A speech by noted Tamil director Mari Selvaraj during the audio launch of his upcoming movie Maamannan criticising actor-politician Kamal Haasan's Thevar Magan for its overt caste glorification theme has stoked controversy.
Mari Selvaraj made his cinematic debut with the critically acclaimed Pariyerum Perumal (2018). His next movie Karnan (2021), was also a commercial success.
This is not the first time the movie Thevar Magan.has faced Mari Selvaraj's ire. In 2014, he wrote a scathing letter to Kamal Haasan on the same movie (Incidentally, in 2012, Swarajya critically analysed a slew of movies in Kollywood that fostered a trend of glorifying land-owning castes. Beginning in the early 1990s, such movies continued to be a rage for over two decades)
In his 2014 letter, Mari Selvaraj, who has now made himself part of the 'use-genuine-pain-to-promote-dynasty' brigade of Dravidianist establishment, highlighted the social effects created by such movies on the Dalit community, especially in South Tamil Nadu.
In the letter, Mari Selvaraja accuses 'Aryan Brahminical' Kamal Haasan of portraying himself as a progressive, perhaps the only progressive, but deep in him lives a caste supremacist. He then alleges that this innate traits of Kamal Hassan manifests in the movies like these.(Kamal Haasan is a self-proclaimed atheist, rationalist, and Periyarist,)
Mari Selvaraj also castigates Kamal Haasan for the movie Unnai Pol Oruvan (2009), a Tamil remake of Naseeruddin Shah starrer A Wednesday (2008).
In his letter that perhaps rightly criticises Kamal Haasan for his crypto-casteism, he calls the Islamist radicals involved in bomb blasts as' misguided individuals who fought for the social justice of the minority community, who avenged for the community.'
He also claims Kamal is inconsiderate and unaware of the impact Thevar Magan has caused in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu.
Cut to the present day, and the reverse trend of glorifying the retaliatory violence and a 'nuanced demonising' of non-Scheduled Caste communities has taken hold.
On the other hand, what should be considered genuine Hindu-ness in the movies has always sided with the marginalised sections of society against all traditionalist stagnation and the inhuman tyranny of feudalist rural structures.
Unfortunately, today, there is a tendency among a few of the so-called Hindutva intellectuals in Tamil Nadu to align themselves with movies that grotesquely depict and demonise inter-caste marriages. The problem here is the binary stereotypes that both sides indulge in.
Karnan, made by Mari Selvaraj, tampered with facts and sought to further a specific narrative. It has been elaborately analysed and shown in this Swarajya review.
One real tragedy is how the Hindutva movement has miserably failed to pursue a healthy, healing vision of social justice based on the 'Hinduness' of society. A film like Draupadi cannot be the answer.
As early as 1973, director KS Gopalakrishnan, who had made a name for himself directing many mythological movies, made the movie Nathaiyil Muthu (Pearl in the Snail).
It starred R Muthuraman as a foreign-returned Brahmin who, against the will of his parents, marries a Chelakannu (KR Vijaya), a member of the Scheduled Caste community.
The movie showed the Brahmin community's spiritual-cultural stagnation and genuine voices of Dharma supporting marriage. A specific dialogue pointed out the problem of Hindu society: 'When Christians unite with the name of Jesus and when Muslims come together when called in the name of Allah, why are we Hindus alone so pathetically divided in the name of caste?'
Interestingly, one of the most humanistic characters in the movie is a widowed Brahmin lady who condemns and satirically criticises every hypocrisy she sees made in the name of religion. At the same time, the movie also showed the physical violence, exploitation and abuse heaped on Scheduled Communities by the land-owning castes.
In 1973, that was the first Tamil movie to celebrate Dr Ambedkar in the song: 'The man who made Indian Constitution Dr. Ambedkar belongs to our society. We should know he was the treasure chest of wisdom,' — the song celebrates. The movie can be criticised today for its melodramatic setting of scenes and other faults. But none can deny the sincerity and the revolutionary way in which the movie raised some fundamental questions.
Unfortunately, this approach to movies never evolved. Meanwhile, even as KS Gopalakrishnan moved into mythological movies, he went on stressing the removal of caste-based pride and upliftment of the downtrodden.
The inability of Hindu movie-makers to pursue this line and evolve this genre is the reason why Kollywood today, on either side, is totally in the hands of agenda-based movie makers.
The real Hindutva-'Brahminical' film—in the highest sense of the term—was Nathaiyil Muthu.
Mari Selvaraj may today find this aspect of his film industry disturbing but at least other Hindu movie-makers should start thinking on evolving this genre and adapting it to present contexts.
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