I haven’t always loved cinema, but I have always loved revolution. From a young age, my fascination with the story of Exodus created a love for oppressed communities and revolutionary politics in me (as well as an obsession with The Prince of Egypt). On a frosty winter’s evening in 2019, I decided to avoid the biting cold and watch Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala. It was that night that so much in my life clicked – as I was transported from chilly Virginia to warm, humid Mumbai, I developed an understanding of my heritage as a Tamil Bahujan, the importance of that community, and the love needed to push it forward. Seeing the community of Dharavi, people who looked like me, spoke my language, descended the same villages my ancestors were from, celebrating life and resistance, molded my passion for cinema as a revolutionary art. Pa. Ranjith, through Kaala and the rest of his filmography, not only shaped my politics, but taught me the importance of art in revolution.
Today marks ten years since Attakathi, Pa. Ranjith’s first film, released. Starring Dinesh Ravi as our ordinary hero, Dinakaran (nicknamed ‘Attakathi’, Tamil for cardboard knife), the film narrates Dina’s young adult life. Dina and his friends call their gang “Lover Boys”, as they are all hopeless romantics that spend their time writing poems, drawing hearts, and consistently failing at wooing the girls they see on the bus. Pa. Ranjith portrays a realistic experience of Chennai and her romantic landscape, a realism not seen in most commercial Indian films. While Dina’s infatuation with the girls he sees on his bus route and his comedic romantic pursuits are central to the story, the film is completed by the centrality of community. The community’s songs at night (Nadakadalula Kappala), on the bus (Aadi Pona Aavani), and at local festivals (Adi En Gana Mayilu) all create a sonic environment that portrays Chennai’s Dalitbahujan working-class communities in a way that isn’t spectatorial, but brings the viewer within the communities that the director loves deeply.
Pa. Ranjith’s films such as Madras (2014), Kabali (2016), and Kaala (2018) are all explicitly political, chronicling the stories of resistance of oppressed communities against the state and dominant group powers. However, Attakathi is different. At first glance, there isn’t much overtly political about the film – it’s a simple rom-com about a working-class community, and our hero’s hopeless romanticism in conjunction with maturing into his own identity. However, Pa. Ranjith brilliantly uses Dinakaran as a celebration of Dalitbahujan identity, and the blooming of self-respect. Dina’s primary love interest in the film, Purnima (Nandita Swetha), is from a slightly wealthier background than our protagonist. Her parents don’t approve of Dina, even before confirming any romantic relations between the two. Near the end of the film, it is revealed that Purnima never even liked Dinakaran, and the whole crisis at the end of the film was because her actual lover who she eloped with was also named Dinakaran. Our heartbroken hero naturally feels dismayed, and just begins to run, and run, and run, not stopping. His clothes change, his hair grows and is cut again, but he keeps running.
Pa. Ranjith isn’t shy about his influences, and Attakathi shows the impact that the French New Wave, as well as postmodern filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai had on his artistic visions. Deeply inspired by the complexities of relationships and human emotions as well as non-linear narrative structures, Attakathi is not at all shot like a typical Tamil film, especially a romantic comedy. Reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s blending of politics and passion, Pa. Ranjith masterfully takes the young love and emotion seen in films such as Chungking Express (1994) and the gravity of maturing from films such as The 400 Blows (1959), and creates a story in Chennai’s suburbs that also incorporates caste and class into the portrayal of the human condition. The emotional climax of the film, where Dinakaran keeps running after learning that Purnima never had any romantic interest in him, is clearly inspired by the ending of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. At the end of The 400 Blows, Antoine is seen running away from the youth detention center and through the woods, to the beach, into the water. While open-ended, this signifies the maturing of Antoine, and indicates he’s learned from childhood and is ready to grow up. Dina’s run has similar significance, but in regard to caste and self-respect.
