Two films recently released that couldn’t seem more far apart. They are set in different contexts, directed by vastly different directors, produced and distributed for entirely different audiences, and star actors from completely divergent walks of life and scales of stardom. But the fact remains that they were produced from the same society; the same divided, unequal and stratified society – and so an insistence on comparing the two becomes not simply a relevant exercise but an integral one. The only purpose served in the attempt to view them as separate phenomena is to de-politicize them; delink them even from the ways they attempt to deal with power in society. The two-films in question are the Bengali director Q’s Netflix-special, ‘Brahman Naman’, now a phenomenon in Indie circles and the talk of the hipster town; and Pa. Ranjith’s ‘Kabali’, a multi-million dollar cultural phenomenon starring possibly the biggest superstar in Asia, Rajinikanth.
Both are films that I have intimate connections to, and deal with cultural contexts and experiences that I can personally identify with on many levels. Growing up in Bangalore, I was part of quiz circles for the entirety of my school life and also had heard stories of the many yesteryear quiz ‘legends’ of the city that Brahman Naman is based on. I also have equally fond memories of sneaking off from school to watch Rajinikanth’s ‘Sivaji’; repeating all his punch dialogues with a cool swagger at school recess.
In college, I slowly began to wriggle myself free of quizzing circles as the realization dawned on me as to what these gatherings were about. What seemed like an innocuous absence of women at these events or lack of diversity in the quizzers’ social background, class and interests began to appear more and more conspicuous with the sharpened world-view that came as a byproduct of studying the social sciences. Brahman Naman, Netflix’s first original production in India, is a celebration of this – a documentation of the escapades of these thrillingly predictable misogynists and casteists of ’80s Bangalore. Of course, the said misogyny and casteism is merely a character-building technique in this ‘realistic’ film – a way of pitying the young heroes with hearts of gold. Netflix’s involvement in its production also allows us a good way of understanding the way capitalist modernity enters our societies. Its business model and online space insulate it from India’s draconian censorship board, but it uses its privileged platform of speech more for the glorification of casteist crudeness than to support any progressive art form. If the film is actually a critique, it is difficult to grasp; it seems too coated in a nostalgic air, as if reminiscing in wistfulness of the days when one’s casual bigotry went unchallenged and sexual misdemeanors went unreported. The film has been described by some as a ‘sex comedy with a conscience’ – a most puke-inducing description for a perpetuation of rape culture in the domain of ‘knowledge’.
My disillusionment with quizzing came far before my critical understanding of why the space seems to structurally keep out certain kinds of people. Of course, there was the boredom with a certain kind of ‘rehearsed pluralism’ that was practiced in those circles – the fact that almost any question related to art at an engineering college would inevitably lead to Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol; the childish fascination with very particular and repetitive themes in pop-culture and even the frequent tribute to their shared caste-roots with one answer unsurprisingly being the Carnatic music legend, Muthuswami Dikshitar. But never did this boredom translate into disdain until I started having discussions on politics with many of these people.
Around the time of the 2014 general election, I began to observe that my quizzer friends either chose to be quiet or come out in vociferous support of Narendra Modi and the BJP. Those who kept quiet often wished to portray themselves and their spaces as apolitical, as centres for ‘knowledge seekers’ that could exist outside the framework of the very real phenomena gripping the country. Both these sets of people baffled me. How could people so well-read in such a diverse range of topics; who consistently engaged in the gathering of information, be either gullible enough to believe a campaign of such shallow rhetoric, or naïve enough to think that the educated intelligentsia not taking sides was itself not a political choice? That’s when the realization dawned on me – information is not knowledge, and no amount of trivia and facts can substitute for critical thinking. Brahman Naman has all the privilege, all the material, the books, the resources and the trivia – but what does it amount to with his views on women and caste? Where does he stand next to the indentured labourer Kabali, who roars that he will assert the dignity of all downtrodden people by any means necessary? How does his clear discomfort and condescension at accidentally stumbling into a Muslim neighbourhood compare to Kabali embracing his Muslim best friend, Amir, and dining with him as a symbol of Dalit-Muslim unity?
Kabali is a film full of surprises. The title itself is a method of assertion by the director Ranjith, who takes a name usually reserved for a typical thug or fool for comic relief (with lower caste connotations) and turns it on its head with an infusion of Rajini style and his ‘Kabali-da!’. From the moment Rajini is introduced (reading a classic of Dalit literature, ‘My Father Balaiah’), Ranjith is attempting to strike casteism and misogyny down with this assertive film. Kabali does not have the trivia on his fingertips like Brahman Naman, but he gives stirring speeches about the politics of Ambedkar wearing a suit, sets up a school with imagery of the Buddha, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Ambedkar and others. He sings songs asking if the world and its resources are meant only for one person. He acknowledges that he would be nothing if not for his wife. He has transcended information and reached knowledge; and has decided to take matters into his own hands. Kabali is Ambedkar and Periyar come again; a defiant man in a suit, armed with knowledge and power, crossing his legs and taking a seat in front of his enemy daring him to bring it on.
Caste pride and sexism are unfortunately such fragile forces that they can’t even withstand a fictitious beating on-screen by Rajinikanth. They feel the need to hit back immediately – a case in point being the biased reviews of Kabali that pepper most of the English media. A few years ago on Satyamev Jayate, Aamir Khan ‘took up’ the issue of caste discrimination in an episode without mentioning the name of Ambedkar. He even glossed over reservations so as not to hurt his mostly upper-caste audience’s sentiments.
In Kabali, Rajinikanth dons a suit as a symbol of protest and tells children to get an education and fight back; to be proud of their Tamil heritage, defiantly declaring the name of Ambedkar with symbols like the Buddha behind him. That is the difference between a self-appointed saviour and true assertion. Those blinded by privilege are unlikely to see it, which is why Rajinikanth is largely mocked in all major media outlets as senseless while Aamir Khan is made the “intellectual star” of the country.
There appears to be something curiously intellectual to critics about Brahman Naman too. Beyond all its casteist and misogynist glory, critics find the ability to observe nuances and context and to provide an air of artistic superiority to what is essentially an ode to a (thankfully) bygone era. These same nuances are lost in observing any ‘merit’ to Kabali – a mindless film for the mindless masses that will never be accorded the highbrow honour of being called ‘art’. As the great Ambedkarite lokshahir Sambhaji Bhagat once sang,
“Amidst all this noise about the arts, truth has lost its voice
Art is your hogwash, a deception in the name of aesthetics
Screams from the funeral pyre cannot be called a performance
We will genuinely be obliged if you do not call us artists!”
Kabali is a movie all conservative apologists in this country should watch. In a country where we’re consistently told that only by depicting ‘social realities’ like unabashed sexism, casual racism and sexual violence (in otherwise completely “realistic” films from the likes of Salman Khan and co.) in order to get box office success – it’s nice to be reminded that what will certainly be among the highest grossing films in history is a story of assertion, dignity and inverting power structures where even the infallible Rajinikanth has his life saved more than once by a woman. Kabali is Ranjith and Rajinikanth’s knockout blow to the racism, casteism and sexism of the film industry; which is a mere reflection of society.It’s a pleasant reminder to leave behind the world of Brahman Namans and our abominable yesterdays and look forward to reveling in our egalitarian tomorrows. ‘Magizhchi’ to that!
Pranav Kuttaiah has studied at St. Xavier’s College (Mumbai) and Sciences Po (Paris). He is currently a fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore.