Love is Political
Pa. Ranjith's latest film Natchitram Nagargiradhu, breaks taboos and stigmas around human relationships
Breaking deep seated social conventions is one of the primordial functions for Pa. Ranjith, a film maker from Tamil Nadu who's lens focuses alternative perspectives. His narrative style of directing films shatter stereotypes, stigmas, conventions and biases. Placing caste as the locus, he explores the dynamics of power relations among people.
His films vehemently speak on gender equality, caste oppression, democratisation of mass education, inclusivity and diversity. Unlike the mainstream directors, Ranjith values the dignity and respect of every character on screen without bracketing them in racial, color, caste, class and gender stereotypes. Objectification of bodies, ridiculing characters on screen based on their body color, shape and size are not his cup of tea.
His latest film Natchitram Nagargiradhu, has grabbed the attention of the cinephiles and the common public. It highlights various aspects that encircle the concept of love. On a single note, it says 'Love is Political'.
The film is set in the backdrop of a theatre group with an amalgam of people of various identities who are unified by passion for theatre. They are rational, progressive, open-minded folks who are non-judgmental.
There are micro details that Ranjith talks about which play a pivotal role in one's day to day life. Though such visuals can be witnessed for a few seconds on screen, one cannot ignore their significance.
Young Arjun, one of the lead characters in the movie, represents the stereotypical social world we exist in. He is a reflection of a judgmental society which tries straitjacketing the unconventional ones. He is a product of the normative society which is patriarchal, masculine, sexist and homophobic.
Arjun fails to accept and tolerate any change in the standardised structures of human relations. As an aspiring actor to be part of mainstream cinema, he lands up in Pondicherry to learn acting and join this theatre group. His expectations fail to match with the happenings at the theatre.
On seeing an intimate hug between two women Diana and Praveen, Arjun is stupefied. When he is given a broom to clean the floor, he is shocked, and seeing a trans-woman startles him. Arjun may have never imagined discourses behind a theatre performance. The significance of debate, materialising an idea, symbolic meanings to generate and associate it to the everyday experience of fellow human beings in the production of a stage play/cinema seem an unknown process for Arjun.
He attempts to venerate Shekar, an already established actor, as a devotee and tries to see him at a higher pedestal, but Diana denounces by saying 'we are all actors, no one is above or below'. This kind of writing is a necessity for contemporary cinema where we witness a greater subversion to the 'stars'.
Most of the contemporary stars of the cinema celebrate and encourage prostration. Ranjith, a staunch fighter of oppression, condemns this discriminatory practice. In another scene, Arjun gives unsolicited advice to his fiancée to not talk to her male friends late at night, and vilifies her in a rough tone. In another incident, he abuses her for wearing a sleeveless top and attending a function. Arjun is one among the many hyper-masculine figures who is hyper-protective and patriarchal.
When the group sits to discuss a play on love, Arjun ridicules the 'lower caste' men saying "they own literally nothing but show-off with fashionable clothes only with the purpose of luring upper caste women". This represents the disgust that the so-called 'upper castes' hold against the so-called 'lower castes' progress in the change of attire.
I have heard a colleague saying "Dalits are wearing Puma shoes", with a tone of anger and disappointment. Wearing branded shoes is a sign of material progress of the Dalits, which the non-Dalits are not ready to accept.
in India Dalits have bee subjected to torture and violence for wearing jeans, having Ambedkar's song as a phone ring tone, riding on a horse-back, eating mangoes etc. Arjun's statement is both casteist and sexist because he thinks that women fall in love with people who possess wealth and property.
The film's story revolves around Rene, who draws her confidence from her own past. She's seen reading and referring to books. She cannot ignore the turmoil of the labour behind anything that is beautiful.
In a scene, when Iniyan, her partner, is mesmerised with the beauty of tea estates, she asks him whether he is aware of the book 'Red Tea' by PH Daniel which talks about the struggle of tea plantation workers. Rene is a bold, confident and assertive woman. Having faced discrimination from childhood with respect to exercising her right to education, space and food, she's abused and mentally tortured in multifarious forms.
