When the Rajnikanth-headlined and Pa Ranjith-directed Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018) arrived, the reactions in the mainstream media and social media platforms were rather interesting and varied. But one line of response stood out, and that was whether it is morally right for Rajnikanth, a privileged super star with political ambitions, playing victimised Dalit characters.
Most reviews, especially for Kaala, were unambiguous. They said that the films were made for Rajnikanth the star with political ambitions, and it was sad that he had to ventriloquy himself in Dalit characters.
At least Rajnikanth had seen penury in his early years as a bus conductor in Bengaluru. But Udhayanidhi Stalin, the son of the Chief Minister and the grandson of a former Chief Minister, could possibly never have come close to privation and hardship.
When such a person --- perhaps the most privileged among the privileged --- was chosen to essay the lead in Mari Selvaraj's Maamannan, one expected the chorus of protest in righteous indignation to hit the roof. After all, in these politically correct times, it is a monumental travesty to appropriate other's voices, especially that of the Dalit community.
But this film about the tribulations of a Dalit leader and his son in the face of entrenched casteist politicians did not evoke any dissension over the fact that the role (of Dalit) was played by an entrenched politician from the most powerful family in the State.
At least with Kabali and Kaala, Ranjith openly stated that he needed the power and stature of Rajnikanth as a performer to carry across the message of Dalits that was largely unheard on Tamil screens hitherto. Maari Selvaraj's previous movie Karnan had Dhanush in the lead, and you understood that the eponymous hero role needed an actor of his calibre to deliver those power-packed lines and emotions.
But when you saw Maamannan, which released in theatres last week, it became evident that even this kind of excuse is untenable. For, Udhayanidhi's performance was the weakest link in the film, which is dominated by the stellar show of Fahadh Faasil and Vadivelu.
Udhayanidhi needed Maamannan and not the other way round
Make no mistake about it, Maamannan did not need Udhayanidhi. But Udhayanidhi needed it, and that is perhaps why he bankrolled it.
Interestingly, another recent film (it released in May) Kazhuvethi Moorkkan, starring another of Karunanidhi's grandson Arulnithi (son of Tamilarasu who is the brother of Stalin), has him playing the knight in armour to rescue people from the Dalit community.
The two films arriving almost together may be a coincidence, but it also points to the pattern within the Dravidian ecosystem --- which also includes some of Udhayanidhi and Arulnithi cinema --- to insidiously usurp the Dalit voices. It is all done to create an image that 'Dravideology' stands for the empowerment of the Dalits.
But scholars of Dalit community issues have historically opined that the Dravidian ecosystem has not much space for them and was essentially a movement of the powerful and land-owning, non-Brahmin forces in Tamil Nadu. And the Dravidian totem EV Ramaswamy wasn't the Dalit ally that he is being projected as now.
"It is necessary to understand that Periyar’s movement was not started for the uplift of the untouchables. When non-brahmin leaders in the Congress party ventured to create an association in Madras challenging the Justice Party in 1917, Periyar supported the move by sending a telegraphic money order for Rs 1000. In turn he was selected as a vice-president of the association."
"Periyar never did anything for the untouchables with as much commitment as he worked to promote khadi in every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu or to cut 500 coconut trees from his land as part of the agitation against toddy drinking. When he spoke about the problems of untouchables, he equated those with problems faced by non-brahmins."
"Periyar led many agitations demanding equality of opportunity. But it was only for those castes described as non-brahmins and not for the untouchables. Even when he talked about reservation on 25 April 1940, he classified government employees in two categories – brahmin and non-brahmins."
"Periyar cheated them (Dalits) easily. Periyar appropriated the sphere of protest set up by Pandit Iyothee Thass and Rettamalai Srinivasan without even acknowledging them. Had Ambedkar been born in Tamil Nadu, he would have been completely blocked out by these non-brahmin leaders."
Powerful words against EVR and the Dravidian movement.
Guess whose lines are these?
Well, they belong to the of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK).
That he had to win the seat on the DMK symbol and later tell the court that he belongs to the DMK reflects the state of Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu. It has to be subservient to the DMK dominance.
DMK’s insidious ways
But it is not just Ravikumar. Even the VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan had at the start of this century made plenty of averments against EVR and the Dravidian movement. But the likes of him have been made to shill for the Dravidian ideology by the DMK which has co-opted them and others like them into their folds.
Directors Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj too were no exceptions. They started out making some disparaging comments on the Dravidian system in their early years. But now, at least in public, they are walking hand in hand with the Dravidian leaders.
The DMK has over time kind of honed a technique to silence or co-opt all those inimical to its ecosystem. There are many means, a film like Maamannan is one.
The Dalit writer Anoop Kumar once said: "You want to represent Ambedkar without bearing — or having borne — the burden of being Dalit in a society that oppresses Dalits. How could you?"
But now the narrative is set that Udhayanidhi backed a Dalit director to make a powerful movie against caste politics. The line of 'appropriating Dalit voices and not adhering to political correctness' is only reserved for the likes of Rajnikanth.
No wonder the liberal voices have come to be seen as a joke.
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