The 1992 Tamil film, one of Kamal Haasan's creative masterpieces, Thevar Magan is making headlines in 2023.
The director Mari Selvaraj, at the audio launch of his forthcoming movie Maamannan, alluded to the casteist overtones in Thevar Magan and how it affected him.
Mari Selvaraj, a Dalit, who grew up in southern Tamil Nadu, where Dalits being at the receiving end of Thevar attacks is not uncommon, has good reason to feel aggressive against Thevar Magan, a movie that is argued to have glorified the titular caste.
But this line of criticism of the film is not exactly new. It is being made since the start of the 2000s. So, it is possible to argue that this old issue is being brought to the front-burner as a typical marketing ploy for the up and coming movie.
For, everything seems too pat and convenient. Simultaneously, Mari Selvaraj's old letter that he had penned against Thevar Magan has (re)surfaced on social media platforms.
In that letter, he accuses the Bharathan-helmed film of being casteist. He charges Kamal as being a Brahmanical elitist, who is unaware of the impact his film made on the ground level. He also termed the humanity of Kamal as superficial and fake.
Of course, Mari Selvaraj has tried to hose down the raging controversy by saying that the letter was written based on his own reading of the film at that time.
Be that as it may, the occasion offers us a chance to look at Thevar Magan, its creative choices, Kamal's approach to caste in his movies, and the element of curious fascination in him for the Thevar community in general.
Kamal has openly admitted that the song Potri Paadadi Penne — which is the one that has emerged as an anthem of sorts for some sections of the Thevar community and used to reinforce their assumed superiority (over the Scheduled Castes and others) — seen in retrospect may be a mistake. He has apologised for it even when saying that there was nothing sinister in its motive.
The Story Behind Periya Thevar
But despite the sustained opprobrium over the film's narrative from the caste perspective, Kamal has not been too defensive, nor has expressed regret for it.
Kamal, it would seem, is on a strong wicket on this as the film's creative choices feel totally organic and artistic without any hidden agenda.
The film, despite the escalating criticism against it over the years, remains a milestone in Tamil cinema. It is decidedly the gold standard in getting all aspects of filmmaking optimally right. It's a movie that has multiple layers and allows for impressive reading from whichever level one accesses it.
The artistic cinephile and the lay viewer can be happy with it — albeit for extremely different reasons.
But the thing is that the Thevar angle may seem overplayed because of extraneous reasons. The presence of Sivaji Ganesan in the cast and the fact that Kamal wanted to pay a true tribute to the thespian may be inner (subconscious) causes for the film's trajectory and even the character being vauntingly called Periya Thevar.
It may be of interest to know here that before Nayakan happened, Kamal was to do a film for the producer Muktha Srinivasan with Sivaji Ganesan, and that was to be a reprise of The Godfather. But the film didn't get going apparently because (this is the producer's version) Kamal felt that the film would have Sivaji in a more prominent role.
There is no way of knowing whether Kamal actually felt so or not, but it is a fact that this story gained currency in Kollywood and Sivaji was less than pleased.
Kamal, whose love and affection for Sivaji is studiously sincere, always wanted to make up for this minor blip. So when Thevar Magan was conceived, he did not hide his respect for the great actor. He, as a matter of fact, let it all show — in every frame that the duo appeared together, Sivaji was at the centre and Kamal was conspicuous in showing undiluted reverence to him.
Sivaji being presented as a larger-than-life munificent Thevar community man may also have been a genuine hat-tip for his penchant to play such roles. Sivaji, who belonged to the Thevar community in real life, has donned quite a few roles in which he openly says with pride 'naan Thevanda' (I am a Thevar).
It can be no coincidence that the two films that Sivaji did with the adult Kamal prior to Thevar Magan — Satyam (1976) and Naam Pirnadha Mann (1977) — have him playing a Thevar community man in both.
In Satyam, his character is named Dharmalinga Thevar — there is a specific dialogue which refers to his caste and his sense of justice. And in Naam Pirandha Mann, he is Santhana Thevar. Again, as it happens, in both, his characters happen to be that of a do-gooder to the village.
In Satyam, Kamal plays his younger brother, and in Naam Pirandha Mann, he is the son. But in both, the Kamal character has differences of opinion with the elder Thevar and has a serious fallout.
So, Kamal was perhaps paying an inside tribute to this equation in Thevar Magan. But here, despite the disagreements with the father, Kamal's Sakthivel never stops being the loyal son.
