'Jai Bhim' vs PMK: Tamil Cinema Achieves What Dravidian Parties Could Not
The Jai Bhim controversy and the intertwining of politics and cinema in Tamil Nadu.
A tale of two scenes set outside the gates of a prison:
In Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai, Kabilan and Vetriselvan are waiting for Rangan Vaathiyar to come out of prison. A staunch Dravidian, Rangan was arrested along with many party workers and protesters during Emergency and the subsequent toppling of the M Karunanidhi led government if we go by the timeline of the film. Rangan is not one for ostentation or ornamentation, therefore rejects the garlands intended to celebrate his return. He asks one question. “Where are the other party workers and comrades?” Someone replies that they’ve gone to welcome the Mudaliar who is also getting out of prison that day. “Take this garland too for him,” is all he says.
In TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim, the opening scene is set outside prison. Those walking out are roll called based on their caste – the powerful ones like Mudaliars, Thevars, Gounders and Vanniyars are let go. Persons belonging to scheduled tribes (the Irular community is the larger focus of the film) are arrayed to slap further cases on them.
The scene in Sarpatta is roughly set around late 1970s to early 1980s. Jai Bhim, based on true events, is set around mid-90s. In terms of political and social clout, there isn’t a big difference between Kabilan, a Dalit youth who finds his calling in boxing and the people branded as offenders in Gnanavel’s film. In Jai Bhim, lawyer Chandru fights against all odds to obtain justice for the characters from Irular community after they face custodial violence and torture at the hands of landed, intermediate caste police officers. Kabilan, by the end of Sarpatta, realizes that he must go it alone and not depend on the once promising Dravidian dream, and dons blue for his climatic bout. It’s a demonstration of the Dravidian movement’s digression from its mission statement and this is further reflected in the controversy surrounding Pattali Makkal Katchi’s – a party of and for Vanniyar caste – issues against Jai Bhim and its actor/co-producer Suriya.
Vanniyar-Dalit Conflict and Dravidian Parties
Pa Ranjith’s film neatly sums up (he did the same in circuitous ways with his sophomore film Madras) the Dravidian parties’ transformation to a non-Brahmin/intermediate castes party instead of an anti-caste party built on rationalism and self-respect that was at the core of EV Ramaswamy aka Periyar’s vision, ideas inherited from Iyothee Thass, probably the first anti-caste Dravidian activist from modern day Tamil Nadu.
When implicit casteism of the Dravidian parties was exposed – around the end of Sarpatta’s timeline if you will – Vanniyars who belonged to backward castes but were relatively dominant, demanded to be recognised as Most Backward Castes with access to accordant reservations. In 1987, a volatile period between MG Ramachandran’s final days in office and death, and M Karunanidhi’s short lived subsequent government, the Vanniyars committed large scale violence across the state. In addition to blockage of roads and felling of trees, there were clashes between DMK workers and the Vanniyars. In addition to this, Vanniyars also indulged in violence against Dalits, a community below them in the perceived social hierarchy and with whom they frequently clash to this day, setting ablaze hundreds of huts. A high cost was paid to illustrate that the intermediate and top of the pile castes were the only ones benefiting from the 50% backward class reservations that the MGR government had introduced (increase from earlier 31%). The violence and the reinforcement of caste status from Vanniyars did not cease at this point.
In 2012, after a Vanniyar girl eloped with her Dalit lover, the girl’s father died by suicide following which the community burnt down houses in the Dalit colonies. Almost a year later, the Dalit man – Ilavarasan – was found dead on the railway tracks (an image recreated in Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal). PMK denied the allegations then, but the Dalits claimed otherwise. The tension between Vanniyars and Dalits is deep rooted and perennial, and the caste killings remain common, be it 1987, the 90s, 2012 Dharmapuri or current year in the case of a Vanniyar man Gowthaman who married a Dalit woman.
The Rise of Vanniyars with the Backing of Dravidian Parties
The Vanniyars gained social and political capital with PMK’s growth and their density in northern Tamil Nadu. The PMK consolidated the Vanniyars enough for MK Stalin’s current DMK government to implement via government order (now set aside by the Madras High Court) 10.5% reservation for Vanniyars within the 20% MBC quota, a bill introduced by the AIADMK.
In September, Stalin announced the construction of a Vanniyar Memorial in Villupuram in remembrance of those killed in the 1987 clashes. In the same breath, Stalin visited people of Irular and Narikuravar communities to distribute house pattas, community certificates and other welfare measures, mere days after the release of Jai Bhim. As much as cinema is intertwined with politics in Tamil Nadu, coming on the heels of a film like Jai Bhim, the optics of the long-term interests of the elected government remain sceptical, showing up the two-faced nature of any Dravidian government, reiterated over the years by scholars like Hugo Gorringe.
It is both revolting and rich from Anbumani Ramadoss and the PMK to say that the community was shown in a bad light. Cinema only sweetens the harsh realities of politics and Jai Bhim is no different. What’s in the film, as suggested by many experts and activists, is only a diluted rendition of oppression by authorities, yet another example of how institutions can be compromised by disproportionate representation of powerful intermediate, landed castes. Earlier this year, Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan painted the gory picture of the 1995 Kodiyankulam violence, orchestrated by a casteist police force. Karnan marks the year to be 1997 when DMK was in power. Actor and now DMK MLA Udayanidhi Stalin had asked the filmmakers to issue a correction since the Kodiyankulam violence occurred under Jayalalitha’s tenure. Inaccuracies aside, the belabouring kerfuffle is pointless. Enough violence is recorded, and blood shed during either of the Dravidian party’s tenures and caste outfits frequently attack marginalised communities either through political parties or through police and judiciary.
Tamil Cinema Shows the Way
In many decades of their existence, the Dravidian parties created no space for a person from a marginalised community to climb the ranks to a position of power, apart from stray cases. They remain a party and a movement of intermediate castes upholding caste pride and pacification in the name of vote bank politics.
Tamil cinema on the other hand has had it with these indiscretions. Behind the camera is still a haze but on the screen cinema from Tamil Nadu has a viable anti-caste movement.
Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj and Vetrimaaran are in front of this revolution that created space for TJ Gnanavel and an actor as big as Suriya to not only make Jai Bhim but also stand by it after PMK attacked the film. They are all filmmakers, among many in the industry, who stand by Suriya, a fanciful idea in other Indian film industries today. "When people who are not interested in the welfare of the poor gain authority, they tend to behave in exactly the same manner, irrespective of their caste, religion, language or region. Through this film, we have raised questions against authority. I request you to not confine it to politics over names," Suriya said. A political party like PMK desires status quo and inordinate authority gained over extra-institutional agitation and practices. And this couldn’t have been possible without the transgressions of a movement that promised social justice and equality.
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