Purnima was never going to love Dina, even if all the signs were there. He belonged to a lower caste and was doomed from the start. Even if Purnima had feelings for Dina, it wouldn’t materialize – having to account for family pressures, especially imposed on women, she would rather take the easy way out. Dina works hard and risks his life to plan and execute their elopement, and fails. However, the other Dinakaran that Purnima actually loves, presumably from a similar caste status, was able to walk into her house and easily marry her by just going to the local temple together. Devastated, Dina starts running. While he is running, he passes by a portrait of Babasaheb Ambedkar. The camera doesn’t stop, he doesn’t slow down – it’s just there, along with roadside fruit vendors, women carrying water pots back to their homes, and children biking to school. While only presented in passing, Ambedkar represents the self-respect that blossoms in Dina after this incident. Bahujans deny themselves self-respect in situations like Dina’s, but after learning Ambedkar, Periyar, Phule, and countless others, they can grow self-respect within themselves. At this moment, Dina matures and develops the self-respect lacking in too many Bahujan youths, and once he gains that self-respect and love for himself despite his caste identity, he is able to love others freely. The relationship between him and higher-caste Purnima denied him any semblance of self-respect, and he needed to find the light within him and love himself in order to gain that self-respect back.
Periyar’s movement in Tamil Nadu against the shackles of caste was aptly named the “Self-Respect Movement”, and Ambedkar wrote “We are not slaves. Nothing is more disgraceful for a brave man than to live a life devoid of self-respect.” While the idea of self-respect is central to anti-caste movements all over South Asia, it’s important to step back and try to understand what self-respect means for us and how we can feel self-respect in our lives. Sometimes we get so caught up in politics and issues larger than ourselves that we forget how to build our own self-respect. Pa. Ranjith has helped me understand self-respect on a deep level for myself, in Attakathi and beyond.
In a talk at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, Mao Tse-Tung talks about the importance of art in awakening and mobilizing the oppressed and exploited masses. He discusses that the proletariat do not need to simply be reminded about their lives of “hunger, cold, and oppression”, as they live it every day. Rather, powerful art should spark a revolutionary optimism within the masses, and guide them to believe in a future where they triumph over the exploitation that they face. Caste and poverty aren’t new to Indian cinema, and were prominent in the Indian New Wave and the all-too-common commercialized social issue dramas in the Tamil industry. However, all these films were on the outside looking in, and simply told stories that the oppressed Dalitbahujans know about and live every day. The caste-oppressed subject had no power, and was merely a victim written at the mercy of the savarna director.
Pa. Ranjith, as much inspired by Mao’s views on art as Godard’s, bucks this trend. He gives power to oppressed communities, allowing them to construct their own destinies and making them their own liberators. He gives the communities in his films self-respect, and by doing so, inspires the Dalitbahujan viewer to build self-respect within themself as well. We are tired of seeing atrocity and tragedy on screen and want to see liberation instead. And when the masses are able to conceptualize liberating themselves through art, their self-respect multiplies. Pa. Ranjith set the industry on fire with his films, allowing directors such as Mari Selvaraj to do the same in films such as Karnan (2021). Through his establishment of Neelam Panpaattu Maiam (Neelam Cultural Centre) and musical group The Casteless Collective, Pa. Ranjith has worked tirelessly to inspire self-respect to Dalitbahujans, women, LGBTQ+ people, and any oppressed person in all of Tamil Nadu. A lot of anti-caste art is viewed as angry, and the anger is undoubtedly present. Why wouldn’t it be? But first and foremost, our politics are the politics of love. Ambedkarite and Periyarist politics are about learning to love ourselves after three thousand years of subjugation and slavery, and using love to build our communities towards liberation.
If it were not for Pa. Ranjith, I would not at all be who I am today. He has led me to Babasaheb and Periyar, Lenin and Mao. That night I first watched Kaala led me to socialism, and cemented my devotion to revolutionary politics and justice for all exploited peoples. Similarly, Attakathi made me the person who I am now. It taught me about self-respect and love in a way no other art has. It taught me the importance of fostering self-respect for myself, despite the challenges we may face due to the curses of our births. Ten years after Attakathi released, Pa. Ranjith has done so much more to build that self-respect in me and millions of other Tamil Bahujans. It is difficult to think of any other individual who has followed Babasaheb’s call to his followers of educating, agitating, and organizing. Thank you, Pa. Ranjith.