Illustration by Sarah Floate

In July 2022, riots broke out in Kallakurichi, a town in northern Tamil Nadu. Reacting to the tragic suicide of a 17-year-old 12th standard student, enraged mobs destroyed the school she had attended, with the families suspecting foul play in her death. The riots destroyed the school campus and facilities, forcing its students to move to online instruction. The owners of the school, belonging to the dominant Gounder community, blamed Dalits and the anti-caste political party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) for the violence. Police responded in turn, unjustly arrested hundreds of young men for suspicion of involvement in the riots – most of these victims were Dalits, and were detained without any proof of a crime. The situation was notable enough that police departments had to notify other schools in the area to be sure to not reprimand or bully Dalit students as scapegoats for the incidents in Kallakurichi.

Seththumaan (Pig) is an independent Tamil film released earlier this year by debutant director Thamizh and produced by Neelam Productions. The plot, partially inspired by writer Poomani’s short story Varugari, revolves around an old man Poochi (Manickam) and his grandson Kumaresan (Master Ashwin). Kumaresan’s parents were murdered in a caste riot, and Poochi is raising him with a strong emphasis on education in order to prepare him for a successful life. Poochi is not afraid to stay quiet about his rights or endure discrimination in order to propel Kumaresan’s life. Poochi works for a wealthy landlord, Vellaiyan (Prasanna Balachandran). Unlike most Tamil movies about caste, Vellaiyan isn’t the pure evil oppressor figure. He’s quite generous with Poochi, offering to pay for Kumaresan’s education and allowing Poochi to cook for him and eat said food before him and his friends – a rare action amongst upper castes. Of course, he’s not all good – he treats the other Dalits of the village, such as the justice-minded Rangan (Arul Kumar), as inferiors. Every character in Seththumaan has complexity and nuance, and is deeply flawed. We see multiple, often contradictory sides of every character.

It is also unique to anti-caste cinema that the primary conflict in the film is not one between Poochi and Vellaiyan, or Dalits and the dominant caste Gounders. It’s between Vellaiyan and his cousin, who naturally belongs to the same caste. They are fighting over a tree that lies between their plots of land, and who deserves ownership of that tree. The tree itself isn’t important, but the pride and masculinity of the two hinges on control of it. This tension is seen parallel to Poochi’s impassioned efforts in educating Kumaresan. In the background of all this, we hear radio news and newspaper headlines about Ram Nath Kovind and his successful campaign for President of India. The BJP candidate is a Dalit who, notwithstanding his reactionary political views, found success despite his caste. 

Another layer of complexity in Vellaiyan is his love for seththumaan kari (pork). Pork is only consumed by the lower castes, and his wife and caste brethren view his love for the meat with disgust. He finally convinces his friends to try the pork dish, and gets Poochi to cook it for them. Much to Vellaiyan’s enmity, one of his friends invited his cousin. They sit opposite to one another, giving each other dirty looks as they feast on Poochi’s piquant pork and low-grade local liquor. As they progress into inebriation and Vellaiyan’s cousin takes more meat than allotted, tension becomes a brawl. Everyone has left – only Poochi and Kumaresan, Vellaiyan and his cousin are here. Vellaiyan and his cousin begin to violently swing at each other in their drunken state, while Poochi is comforting the frightened Kumaresan. Despite the pleas of Kumaresan to stay with him, Poochi runs to try to split them up once the cousin picks up a meat cutting tool – only to unintentionally be stabbed, while Vellaiyan and his cousin flee together out of fear. Despite the conflict being between two dominant caste men, with no involvement or stakes of Poochi, the Dalit was the unfortunate victim.

The film, released mere weeks before the 17 year-old girl tragically committed suicide on the campus of Sakthi Matriculation Secondary School, parallels the events at Kallakurichi. The school was owned and operated by a Gounder family, a dominant caste in western Tamil Nadu and the same caste as Vellaiyan. The school also had strong RSS/BJP links, in addition to an association with the Tamil regional party AIADMK. The late student and her family belonged to the Agamudayar caste – one of the three subsections of the dominant Mukkaluthor community. According to some news reports, mainly Mukkaluthors organized the agitations that destroyed the school and its facilities, as a reaction to the death of someone belonging to their caste. While we don’t really know if caste played a role in the devastating death of a student, this conflict is between Gounders and Mukkaluthors. Even though caste shouldn’t be an issue or conflict here, it unfortunately has been made into one. The conflict is between two dominant castes, much like the tension between Vellaiyan and his cousin. However, Dalits and the anti-caste VCK have been blamed for the violence, with hundreds of innocent young Dalits imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Much like Poochi, we are sadly witnessing innocent Dalits as the violent victims of clashes between others surrounding them.