From 'Pariyerum Perumal' to 'Jai Bhim', how caste portrayal has changed in Tamil cinema

In Tamil Nadu, cinema and politics are considered “bedfellows”


The success of Suriya’s Jai Bhim has sparked a discussion on Tamil cinema taking a stand against caste discrimination, with the reviewers lauding the film for its narrative supporting the cause of the oppressed. While the issue of caste is not implicit throughout the film, in the last scene, where the tribal girl sits on a chair opposite Suriya and looks up, holding a newspaper in her hands, with her legs crossed, director T.J. Gnanavel delivers a strong message on Tamil cinema’s tryst with caste.

If Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal was deeply layered and disturbing and Vetri Maaran’s Asuran had a subliminal message against caste discrimination, Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim raises many questions on equality, education, law enforcement and the justice system. From the days of Chinna Gounder and Thevar Magan, which saw the valour of the dominant castes—having the caste names in its title—Tamil cinema seems to be taking a new turn, with the emergence of an anti-caste discourse.

In Tamil Nadu, where cinema and politics are considered “bedfellows”, a trend began in 2014, when Pa Ranjith’s Madras hit the screens. Talking about grassroot politics and the socio-economic impact, the Karthi-starrer set the tone. Since then, be it Pariyerum Perumal or Asuran or Gopi Nainar’s Aram or Karnan or Jai Bhim, the Dalits have been portrayed as assertive, heroic characters.

“The credit definitely goes to Pa Ranjith for changing the narrative. There was a time when movies used to talk about excessive caste pride. But now, the narrative has changed to talking about anti-caste, caste oppression and caste rights. This is the need of the day,” says Lenin Bharathi, director of Merku Thodarchi Malai, a riveting tale of a man and his land, highlighting the struggles of landless workers in the western ghats, released in 2018.

In fact, in the 1950s, movies had characters with upper caste surnames. And then, in the 1960s, when theatres began opening in small towns and rural areas, Tamil cinema began talking about social equality. Thanks to the scripts by C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi. In the late 50s and 60s, many MGR films like Penn, Thayilla Pillai, Thaikku pin Thaaram and, most importantly, Annadurai’s Oor iravu and Karunanidhi’s Parasakthi talked about social equality, bringing in Dravidian ideologies in the films. Tamil cinema soon became more commercial.

But the change came in the 1980s and 990s, when films like Bharathi Raja’s Muthal Mariyadhai starring legendary Sivaji Ganesan, Kamal Haasan’s Thevar Magan, Vijayakanth’s Chinna Gounder, SarathKumar’s Nattamai and Rajinikanth’s Yajamaan began talking about the dominant castes in south and west Tamil Nadu. While these films reinforced caste pride and the ritualistic sanctity of the dominant caste, it also had a strong line on the chastity of women. The latter were reduced to mere followers of men, waiting to be rescued by the masculine heroes.

And then there was a time when Tamil cinema was completely commercial. Should there be a popular star in a dalit film? Will it sell? Who will watch it? Questions like these ruled the Tamil film industry.

But there were films like Vedham Puthithu, Sivappu Malli, Alai Osai which talked about caste oppression. Early 2000s primarily saw films on police pride, portraying them as saviours, though there were films like Balaji Sakthivel’s Kaadhal - a love story which subtly talked against caste.

But Madras changed the game once and for all. “Pa Ranjith transformed Tamil cinema by talking about the complexity among the dalits. Films after Madras have had bold creative discussions against caste and caste oppression,” says C. Lakshmanan, assistant professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies.

“I believe we will continue to have more films talking about caste rights through the big doors opened by Pa Ranjith,” says Bharathi.