Editor’s Note: This month, that is November 2019, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Regional Indian Cinema, where we invite various articles on various regional films from across the country which have had some impact on you or on the society (caste, class, gender, etc.), in either positive or negative, or in both ways. If you’d like to share your story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Talking about caste to my father has always been difficult. Conversations always end with arguments, and we give up when I am tired and don’t want to yell anymore. He believes that Dalits are lazy and are misusing the benefits, the state and its government has been providing. It is an example of how the right-wing agenda has convinced a Dalit man that his struggles aren’t real or that he’s not working hard enough. However, amidst all these negotiations, the first time I felt like I got through to him about the need for special provisions for lower castes and Dalits, was when we watched Pariyerum Perumal together. He asked, “Is this what you’re learning at the university?” My sister and I, at the end of the conversation with our father, felt like we left a dent on a ‘saffron’ wall.
Movies have always helped start a complex conversation on issues like caste, which otherwise would begin and end with miscommunication, and made its complexities slightly easier to believe and swallow. Here are a few movies that might help you start that conversation with yourself, your friends or family.
1. Care Of Kancharapalem
“Oh amaye Saleema! (Oh girl Saleema!)”, yelled Gadam, played by Mohan Bhagath.
“Yenti? (What is it?)”, asked Saleema played by Praveena Paruchuri.
“I love you“, he replied on his knees, holding a bottle of mansion house brandy.
Gadam professes his love to Saleema in a well-lit but dilapidated underpass. They are my favourite couple of the four couples whose narratives are explored in the movie. The codified nature of caste is narrated subtly, within various contexts. Movies which portray the complexities of experiences grounded on caste positions, cannot afford to flip their audience off; at least not in the trailer or the first half. You can always pull a comic relief type rhetoric or sarcasm to attack your audience, teach them about caste based experiences or call them out. This movie does the same.
The music is so apt; it is the same feeling that you have when your playlist is on shuffle and it plays great songs by itself. Fifteen minutes into the movie, a few men are seen drinking together, and one of them starts singing about a woman who turned him down. The song, the languages, the localities these men live in, their jobs, their lifestyle and their cultural practises are active markers of their caste identity. It also showcases strong women characters, rather than passive ones. When a forty-two-year-old woman asks a man to marry her, she’s not shamed for wanting a husband. The portrayal of women as strong, independent and driven by circumstances is a reassuring hope for Telugu cinema.
2. Pariyerum Perumal
The movie is about a young boy named Pariyan played by Kathir, from a small village who aspires to be a lawyer. He struggles with the English language and cannot keep up in class. He lucks out on friends—a girl named Jyothi played by Anandhi—who helps him with English and his classes. They are casually speaking; there’s laughter, smiles, eye contact and potential for a love affair, but their stark social class and caste difference hits him across his face. This is a typical portrayal on the reel about the real, where we often find oppressed communities to have more awareness about their oppression, whereas, the rest of the society often has to make an effort to realise the differences and their consequences.
Pa Ranjith, director of the movies Kaala and Kabali produced Pariyerum Perumal. Kaala and Kabali started a very different conversation about caste in mainstream Tamil and Telugu cinema. Various controversies arose post the release of Pariyerum Perumal. A Brahmin film critic said that Pa Ranjith, a Dalit director, wasn’t doing a good job at making movies about Dalits. He further asserted that he could learn from a “Brahmin director” to do a better job. Later, he was called out to clarify himself. Both the politics within and outside the film were crucial, in understanding the everyday manifestations of casteism.
The word ‘caste’ is barely ever explicitly uttered, and yet you will see caste and its manifestations throughout the movie. The movie claims that it is the story of the village Rangasthalam, but if you look deeper, it is actually the story of the vada, the part of the village where Dalits live in Rangasthalam. The movie does not mention caste actively, but it makes sure you see the discrimination, the biases and the struggles.
The movie revolves around Chittibabu played by Ram Charan, a sound engineer (colloquial derogation for hearing impaired). His brother Kumar played by Aadhi Pinisetty comes back from ‘Dubai’ and discovers the corruption in the Panchayat that has been abusing the people. The caste system here holds people down and reminds them to be in their place.
You see the caste system when they take off their footwear to step into the threshold of the president’s house and when they’re asked to wash the glasses, they were served coffee (or tea, I guess).
Chittibabu declares war against the President by squashing the steel coffee tumbler/glass with a rock. Rangasthalam shows you caste system isn’t annihilated once temple entry is gained. The structural reinforcement of caste by political power to oppress Dalits and keep caste hierarchy in check is explored in layers with Chittibabu, Kumar, the President and a political party. Annihilation of caste is an achievable dream when the President is overthrown by the locals, and a woman steps up to be the President.
4. Gundello Godari
Gundello Godari is the story of a newlywed Dalit couple Malli and Chitra, played by Aadhi Pinisetty and Lakshmi Manchu and is loosely based on a novel named ‘Godavari Kathalu’ by BVS Rama Rao.
A flood hits the village during their wedding, and everyone runs to save their backs, while the newlyweds sit still in the chaos. They talk to each other about their past and the societal circumstances that brought them together while floating on a haystack in the floods. There’s a sexist view of women’s sexual needs and that when they seek sexual pleasure, it makes them immoral. Narratives of village life and stories are always rose-tinted and fantasised as the dreamland for sanskar (traditional values). Sex and sexual pleasure of women are all blasphemous conversations and only immoral women engage in them.
Despite the blatant sexism, there is a strong narrative of the sexual lives and stories from rural India that hasn’t been romanticised. Sexualisation of Chitra, a Dalit woman and her body by both Dalit and Savarna men is two-fold oppression, savarna feminism forgets. The movie portrays this side of misogyny and patriarchy that amplifies for women belonging to Dalit communities.
Indra, Narashima Reddy and many other Telugu movies focused on a specific caste as a saviour. This is a reminder of how the Telugu cinema industry is controlled by the Kamma and Kapu castes, which are struggling to be on top. There’s also Rudraveen, Shankarabharanam and series of movies by Brahmin filmmakers who have created a Brahmin hero to save the day, like Article 15. Such representations, rather than tackling caste oppression or educating the society about caste experiences, often tend to reproduce the hierarchy already existing in the society.
Featured Image Source: Times Of India