Rene is reconstructing her 'self' at every moment in her life. She's sculpting her own personality, enduring pain and suffering silently. She fights back without hesitation and inhibition. When Iniyan abuses her for her social identity, she hits him with a plate.
Rene boldly says that she's an Ambedkarite, digging a piece of beef fry from her plate, when asked whether she's a Communist. A woman claiming to be an Ambedkarite on screen is one of the bravest acts that Ranjith leveled up to. By this, Ranjith placed the political ideology of Ambedkar in cinema.
When Arjun misbehaves with Rene and is told to leave the commune, Rene confronts everyone by saying that 'political correctness doesn't come in a day and acknowledging and changing is political correctness'. When Arjun approaches Rene to express his gratitude, and about to fold his hands in front of her, she stops him. Folding hands before someone resembles slavery and oppression. It doesn't locate the people on an equal platform.
Rene introduces Arjun to Ambedkar, which leads him to suggest an important change in the play that the group is rehearsing. He suggests that there is no need to show caste killings in the play, but it can portray an acceptance of inter-caste marriage to generate a sense of hope among the audience.
This is a ray of hope for change of the thought process of casteist, sexist, patriarchal, homophobic society. Society needs a teacher like Rene who can sensitise people like Arjun by introducing them to anti-caste literature. Talking about oppressive structures and pain, she widens his scope to re-define and refine his thoughts.
The first scene of the movie is a conversation between Rene and Iniyan, which subtly also talks about liking and disliking artists. Iniyan is ready to accept Nina Simone, singer and civil rights activist, but dislikes Ilayaraja,a singer and writer from Tamil Nadu. Both Simone and Raja come from the marginalised backgrounds.
A non-Dalit, possibly an 'upper caste', Iniyan's love of Simone and hatred towards Raja is likely hypocritical. This resembles the woke liberal Indian upper castes who are quick at advocating for the rights of oppressed in non-Indian countries but fail to acknowledge the brutality on lower castes in India. They write and post on twitter for #blacklivesmatter but selectively deny the significance of #dalitlivesmatter.
The same scene also teaches the audience on how one has to be addressed. When Iniyan calls Rene 'Tamil', she tells him not to, "I will decide how I should be called" she says. This is an important factor in addressing individuals. We often witness people being ridiculed, mocked, humiliated by calling them uncomfortable names with respect to their social identity, body size/shape/colour, religious identity etc. It has been normalised. Denying such practice is crucial and Ranjith shows that on screen, uncompromisingly.
Most of the movies that were produced so far on caste talk about the love between upper caste women and lower caste men. They showed the suffering that an upper caste woman has to undergo in her own house. This film shows how an upper caste man Arjun is beaten, silenced, manipulated, 'blackmailed' for talking about his love Rene who's probably a Dalit. He is forced to get married to the person of his caste. This film shows that there exists similar aggression with respect to man or woman when it comes to caste.
The movie normalises friends sleeping next to each other. In a scene, Rene wakes up next to her friend Yashwanth, checks her phone to look at the photos of Iniyan and herself. This is also an attempt by Ranjith in normalising friendly togetherness of people of opposite genders. To the judgmental world, this is a crime.
When most of the mainstream movies portray women to be only eye-candy and frames them in the ideal standards of 'prettiness', Ranjith redefines prettiness as being strong.
The climax of the movie is provoking. The performance of the 'play' within the movie, is destroyed by a hired goon. He represents the extremist Hindutva forces who reject homosexuals, anti-caste activists, inter-faith marriages etc. However, he is pulled down by the theatre folk. This represents the rational, open minded, diverse communities, can break sectarian, polarising ideas.
Shiva Thrishul teaches media studies at Bhavan's Vivekananda Degree College, Hyderabad. Views expressed are the author's own.