distorting history.
Those who speak highly about the film "Pianist," its world standards, the movie's high points in bringing out the violence, torture and the human predicament of Nazi Germany's concentration camps, cannot speak about it just as highly if the mention of racial identities are erased from the film. The film will then lose all relevance and slip perhaps into another genre of movies such as, a term now more into usage, - the "torture porn," and become quite ordinary. If the pianist were not to be Jew and if the killing of Jews by a power drunk Nazi is removed, would it have attained the world stature that everyone points it out to be. So what is a world standard? What is art?
Mere picturization in a dark shadowy lighting where poverty is made a commodity for high pitched sales can hardly be declared as a work of art!
Behind Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali," there is'nt just poverty. The villages of those days and their constricting caste hierarchy and practices, the land ownership patterns and what it did to a child's mind - the marks of unhealed wounds, all of those stood out to mirror a simple truth.
Heartrending scenes brought forward in a pictorial sequence does not alone put film making on an art platter. There may be traces of art in it.
In general, removal of the symbols of a race is understood to be a method of destroying their history. There are many ways to institute and prove that some are just ordinary people. It is done by ignoring their sacrifices, their struggles, their rights and the various facets that make up their culture. It is an Englishman's well honed finer politics at play.
Black people were once transported out of their continent as slaves in order to build a prosperous America . The white house rose over the blood of the black people and the stake of America as a superpower rests on the shoulders of Black Americans. However, the white man's finer politics ensured that the finer details of the black slaves were lost to the black people. Their identity, the records were all cleverly destroyed in an exhibition of the white man's finer politics that tries to brush aside the bloody sacrifice of blacks that happened in the building of America.
Thus the blacks merely became Afro-Americans lost in their knowledge of their land and their language. When awakened to the fact, they added the letter `X' after their names, to denote their lost identity. That is to say something about one of the world's tallest political leader and thinker, Malcolm X.
A black American writer, Alex Haley, through his biographical book "Roots" details how he managed to recover the lost pages of his racial history from a distorted one presented to him. In Tamil it was translated as "Ezhu Thalaimuraigal" (Seven Generations). He discovers that the riches of the American soil grew upon the blood of his forefathers from the Kunta Kinte clan and therein lies the rights and claims of his race not just in Africa but also in America .
Around the world, identity destruction has been the bane of several nationalities. They are also relevant closer home in an incident connected to those speaking the Tamil language.
Tamils from Tamil Nadu who were taken in large numbers as coolies to Sri Lanka and Malaysia to work and settle there, painstakingly worked to convert the forest landscape into tea and rubber estates.
At the time of the beginning of the second world war, when Japan was enjoying an upper hand in the war, they had managed to capture Burma , Siam , Malaysia and Singapore . In order to bring down the cost as well as to create a quicker travel route through these countries, a 416 kms long rail track from Burma to Siam was envisaged.
Japan fell well short of the required people after use of the white prisoners of war. At the time the Tamils who worked in the rubber plantations in Malaysia were threatened and kidnapped at gun point were forced to work for realizing the deadly project. The pain, the sorrow, the deaths they faced while put on the project was beyond words.
The white prisoners of war later documented their pain and sorrow in building the Burma - Siam train route which led to deaths of several lakhs of people who worked on it. While recording their travails, the white prisoners were careful to leave out the identity of Tamils in their documentation. They recorded it as if the sorrow and pain was theirs alone and that it was their sacrifice that realized the railway line despite the dark pages of history that produced it.
Based on the documents, well known English film director, David Lean shot the film "The Bridge on the River Kwai," which became a much feted film and made it to the top rungs of acclaimed films of the world. There was no mention of a Tamil in there either, nor was the matter of his presence mentioned or picturized. This is the work of the micropolitics of the white man, a British-American.
Subsequently, the contribution of Tamils in building the Burma-Siam rail track was brought out as a document by a Tamil writer, C Arun titled "Burma-Siam Marana Rail Pathai" (Burma-Siam's bloody Rail Tracks).
