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De-Casteing Love: Pa Ranjith’s ‘Natchathiram Nagargiradhu’
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De-Casteing Love: Pa Ranjith’s ‘Natchathiram Nagargiradhu’

Jitendra Suna

Separation of love and Indian cinema is an impossible task. On one hand, our society abhors love; on the other hand, Indian cinema exploits the conditions of lovelessness that exist in our society. A critical study of 2013 on the judgement of various rape cases in seven district courts of Delhi by Rukmini S, a data journalist who published a book (Whole Numbers and Half-Truths: What Data can and cannot tell us about Modern India) finds that around 40% of rape cases are used to criminalise love that transcends caste/religion and most cases were filed by the parents. Out of 600 cases, 174 cases were filed by parents of women who were involved in inter-caste or inter-religious relationships. Despite such occurrences in the national capital, we often find invisibilisation of caste and religious dimensions in Indian cinema, especially Bollywood. From childhood, we have been consuming the elitist construction of love which is far from social realities that has been perpetuated through cinema. The emotion of the young have been used and abused by cinema.

Tamil Cinema, and to a lesser extent Malayalam cinema, try to mark themselves apart from the shallow notion of love that has been perpetual across Indian cinema. Despite being known for its progressive and art films Malayalam cinema is still dominated by the caste elites and thereby invisibilises caste. However Tamil cinema could in recent decades break many such barriers thanks to radical non-Brahmins directors. Pa Ranjith’s recent movie Natchathiram Nagargiradhu released on August 31, 2022, is a complete departure from the narrative that Indian storytellers have portrayed since the beginning.

There are three main protagonists in the movie: the lead role Rene played by Sarpatta Parambarai fame actress Dushara Vijayan, Iniyan played by Kalidas Jayaram and the Arjun role played by Kalaiyarasan. Apart from them, there are representations of gay, Trans and lesbian couples in the movie.  

Rene is an Ambedkarite protagonist in a relationship with a caste Hindu man, Iniyan. Questions of caste contradiction in romantic relationships have been narrated in a much nuanced manner, at the same time not downplaying the role of the emotions of the caste Hindu man. Romantic movies in Indian cinema erased caste from their narratives from the beginning of cinema itself.  Youth often find it difficult to talk about caste in their romantic relationship. In that sense, the movie is educational and guides youths who are transcending their caste barriers, when it comes to love.

The main protagonist Rene has been projected as an independent, strong Ambedkarite woman who has been struggling to deal with her feelings of love and the contradiction that arises in her relationship: the question of caste. The myths that only economic liberation will emancipate Dalits has been questioned from an Ambedkarite perspective. There are various symbolic representations as Ranjith’s movies often utilise art as an emancipatory political project. Rene has been shown reading Ambedkarite literature.

The political subjectivity in Indian cinema or in society is always associated with the right, centre and left/communist movements. Even in the liberal public domain, Ambedkarite political subjectivity has been downplayed and not recognised so far. In this context, in one instance, Rene is asked by the caste Hindu protagonist Arjun whether she is a communist. In response to that, she replies that ‘she is an Ambedkarite’. This representation of Ambedkarite political subjectivity sparked a debate among the left-liberals in social media: how can the director show Ambedkarites in opposition to the communists? This debate is a long one that originated in the time of Ambedkar himself. Due to the monopoly of upper caste leadership in the communist movement, and invisiblisation of caste in their discourse, Dalits have chosen to visualize their own autonomous politics, ideology, and strategy to combat caste atrocities, untouchability and the question of annihilation of caste itself. In today’s context, Dalit or Ambedkarite subjectivity is an autonomous way of existence marking them separate from the binary of left vs right or the centre. Therefore, instead of negating the existence of Ambedkarite subjectivity it is time for the liberals and especially the communists, to accept it.

Mainstream movies often tend to exploit the lives of the protagonists, especially when it comes to the characters who are Dalits poor etc., This often garnered petty sympathy from the audience, but Ranjith deliberately avoids any such sensational and sympathetic representation. As a result, the movie doesn’t have any plan to carry the audience in a particular direction but prods them toward a critical examination of our lives, society and relationships.

The question of class and gender has been raised in a careful manner, while not falling into the trap of elite and liberal world views. Also, the question of caste in the queer movement has been highlighted in a subtle way. The transgender roles in mainstream cinema moves often towards caricaturing them, except in a few recent movies in Tamil cinema. In this movie the Trans character is represented with an emphatic lens, she is shown celebrating her successful relationship with a man.

One more thing that filled me with awe was the details and nuanced representation of other supporting characters. For example, the lives of Hindu women were represented in a thoughtful manner. On one hand, they are shown as victims of the family who carry the burden of maintaining caste. 

Pa Ranjith’s earlier little-known masterpiece Attakathi which didn’t catch much attention was the first movie that projected the lives of a young Dalit boy and his search for love in a society full of of caste struggle and class hierarchy. The current movie is completely different while taking about caste, class and gender and addressing a larger audience. Love is often represented beyond and without caste, gender and class realities in mainstream cinema. This movie goes beyond such a narrow and unrealistic representation of our lives. This movie definitely has the potential to bring a new and much-needed approach that our cinema and Indian youth desperately need. 

Image of lead actor Dushara Vijayan and director Pa Ranjith courtesy: the internet. 

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Jitendra Suna was recently awarded PhD from JNU New Delhi. His thesis, titled, “History of Identities and Exclusion: Ambedkar and the Marginalised”, explores Ambedkar’s ideas on writing of history.