Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is a 2022 Tamil movie directed by Pa. Ranjith. The movie encompasses the themes of caste, gender and sexuality and blends into the larger theme of ‘Love’. It is set in Pondicherry, when a motley theatre group comes together to put forth their views on love while discussing the subject of their play. The interesting part of the film’s plot is its departure from the stereotypical romantic movies that heavily rely on terrestrial objects to pour out their love. Rather, it’s a head-on confrontation with the politics of love and how society dictates one’s choice to love and whom to love. In simple words, Pa Ranjith depicts how love is political and how its entanglement with societal norms makes it a political choice in the first place.
The movie starts with Iniyan (Kalidas Jayaram) and Rene (Vijaya Dushara) lying next to each other; while Iniyan listens to Nina Simon and Rene hums an Illayraja’s song. If one takes a close look at the pro-filmic elements of these scenes, the use of props includes a mandatory use of Dr.B. R Ambedkar’s books which constantly interlaces with strong characterisation of Rene’s character. The song becomes a symbol of disparity between the two which further escalates into a full-blown argument. Iniyan’s crude casteist slur does not sit well with her and she retaliates by banging a steel plate on his head. The impact of the plate falling down and its sonorous sound reverberates till the end of the scene. It indicates Rene’s end of tolerance for the repeated discrimination she faces since her childhood.
Besides this, Rene’s character is the centre of attention throughout the movie. She is bold and assertive but not arrogant, she is proud but not pompous. Throughout the movie, Rene is mostly seen reading books or carrying them, which is a strong indication of her equally strong intellect. If the Bechdel test was to be applied to this film, the film most certainly would have bagged the highest points. Her character is intriguing for its agential attributes. For instance, Rene rises to kick the antagonist who disrupts their on-going show which is a foremost act of resistance and her assertion of being Ambedkarite with a sense of brimming confidence. When she consumes beef it is something that sets her apart. Her staunch belief in equality and universalism lies in her connection to the sky and the universe that is frequently seen in the movie.
Besides a strong female lead, the movie has equally formidable characters– right from a gay couple, a lesbian couple (Karpagam and her partner), and a transgender (Sylvia). Unlike, most of Bollywood, especially from the 90s, the portrayal of these characters subverts the vulgar trivialisation and instead embraces strong affirmation. Pa Ranjith’s major success lies in de-stigmatizing the notions of sexuality and by doing this he has made sure to place everyone on an equal footing. He stresses on ‘Love’ and its quality to transcend any barrier such as caste and gender.
The movie is rich in symbolism and can be considered quite similar to that of a moving painting. The essence of the movie does not lie solely in the plot and its character but its excellent use of setting and background that helps one understand the meaning of each scene at a deeper level. For instance, the character of Arjun is of an orthodox and patriarchal man who feels uncomfortable at the normalcy of same-sex relationships in the group. His opinions are fraught with homophobia which he quite audaciously expresses to one of his mates. In fact, he is equally restrictive of his girlfriend wearing short dresses and hanging out with male friends. But his gradual transformation is marked when he falls in love with Rene, which, in the film, is shown symbolically. When Rene opens the door with a mural of Buddha on it, the entire frame is illuminated and they both together pass through that illuminated path. This denotes the action of embracing the light of knowledge and surpassing the darkness of ignorance. In simple words, it’s walking on the Buddha’s path.
The theatre group’s play is also a story within a story. As the movie progresses, one gets to see the glimpses of the important parts of the play. To describe in brief, the plot of the play is fragmented but makes enough sense for the viewers to know about its basic structure. It revolves around two groups, dressed as wild cats and domestic cats, each fighting to establish their own supremacy. One wild cat decides to fall in love with a domestic cat. The scene within the play, which was brilliant, was three photo frames of dead people narrating their brutal honour killings. It certainly suffices to express how much we limit love and criminalize by penalizing anyone who dares to transgress the rules.
Lastly, the climax of the movie is the day when they are finally set to perform in front of a huge crowd and they are met with a sudden disruption. Just when the play unfolds and is taking its course, a man posing as another wild cat, (or to say a wilder cat), begins to create ruckus and throw chairs at the performers. His appearance clearly sends chills down one’s spine and his assault on the group makes the viewer grip their seats in confusion. However, things get clear when the wild cat gives a monologue after he is done with his destruction, that talks about preserving one’s traditional and orthodox beliefs under the cloak of culture and his aversion towards the liberal display of same-sex love and a casteless society. But just when one feels it’s over, Rene emerges with her kick that catches him unaware of this counter-attack. And then slowly, everyone retaliates and fights back driving him away from the scene. It, once again, is linked to the core idea of the movie, that with love and oneness we can fight such anti-social elements and create a society that truly celebrates love in its fullness.
At the end, Natchahithram Nagargiradhu, conveys that this universe, the stars and sky above us, hold us all together, equally. Hence, we are too small to create boundaries between ourselves and too inconsequential to think of ourselves superior to others. What matters is to dismantle these social constructs of caste, gender, religion that so often throttle love and instead create a society where love sprouts in its purest form.
Hritika Mohite is from Mumbai and has done her M.A honors in English from the University of Mumbai.