Review “Sarpatta Parambarai” | Witness the Dravidian Self Respect Movement on Big Screen
In the history of India, Dalits, an Avarnas who were historically oppressed and excluded from the Hindu Varna system, are located in the margins. They are, in fact, considered as an ahistorical or non-historical category. The general society of India would then be so forever. Masters of Dalit liberation ideologies have begun to historicize the Avarnas or the casteless Dalits from the second half of the nineteenth century. From then on, the historicization of Dalits took momentum. Dalit writers, academicians and novelists have been at work since then. They did their part and have been doing franticly. But Indian cinema, from its inception, either considers Dalits as a non-existent category whose history, culture and social realities are worth adopting as themes or projects them as criminals and as anti-social elements. During the last decade or so, the casteist and communal fortress of Indian cinema is broken. To claim space in the fortress, Pa, Ranjit in Tamil cinema has been leading the attack.
Everyone knew that the young Dalit Director Pa Ranjith would consistently address the politics of subaltern people through his vibrant movies. The style of breaking the stereotypical portrayal of Dalit culture through his movies has made the Indian audience, especially the Dalit audience, politicize as well as celebrate the filmmaker. He smashed “the traditional trademark of Dalits as rowdies” in the history of Tamil cinema and become a “Trendsetting” film-maker in the context of working-class narratives by framing the egalitarian politics and dignified culture of the Dalits, honestly and courageously.
After few ground-breaking films such as Attakathi (2012), Madras (2014), Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018), now the filmmaker has explored the traditional and aggressive British boxing culture of North Madras in his recently released, Sarpatta Parambarai (2021). For referencing his era, one could commemorate that, this is not an earlier Tamil cine industry wherein the aged hero will dance erotically with his daughter aged heroine; celebrate the basic tenets of Hinduism such as caste, religion and anti-feminist thoughts and perceived the Indian social history only through the Brahmanical window. But, it is “the brand new era of Tamil Cinema” where Periyar-Ambedkar-Marx ideologies are widely talked about by rational filmmakers like Pa Ranjith that will even agitate the Indian Union’s Parliament.
It is no secret that, in Ranjith’s screen conversation, he has visibly embraced the revolutionaries, such as Ambedkar and Buddha who have fought against the Brahmanical Caste system and worked towards the upliftment of the Dalit Bahujans. Besides, it is also true that when he was vehemently spoken about the history of Dalit uprisings and revolutions that happened in Tamil society, he has never been portraying a single Dravidian leader like Thanthai Periyar, Perarignar Anna, Kalaingar Karunanithi etc… who were fought also explosively against the Hindu caste system and lead a Self-Respect Movement for the liberation of the oppressed among Tamils, in any side of his frames.
Further, in his earlier speeches, Ranjith had openly called upon the prominent Dalit personalities, who were part of the majority political parties in Tamil Nadu, to leave their chairs and form a separate Dalit body for the emancipation of the oppressed. And, he has also criticized the Justice Party and Dravidian politics in several platforms. Perhaps, the understanding that the Dravidian parties and their leaders were the representatives of the intermediate caste groups may have preceded him. Owing to which, he had once interrogated that, “there are Dalit streets, which have named after Thanthai Periyar, but not a single streets of caste Hindus have named after Ambedkar”. This raised the uncertainty among the Tamil rationalists concerning whether Ranjith has considered Thanthai Periyar only as of the leader of the caste Hindus.
From the very beginning, Ranjith has been critical of Dravidian politics, directly or indirectly. Such exclusion of Dravidian ideology and icons were not only taken place in his films, but also in his political, artistic and musical arenas as well. When it should be seen as; what he praises and what he does not is his personal choice while scripting his films, why should he be blamed for excluding the role of Dravidian politics in the emancipation of Dalits among Tamils?
