I watched Pariyerum Perumal last week. Family and friends had raved about the film and recommended it over the past year. The release of Karnan to good reviews and the mention of Pariyerum Perumal in those reviews made me watch the film. I had earlier watched Madras and Kabali by Pa. Ranjith. I liked Madras but not Kabali. By the time Kaala was released, I had no interest in watching it because the story of a Mumbai don seemed clichéd and by then Pa. Ranjith’s politics was in the open and did not strike a chord with me.
Reactions to Pa. Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj’s films and politics are binary – uncritical lavish praise as voices of the Dalit community from left liberals, or anger and contempt from entrenched (non-Brahmin) caste power blocks.
Yet, while portraying themselves as the voices of the oppressed, the filmmakers show nothing but contempt for the most oppressed of the oppressed – Dalit women. One has to be specific about what these filmmakers portray in their films that they get praised for – the angst of Dalits. But it is not all Dalits. It is that of Dalit men only. And not just angst. The films are also a vehicle for portraying the fantasies of Dalit men. At the expense of Dalit women.
Real Tamil Dalit women are present throughout Pariyerum Perumal. They are grandmothers, mothers, sisters, a passenger in a bus, a vendor on the street – all props for the story of Dalit men. None of them are portrayed as attractive, as sexy. The object of desire, the attractive one, is a girl from a different caste. And like the old films of MGR, where the dream sequence was always the fantasy of the heroine, never of MGR, here too it is the fair girl who chases the dark Dalit man. The casting looks even more silly as the girl, an import from Andhra Pradesh, looks nothing like her Tamil family. Any of the other women, functioning as “props”, could easily have been cast as the Dalit man’s love interest with the caste angles intact. The filmmakers did not bother about authenticity for this critical character. And no reviewer even bothered to comment on such a blatant miscast.
In Pa. Ranjith’s Madras, the heroine is once again fair and this is justified as she is not Dalit. In Kabali, the heroine is Radhika Apte, a Maharashtrian. I did not watch Kaala. But once again there, there is the fair Huma Qureshi who seeks out the dark-skinned man. I looked at the cast of Karnan and all the women are similarly actors from other states where a more generous mixing of races has given some of the population the sought-after facial features and skin tone, paving the way for them to starring roles in Tamil cinema.
Commercial Tamil films have long cast fair-skinned women as rural Tamil women – essentially a fantasy of the rural and small-city Tamil males who made their way to tinsel town. But for the so-called intellectual “voice of the oppressed” filmmakers to continue to degrade their own women and play out their fantasies onscreen and not be called out for it is pathetic. Cinematic excellence cannot hide the obvious lack of authenticity in critical characters, which then makes the entire plot hollow.
Will Dalit women be portrayed as attractive, sexy, assertive and ambitious by actors who actually have the same skin tone, body structure and noses of Tamil Dalits? Unlikely. For that, we will need a generation of assertive Dalit women to become storytellers and filmmakers, unafraid to call out the misogyny of Dalit men, especially those pretending to be intellectuals.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.