Pa. Ranjith is the director I admire the most in mainstream Tamil Cinema. His ability to infuse this commercial medium with the messaging of an ascendant Dalit consciousness, as he did in Kabali and Kaala, while maintaining box-office success, is astounding. Ranjith is a fearless activist and provocateur. Ranjith hails from a cheri (ghetto) in Karalapakkam, Tamil Nadu and, according to wikipedia, he is from the Paraiyar community.
Pariah has become a slur and a derisive word in English and in Malay and Indians get upset and enraged when they hear this word. Why? Well, this name comes from the cast order that is Indian and Hindu. Attitudes towards it reflect the worst racial prejudice that is innate to Indian culture. The Pariyar are a community that is categorized as outside of the Brahmanical social order. While I deplore the use of the name of this community as a slur in English and Malay, I suggest that it is more important that Indians stop flinching when they hear this word, as that reaction comes from their own racist impulse.
Indians should be proud to be called Pariah! The fact that the term is offensive to Indians, both in India and in the diaspora, is really a symptom of our own horrendous internal racism or catseism. Pariah is the name of one of the oppressed Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu and, according to devendrakulam.org, the English language the use of the word ‘pariah’, meaning ‘social outcast’ was first recorded in 1613. Devendrakulam.org also notes that Paraiyan is mentioned in the Classical Tamil Sangam literature in the Puram text – “Without the following four – Thudian, Panan, Parayan, Kadamban the citizens’ Categorization is not complete” . These are all categories of music workers – Thudian is a player of the Thudi drum, Panan is a singer Singer, Parayan is a player of the Parai drum, and Kadamban is a player of the instrument named Kadambu which I think might be a katam (கடம்), the clay water pot vessel that is used as a drum (I stand to be corrected).
Devendrakulam.org offers a speculative narrative of the descent of the community as Bhramanism rose in South India through the centuries. Among the intriguing possibilities offered here are the idea that the Paraiyar were Buddhists who held out against the ascendant Bhramanism and that some of the Shudra casts of the contemporary South like my own Jaffna Vellala caste emerged from the Paraiyar in a process of assimilation. The Paraiyar community has, despite millennia of oppression within the entrenched Brahmanical order, produced significant figures in Indian social, political and cultural life including, M. C. Rajah, R. Srinivasan, Thol. Thirumavalavan, Illayaraja and Pa. Ranjith. I repeat, Indians (I include Jaffna Tamils) should be proud to be called Pariah!
One scene from the Pa Ranjith/ Rajinikanth film Kaala (2018) that resonates deeply is that in which the villainous Hari Dada’s (Nana Patekar) granddaughter asks him “Who is Kaala dada?” and he answers pensively, “Ravan … Ravan.”(second 0.37 in trailer) In this moment the films palpable Dravidian ethos is emblazoned upon the screen narrative, eliminating all possibility of a misreading. For those who are unfamiliar with the political history of Tamil Nadu, the central tenet of the Dravidian self-respect movement that informs the political parties that have governed the state since 1967 is that of the a North/ South (or Aryan/ Dravidian or Brahmin/Non-brahmin) divide. In symbolic terms, this dichotomy has been articulated in a deconstruction of the Hindu religion, particularly in the desecration one of its sacred narratives, that of the Ramayana. Those who subscribe to the Dravidian ethos, identify with Rama’s nemesis Ravana or as Nana Patekar refers to him, ‘Ravan’.
This identification of Ravana with the hero Kaala, and with the SUPERSTAR, clearly advances director Pa Ranjith’s well known brand of Dalit activistivism. This film is a vehicle for his message about the ancient dispossession of Dravidian peoples in an Aryan conquest and the consequent oppression of casteism in contemporary India. If the film can be said to echo its director’s politics what can be said of its resonance with that of his star, his SUPERSTAR, Rajinikanth, who is in the runup to an entry into Tamil Nadu politics? Rajinikanth is himself a signifier of the Dravidian ethos in that he was the first dark skinned (the North/ South dichotomy presents as the light skin/ dark skin complex of the Tamil people) leading man in Tamil cinema. It has long been known that Rajinikanth is not a stalwart of Dravidianism as the movement is atheistic whereas he is invested in Hindu spirituality. Further he has explicitly announced a platform of spiritual politics and has regularly aligned himself with the policies of the federal BJP, while at the same time working hard to eschew over-identification with the Hindutva branding of the BJP.
Indeed, Rajinikanth seems to have tried to keep his potential alignments open for the coming assembly polls in Tamil Nadu in 2021. In a recent statement however he seems to have burned all bridges with the hard-core Dravidian parties by raising the spectre of an anti-superstition rally from 1971 in which the founder and light of the Dravidian social reform movement, E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, is said to have desecrated icons of Rama and Sita. In the ensuing decades, the Dravidian movement has regressed to an accomodation with Hindu theism, and paradoxically Periyar has himself come to be venerated as an icon of sorts. In this light, Rajinikanth’s indexing of this controversial event, compounded by his refusal to apologise in the aftermath, has resulted in what, I suggest, is an unbridgeable chasm between his spiritual politics and secular Dravidianism. Most significantly, it might have soured the potential alignment with his friend and staunchly secular political co-aspirant Kamal Haasan who seems to have reached out to him recently.
