From the absurdist Attakathi (2012) to his blockbuster hit Kaala (2018), director Pa. Ranjith has won both critical acclaim and commercial appeal. He also has his detractors. His directorial debut Attakathi broke mainstream Tamil cinema’s formula for romantic stories. Madras (2014) became sharply more political and is centred around the culture of political graffiti, a practise widespread in Tamil Nadu.
Speaking labour rights in Kabali (2016) and land reform in Kaala (2018), both starring Rajinikanth, have made him a well-known name outside of Tamil cinema’s usual viewership.
His Neelam Productions has released documentaries (Ladies and Gentlewomen, Dr Shoe Maker and others) and feature films (The Last Bomb of WWII, Pariyerum Perumal).
In an interview to The Wire, he speaks about ‘mass films’, caste discrimination and Dr B.R. Ambedkar.
Though Tamil mainstream cinema is often political, there is a radical ideological shift in your own films. What importance do “mass” films have and what has changed?
Of all artistic mediums, cinema is deeply embedded among people. In Tamil Nadu especially, it has a crucial place. Cinema fuelled the spread of the Dravidian movement because they didn’t think of cinema as mere entertainment. Dravidian filmmakers created a space to state their mandate, the struggles they stood for and to foreground Tamil culture, land and language pride.
In later years, many films on land identity [particularly rural narratives, which were popular] became about the pride of dominant castes, under the cover of ‘celebrating Tamil culture’. When I, as a Dalit, watch these films, I have to ask: “Where am I in these? Where is the justice for my community? If they’re speaking of Tamil culture, why isn’t my culture depicted?”
The representation of Dalit characters was painful. Either they were written out, or just their inclusion in the story was considered ‘revolutionary’. The films excluded the discriminatory practices of those dominant communities.
In this context, I had to reflect on what my stories could say. I wanted to show that my culture itself is based on discrimination and violence. Also ask, why were the ways through which Dalits assert their identity through clothes, food and music erased? Today, directors are more conscious when they write Dalit characters. There appears to be greater clarity.
What informs your own writing of Dalit characters?
First, I place myself in these stories and ask, ‘Where do I stand in society?’
More than anyone, Babasaheb [B.R.] Ambedkar has been my icon. He opposed Gandhi and the Congress when he thought they did not address the issues of Dalits. Despite that, after independence, he welcomed the means to legislate change as India’s first law minister. While I looked at him as inspiration, I realised how characters that I write already live in every Dalit community. My brother was the first to go to law school in my village. He helped bring about change.
That’s where resistance comes from and so does the idea for characters that I write. I don’t need to dwell only on degradation. Cinema has enough of that. There is a stereotypical victim: barely clothed, unable even to protest against atrocities done to them. A hero has to save them. That image needed shattering because that’s not how I am. I can stand for myself. My courage comes from Ambedkar. To depict such characters in cinema is a type of counter-culture. A model that I can point to is Spike Lee’s portrayals of black lives—a counter to the Hollywood format.
There are recent mainstream films vocal about caste oppression, but violence and spectacle are a huge part of the story. Your views?
I don’t doubt the intentions of these filmmakers. They seem to want to speak out, but there has to be a discussion after such films release. You can’t depict the violence done to my community but refuse to register the way they stand up to that violence. It sets up a politics which tells Dalits that you must be a silent victim and only certain others can save you. As a director, I don’t want to graphically show the atrocities that occur. Re-creating them with explicit detail is itself another layer of violence. I don’t agree that this is the only way to evoke an emotional response from the audience.
Speaking of counter-narratives, you refer to anti-caste ideologies in the form of Ram the aggressor, Ravanan the hero in Kaala. In Kabali—the name used for dark-skinned, dispensable, servile, henchmen in old Tamil films is now the hero. What impact does this have?
The point was to bring whoever stands in the margins, as just accessories to the hero’s righteousness in established narratives, into the centre. To make them the heroes. Ambedkar talks about the appropriation of Buddha into the Brahmanical system. He’s also spoken of what dark skin tones are made a signifier of, how lifestyles have made us the villains in the stories of the vedas. In the face of that, I have to state that these are not my stories.
