For over seven decades now, films have been an active medium of politicisation. Renowned director Vetrimaran said that there are no exclusive art film audiences and commercial film audiences per se in Tamil Nadu. The same set of people are the viewers, and thereby there is often blurring of such a difference.
Of late, there are two sets of concerns emerging in the film space. One, a set of films have turned out to be outcomes of lazy and misinformed politics and therefore dissemination of such political ideas is a worrying trend.
Two, many a time, the makers of the films, writers and/or directors wish to shy away from claiming the existence of a political quotient in their films. However, the director of the movie in question, Mari Selvaraj, is one among the few who explicitly claim to be disseminating socio-political and cultural ideas through their movies.
Karnan, his recent directorial venture with Dhanush, Lal Paul, Natarajan Subramaniam, Rajisha Vijayan, Yogi Babu and others is one such meticulously woven film. The movie seeks to articulate and mainstream the politics of the marginalised communities and radically locates such politics in dignity, recognition, and socio-economic mobility.
At the same time, the movie cautions against the furthering of the politics of the marginalised through regressive ritual pride and violence as pivots. The title, which is the name of a vital character of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, deftly captures the essence of the current marginalisation, that is, denying rights to the capable on the basis of birth.
The movie is set in the late 1990s in the south of Tamil Nadu – the time and place that were rife with clashes between the Thevars, a shudra caste group, and the Devendra Kula Vellalars (DKVs), previously called the Pallars, a formerly untouchable caste group.
While the movie is filled with subversive references and metaphors for the keen eye, the director has been unapologetic with the music in the film and food, two proxies of dominance that many woke progressives fail to understand or worse, perpetuate.
A prevalent example is how a specific variety of upper caste music and vegetarian food are promoted as markers of Tamil identity whereas the state is a site of hundreds of folk art forms and nine out of ten people are meat-eaters. The movie celebrates sub-regional folk arts and the local meat-based cuisine.
Metaphors, and a cry for dignity, power and mobility
The site of the movie is ‘Podiyankulam’, an ostensible pseudonym for Kodiyankulam, a ‘Dalit’ village that was subject to police brutality in 1995. The movie gives ample screentime to metaphors without demur.
The bus stand in the movie serves as a metaphor for mobility, recognition by the state, and access to state resources. While the state in theory functions to provide its resources to its subjects equally, the movie expounds on how access to the state resources are restricted to and by certain communities, many a time by hampering the communication channels available to the marginalised.
Another captivating metaphor is that of a donkey foal whose forelimbs are tied, allowing for only confined movements, first introduced in the movie after a triumphant celebration by the people of Podiyankulam.
The above is a practice used by tamers to instill obedience during the domestication of donkeys, a similar tactic is alluded to in the movie in a discussion among the folks of the affluent neighbouring village/town by restricting mobility of the oppressed.
The recurring masked figure or uruvam in the movie is a representation of the suppressed anger and sorrow that is harboured by not just the protagonist’s family but by the entire village as the misfortune that sets the foundation for the movie could have happened to anyone belonging in a similar setting.
The state in the movie is shown as a metaphor for caste oppression, a system put in place to maintain the status quo, with checks and balances, be it the denial of a basic amenity like the bus stop or the unwillingness to negotiate with the aggrieved. The antagonist Kannabiran, a senior police officer of the region, serves as a vessel of the same. Instead of a dominant caste village head as the antagonist, Mari Selvaraj has successfully mainstreamed issues that involve systemic oppression. Using police violence as a conveyor of the same has served well in establishing an emotional connection and relatability with the wider audience given Tamil Nadu’s recent experience with custodial deaths in Sathankulam.
When houses are ransacked and certificates are torn, that is, markers of mobility are destroyed, violence becomes the only recourse to the oppressed. Anger and retaliation are shown as means to secure recognition and respect. The use of the village’s sword or ur-vaal to kill serves as a symbol of the collective anger of the marginalised against the discriminatory system represented by the antagonist.
The movie culminates with the protagonist reflecting on how their means to mobility and their needs are turned a blind eye to and instead only subservience is expected of them. The two scenes revolving around the names of people belonging to both the caste groups serve well to expose the insecurities that exist in proximate caste groups that believe in rights that are imputed to one’s birth. A riveting dialogue by the protagonist goes, “Kandiah’s son could be named Kannabiran but Madasamy’s son should not be named Karnan?”
Karnan as a caution to the DKVs’ move to Hindutva
A considerable chunk of the Devendra Kula Vellalars is seen to be rallying behind the BJP and the Hindutva construct. Since the run-up to the 2019 elections, the BJP has been vocally supportive of the demand to rename the Pallars as Devendra Kula Vellalars. The leaders of two parties claiming to represent the DKVs, Puthiya Tamizhagam Party led by Dr. Krishnasamy and Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam led by John Pandian have expressed their explicit support to the BJP and its ideology. Dr Krishnasamy went one step ahead and claimed to not owe his allegiance to the BJP but to the RSS.
The decade of the 1990s saw a fissure among the SCs owing to differences in aspirations. The DKVs have not foregrounded victimhood but a glorious past of valour and prosperity as markers of their identity, thereby making them vulnerable to the Hindutva appropriation, one that just provides them cursory respect and recognition.
While the BJP-led Union government has accepted the renaming demand, Krishnasamy and Pandian have also been critical of the affirmative action policies at varying degrees as they have held pride above all.
In contrast, Mari Selvaraj deftly problematises the community’s present instead of its past. While he echoes the demand to be named and called better, he firmly holds on to the issues of redistribution of state resources, educational mobility, and the vocabulary of social justice.
Moreover, the movie moves beyond a narrow inter-caste antagonism framework towards a broader matrix of securing recognition, redistribution, and representation for the marginalised in avenues of power.
Vignesh Karthik K.R. is a doctoral researcher at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. He tweets at @krvtweets. Ajay Chandra is a political analyst based in Chennai. He can be reached at email@example.com.