Draupathi claims to be an indie Tamil film. It has no stars. Many of the actors, including the male lead, are wooden. The sequences are tepid and the sets and props are minimal, although the female lead does infuse some energy.
On Sunday, the third day of its release, Draupathi was one of the few movies running to packed halls across Chennai. Couples with children were in the audience at the hall where I watched the movie (I could only get a corner seat on the second row from the screen).
Trade pundits are wondering if Draupathi will be the season’s sleeper hit. The film’s trailer logged more than 5 million views on YouTube, generating controversy and low-cost publicity for the film.
Draupathi depicts the OBC reaction to Dalit politics. Anger drives the film – a sense of injustice over Dalits having gone too far just as elsewhere some Hindus feel Muslims have gone too far, egged on by political appeasement. The film’s immediate provocation, according to the director G. Mohan, is a string of recent Tamil movies championing Dalit struggles. “I am from the city and do not let caste affect me. Why are these movies accusing me of something I have not done?” he has asked.
In its promise of box-office success, Draupathi speaks to the existential crisis in the Dravidian movement. OBC empowerment has been the movement’s founding principle although it is also overlaid with a broad anti-caste rhetoric. Taken together, OBCs are the majority group in the state as well as dominate the two Dravidian parties. But the tenuous links between OBCs and Dalits that the Dravidian movement stands for – at least on paper – have often snapped, and the OBCs’ peeves have centred around Dalit empowerment.
In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign in Tamil Nadu was erected largely on a broad coalition of OBC champions. The NDA consequently polled 18% of the votes, staying outside both the DMK’s and the AIADMK’s orbits.
The DMK’s position has been inconsistent on conflicts between OBCs and Dalits. Party leader M.K. Stalin called an honour killing in Coimbatore district an example of the failure of law and order under AIADMK rule, refusing to take the issue head-on. More recently, however, as the AIADMK has taken on a more robustly pro-OBC position, the DMK’s response has been more consistent with Dravidian ideas. Stalin pointedly welcomed Asuran, a 2019 film built around the Dalit struggles for land, featuring actor Dhanush. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the Dalit party led by Thol. Thirumavalavan, is firmly with the DMK now.
An activist of a different sort
Draupathi, the eponymous character, is a village activist. With strong convictions, she mounts campaigns against oil and gas projects and scorns corporates for ‘sucking’ out resources and cultural traditions. She also publishes sting videos showing village women whiling away their time gossiping even as they draw wages for work to be done under the MGNREGA scheme. Her uncle tells Draupathi the scheme has ensured no one is available to work on his farm.
She is subsequently attacked by goons and wants her husband to exact revenge. Her attackers are Dalits who run a racquet specialising in what appears to be the Dalit version of ‘love jihad’. Their gang employs good-looking young men riding fancy motorcycles, with iPhones leaping out of their pockets, to lure younger upper-caste women into marriage. They then harass the woman’s parents and extort money. If the seduction doesn’t work, they fraudulently register weddings without the woman’s knowledge and, again, harass the parents for money. An upper-caste woman eloping with a lower-caste man is shame enough; in rural Tamil Nadu, publicising it can make matters much worse.
The censors have muted large chunks of the conversations so any reference to caste is only indirect. For instance, it would take an expert lip-reader to decode what the worker at a metal cutting shop is saying. Barely literate – although the movie says he has no cause to complain – he plans to beat poverty by marrying a woman from a richer family. The worker does lament the centuries of subjugation, the Dalit man’s stock-in-trade, apparently. The censors haven’t muted that.
The Dalit goons aren’t motivated by religion but only want to extort money from wealthier families of the intermediate castes. They have also teamed up with cola companies to exploit groundwater at Draupathi’s village. Caste, as Mohan explained to a movie news site, becomes a tool for them to amass power and get rich.
Draupathi is not blasé. It is explicit about the deepest fears whispered in intermediate caste fraternities and social media. It’s in fact a YouTuber who offers to make a sympathetic documentary on Draupathi.
Draupathi’s cousin is straight and innocent, and refuses to be seduced by a Dalit even after her friends endeavour to set her up with him. The young man later tells the male lead that if he hadn’t done his masters’ bidding, they have killed him and dumped his body on the railway tracks.
In October 2012, a Dalit youth named Ilavarasan, from Dharmapuri, had married N. Divya, a Vanniyar (OBC) woman. The marriage had triggered a controversy and caste riots in the state. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a Vanniyar party, had campaigned to have the couple separated; its leader S. Ramadoss talked about Dalit “boys” being pressed into service for the Dalit version of ‘love jihad’. He has said Draupathi simply vindicates what he has been saying. Ilavarasan’s decapitated body was later found on railway tracks in July 2013.
The PMK has often been critical of Dravidian parties, calling them corrupt and contributing to a lack of development. Ramadoss claims the legacy of a pre-Dravidian, pro-Congress political party that the DMK had squeezed out as it grew in north Tamil Nadu.
A movie’s success, or failure for that matter, may not be political bellwether in Tamil Nadu. Voters of the state often size up an election in terms of one big question and pronounce their verdict, and that question has almost always been political and not caste-based.
In the 2019 elections, for example, the overarching question was whether Tamil Nadu’s voters wanted Narendra Modi as their prime minister. They answered ‘no’. But in the Assembly by-polls that accompanied the Lok Sabha polls, the AIADMK won nine out of 21 seats. In many of these segments, voters voted to have the AIADMK in the Assembly and the DMK in the Lok Sabha. The AIADMK had struck up a canny alliance with the PMK. In the recent local body polls, the DMK edged ahead but the AIADMK was not too far behind.
In the assembly polls due next year, if the DMK is unable to convince voters that the big question is whether they think Stalin should be chief minister, caste may yet prove decisive. And it will likely be caste politics of the sort Draupathi champions.
M. Kalyanaraman is a print and broadcast journalist based in Chennai.