Deivendra Kumar A
Indian cinema, born under the clutches of imperialism, had undoubtedly maintained the space or difference between the elites and the marginalised. In recent years, the audience as well as the cinema industry have made a gradual but apparent shift in the screen space for sharing the voice of the voiceless in mainstream cinema and celebrating identity and in understanding film critically.
Caste has been considered as one of the elements of oppression in the society. Caste stratification attached with religion, particularly the varna system in Hinduism, is undeniably a benchmark of the Hindu society to establish caste differentiation. When it comes to Tamil Cinema, it showcased caste either as glorification of the elites and intermediate castes or as eradication of the prevailing caste system. Many scholars in the domain of caste and cinema opine that films try to eradicate caste dominance between the higher and submissive caste groups, but it is very rarely represented in mainstream Tamil Cinema.
Tamil cinema maintained a space and difference in terms of projecting the dominant and the subaltern classes through the cinematic medium. It represented the subaltern as a sidelined body who is submissive and impure; whereas the dominant- intermediate castes are heroic characters with imaginary heroism – lordly, generous, fearless, assertive, violent and even as trouble-makers. It is similar to the Gramscian thought of hegemony and counter-hegemony, the dominant caste holds the hegemony and the narratives of subaltern caste groups in Tamil Cinema hold the counter-hegemony. Many scholars in this realm of caste and Tamil Cinema have used the ‘common-sense theory’ of Antonio Gramsci to critically analyse subalternity in Tamil Cinema. Though, the word ‘subaltern’ was first used by Gramsci, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak affirms in her much acclaimed essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ that “subaltern is not just a classy word for oppressed, for others, for somebody who is not getting a piece of the pie”.
It has been three years since the release of the film Periyerum Perumal. The film is still relevant and strong because it showcased the vile side of caste which is deeply entrenched in society, manifesting in the socio-political and cultural elements of south Tamil Nadu. The entire film pivoted around the Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi regions of southern Tamil Nadu, regions considered as the landscape of caste clashes and violence between the land-owning intermediate castes and the oppressed lower castes. It is very apparent in Tamil cinema that these southern regions of Tamil Nadu are portrayed as paramount in case of dominant-hegemony where intermediate caste groups perpetrate acts of violence, victimising the lower caste marginal groups. The celebration of these south regions as the realm of the Thevar caste groups is very clearly shown in the Tamil films like Karimedu Karuvayan (1985), Thevar Magan (1992), Paruthiveeran (2007), and Subramaniapuram (2008).
Therefore, it is very evident in Tamil Nadu, the people are an effective audience of cinema. They celebrate popular culture as it is embedded in their lives, and they also try to depict this culture through cinema. This is very apparent in the success of Dravidian politics and films of M G Ramachandran, J Jayalalitha, and the writings of K Karunanidhi.
Pariyerum Perumal (a folk god who mounts on a steed) is a caste narrative which intensely showcases the reality and incivility existing in a caste-ridden society where the people are classified on the basis of caste, creed and colour, clustered as the intermediate caste and the oppressed caste in south Tamil Nadu. Since it narrates a caste ideology, it never tried to explicitly represent the dominant and the oppressed caste groups. There are many other Tamil films which directly mentioned the caste names as well as acts of dominance and violence towards the oppressed communities. The success of the ace filmmaker Pa. Ranjith and his films, lauded by critics, paved way for the entry of Dalit characters into Tamil cinema from the past decade. It made an unparalleled revamp in Kollywood film industry by representing the life of the oppressed on the silver screen by connecting them with Ambedkar-Phule ideologies and demolishing their stereotypical portrayal in Tamil Cinema for the past three decades.
Pariyerum Perumal can be defined as an artistic masterpiece, representing the subaltern voice as well as showcasing the odious side of the caste system prevailing in south Tamil Nadu.
The songs and the subtle (metaphoric and symbolic) representation of caste reality makes the film all the more poetic and a treat for the eyes. The film has represented the extremities of dominant-intermediate and subaltern castes through various symbolic and metaphoric elements using visuals, songs, lyrics, bodily codes, caste icons, and symbols, etc. The submissive caste groups can be identified through differences in worship (Folk-god worship), village names, dialect, as victimes of the double-tumbler system etc. The assertive dialogues laced with rhetoric associated with the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK) (Liberation Panthers Party) of the landless labourers is another identifier.
The subaltern castes celebrate Ambedkar as their caste icon in various scenes of the film, the lyrics mention exterminated habitats and spatial differences that mark the lower castes in the villages of Tamil Nadu. The folk song “Engum Pugazh Thuvange” performed by Pariyan’s father, Puliyankulam Selvaraj, is a direct representation of caste and identity through the folk medium, where it actually portrays the life of Immanuel Sekaran, a dedicated leader and icon of the Pallar community (Dalits) in Tamil Nadu.
The director Mari Selvaraj has used popular songs from other Tamil films, composed by Maestro Ilayaraaja to portray the soundscape of caste in the villages. The song used in the scene where the protagonist Pariyerum Perumal escapes from the higher-caste thugs, “Poradada! Por Valendhada”, is a popular song from the movie Alai Osai (1985, Sirumughai Ravi). It indicates the Dalit identity, serves as a spatial marker as well invoke their soundscape. This particular song has connotations of Dalit identity, specifically that of the Pallar caste. The dialogues like “Yeru pudicha kayyila naanum Vaazh pidichavanthan” (“My hands held the plough, but it also wielded swords”) brings a healthy discussion of equality and commemorates the clan history of the Dalits.
The film also tried to represent real-life incidents that happened in Tamil Nadu where the people of the Dalit community were exploited by the dominance of hegemonic caste groups as well as the authorities under the Dravidian party rule. It subtly showcased the incidents of Ilavarasan’s honour killing in Dharmapuri, the Keezhvenmani massacre, Manjolai Massacre, unethical media reportage of K R Narayanan’s demise, Kodiyankulam police riots, contentious worship in the cart festival of Kandadevi Temple, etc.
Similarly, the higher castes: particularly dominant-intermediate castes are represented through celebration of Aruvals (sickle), and Silambam (martial sticks) as bodily codes representing the Thevar caste groups. Many scholars in the domain of sociology and cultural studies postulate that the celebration and usage of sickles are attributred to the hegemonic Thevar caste as signs of their imaginary martial heroism or supremacy of gore, valour, and suppression of submissive castes. ‘Sundaralingam’, belonging to the so-called intermediate caste, twirls his moustache with caste pride during the clash with the protagonist. It makes clear that the Thevar caste groups (intermediate caste) in Tamil Nadu, consider moustache as an indicator of social and caste power, embedded with their honour and pride.
This film also showcased the caste violence over the disfiguring of the statues of Ambedkar and Muthuramalinga Thevar – the former a social revolutionary projected as a caste leader while the latter, a caste leader, glorified as a social reformer. It also depicted the reality of caste through coloured wrist bands used by the respective caste groups: wristband of red and yellow for the Thevars and bands with green and red for the Dalits. They indicate both caste identity, and discrimination.
Even though these elements can be analysed from the film, it never tries to explicitly present caste. The debutant filmmaker Mari Selvaraj asks the society and people to rethink about the extreme forms of prejudice existing in our society. This film is an intense portrayal of the caste-ridden society in which the dominant and hegemonic caste groups unleash acts of victimisation, exploitation, and humiliation at different levels against the vulnerable, gullible, and marginalised Dalits.
Deivendra Kumar A was a postgraduate in Mass Communication from Central University of Tamil Nadu.