Kamal And The Castes In His Movies
Talking of Sakthivel, it is a good cue to bring in Kamal's own fascination for caste — purely as a creative tool, we should hasten to add — to make his screen characters seem more realistic and relatable.
Aside from Sakthivel Thevar, Kamal's two other on-screen popular Sakthivels have been a Gounder and Naicker. Sakthivel Naicker (Velu Naicker) in Nayagan (1987) and Sakthivel Gounder in Sathi Leelavathi (1995).
While in Nayagan, the Naicker monicker was largely irrelevant to the narrative, in Sathi Leelavathi, him being a Gounder is the take off point to the film's principal attraction — Kamal and Kovai Sarala's hilarious exchanges in chaste Coimbatore dialect.
Even in Pammal K Sambandam, Kamal the supreme cinematic creator uses the fact that his character is from a Mudaliar family to get the incident details in the plot and its setting to ring remarkably true.
It can be said that it is around the Nayagan phase, when Kamal's cinematically inventive period started zooming, he began to focus on the character's caste because it will realistically inform upon the language it spoke, and choices it makes.
In 1987 itself, even in a trite AVM potboiler Per Sollum Pillai, Kamal as Ramu speaks a language that is an enjoyable mix of Madurai and Virudhunagar belt slang that is native to a Nadar family (in the film, it is not explicitly spelt out as Nadar, but a matchbox and cracker factory owner family is usually from that community).
Kamal's character names and their caste may not be randomly thought up, but tend to be germane to the larger story and the path it takes. This is the hallmark of a good cine artist. But it also seems that Kamal has a special fascination for the Thevar community — possibly because he grew up quite early in Paramakudi where the community has a good presence.
In the 1988 film Soora Samhaaram, in which he played the tough-as-nails cop, who values relationships such as sister, brother-in-law and is ready to take revenge for their death, his character has a name that suggests he is a Thevar: Athiveerapandian.
In his National-award winning roles in Indian (1996), his two characters have names that the Thevars are very partial to: Senapathy and Chandrabose. Incidentally, the story of the aforementioned Naam Pirandha Mann is the inspiration behind Indian.
Kamal's Politics Seems Insincere
In a sense, this creative affinity kind of boiled over when Kamal got down to make Virumandi — a film that is suffused with Thevar ethos.
Before Kamal was forced to name it Virumandi, as everyone knows, it was christened Sandiyar. The protests orchestrated by Dr S Krishnaswamy of Puthiya Thamizhagam, and a Jayalalithaa government that was impervious to the actor's predicament, ensured that Kamal had to bow down to their wishes.
But it is equally a fact that the name Sandiyar was indeed provocative in the caste scheme of things as it existed then (2003). Sandiyar, loosely meaning rogue, is typically used in reference to rowdyish elements from Thevar community down South.
There was indeed a ground for Krishnaswamy's misgivings, as the title gave room to a feeling that Sandiyars were being valorised and celebrated.
But the actor, with better access to media and its megaphones, managed to create the impression that he was sinned against. But Krishnaswamy's accusations then were no different to what Mari Selvaraj is making now.
These are exact words that Krishnaswamy used in an interview to the journalist Shobha Warrier in 2003: "From 1990 onwards, it has become a habit of many filmmakers to use a particular caste as the title of their film. For example, films like Chinna Gowndar, Thevar Magan. A song in Thevar Magan goes like this: 'Thevar Kaladi Manne, Potri Paadadi Penne...' He is asking the girl to apply [to her forehead] the soil [from] under the feet of a Thevar! What is this? Does this mean the soil under a thevar's feet is so sacred? This song was used by the dominant community to subjugate the dalits."
Despite such pointed charges, Virumandi arrived with its creative choices because it was driven by the creator’s hubris. It remains an excellent film. Yet, the politics around it is hard to escape or ignore.
Virumandi deserved stronger censure. But much of the criticism leveled retrospectively on Thevar Magan is misplaced. Perhaps this is poetic justice, an abstract happening that creative minds like Kamal are wont to explore.
Kamal acknowledges Mari Selvaraj's words. But in 2003, he mocked and jeered Krishnaswamy when he expressed similar sentiments. In that sense, Kamal's politics would seem hollow and insincere. But so is Tamil Nadu's politics. Mari Selvaraj is being applauded now but Krishnaswamy was given an unholy short shrift then.
If Krishnaswamy's lament had been heeded, Mari Selvaraj may not have needed to write a letter to Kamal a decade later. Of course, that would also mean that Maamannan had one less controversy to stay in the news.
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