ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Art of the Oppressed

Politics of Existence

Most mainstream films that centre caste have, even if unknowingly, not understood the historical roots and cultural background of Dalits.


Thirty-three years ago, the Tamil film Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988, You Can Do It, Brother!), directed by prominent dialogue writer, film-maker, and playwright K Balachander, featured a female protagonist who is a Dalit from a rural background, the daughter of a people’s advocate. However, the film describes her as a “Harijan” from a Gandhian perspective. The male protagonist is a Saiva Vellala Pillai—an “upper” caste in the social hierarchy—who falls in love with this courageous Dalit girl. The second time that they meet, the hero is curious about the girl’s name. In the course of their conversation, he asks her, and she answers: “L K Malam.” In the Tamil language, “malam” literally means human excreta. In this introductory scene for the female protagonist, the director discloses her position in the caste structure cautiously. Narrating this crucial plot point in this way is considered a sophisticated idea from the Brahmin director’s point of view. But what is presented as curiosity in the early stages of romance is actually an age-old characteristic expression of humiliation.

Non-Dalits have for long written stories about Dalits not based on authentic experiences but instead articulating the pain of the Dalit experience in a “pleasant” way that is palatable to the perpetrator. There have been Brahmin, Gounder, Devar, Vanniya, and Vellala heroes but not Dalit. From “above to below” has been the way of dealing with caste in Tamil cinema, where each caste group has its politics to perpetuate and pseudo pride to display. Simultaneously, these stories by non-Dalits have constantly portrayed Dalits as false-hearted, idle, cruel, lustful, and as victims—eena jaathi naaye (“son of a filthy caste, dog”), chandala payale (“son of chandala”), or thevidayappayale (“son of illegitimate”) are regular phrases that have been used for Dalits in movies with caste-centric subjects or themes. The Rajinikanth starrer Yajaman (1993) has a song that speaks of caste honour in such a manner: Eajaman kaaladi mann eduthu/netriyela poottu vaipom (“we will take the soil at the feet of our Yajaman [master] and put it on our forehead”). This is but one example of how Dalits are expected to be devotees of the semi-godlike Yajaman, who is automatically considered higher, holier, and richer than the labourers. Such stories and movies that centre caste have been instructive to “others” in placing Dalits at their respective corners, without making an effort to understand the historical roots and cultural background of Dalits.

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Updated On : 26th Dec, 2021
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