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Bollywood has miles to go before it can produce Kaala, Asuran, Karnan or even a Jai Bhim

Tamil film industry used to be like any other Indian film Industry about a decade ago. But then it delved into anti-caste movies that even Hindi and Bengali new wave films didn't.

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The Tamil film industry is making international headlines. The BBC, Yahoo News, Khaleej Times and The Independent reported that Suriya-starrer Jai Bhim is leading the global rating chart on IMDb. As far as the site’s popularity matrix is concerned, Jai Bhim is currently the most popular movie, overpassing the long-time favourite The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather.

Jai Bhim is the latest crowning jewel of the Tamil cinema, which has produced a new genre of film in the last decade. This school of cinema comes from the French La Nouvelle Vague. These movies have caught the imagination of the audience not only in Tamil Nadu but around the country and even abroad. These movies have depicted the harsh realities of Indian social life and haven’t shied from showing the truth, especially those pertaining to the horrors of caste system and the resistance to it by the Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities.

Films such as Attakathi (2012), Madras (2014), Kabali (2016), Kaala (2018), Sarpatta Parambarai (2021) – all directed by Pa Ranjith; Asuran (2019) by Vetrimaaran; Pariyerum Perumal (2018) and Karnan (2021) by Mari Selvaraj; and now Jai Bhim have given birth to a new genre, which is different from Hindi or Bangla new wave. The main differentiators are:

  1. All filmmakers in Hindi and Bengali new wave cinema were from dominant caste background, whereas Tamil new wave movies are made by Dalit and OBC directors. Tamil new wave movies have a different standpoint and the section or aspect of society under the lens here is also poles apart.
  2. Hindi and Bengali new wave filmslike Aakrosh (1980) by Govind Nihalani, Sadgati (1981) by Satyajit Ray, Paar (1984) by Goutam Ghose, Damul (1985) by Prakash Jha had Dalit and subaltern characters but almost all of them were poor, wretched and uneducated. Even Satyajit Ray, who is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers, mostly had lead protagonists from dominant castes or they were ‘casteless.’ Even in Sadgati, the Dalit character Dukhi remained voiceless. Tamil new wave cinema has produced powerful Dalit and subaltern characters in films like KaalaAsuranPariyerum Perumal and Karnan.
  3. Hindi and Bengali new wave cinema had a ‘saviour syndrome’, in the sense that the characters who saved those oppressed almost always belonged to the elite social groups.We saw this in Sujata (1959) in which the dominant caste hero becomes the saviour of an untouchable girl, and recently in Article 15. In Tamil new wave movies, barring Jai Bhim, lead characters are from subaltern groups. Even in Jai Bhim, tribal protagonists were not mute and meek. The character of Senggeni, the pregnant Irula woman, was especially
  4. Hindi and Bengali new wave films had Gandhian socialism andMarxist ideological framework. Tamil new wave movies have very strong Ambedkarite, Periyarism and Buddhist iconography. Especially in movies of Pa Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj, these images are quite clear. The name of the film Jai Bhim itself is an Ambedkarite slogan. The movie uses pictures, quotes and idols of Ambedkar and Buddha. Pa Ranjith’s movie Sarpatta Parambarai even reflected the Dravidian movement of the 1970s.

Also read: Lagaan to Dhadak: Bollywood has a Dalit problem and it refuses to fix it

A decade of cinematic growth

There is a popular rhetoric that cinema mirrors contemporary society and politics, and impacts that society at the same time. Hindi cinema cannot claim that title – of mirroring Indian socio-political reality.

Hindi cinema failed to capture some of the watershed moments of contemporary history like JP movement (1974-77), implementation of the Mandal Commission report and related upheaval (early 1990s), and the emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and OBC politics in north India among others. Someone not aware of Indian history would learn nothing about the epoch events that shaped the country if they watched all major movies of the last 50 years.

So, it is hardly a surprise that Hindi cinema completely missed or overlooked the phenomenon of newly emerged Dalit middle class and its aspirations. Tamil cinema, on the other hand, with films like Kaala and Pariyerum Perumal, show how it captured that phenomenon well.

In Tamil cinema, all this change happened in a span of a decade. The industry used to be like any other Indian film Industry and followed almost similar trajectories. As Dr Harish Wankhede, professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, puts it, “The Indian movie industries began their journey by making mythological movies and later worked in a broad Nehruvian framework. These films followed the journey of the Indian nation. It was a trans temporal journey from hope to disenchantment to ultra-nationalism.”