Because, Thanthai Periyar, who led the Self-Respect Movement in 1925, lived as a primary custodian of Ambedkar’s nucleus policies of Anti-Brahminocracy, caste eradication, women’s liberation and the protection of social justice in Tamil society. He as a man until his 95th age, continued to speak, write, and agitate people for the liberation of the oppressed with selflessness. He not only politicized the people of TN with rational thoughts but also didn’t forget to identify the right political leaders like Babasaheb for them. For instance, Tamil Nadu is the first state in India to achieve the highest level of social justice with a maximum of 69% reservation in Govt. sectors, the first state to create “Periyar Ninaivu Samathuvapuram” (Periyar Memorial Equality Village), where all castes live together in a hamlet and the first state to implement the equal property rights to women. In this way, Tamil Nadu, as Periyar’s soil, through its law and schemes, is pioneering in the implementation of Ambedkar’s vision.
While Periyar went to Malaysia to address the issues of Tamil migrants, it was not brought into the fames of Kabali (2016), which demonstrates that Ranjith, who is very vocal about the politics of the oppressed through his narratives, has excluded the contribution of the Dravidian movement and its icons. Even, Dr Thol. Thirumavallavan, President of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (formerly known as the Dalit Panthers of India) and MP of Chidambaram, has shared his memories about how do the Dravidian leaders like Periyar and Karunanidhi, have played a role in shaping his political vision, in many stages. Paradoxically, for Ranjith, who agreed with Dr Thiruma’s political vision, it took time to accept the Dravidian leaders.
Having said that, Sarpatta Parambarai (2021), which can be called “Dravidian Stock”, is an extraordinary piece of Ranjith and unreservedly different from his erstwhile genres. And one thing that has to be perceived is that this film has been made with ‘a sight of empirical political knowledge’. It can be renowned that, thus Ranjith is gradually evolving from his earlier political perception that is essential for the intellectuals and creators.
Epoch of Emergency
Sarpatta Parambarai was made with the intention to bring the sporting history and culture of Dalits of the North Madras in Tamil Nadu. The narrative encircled two boxing troupes – Sarpatta Parambarai and Idiyappam Parambarai and fierce competition between them. The context and period chose were necessitated by the politics of the time. Moreover, there always is politics around sports that needed to be addressed. While the reference to the Emergency Period is to underscore the time and context and its impact on the general society including sports, the association of sportspersons, trainers and associations with local political parties is to underscore those sports are not apolitical.
The regime, which is analogue with the present political situation – ‘the era of dictatorship’, has imposed the suspension of liberty and fundamental rights all over the country. Merely, leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan and Kalaingar Karunanidhi had led the movement against Emergency to protect freedom and democracy. And it was the period when the DMK’s (in English, Dravidian Progressive Federation) self-respectful comrades were prospering all over the Tamil Nadu with activism, determination, stability, anti-domination and even risked their lives to work for the DMK’s liberation movement against the Union Government’s objective of centralizing the states through repression. Eventually, vanquished the tragic tenure and restored democracy.
Kalaignar was one among the leaders who have sacrificed the Chief Ministership in the war against authoritarianism. Almost every DMK leader was detained under the MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) and was persecuted brutally. Thus, significant episodes of DMK and Kalaingar Karunanidhi have been brought to light through this script. The most powerful dialogue, “Emergency is deforming Indian Union of states. But, in Tamil Nadu, the rule of our leader is preventing us. The leader of our organization is the only one who roars against this group. Prime Minister who rules like this, resign! Resign! Resign! Resign!” by Rangan coach reveals the then Chief Minister of TN, Kalaingar Karunanidhi’s fight against repressive Union Government.
DMK’s determination towards its ideology could be distinguished while it tries to safeguard the state’s liberty and democracy in every possible way. Like father, like son – now the present chief minister of TN, M. K. Stalin has also started a campaign to erase the unconstitutional articulation of Union Government as ‘Central Government’ and generate the constitutional articulation of ‘Union’ to safeguard the nation’s democracy against the present Union Government’s objective of centralizing the state power.
Rangan as a vibrant Dravidan stock
One should understand the difference between the question of “dominance” and the question of “rising for self-respect” to understand the Dravidian movement.
