Actor Jiiva against a huge poster of Bhagat Singh, a policeman saying ‘he must definitely be a Maoist’, a fleeting image of raised red flags and a call to utter Halla Bol (Urakka Pesu, speak up, says Jiiva into a mike), a smart answer to that dreaded question — ‘what is your religion?’ — these are just snippets from the teaser released earlier this months of upcoming Tamil film Gypsy, just under two minutes long.
Gypsy director Raju Murugan is just two films old — his first movie Cuckoo (2014) was a tender love story between two visually challenged people — but he belongs to the growing breed of Tamil filmmakers who are not afraid to display their political beliefs in their movies and out of it.
Director Pa. Ranjith, the most recognisable of the new guard, thanks to his Rajinikanth starrers Kaala (2018) and Kabali (2016), recently hosted an anti-caste cultural festival in Chennai where he spoke about using cultural platforms for equality.
“We call this festival Vaanam (sky) because under the sky, everyone is equal,” he said.
Ranjith, whose movies starring the stylish superstar have been parsed for their Dalit politics subtext, has also launched a music band called the Casteless Collective.
Cinema in Tamil Nadu has always been political — it has, after all, produced more than one chief minister in the state. The Dravidian movement, which still governs the state, has used films to propagate its ideals. Former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi has penned scripts for at least forty films, most of which propagated Dravidian ideals including rationalism and raised uncomfortable questions about caste.
Inspired by MG Ramachandran and later J Jayalalithaa, several actors have tried their hand in politics.
“Both Nainar’s Aramm and Murugan’s second movie Joker (2016) featured people fighting an unjust, illogical system, one from a position of some power and the other without.”
“In most cases, it would be the actors resorting to politics when their career is coming to an end. But in recent years, many young directors are politically articulate. Tamil cinema is benefiting from such politically articulate directors. We have had sensitive handling of political issues on screen,” said Stalin Rajangam, writer and a film expert.
Director Gopi Nainar, whose debut film Aramm (2017) had Nayanthara quoting Ambedkar on screen, has no qualms in flaunting his political identity.
“I am part of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK is the predominant Dalit party in Tamil Nadu). Even now, I am on the field, doing party-related work,” he said.
Directors such as Ranjith, Murugan, Nainar, Naveen and Lenin Bharathi, among others, have redefined the idiom of Tamil cinema in the past decade or so with a rare kind of political conviction.
In 2012, Ranjith directed Attakathi (cardboard knife), a light, heart-warming film on a young man from a subaltern background and his attempts to fall in love. His Madras (2014) depicted North Chennai in greater detail and had more definitive political messages. In both Kabali and Kaala, he did not allow the formidable presence of Rajinikanth to overshadow the clarity of his politics.
Both Nainar’s Aramm and Murugan’s second movie Joker (2016) featured people fighting an unjust, illogical system, one from a position of some power and the other without. In Aramm, Nayanthara played a district collector who has to go against the establishment to save a poor child trapped in an open borewell.
“Analyst Rajangam says that the new, politically aware cinema reflects changes in Tamil Nadu’s social and political spheres.”
The critically acclaimed Joker was about a man’s attempt to build a toilet under a government scheme for his wife, who eventually dies inside the toilet when it comes crashing down in a storm.
Naveen’s Moodar Koodam (2013) was a black comedy that had politically weighty dialogues. Lenin Bharathi’s debut movie Merku Thodarchi Malai (2018), on the struggles of landless labourers and the land dispute that had always existed between the indigenous labourers and those in power was perhaps the first of its kind in Tamil.
Venkatesh Chakravarthy, a Tamil film analyst, found the story of Joker a bit outdated, but says Murugan’s social consciousness deserves appreciation.
“He wouldn’t have come forward to make such a movie otherwise. It is important that these directors are socially conscious, it makes that much more difference,” he said.
The ‘difference’ plays out beyond films.
If Ranjith goes beyond cinema to play a role in the state’s cultural space by way of organising festivals such as Vaanam, which openly puts forth an anti-caste politics, Murugan believes in speaking up outside cinema too.
“It is no secret that I am drawn towards Left ideology. The Left cultural movements like Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam (People’s art and literary movement) and Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers And Artists Association have had a deep influence on me,” he said.
Along with like-minded people, Murugan has started a YouTube channel — Comrade Talkies — to amplify the progressive voices in the State. And of course, the tagline of the channel is ’Urakka Pesu’.
Ranjith is also giving a platform to other filmmakers. He produced the well-received Pariyerum Perumal, which was on multiple best-of-the-year movie lists, thanks to its gripping take on caste and violence.
“If somebody sees my film 100 years later, I want him to understand the social realities of the times I lived in” said Naveen, who says the education system also has a role to play in inculcating a sense of history and political consciousness.
“I have read about Bal Gangadhar Tilak in my text books, but when they talk about Periyar, it doesn’t go beyond the Vaikom struggle. I mean, Periyar is the reason what Tamil Nadu is today, and yet we know so little of him in schools,” he said.
“If Ranjith is inspired by the black cultural movement, Murugan says Charlie Chaplin has been one of his profound influences.”
It is worth noting, however, that for women, getting a toehold in the film industry has always been difficult. Last year, a group of women who work behind the scenes of movies got together to form the South Indian Film Women’s Association, which they hope will go some way in filling this gap.
Analyst Rajangam says that the new, politically aware cinema reflects changes in Tamil Nadu’s social and political spheres.
“Directors who come up today, some of them from subaltern backgrounds, are shaped by what they read and see. They bring it into their art. Also, the world cinema is more accessible today than it was a decade ago. Directors are seeing that the some of the finest world cinema is reflective of its socio-political realities. They are inspired by that,” he said.
So if Ranjith is inspired by the black cultural movement, Murugan says Charlie Chaplin has been one of his profound influences.
“I have had people advise me to not be too political in cinema. That it would affect my chances. But then, I came to cinema only to reach my politics to the masses,” he said.
For Lenin Bharathi, it is about using cinema to showcase his Left-leaning politics. “People do think we could be branded, but cinema is ultimately a business. As long as the horse wins, the politics doesn’t matter. I don’t see it as compromise when we show an otherwise commercially successful actor as a progressive person in a movie. Like how Kaala had Rajinikanth as the protagonist. To me, it is about getting the message across,” he said.
“Films don’t succeed unless they speak of real issues faced by real people,” said R. Sindhan, an activist with the CPI(M). “So even when being critical of it, I think it is important for mass movements to travel with cinema to actually bring about a change.”
Nainar, however, disagrees that these films, including his Aramm, mark a defining change. “You don’t call a film political because it has some imagery like an Ambedkar portrait. The politics of a film, or any artwork for that matter, should move towards liberation. We are still speaking about issues.”
But even he admits that there is hope.
“Perhaps, these films are indicators of such a change. Someday, the change will happen.”