In the past ten years or so, Indian cinema – particularly the Tamil film industry – has had an increase in the number of films discussing caste issues. These movies range from smaller, independent films in regional languages such as Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi Fandry (2013) and Thamizh’s Tamil Seththumaan (2022), to large commercial productions with big stars such as T.J. Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim (2022) or Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 (2019). This development is mainly a positive one, especially as Dalit filmmakers such as Manjule, Pa. Ranhith, Mari Selvaraj, and Neeraj Ghaywan have found both critical and commercial success. However, it comes at the risk of commercializing Dalit-Bahujan stories and experiences of oppression, as well as the sensationalizing of caste violence. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Rajesh Rajamani outlines the trend of Dalit atrocity being the subject of “pulp fiction” films. Rajamani discusses the development of the Dalit subject over the history of contemporary Tamil film, claiming that reducing brahmanism and caste oppression to physical violence against Dalits is harmful to society’s understanding of caste, nixing any “awareness” that may have come from a film’s success. One such film that falls into this trap is the 2020 Tamil anthology series, Paava Kadhaigal.
Paava Kadhaigal is a Netflix anthology film, with four thirty-minute films each directed by four separate directors. Sudha Kongara directed Thangam (Gold), a story about a Muslim transgender woman and her experience with unreciprocated love. Vignesh Sivan directed Love Panna Uttranum (Eager to Love), about lesbian and inter-caste relationships. Gautham Vasudev Menon directed Vaanmagal (Sky’s Daughter) about honor and purity in young girls. VetriMaaran directed Oor Iravu (Village Night), also about inter-caste love. While the stories are all unique in their setting and narratives, they all share one common theme – the politics of honor and the violent atrocities that happen due to honor culture. While Oor Iravu and Love Panna Uttranum directly deal with caste honor killings, all four films combine to look at how religion, gender, and caste identities deal with forms of violence (and according to Paava Kadhaigal, mainly physical violence).
The anthology’s title means “Stories of Sin”, which is quite apt for the narratives the directors tell. The anthology was successful, receiving above average critical reviews. The films don’t refrain from showing violence at all either, with murder being portrayed at least once in every film. Given the identities portrayed – Dalits, women, Muslims, transgender women – it is simply not true that their experiences with oppressoin are all simply facing physical violence. The reduction of the oppressed into a subject that only faces physical violence dismisses the depth and complexity of their experiences. Furthermore, as Rajamani explains, reducing the violence that marginalized groups face to just purely physical violence is detrimental to our understanding of systems of oppression, even if it sells movies better. Violence against oppressed people is often silent and institutionalized, and these films rarely portray that. The answer to why is simple: films about the complex oppression that Dalit-Bahujans and other marginalized groups face are easier to sell when it involves action scenes and violence, and a (often, savarna savior) hero to save the day.
While the harmful trend of commercialized oppression as “progressive” film seems like it will continue – Article 15 was recently adapted into Tamil as Nenjukku Needhi, and 2021’s super-hit Jai Bhim was similar, albeit with more radical political messaging. However, there is a growing wealth of Dalit-Bahujan cinema that operates as anti-caste art without sensationalizing physical violence. Filmmakers such as Pa. Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj, Nagraj Manjule, and Neeraj Ghaywan all direct films that put Dalit protaganists in center stage, surrounded by a vibrant and empowered community. Dalit-Bahujans are not simple subjects of violence – rather, they are human beings capable of a range of emotions, ideas, views, and experiences. Rather than celebrating film that denies them this complexity, we should promote and praise art that showcases it.