45 years ago, Malayali director John Abraham released his only Tamil language film, Agraharathil Kazhuthai (The Donkey in the Brahmin Village). The film was critically acclaimed, winning the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil, and a frequent mention on lists of greatest Indian films. While it is not the best-known piece of older cinema in the Tamil public consciousness – a space reserved for Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan starrers – it is a vibrant thread in the tapestry of the Indian New Wave.
Agraharathil Kazhuthai follows the story of Narayanasami (M.B. Sreenivasan), a Brahmin professor of philosophy, and his adoption of a young, orphaned donkey named Chinna. The residents of the agraharam (Brahmin village/neighborhood) are disgusted by the presence of the donkey, and believe that the donkey is the cause of a string of misfortunate events affecting the Brahmin residents. Agraharathil Kazhuthai is clearly inspired by Robert Bresson’s 1966 French drama Au Hasard Balthazar, which itself was based on a passage from a part of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot. The film is explicit with this inspiration – when a fellow professor learns that Narayanaswami has taken in a donkey, he brings him a book, presumably The Idiot. Narayanaswami responds, “Have you seen the film?”
Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar was a complex critique of capitalistic culture, with compatriot Jean-Luc Godard calling it “the world in an hour and a half”. Comparably, Abraham’s Agraharathil Kazhuthai crucifies casteist customs in India’s brahmanical society. With Abraham intentionally making the setting and characters of the satirical film Brahmins – the ruling class of India that stick to orthodox religious customs – he is opening up his art to be interpreted as condemning caste society and lambasting its dearth of humanity.
The first choice that I found intriguing was the use of a donkey. In Au Hasard Balthazar, Bresson uses a donkey to symbolize the proletariat in our capitalist society. Similarly, we can read the donkeys in Agraharathil Kazhuthai as not only the Indian working class, but more specifically the majority Bahujans (oppressed castes) of the nation. The donkey is a working animal, much like how the Bahujans are the productive foundation of India. Similar ideas are seen in Ambedkarite political theorist Kancha Ilaiah’s Buffalo Nationalism. In his book, Ilaiah contrasts the black-skinned buffalo with the white-skinned cow – a symbol of Hinduism and societal reverence. The buffalo is more productive, but is not revered. The cow is less productive, but is worshipped. The donkey is important to the production of a farm, and by extension the nation, but is scorned – Narayanaswami’s agraharam constantly wonders, what the hell is a Brahmin, of all people, doing with a donkey?! Much like the buffalo in Ilaiah’s work, the donkey comes to represent Dalit-Bahujan communities. The donkey as a metaphor for oppressed castes is further developed when we see that many of the Brahmin characters in the agraharam avoid the touch of Chinna and believe that Chinna’s presence at rituals and temples is “polluting” and offensive.
The donkey’s introduction scene also bears significance, as Chinna’s mother is killed by a mob. A group had taunted, teased, and maimed the mother, and the mother retaliated. As a result, Chinna’s mother was murdered. This is a familiar story for not only Dalit-Bahujans, but any oppressed community anywhere in the world. Society and the state cause the oppressed to suffer, and whenever a spark of resistance arises, it is promptly snuffed out.
Throughout the agraharam, the only two characters that offer Chinna any sort of dignity or respect are Narayanaswami and Uma, a mute woman in the village. The rest of the villagers torture the donkey, playing pranks on it and framing it for acts it did not commit. This can also be read as a reflection of society, with marginalized populations such as Dalit-Bahujans being human scapegoats for any sort of issue.
Chinna is framed for more and more bad occurrences as the story progresses. Uma has a miscarriage, and her mother places the baby’s corpse in the temple, desecrating the holy place. Chinna is somehow blamed, with the pujaris (priests) believing that out of jealousy, Chinna killed the child and dragged it to the temple to pollute it. Chinna also defecates on the temple stairs and unintentionally trips a pujari holding sacred offerings – I viewed this as a deliberate artistic choice, a tongue-in-cheek challenge of Brahmanical authority and dominance from Abraham. After many such incidents, the agraharam decides to kill Chinna, mirroring the daily caste atrocities seen in India.
However, something shifts after Chinna is killed. A few villagers start reporting sightings of him, believing that he is either still alive or a ghost. Chinna’s corpse is retrieved from the mountain he was killed on, and miracles start to occur in the village. Previously infertile women become pregnant, and a paralyzed woman walks again. Notably, the beneficiaries of what are believed to be Chinna’s miracles are Brahmin women – this similar to how the anti-caste movements of Ambedkar and Periyar had strong feminist foundations, improving the status of all women, including Brahmins.
Upon learning about the miracles of Chinna’s corpse, the agraharam decides that he is worthy of worship. They want to build a temple in devotion to him, so that his blessings continue to benefit the agraharam and its inhabitants. This is also seen in contemporary India, with the BJP, RSS, and right-wing Hindutva forces seeking to appropriate Dalit leaders and their anti-caste movements into Hindu history. Scenes like this can be read as artistic absurdism utilized as an attack on brahmanism, but it’s not quite absurd given the significance of superstition in brahmanical culture.
Uncomfortable with the agraharam’s actions, and mourning the death of Chinna, Narayanaswami and Uma decide to hit back at the village and avenge Chinna. They retrieve Chinna’s skull and set it aflame, giving him a fiery funeral. The fire spreads, and the entire agraharam is reduced to ashes, killing most or all of its residents. The only survivors are Narayana and Uma, looking down on the destroyed agraharam as Bharathi’s poem “Dance of Doom” is recited in the background. The blazing spark of Chinna’s death seeks to destroy the agraharam – the brahmanical society that not only killed him and his mother, but sentenced them to a life devoid of dignity simply for the crime of their birth. The compassionate Narayanaswami and Uma, while part of the oppressing castes themselves, ally themselves with a new society, one to rise from the ashes of brahmanism, and one that provides the metaphorical donkey with the humanity it deserves. Narayanaswami describes why he took in the donkey earlier in the film: a living thing came to him in need, and he could not turn it away. Not one iota of this basic morality is found in caste-ridden Hindu society, so along with Chinna and Uma, we must annihilate it.
Social radicalism has always been present in Tamil cinema, from the Karunanidhi-written Parasakthi in 1952 strongly condemning brahmanical patriarchy, to Pa. Ranjith and his spearheading of Tamil Dalit cinema today. Agraharathil Kazhuthai has a prominent place in this genealogy, with Mari Selvaraj’s 2021 hit Karnan drawing inspiration from it. In the film, one of the frequent visual metaphors is that of a donkey that has lost its mother. When Karnan (Dhanush) liberates it from its bondage and the donkey is reunified with its mother, it is juxtaposed with the destruction of a bus that would not stop for Karnan’s people – sparks of strong Dalit assertion and resistance against their oppressors. Be it a buffalo in political theory or the donkey in film, the usage of productive animals as a metaphor for the productive yet oppressed communities of India is prominent and powerful.
While the film is nearly fifty years old, John Abraham’s Agraharathil Kazhuthai remains an evergreen radical satire on the absurdity of brahmanical society. Abraham’s inspiration from Bresson and his successful adaptation to the material conditions of Indian society allows for relevant and sensitive anti-caste readings of his film. As one of the rare pieces in the Indian New Wave on caste that shifts the gaze fully towards the oppressor, rather than the oppressed Dalit-Bahujan subject, Agraharathil Kazhuthai remains significant in the story of anti-caste cinema.