The Dravidian Movement, better known as the “Self-Respect Movement” was started in Tamil Nadu to revolt against the Brahmanical supremacy. In its earlier time, Periyar led the movement based on three ideologies – dismantling Brahmanical hegemony; revitalization of the ‘Dravidian Languages’ and social reform by the abolition of existing caste systems and religious superstitions and recasting women’s equal position in the society.
Rangan has been wearing DMK’s shawl since the beginning, is spotted touching and adjusting the shawl with the feeling of pride and self-respect. His cross-legged sitting posture while wearing the party’s dhoti and then considering his defeat and victory with his shawl’s defeat and victory, reveals his passion towards his ideology of Self-Respect. Furthermore, Rangan’s house which has served as like an office of the DMK in his area with the Party’s flag has thrown light on the ideological history of the then DMK comrades wherein their houses were served as a platform for political and revolutionary discussion.
While, the film’s theme is centred on the clashes and competition that had taken place between the two boxing troupes, for generations, Rangan, who heads the Sarpatta Parambarai troupe, has been portrayed as an ethnic Self-Respectful coach without any caste-based thoughts, despite the troupe’s association with various caste groups. Rangan, initially, while choosing a boxer to compete with Vembuli from the opponent troupe, Idiyappam Parambarai, choosing Ramar even by rejecting his son, Vetri. Thus, Rangan as a Dravidian ideologue is stubborn in choosing a deserved boxer only, irrespective of the social-hierarchical traditions. Consequently, the skilful deserving fighters like Kabilan who is from the oppressed society got the opportunity.
Evolution of Political Vision
The script has been justified that, why Raman and Vetri were being villainous initially and their characters were determined by their circumstances.
Raman who is from an intermediate caste attempts to pull down Kabilan since the latter is from a downtrodden community. Raman’s uncle, Thaniga keeps on misleading and pressurizing Raman to behave in such away. But Raman tends to change after realizing Kabilan’s sportsmanship. He didn’t walk away, rather celebrated Kabilan’s victory on the stage.
Vetri believes that the right to become a leading boxer should be through family hereditary right than a well-earned capacity. But eventually, he too started supporting Kabilan, which has given hope that the next generation, can be better.
Thus, both of them were transformed into the right sort after seeing Kabilan’s genuine capacity and portrayed with a positive ideological spray that honesty will get the support of everyone. Perhaps, Thaniga could be seen as the actual villain of the movie to some extent. Since he is the one who was particular about the caste pride.
This understanding of Ranjith is new and similar to Pariyerum Perumal’s (2018) positive ending which encouraged the discussion between the oppressors and the oppressed and also paved way for the film’s huge success. If a film is centred on caste elimination, it should make an impact among the audience and make discussions on the social crises. Rather, like the caste fanatics, directing a film with a revenge narrative will not cause a positive impression among the audience. Thus, Sarpatta Parambarai is different from Ranjith’s earlier genre and is not a revenge genre.
It is the duty of the directors who should be socially responsible to create the understanding of what we, as a society, have done is wrong, rather not to incite the caste feeling furthermore. Caste hysteric Tamil films with the influence of right-wing ideology, such as Cheran Pandiyan (1989), Thevar Magan (1992), Nattamai (1994), etc… have cultivated caste psychos and should be considered as films that promote “communal violence”. Moreover, they are a catastrophe to the evolving casteless society. Thereby, creating a valuable film by understanding the pulse of our society is all needed.
Here the point is reproducing the revenge genre may fail to make a discussion among the audience, while the discussion is the only way for change. For example, even though Ambedkar has largely contributed to the emancipation of every community, owing to the absence of discussion among the non Dalits made him less accepted. There are many reasons for his less discussion with the non Dalits, two important are – social circumstances when compared to leaders like Periyar and his busy life as an academician and lawmaker.
