Rupesh Kumar, a documentary filmmaker wrote this post for The Roundtable Portal. The ease with which popular culture screws the marginalized psychologically even as it massively thrives on their hard earned money, has made us consider having a separate tab for film and TV reviews on Roundtable, once we reorganize the database. Hope this review on Angadi Theru starts the trend of bringing in more writers sharing their analysis of film culture and its impact on Dalitbahujan.
By Rupesh Kumar
‘Angadi theru’ is the latest offering of Brahmanical experiments in the cultural landscape of Tamil or Indian cinema. Under the pretext of presenting ‘real’ life experiences of Dalits, a casteist capsule bomb is deployed, it is intended to satisfy the Brahmanical mind set of the film maker and aesthetes of upper caste audience on the one hand, and on the other it cultivates images of dalit identities that are deeply disturbing.
In Angadi theru, the plot revolves around sales persons of a textile business, living in a Chennai street. The film posits to discuss the grave issues of these people who are mostly Dalits.
Towards this, the film renders scenes of their dirty mess, toilets, diseases, madness, begging, death etc., Vasantha Balan, the director, claimed (in a television interview), Angadi theru as the story of “border lined” people.
The Dalit lead character Jyothilingam, hailed from a village and works as a sales man in a textile shop in Chennai, he is in love with Kani, a sales girl in the same shop. Marimuthu, his friend is in a relationship with Sophie and the camera moves through many such lives in Angadi theru. One Dalit in the film is characterized as a toilet cleaner, is nothing but the ‘appointment’ of the director according to Hindu Varnashrama, however, when he becomes economically independent, is shown as a comical character (The scene when the toilet cleaner exits from a train wearing a red T shirt).
Several forms of violence against the Dalit body and psyche are experimented in this film. Jyothilingam, is subjected to physical attacks from the supervisor of the textile shop, the Brahmin owner, as well as his co -worker. He is shown as being capable of reacting physically against the supervisor and the Dalit co-workers, but can’t even touch the Brahmin business owner. According to the brahmanical grammar and equations, the in-between physical fights are only by Dalits and OBCs. But at a time when one blow has to be given to a Dalit, the Brahmin owner appears and thrashes Jyothilingam and asks his subordinates to throw out that “dog’ from the job. This was when Jyothilingam reacts against the oppression in that textile shop.
Vasanatha Balan’s previous experiments with violence on the Dalits were successfully carried out in his film ‘Veyil’. In which the Dalit’s love, psyche and life are shattered and killed in different ways, and it went on to receive wide acclamation from the Indian and international audience and media as an intelligent presentation.
Death, madness and fate play a key role in defining Dalit lives and tragedies in Angadi theru; the sales girl who commits suicide is eccentric or mad before she ‘fell’ to death. The boy who loved her becomes mad and perishes. When Jyothilingam and Kani are entirely freed from the textile business, the film director attacks their life with ‘fate’ in the form of an accident. Kani loses both her legs and has to live a life of a cripple after that (nowadays it appears like a hobby on the part of casteist film makers to present Dalit characters as physically handicapped).
This overdose of tragedies in Dalit lives presents Dalits as born only to live a life of sorrow and tragedy without the capability of subjective thinking and fighting against the system. This is actually so far from the truth, Dalits take more positive decisions than just commit suicides, and they are not mentally fragile to go mad at short notices as depicted by this filmmaker.
Regarding women, it is humorous that the filmmaker presents the morale of chastity, dragging the film back to a century; the woman in the street who married a dwarf is shown to be so proud to have a kid born exactly like the father with crippled legs and claims her chastity is now unquestionable! Are the women in India living only to preserve their chastity? The moral texts of patriarchal Hindu philosophy are trashed upon the viewers and it is just pathetic. Vasantha Balan has to present this to an audience before Lumiere brothers. The film takes the sister of Kani, ‘when she becomes a woman’ (?) to a brahmanical temple structure for the coming of age ceremony. A woman in the temple tells that women during the menstrual period are not untouchable in that temple, but at the next shot, a Brahmin priest’s close up is shown. The camera can’t cheat, and the visuals slipped from the director’s brain.
