On the internet, especially on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter), people are still putting out impassioned threads on Mani Ratnam's Roja, released more than 30 years ago in 1991, being Islamophobic.
People are aghast that Ratnam chose to show Kashmiri terrorists as Muslims when the right thing to do was to show them as — we don't know — Jews?!
We are being sarcastic here, but only just.
Folks seem to be upset with the director for showing a mirror to society. But these same persons might, perhaps, brand you a communalist if you say, for example, that the depiction of the villain character (a sexual predator) in the new Tamil film Chiththa as one wearing Hindu religious robes and sporting vermilion and vibhuti on his forehead is needless or Hinduphobic.
No one has protested on these lines. For, what the director of the film, S U Arun Kumar, has attempted is to show a character full of moral turpitude, who in this case happens to be visibly Hindu.
Of course, it is the director's prerogative. Freedom of expression is guaranteed to all in the country by the Constitution. And even if you feel a little troubled by this overt bathing in Hindu motifs of a rank paedophile, you understand that not everything should be taken umbrage at.
But the liberal brigade will cavil at Ratnam for Roja, even if the reality of the time was that Kashmiri terrorists were indeed Muslims.
When it involves wokes and self-anointed custodians, morality or freedom of expression, or even facts on the ground, can go take a walk.
And that is why a director like Jeo Baby, when he has to be censured for harbouring open anti-Hindu sentiments, gets a free pass under the convenient ambit of freedom of expression.
It is not our case, or anybody else's, that Baby's films should be banned or proscribed. That would be a travesty, and monumentally wrong. But allow us to call him out for the insidious communalism in his films.
Take his latest film Kaathal — The Core, starring Mammootty and Jyothika. It is indeed a sensitive and serious take on a homosexual person who happens to be trapped in a heterosexual marriage.
Mammootty is cast as Mathew Devassy and Jyothika as Omana Mathew, his wife who files for divorce from her gay husband.
The film is widely appreciated — rightly so, if we may add — for handling a taboo subject with care and concern. There is no needless sensationalism nor moral pontification or segues into other issues in society.
Kaathal is also seen as a 'companion piece' to the director's famous The Great Indian Kitchen (2021).
But let us see how the director handled that earlier film, which was about patriarchy and women's emancipation. Noble intentions, right? Yes, but see how it is presented to you.
Right off the bat, the film is peopled with characters that are Hindu in their practice. Not even one character is shown to be from any other religion. Incidentally, none of the characters in the film is given a name. But the director leaves you with no doubt about their religious sentiments.
Baby is a film director with seven movies (as director) under his belt. Of those films, this writer has seen six — each of them has at least one character, if not more, from religious denominations other than Hindu.
But when it is against oppressive male dominance and toxic patriarchy, it has to be plated exclusively in Hindu colours.
(It should be pointed out that most Malayalam movies in recent times, reflecting Kerala's rapidly changing demographic reality, have characters with Christian-sounding names. Why The Great Indian Kitchen alone bucked the trend is a question that begs an honest answer).
And it doesn't stop there. The Great Indian Kitchen takes uncalled-for, overarching detours into the Sabarimala issue without any nuance.
You can offer a feminist take on the Sabarimala temple issue, but it has to be done with sensitivity, as the matter is delicate. But Baby, who otherwise is a soft director, rams the idea with a sledgehammer into the film.
Stranglehold of Dravidian Ideology
It is a trait that Baby has shown in his other film, Kilometers and Kilometers (2020), where some Hindu ideas are casually made fun of. But you can let it pass, understanding the film’s spirit, and, in any case, it doesn't attempt to make any bigger sociological point.
Contrast this approach with how Baby approaches Kaathal, where the main protagonists are Christian. The gloves are soft, and the focus is admirably softer. This would not have been problematic if he had taken the same velvety way in The Great Indian Kitchen.
Of course, Kaathal and The Great Indian Kitchen are two different films, and not every film has to be approached the same way. But when Hindu characters get projected in unflattering ways, while non-Hindu roles are depicted in agreeable or understanding tones, you wonder whether it is intentional and coming from an agenda.
In the neighbouring Tamil Nadu, for instance, filmmakers are openly operating with the Dravidian agenda. The ecosystem is dominated and even strongly controlled by Dravidians.
That is why in a film like Soorarai Potru, a story about G R Gopinath of the now-defunct Deccan Airlines, they present Gopinath as a follower of E V Ramaswamy, even though in reality Gopinath was an Iyengar by birth.
Such a portrayal is a twisting of facts to suit vested interests. It dubiously passes muster under the guise of freedom of expression. Actor Suriya, who played the role of Gopinath, is presented as a paragon of wokeism.
Baby or Suriya, even if they are openly communal or casteist, will never be called out as the narrative is owned by liberals who have no qualms in being fascists, but are content to project that label on to others.
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