However, as a full-time social justice orator, the transformation that Periyar caused among the caste Hindus ought to be credited to his various meetings. He intentionally organized Anti-caste meetings in the areas of Caste-Hindus, not in the Dalit areas. With the logic of one who is vibrantly infected should be vaccinated first, he largely had Anti-Caste discussions and meetings with the dominant castes. Surprisingly, people who arranged or organized or headed the meetings were also from the dominant caste groups. This is how Periyar lead the movement. He has given two options to the dominant castes – ‘transform’ or ‘must transform’. Actually, both are the same. He demanded only one thing from the caste society, that is, ‘change’.
The treatment for those who are infected by the virus is different from those who were not infected. So, the former should go through serious treatment; rather the latter should be in prevention. Ambedkar’s contributions thus become the guardian against the caste system. While, his constitution and law acts as a shield to the oppressed from the plights, which treatment could reduce the malignancy of caste from the Savarnas’s mindset? For instance, Periyar’s Self-Respect Movements has acted as the “Savarnas Rehabilitation Centre”. Unlike the Savarnas of other states, the dominant caste groups in TN have started leaving the practice of using caste surnames. Isn’t that a huge achievement when compared to the other states wherein the practice of using caste surname is widely prevalent till today? Periyar and his discussions made the people of Tamil society feel the shame of using caste surname, at least in the public sphere. Without any law and force, one man has made it just by orating. Hence, the open discussion could largely turn down such vicious mental diseases.
According to me, the Sarpatta Parambarai troupe that didn’t allow nearing the caste hegemony is a platform of the Dravidian Movement. Rangan who executes every step with the ideology of Self-Respect Movement is a Dravidian Stock. He, without caste psyche, appreciates and provokes Kabilan considering his capacity and vibrancy. From the beginning, Kabilan yields a platform and has been considered prominent within the troupe. Likewise, Raman’s family members (who are from the intermediate caste and profess ruling caste pride) have also ‘lost their lives in the war of socio-political liberation and gained their position in the troupe as well. In such circumstances, the Sarpatta Parambarai troupe has been successfully reconstructed and preserved by Rangan, who is also from the intermediate caste, rather considers professing of ‘ruling caste pride’ is undignified conduct and stubbornness in social justice.
The dignity and valour of the Kabilan (the politics of the oppressed people) are consciously nurtured and constructed by the Rangan (Dravidian stock). Therefore, while noting Rangan’s support for the upliftment of Kabilan, one should understand the unorthodox bond between the oppressed and the oppressor communities who have embraced the Dravidian ideology by challenging vicious Sanathana (A)Dharma. In such a way, the film has recognized the contributions of the Dravidian leaders also from the intermediate communities, like, Periyar, Anna, Kalaingar who altogether worked for the emancipation of the oppressed communities.
Eventually, Kabilan’s unparalleled prowess has been identified by the Rangan. He has been brought in and introduced to the war of ‘liberation against dominance’ and whose victories were rejoiced by Rangan. This is how Dravidian federations are celebrating the victories of the proficient oppressed as their own victory.
Certainly, Ranjith has honestly set down the history of the Self-Respect Movement and the socio-political liberation movements of its inherent political party DMK, which has to be perceived as an unclouded thought that differs from his erstwhile eyeshot.
The question of MGR’s image
M. S. S. Pandian (2015) interprets that the eleven years of M. G. Ramachandran’s rule was the darkest period in the history of independent Tamil Nadu, which won the votes of the common people and step forwarded for the elite and capitalist classes. The film’s attempt to reveal his tainted social justice to some extend is appreciable. It is a good start that the film has deciphered about him and his party’s gaggle that vastly created the coterie of “spurious liquor”. The question of who is MGR has not been raised for a long time and the history of Tamil Nadu has been obscured by creating a kind of intoxicating image about him.
The film discussed that how the DMK was subjected to persecution just because Kalaingar has challenged Indira Gandhi’s undemocratic Emergency Rule; meanwhile, MGR surrendered to Indira Gandhi like how Edappadi Palaniswamy had surrendered to Narendra Modi in the present political climate.
