Arts and culture

Contemporary Re imaginations on Periyar: Kaadhal Screened to “Recast(e)” Love in the Land of Periyar


17 September 2016| Kaadhal  (love), the 2004 Tamil blockbuster directed by Balaji Sakthivel was screened at SAA auditorium to commemorate the 137th birthday of the social reformer, pioneer and intellectual Periyar E. V. Ramasamy (1879-1973). The event named “Recast(e)ing  Love in the Land of Periyar” began at 2:30 pm with an enlightened talk and Q/A session with Dr Rajan Krishnan, Dean of School of Culture and Creative Expression at Ambedkar University, which was followed by the screening of the film. Taking his cue from the event title Dr Krishnan threw light on Periyar’s prismatic life and thoughts reflected in the film, and in a larger context in Tamil history, society, culture and politics.

The significant contributions made by Periyar in challenging caste and orthodoxy as well as his radical ideas for women empowerment inspired social reform movements such as dropping of one’s surname, indicative of an individual’s caste. He is however more prominently known for the self-respect movement. Inter-caste marriages promoted by him, were not only a means to challenge the orthodox hierarchy and parochialism of the Hindu Brahminical caste system, but were also significant in promoting gender equality and, recognizing and establishing the agency of the individual in such matters over that of the family or community.

Dr Krishnan who is known for his work on Tamil cinema and Dravidian politics began, “…if one is to connect these two dots [Periyar and the film Kaadhal], one will have to connect it by drawing a line which is the line of history of Tamil land…the history of the Tamils.” Confessing his scepticism for institutional history, he remarked that in spite of his varied contributions for social reform, Periyar remains confined to Tamil history and is hardly recognized as a part of the national history.

Further commenting on the negligence of regional cultures, problems and issues in the national discourse; he emphasized that one cannot speak of the nation until and unless one takes into consideration the diversity of thoughts, culture and expression. In light of which the oblivious manner in which Tamil history and its people have been treated by the centre is particularly jarring. The onus is thus on the non-Tamil, to bridge the gap. He said, “…they [non-Tamil] should learn to read Tamil and learn to read Periyar to mobilize him in history, the responsibility or obligation or burden of history is not on us…the burden is on others to learn the language and learn the man.”

Moving on to a critical appraisal of the achievements and failures of the self-respect movement and the Dravidan movement, he opined that these movements failed to make a dent in the domination of the Brahmincal thought in the society. The self-respect movement could not provide for the emancipation of Dalits from other powerful landowning castes. A number of factors were responsible for it; one of them being the nature of electoral democracy which installs the majority in power against the minority and marginal. Periyar who was a supporter of Republican system of government had earlier pointed out many shortcomings of electoral democracy.

Speaking on the chief connect between the film and Periyarism; he said caste cannot substantialize itself—“it is just a fiction…and that is where the ferocity of endogamy comes up.” The violence against inter-caste marriage can be seen as “a death cry of the caste system… in its last throes,” he said. The film that centred around a young couple with caste and class differences, who elope to get married but end up getting separated with the boy meeting a tragic end, poignantly captures the complexities of not just the Tamil society but also resonates with other regions of the country witnessing growing instances of honour killing on account of inter-caste or inter-religion or inter-class marriages.

He also brought to attention the turn in Tamil cinema in the last two decades. Taking the audience through the history of Tamil cinema and its problematic relation with the practice of caste; he explained that even though there was a complete formal erasure of the caste in the early cinema, one can still notice the eruption of the materiality in discrete ways. There the hero would emerge as a transcendental hero bringing justice to society, a narrative which was completely overturned in later films like Kaadhal. Kaadhal, he comments signifies the death of the transcendental hero and the inception of the material reality of the caste on the screen.

The event was organized by an independent group of students from Tamil Nadu to initiate a conversation across linguistic, regional, cultural and ethnic barriers between the state and the rest of the country. Indhubala from CSSS (Sociology), who was one of the organizers when approached, explained “We thought this is the day we should tell them, this is what Periyar stood for, when you say Phule, Khasi Ram, Ambedkar there is an identification of their politics, whereas Periyar becomes a name for representation from south…there was Ambedkar who focussed on women and women’s issues, there was Periyar who addressed the same issue in a more radical way— women should not bear children that is where whole oppression starts, let us burn the whole humanity for the sake of women, such radical thinking emerged from that….”

The screening witnessed a full house.  Post screening discussion saw some more questions being raised on gender relations, caste hybridity, the oeuvre of the director and Tamil cinema in general.

The Informer correspondent.