Is Tamil society only ready to accept a Dalit who 'appeals' to them but not someone who 'confronts' or 'asserts'.
Writer and director Mari Selvaraj’s Tamil film Pariyerum Perumal was released recently and has been running to house-full shows and winning critical acclaim. The movie has been widely praised for how it lays bare the inhumanity of the caste system and appeals to the conscience of the viewers, particularly those who belong to intermediate and upper castes.
In the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, Dalits have traditionally been working under exploitative economic conditions that favour the intermediate castes. However, since the 1990s, Dalits have increasingly asserted themselves and this has frequently been met with violence from these intermediate castes. And in response, Dalits too have retaliated. Not wanting to affect their crucial vote banks, state governments have been mostly lukewarm in their attempts to curb the violence of the intermediate castes. This has led to a recurring pattern of clashes and a situation so tense that even in the Palayamkottai Central Jail in Tirunelveli, Dalit and intermediate caste prisoners are segregated to avoid any untoward incident.
Tamil cinema is closely linked to the social and political life in Tamil Nadu and has reflected the caste hegemony existing in these districts. Films that are rooted in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu have often glorified or normalised the caste pride of the intermediate caste groups. Some of them have even gone to the extent of portraying honour-killing as a cultural way of life.
It is in such a scenario, Mari Selvaraj has made a movie that attempts to stir the conscience of intermediate and upper caste groups and appeal for equality and justice. Several film critics have applauded the movie for taking an “appealing” route as against a “confrontational” one.
The passion of Pariyan
The story follows the life of Pariyerum Perumal/Pariyan, a young man from the Dalit community in Puliyankulam village. Pariyan aspires to join the Government Law College in Tirunelveli, hoping his education will help him fight for the rights of his community. In college, Pariyan becomes friends with an intermediate caste girl Jyothi Mahalakshmi/Jo. When their friendship slowly inches towards romance, Jo’s family becomes aware of it. Her family members unleash a steady stream of violence on Pariyan. However, when they realise that their actions aren’t dissuading Jo’s feelings for Pariyan, they attempt to murder him, hoping that would protect their caste pride and purity.
Mari Selvaraj incorporates very Biblical imagery to narrate his story. Firstly, Pariyan is made to carry the cross of caste for the collective sin of the society that relentlessly subjects him to extreme violence and humiliation. Secondly, those who support him in his path to seek education—the invigilator who helps him pass an exam, Jo who assists him in learning English, the empathetic lecturer in college—are all called “angels”. Thirdly, while deliberately staging the murder attempt on Pariyan similar to the way Ilavarasan died, Mari Selvaraj allows his protagonist to magically resurrect from almost certain death. Fourthly, after his resurrection, Pariyan forgives those who tried to kill him. Instead of attempting to avenge them, he appeals to their conscience.
The parallels between the lives of Pariyan and Jesus Christ are too glaring to go unnoticed. In fact, in one of its songs titled Potta Kaatil Poovasam, the video on YouTube opens with lines from the Vulgate, a late-4th-century Latin translation of the Bible. Following a vivid Biblical imagery, the movie strikingly reminds one of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ. Like Mel Gibson’s movie, Pariyerum Perumal too employs extreme graphic violence to drive home its point.
More Gandhian than Ambedkarite
Pariyerum Perumal poignantly evokes Dr BR Ambedkar at several places. In a beautiful scene in the film, Pariyan claims he wanted to study law to become a doctor. When people around him mockingly laugh, he clarifies that he wants to become like Dr BR Ambedkar. In spite of these affecting moments, the overall politics of the movie remains more Gandhian than Ambedkarite and in alignment with Gandhian satyagraha.
Three-fourth of the movie’s running time is spent in showcasing the compounding violence that is inflicted on Pariyan and those close to him. His loving dog Karuppi gets killed, an upper caste lecturer calls him a “quota hen that lays eggs”, Jo’s family members thrash him in an unexpected moment and urinate all over him, later in the movie he gets pushed into a women’s toilet and locked inside, and when his dad visits the college, he is subjected to transphobic slurs, is stripped naked and made to run on the road. As if these weren’t enough, Pariyan is subjected to a murder attempt as well.
However, at the end of all this, Pariyan still forgives his oppressors and willingly opens a dialogue with them. In suffering and tolerating the unbearable violence that he is subjected to, Pariyan hopes to open the eyes of his oppressors. Like MK Gandhi, Mari Selvaraj too makes an appeal to the heart and mind of the aggressors.
This is drastically different from what Pariyan would have done if he was an Ambedkarite. While Pariyan claims that his eagerness to study law was to protect the rights of his oppressed community, we never witness him accessing the law for his own survival. Neither does he seek any assistance from the Communist or Ambedkarite groups in college whose symbols are visible throughout the movie. Focussing primarily on an individual’s suffering and in the absolution of the aggressors’ crimes, the movie retains a Gandhian soul even though it outwardly appears to be Ambedkarite in nature.
The burden of humanising the oppressor
In order to initiate a dialogue with oppressor caste groups, Mari Selvaraj makes a deliberate attempt to humanise them. Ananth, an intermediate caste classmate and friend of Pariyan, is shown as someone who looks beyond caste. Jo herself is portrayed as an innocent, casteless girl. While Jo’s father plots the death of Pariyan, we are made to believe that he is forced to act so because of societal caste pressure. The movie stages elaborate scenes to illustrate the doting relationship he shares with his daughter. Even the serial murderer who performs honour-killing to maintain caste purity in the society is shown to exhibit some reasoning and benevolence. The movie goes out of the way to showcase the humanity of all these individuals.
However, the movie doesn’t extend the same courtesy to Pariyan or his family. Every time someone close to Pariyan is introduced, the movie closely follows it with a tragic event. Just when we realise his love for his dog Karuppi, she is brutally killed. Within minutes of revealing his father is a street folk dancer, the father gets stripped naked. Pariyan’s mother appears for a fleeting moment and vanishes without notice. We don’t get to know anything about Pariyan apart from his relationship with Jo and Ananth. We are hardly introduced into his world. Instead, the movie merely uses him to inflict one humiliation after another and voyeuristically feeds it to the audience.
While one might argue that the events portrayed in the movie are only a reflection of reality, it is still important to understand that stories about oppressed people need to be narrated with dignity. In its overwhelming zeal to appeal to the oppressor’s heart, the movie quite fails in this aspect.
Pariyerum Perumal has been produced by Pa Ranjith who has also directed movies like Madras (2014), Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018). The movies directed by Pa Ranjith have questioned the status quo of caste society through the assertion of its Ambedkarite protagonists. This has often resulted in severe backlash from the general audience, which could be witnessed in various social media discussions that followed the release of these movies. However, Pariyerum Perumal has faced no such backlash and the movie has indeed been willingly received. This makes one wonder if the Tamil society is only ready to accept a Dalit who “appeals” to them but not someone who “confronts” or “asserts”.
The purpose of anti-caste cinema cannot be about gently massaging the oppressor and hoping for kindness from them. Rather, it should shake the very foundation of an unequal society and throw things upside down. It is extremely unfair and even cruel to expect the Pariyans to bear the brunt of an oppressive society and still make efforts to reform it. I hope Bahujan filmmakers understand that however noble their motives are, any attempt to burden the already burdened can never be good anti-caste politics.