The dialogue, “If Tamil Nadu gathers behind our leader, Kalaingar, without getting entangled in the magic of the actors, the Red Fort will explode there” by Rangan indicates that the young generations should be cautious about actor cum politicians like MGR. And it can be related to the present political climate of TN as well, wherein the actors like Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth have jumped or tend to jump into the politics using their cinematic charisma.
Then, Rangan’s arrest leads to the fall of Kabilan. He was engulfed with corrupted institutions. Like how the dismissal of the DMK Government has spread the illicit institutions across the state, arresting Rangan has ruined Kabilan’s life for some time. Rangan’s son Vetri joins the ADMK. Simultaneously, he started producing spurious liquors. Later, Kabilan is also induced to join it. As a result, both of them gains contact with rowdies. Consequently, Mariamma faces emotional turmoil. The situation has come to balance only after the release of Rangan. Noticing Kabilan’s contaminated conduct, Rangan as a stubborn ideologue did not allow him to play this time and says that, “according to me, he has lost the right to play when he picked up the knife”.
Dialogues and graffiti
It seems to me that the purpose of choosing the period, the 1970s of Emergency, is to relate it with the present period. Also, it is clearly filmed by Ranjith. The film adds another layer of politics through the graffiti on the walls and the ideologies of the characters like Rangan. These layers are essential to bringing out the story before the audience. This made the film greater than any other boxing movie, so far released in Tamil.
As usual, there is no famine for revolutionary dialogues and metaphoric pictures in this film of Ranjith too. The metaphoric rendering of the occupancy of caste hysteria within few Hindu intermediate caste persons could be spotted in few scenes, in which, Raman’s uncle continuously urges Raman to go ahead of Kabilan, by every possible cut across. The dialogue, “the history should say that the Munusamy’s Vagera (caste) has only elevated the Sarpatta Parambarai” and “Kabilan, who is a son of Muniratnam, should not even speak in front of us, equally” by Thaniga exposes his assertiveness to establish his caste dominance within the Sarpatta Parambarai troupe. Furthermore, while Kevin, called ‘Daddy’ reminds Kabilan of how brutally his father was killed due to Munusamy and his family’s conspiracy throws light on that how few intermediate caste archenemies were angered to see Kabilan’s father, as being from the oppressed community, got equal opportunity cum reputation in the boxing game.
And, Rangan’s usage of Tamil dialects such as Kaal Paatham (foot), neram (time), etc… just resembled the period’s tie with Tamil linguistic assertion and pride, which is not the case of the present.
The dialogue “Opportunity doesn’t come our way so easily. This is our chance. Make your enemy tremble in fear” in front of Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s poster has deciphered the preceding situation of the oppressed and how has it been changed now because of Babasaheb. “I am a sibling of DMK, will never be afraid of anyone” by Rangan, throws light on the policy determination and the tireless demonstration of the DMK comrade’s vehemence against repressive Union Government. “What is this, constant talk about clan and pride? Why do you associate clan with pride?” Mariamma symbolically interrogated the caste pride and its subjugation of women. “Since you like, I have bought beef Briyani from Perumalsamy shop” by Kabilan, elucidated the food culture of the Indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent and which has been so far politically hidden from the popular cultures. And Beedi Thatha’s motivational advice, “Victory is not about winning once. But, continuous fighting!” put focus on the significance of individual efforts.
I heard Kabilan’s dialogue in the climax, “Sarpatta Parambara da! (Dravidian Stock da!) Disciple of Rangan Teacher da! (Disciple of Periyar da!)” as his prestigious assertion of Self-Respect Movement and its ideology. Yes, this is the age of deserving Kabilan. No one could defeat Kabilan until he grows up as a student of Rangan. The success of Kabilan, who has qualified in Dravidian (egalitarianism) ideology, is destined and the foundation of the Dravidian movement could be seen as the golden era of the historically oppressed communities.
Author – Arthi Baskaran is a PhD Research Scholar, Department of History, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu. And her areas of interest are Caste, Cinema, Gender and Religion. Reach her at email@example.com
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