A small child calls Marimuthu, a pig, in one scene (strangely that the kid looked just about a year old); here the fat black body is treated as stupid and animal-like as usual. For strange reasons, Sophie, the Dalit girl who loves Marimuthu, has been cunningly omitted/ignored towards the end of the movie. The romantic relationship between Marimuthu and Sophie has been given a comical end, for, Marimuthu cannot write a poem to Sophie! Marimuthu’s inability to write a poem is because he is uneducated, one wonders then, if education makes everyone a poet, then all upper castes that have availed it, must indeed be poets!
The romance, support and friendship of Marimuthu and Sophie who are colleagues as well as in love are thus trivialized and killed in this film.
Reinforcing endless stereotypes the film tries to lay claim as a presentation of Dalits ‘real’ life. But real life is different from this reel, people from various oppressed back grounds in the caste society, including places such as Angadi theru are presently raising so many subjective political questions and debates, all of which the film Angadi theru cunningly avoids or ignores. Therefore the suppression of personal and political emancipation of Dalits becomes the primary ‘responsibility’ of this film.
No attempt is made to screen the political struggles, thinking and reactions from these border-lined people/Dalits against the brahmanical and casteist power structures. Dalits are capable of offering new political alternatives based on their lived experience, and are capable of emancipating themselves to higher strata in society through various struggles, than to be just passive recipients of sympathy, love, or fate, as rendered in Angadi theru. Besides their subjective experiences, they derive energy from Dr Ambedkar and so many other political struggles in different parts of India, against caste system. Director Vasantha Balan with his camera interferes in this crucial point in history and creates a notion that the Dalit identities and societies are capable only for reception of dull sentiments. And they can only react verbally as done by the lead character.
There is not even a single political question posed by the film’s creators, implicitly stating that they are not capable of ever questioning; the brahmanical hegemony of a corrupt business empire run by the owner, of the various illicit connections with other power structures like police and politicians. The film is simply frightened to raise such questions. And in the tears of love towards ‘tragic Dalits’, the raging fires of real political questions are being extinguished in the theatres.
Thus on closer examination, this ‘real life’ film positions the brahmanical theories of psychological hegemony by attacking Dalit identities and psyche with tools like violence, sympathy and fate. Previously, Indian film culture used these tools more evidently against dalits, minorities and women, but after being strongly criticized by Dalit intellectuals through reviews and in their political readings and discussions it has paved way for a rethink and inventing of new ‘equipments’ and ‘strategies’ to kill Dalits through tools of popular art and culture, besides their atrocities in mainstream society.
The homicides of Dalits physically and psychologically were previously experimented in Tamil films like Paruthiveeran, Subramaniapuram, Vennila Kabadikuzhu, Veyil, Kadhal etc., and they received wide acclamation from brahmanical reviews. ‘Angadi theru’, is the latest in this panorama, shrewder in its psychological planning of Dalit evacuation, which tends to be imperceptible but can be extracted on a closer reading.
‘Angadi theru’ is more dangerous than established brahmanical films of directors like Maniratnam who made ‘Raavan’, and Shankar who created ‘Annyan’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Gentleman’. The film literally pats on the shoulders, hugs Dalits, and pretends to be highly sympathetic towards the tragic experiences of the Dalits. This is most deceitful and is aimed at belittling the agency of Dalits as resisting voices against the casteist Indian society. The anti caste political debates are presently cautious of such presentation of sympathy/failures/tragedies/fate on dalits.
Streaming from the brahmanical social psyche new trends in cinema showers sympathy on dalit identities, it masks itself as a middle/common/alternate/secular cinema and behaves as a positive change in the mainstream cultural industry. The Indian film aesthetics will not be free from such a grammar of filmmaking and it is extremely pathetic of them to market tears of Dalit lives in public spheres.
In nineteen eighties and nineties, there were a stream of so-called common man’s/middle class movie culture in Malayalam which were deep rooted in nairised or brahmanical aesthetic sense of Kerala. These films especially by directors like Sathyan Anthikad, Sreenivasan and Lohithadas were widely acclaimed as common man’s movies, but paved their way for more highly explosive casteist films and the result was a complete destruction of Malayalam films, they being entirely brahmanical in content when it reached the new millennium. In the present scenario, Angadi theru in Tamil movies is doing a similar job, preparing to breed more explosive casteist movies in future and is thus most dangerous, along with the many brahmanical formulations like Anyan and Dasavatharam.