In the tradition of careful symbolism in Tamil cinema, you repeat certain colours within the frame. Red, blue and black stand out. Their significance?
I wasn’t conscious about colour in Attakathi. The film was mainly about peeling away at the popular idea that “love is pure”, about how young people struggle with this concept. The film was a way of exploring these concepts from a Dalit perspective, like a love scene featuring beef.
What I’d been too afraid to say in Attakathi, I could in Madras. That’s where the wall became a metaphor for politics in Tamil Nadu and blue a symbol for Dalit identity. Sometimes, too much gets read into the colours, which is both interesting and saddening.
In Kaala, I very carefully used colours as symbols. Getting to the roots of why black means something lowly, and white means dominance. In the climax scene of Kaala the blue, black and red coming together was my statement: Ambedkarism (blue) and the ideologies of both Periyaar (black) and the Left (red) need to converge to defeat oppressive regimes.
In Kabali and perhaps for the first time in mainstream Tamil cinema, there are images of Chinua Achebe and Malcolm X. Can the fight for racial justice still inspire anti-caste civil rights movements in India?
Caste and racial oppression have huge likenesses, though they don’t have entirely similar histories. Segregation is something I too had to live with as a child. Being banned from entering a shop through the main door, the owner handling my money only with a small stick, never letting me touch and test a toy before buying it.
There is so much to learn from black cultural production. From celebrating their blackness to speaking about issues that ravage their communities, they’ve done it well. They’ve made themselves towering figures within the mainstream. The impact of this cultural victory, especially in terms of music, is immense because it helps foster global solidarity. Today’s Black Lives Matter protests have international support, even white people are standing beside them.
If only caste resistance here could accomplish the same through culture, whether music or cinema.
A repeated criticism of you is casting Rajinikanth to play a Dalit hero. In a state where cinema and politics are enmeshed this could have complex consequences, do you think?
I agree that once something is in the public space, there will be scrutiny regarding intentions and the effects it can have. In the case of superstar, he asked me what the story was and he liked it. To him, cinema is cinema. He’s completely dedicated to it as a vocation. For me, cinema is an opportunity to talk about changes that need to happen. He was supportive of what I wanted to speak about in the two films we did together. Certainly, there is no connection between his general politics and mine. Neither do I put them into my films. I haven’t compromised on my own ideological beliefs. I view him as a director’s actor. If he likes the story, he’ll work at it until the director is content.
The representation in Indian cinema of working class and Dalit characters as criminal is a concern you yourself have. Why then in Kabali and in Kaala, are the heroes gangsters?
No, in Kaala he’s not a gangster! The idea was to show someone asserting his right, by whatever means he could, against an aggressor. There are people like that in real life. I can’t accept that resisting oppression the way Kaala does makes him a gangster.
In Kabali, the story was about the history of Malay Tamils, from working in the colonial-era plantations as indentured labourers to current ethnic gangs and the Tamils’ relationship with the Chinese population. Even Madras has been called a gangster film, which isn’t true. Is everyone who stands up to violence done to them a gangster? If someone from a dominant community does the same, they’re a revolutionary. If an oppressed person does it, they’re rowdies. Well, society is responsible for that image.
You’ve announced your first Hindi film. A biopic on Birsa Munda. In your view, what is the current space in Bollywood like, when it comes to social justice?
I can see that there are some recent efforts to make films on these issues. Masaan is an example. Sairat is a film I like, but that’s Marathi. Article 15 has happened now. Let’s see how it works out. In my understanding, Bollywood is very capitalist. They make movies on what will sell. To try and move away from that, towards focusing on what the people face, needs to happen. There is a slow inclination towards that now.
Filmmakers who’ve influenced you?
Alejandro González Iñárritu who made Birdman, The Revenant, Amores Perros amongst others. I love how he captures the range of human emotions. There is also a degree of spiritualism in his films, which are his beliefs of course.
Aside from him, I love the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Spike Lee.
Bharathy Singaravel is a culture reporter and interested in the overlaps between Tamil cinema, protest music and politics.