This grand narrative, through its normative ideas and also because it valued sectional interests, skipped many uncomfortable issues and topics, most prominently, caste. Tribal issues were also very conveniently sidestepped as if they didn’t exist, and when tribals were shown, they were extras who danced in the background.

It’s not that all movies fit in this meta narrative. There were notable exceptions like Giddha (1984) and Marathi movie Umbartha (1982) but they were few and never became mainstream. The Indian ‘new wave’ or ‘parallel’ or ‘art’ cinema movement tried to break the mould, but it could never reach the masses. This movement had its footprints mainly on West Bengal from the 1940s to mid-1960s and on Mumbai during the 1970s. It waned thereafter.

Parallel cinema in Mumbai got some of its inspiration and plots from the Naxalite movement and depicted the horrors of caste from Marxist standpoints. But because parallel cinema itself always remained in the periphery, it occupied almost negligible space and remained a sideshow because mass audiences never watched these films. Made by the rich for the rich, elite class who saw the poor on big screens, these films just won national and international awards, rarely a mass audience.

New wave Hindi cinema was just a blip in the entire Indian movie history. It came and went without making any lasting impact on film-making. When these movies were winning awards, audiences in theatres were cheering ‘angry young man’ Amitabh Bachchan. This angry man was mostly poor but didn’t have a caste. Castelessness of the poor hero is a phenomenon that Hindi movies always carried with them and still do faithfully. Thus, Raj Kapoor became Awaara and Shree 420 without any caste. This Nehruvian socialist framework has remained the Masonic stone of Hindi movies even today.

So, the pertinent question is, how did Tamil directors manage to break this mould and what is stopping other Indian film industries from replicating it?

Also read: Lights, camera, caste – An Ambedkar photo made it to Bollywood after 38 yrs of independence

An evolved industry and audience

A cursory glance provides some clues and entry points in this discussion. This list should not be considered complete or exhaustive, but is more in the form of a hypothesis.

  1. Tamil Nadu has a strong tradition of anti-caste movements and that is the mainstream there. So, it’s easy for Tamil filmmakers to tread into that territory. Even before the advent of overtly anti-caste movies, Tamil cinema produced films with protagonists from non-Brahmin social groups.
  2. It was the Madras presidency where social justice and affirmative action policies were first ushered in. Because of these policies, there is a large OBC and Dalit middle-class population in Tamil Nadu. This socio-economic class is able to sustain anti-caste movies. This is not so in north India.
  3. This OBC and Dalit middle-class is the arena from where filmmakers like Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj and movie stars like Dhanush, Suriya and even Rajinikanth have emerged. No north Indian state is producing such big names from OBC/SC communities.
  4. The Tamil film industry is based on a star-system model, in which the superstars have their own audience and choose the directors and not vice-versa. Anti-caste movie directors like Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj and Vetrimaaran are lucky in a sense that superstars like Rajinikanth, Dhanush and Jamshad Cethirakath aka Arya chose to work with them. Though, such collaborations have benefitted these superstars as well. Commercial success of Kabali was a landmark moment because this proved two points. One, Pa Ranjith can make blockbusters. And two, if Rajinikanth can do an anti-caste movie, then other stars can also do so. No Amitabh or Shah Rukh or Aamir has ventured into similar territories. Because of this, anti-caste films are yet to acquire a critical mass, especially in Hindi movie space.

Tamil film critic Baradwaj Rangan had written about an interesting incident in his blog: “I co-wrote a screenplay some years ago, and we named the hero Rahul. We hadn’t thought about Rahul’s caste. The only thing he was, in our minds, was young – and Rahul sounded like a young name. We sent an early draft of the script around, and the first bit of advice we got was to change the protagonist’s name because it was “too Brahminical”.”

He cites another instance: “A distributor asked a filmmaker to remove scenes of the heroine (a classical singer) with a tanpura because the audience would think the film was about a privileged girl – not necessarily Brahmin, but someone belonging to an educated, upper-class background.”

Such instances show how Tamil movies and its audience have evolved. So, Pa Ranjith found no difficulty in showing Buddhist marriage of his lead actors in Sarpatta Parambarai or Mari Selvaraj effortlessly showed the image of martyred Dalit icon Immanuvel Sekaran and headless Buddha in Karnan and still made a popular movie.

Bollywood has miles to go before it produces KaalaAsuranKarnan or even a Jai Bhim.

The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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