It has even been suggested that Rajinikanth’s speech was ‘scripted’ by the BJP. Frontline magazine has reported that former head of the Tamil Department of the University of Madras , V. Arasu, has said: “Why should Rajinikanth broach an incident that was half a century old and long forgotten? The D.K., too, over a period of time has toned down its anti-god rhetoric significantly. Hence, the actor’s casual remark on a revered social reformer needs strong convincing. Periyar stands for rationalism and social justice. The anti-god doctrine was just one among many themes of his social reform campaign. Besides, recalling an event that was mired in legal and political controversies at that time has no relevance now. By raking up this issue, Rajini has willingly fallen into the hands of those who are out to exploit the name and fame he has earned as an actor.” This brings us back to the question of what can be said of Kaala’s resonance with the politics Rajinikanth. It is with regret that I must note that if the question to be answered here is, “Who is Rajinikanth dada?”, given the accumulation of the SUPERSTAR’s statements to date, I find myself having to say, no less pensively than Hari Dada, “Hanuman Ji … Hanuman Ji”
In, arguably, the most significant vignette of PA Ranjith’s Kaala (a film that is essentially a collection of rhetorical set pieces), a minor character named Shivaji Rao Gaikwad (Rajinikanth’s actual name), speaks up for the protesting slum-dwellers that he, as a policeman, is tasked with repressing. ‘Shivaji Rao’ who, one might reasonably assume, is a signifier for the ‘real’ Rajinikanth, concludes his revolutionary speech with the Ambedkarite cry – ‘Jai Bhim’. This conjunction of speech and speaker, of message and context, of the text and its tag, presents, in a nutshell, the conundrum of Rajinikanth’s political entry. Are we being given insight into Rajinikanth’s intended political direction and allegiance … or is this merely Ranjith’s cinematic fantasy – aligning the voice of an illusory SUPERSTAR with his own fervent Dalit cause, without any grounding in Rajinikanths’s actual politics … Indeed, as the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections unfold, it will be fun reading and re-reading this scene in the light of that moving political context! Indeed, the Gaikward vignette appears to be a most intricate double, perhaps triple, feint, made in the course of a momentous Kollywood engagement between rising director and risen SUPERSTAR – the highlight of an exchange between two powerful agendas in Tamil Cinema … Tamil politics even!
The SUPERSTAR hoardings are back. Kaala, the ‘man in black’ is walking tall on cinema walls all over Chennai. It seems that PA Ranjith’s second collaboration with Thalaivar is doing fine at the box office regardless of controversies in Thoothukodi and in Karnataka. There were relatively poor advance bookings and even now there are mixed reports about the first days takings but at least one heralds an all-time record take across Chennai cinemas and cineplexes of 17,000,000 rupees which is over 250, 000 USD. Reviews suggest that Director has struck a better balance between the SUPERSTAR persona and the serious social and dramatic ambit of his work. Ranjith is an outspoken champion of the left in Tamil Nadu. By left I mean Periyar’s Dravidian movement, whose colour is the black of Kaala, and Ambedkar’s Dalit movement, whose blue is equally prominent in the film. While the pairing of actor and director pairing holds up well in the fictions of Kabali and Kaala, there are signs however that this unity of actor and auteur is unraveling. How Rajinikanth will square this new politicized SUPERSTAR persona with his, apparently not so slightly saffron tinged (saffron being the colour of the Hindu right) real life ‘spiritual politics’ remains to be seen ….
As we eagerly await Kaala, Rajinikanth SUPERSTAR’s first movie after his entry into Tamil Nadu politics, it is pertinent to reflect on the messages embedded in this and his last release, Kabali. Both films are the directorial works of PA Rajinth, the rising Kollywood auteur of Dalit origins who has successfully presented critical social messages with mass commercial appeal. Rajinth is vocal on Dalit issues off the screen and here is an important document evidencing his rage and articulating his core message – TAMILS ARE DIVIDED BY CASTE … ADMIT IT! – It is a message that is steeped deep in Ambedker Blue and, incredulously, one that SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth seems to be taking upon his crisp new political mantle whose own native hue is allegedly a Hindutva Saffron.
The boss is back and his colour is Black but it seems a to be a Black tinted with strong hues of Blue. The eagerly awaited trailer for Kaala is out and for me, and most of the 10 million other early viewers, the thrill ain’t gone! SUPERSTAR adulation aside however, there has been a lot of talk about Rajinikanth’s colour in the context of his recent entry into Tamil Nadu politics. The concern has been, as his friend and rival in life, art and now in politics, Kamal Haasan, has put it, that Rajinikanth’s hue is Saffron. Saffron is the colour of the Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) politics of India’s ruling BJP, with whose values Rajinikanth has shown some affinities.
In my own view the equation of nation state with religion, that Hindutva represents, is a tragic and disastrous misunderstanding and misuse of both religion and nation. Nevertheless, there is still hope that Rajinikanth is not on the Hindutva page and that his colour may not be saffron after all! Kaala is the followup to Rajni Sir’s earlier collaboration with activist director PA Rajinth. Rajinth is a ground breaking mainstream Kollywood director who is of Dalit origins, and who brings Dalit issues to the central forum of contemporary Indian cultural life. In their previous collaboration, Kabali, this dark duo addressed the caste issue both with external references and reflexive dialogue that deconstructs character roles in Tamil cinema.
In the Kaala trailer Black is presented as the colour of class resistance, but the colour of our hero’s the Mumbai ghetto is clearly blue. Blue is the dominant roof colour in an ariel shot of the ghetto. As observed in an Indiaglitz.com commentary, it is also the colour of the hero’s ghetto flag, the colour of co-star Huma Qureshi’s dress, and also of the drapery that surrounds her in a dance sequence. Blue is the colour associated with the great Indian and Dalit leader B R Ambedkar, who always wore blue suits. Indeed, Blue is the colour of Buddhism and, symbolically speaking, the opposite of the aforementioned Saffron. Blue has become the colour of the Dalit resistance that Ambedkar set into motion at the time of Indian independence. While it must be noted that the hero’s own spouse (one presumes) is seen dressed in a saffron saree, one is not unjustified in hopefully speculating that Rajinikanth’s Black is, indeed, just the darkest shade of Blue.