Those who migrated to Sri Lanka or Malaysia to work as Coolies in the Tea estates were all Dalits. The reason was that the violence of the the caste system against Dalits was killing them alive that they wished to escape from it even at the risk of gaining a tag of "Paradesi," a derogatory term in Tamil used to mean a destitute migrant who could not make good in his own land. The truth is that the Dalits ran from a murderous discrimination back home. That is history. Hidden and unshown, kept out of discussion in the common man's mind about the plantation workers from Tamil Nadu.
Tamil writer Pudumaipittan in his short story "Thunbakaeni" (A Well of Sorrows) had without any hesitation recorded that those who left for Sri Lanka as tea estate coolies were only Dalits. The circumstances that led to the choice were written with the authors signature use of wry humour employed in a conversation between a Parayar (Dalit caste name) couple, Marudhi and Vellayan: "Looking out from paracheri, (the Parayar settlements) life in the tea gardens appeared to hold the promise of a paradise."
Another famous writer, Mulk Raj Anand, recorded the pitiful life of tea estate labourers in his novel (1937) "Two leaves and a Bud." His vision does not restrict itself to just being a critic of the British colonialism or the Indian capitalist economy. It instead strongly blamed the pathetic condition of the Dalit labourers upon the Indian caste hierarchical set up which was only bent on discriminating along the line of Varnas (castes). The hero of the novel, struck within the constraints of his Dalit identity and life within it, agonizes over not having money to bury his dead wife and hence signs up with the agent for some money for the purpose. The novel also criticizes the contention that the "fate" of the man was to blame for his predicament.
Writers Mulk Raj Anand, Daniel and Pudumaipittan as also historical researches have all unfailingly recorded that the tea estate coolies who migrated to a foreign land were those who underwent racial discrimination as Dalits. Such being the fact on record, why did Bala not mention this? Or why does Bala very skillfully change or obfuscate this and serve up a distorted version?
This makes one wonder if within a Bala or a Nanjil Nadan a Hindutva view writer Jeyamohan's proxio is at work?
That is, showing those in villages as fine and prosperous people, healthy and leading happy lives, drinking and given to unrestricted sexual lives with many concubines, who one fine day chooses to migrate to the tea estates out of greed for more money is a politicking of a Hindutva mind operating at an unseen level. The movie definitely leaves behind such an impression.
As per the film, in the period shown, Hindutva does not discriminate upon the Dalits and their lives were not modified to be burdened only with pain and sorrow. Instead, they lived happy lives and it was their greed that made them cross the seas to earn. What an irony?
The dominant sections of society have always been creating a history which keeps pushing people to go anywhere to escape the unbearable rigours placed upon them. Even the Tamil term "Panjam pizhaikka ponaargal" (left to escape famine) itself hides within it the Hindutva distortions, whereas the truth is that people went away to escape from untouchability more than famine.
"When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu
The movie shows openly that conversion of the Hindu coolies into Christianity took place at a time when they were diseased and in guise of service to the poor. In showing thus it is the director who stands out as a poor critic of Christianity. However historians and those with a keen eye on details have always realized that conversion does not take place just as easily and on a frivolous note, lacking strong motive. That conversion happened at that period the film talks through Christian missionaries is history as it is.
The missing detail is that, those appointed to convert coolies had a term to refer to them ; "Coolie Missionaries," says A K Chettiyar in his "Ulagam Suttriya Thamizhan," (Globe trotting Tamil). However the background that compels one to leave ones religion, the familiar tenets of the religion, the rituals, the culture and the faith and acceptance of another religion are subject matters of research and debate of post-modern thinkers.
In the Tamil milieu however, it has been established that at the period mentioned, there were many benefits that happened due to conversion and the work of the Christian missionaries. The Dalits who were discriminated racially and for whom education was denied and those on the fringes of society stood to benefit to a large extant through the work of the missionaries. The Naadar's who were once neglected people are today in a notable position in many ways including in social status. The reason is the work of the missionaries who brought an awakening through education.
As the conversion scenes in the film have already been criticised by several critics, in short: The Hindutva approach operating in Paradesi will take the film making in the wrong direction as well the steps towards the making of world class movies travels the opposite goal. Despite the fantastic cinematography which creates several layers of visual images, the deft direction and the aesthetic of the cinematic language...
Gouthama Siddarthan is a Tamil writer. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
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