But the truth is that Tamil cinema has merely learnt to craft politics in a different fashion. How such politics is perceived and received has depended on the location of the audience in the caste-class, rural-urban axes.
Watching Kaadhal (Love) early this year in Chennai, a low-budget story of teenage love that surprised the box office, I initially viewed it as the same old story of heterosexual love told in a refreshingly different manner. Its recreation of Madurai's small-town ambience and steering clear of stereotypical approach to conflict and conflict-resolution seemed appealing. But a more sociologically nuanced reading underlined a danger.
An aspiring filmmaker friend who watched Kaadhal in a Madurai cinema talked of how Thevars--the dominant 'backward caste' of the southern districts--in the hall shouted aloud: 'Fuckers, this will be your fate if you think you can get our girl.' Dalits watching the movie in the southern districts were intimidated both by the depiction of the hero and by the participative enthusiasm of the Thevars among the audience.
Kaadhal does not explicitly state the caste background of either the boy (Murugan, a two-wheeler mechanic) or the girl (Iswarya, a class X student). However, it is made amply clear that director Balaji Sakthivel, a Thevar, is 'authentically' portraying a Thevar subculture in representing Iswarya and her family. All we know of Murugan is that he lives in a dirty slum--the door of his house painted an Ambedkarite blue--with his mother.
When Iswarya elopes with Murugan to Chennai, the director creates clever plot devices to ensure that the couple is not shown sleeping together in the three nights they spend in Chennai. The couple spends the first night in the city by watching a late show of a film and riding a bus all night for want of a place to rest. Sex is not possible. The next day, Iswarya has her period and Murugan buys her sanitary pads. The impossibility of sex is reinforced. The third day they get married, but Iswarya's relatives separate them and almost beat the life out of Murugan. No sex again.
The director conveys to the audience that the Thevar girl's virginity is intact. Interestingly, such a portrayal comes at a time when Selvaraghavan's blockbusters--Thulluvado Ilamai (The Spring of Youth) and 7G Rainbow Colony--have shown the adolescent female lead sleeping with the hero but not being keen on marriage.
Sakthivel also gives us ample scope to decipher Murugan's caste status. To a question from Iswarya's uncle about what caste he belongs to, Murugan merely says: 'The caste of humanity.' When the uncle claims to belong to the caste of lions and insists on knowing Murugan's caste, the latter is silent. Later, when being mauled by the ostensibly Thevar relatives of Iswarya, he is called a 'low-caste dog'. As the film ends, Iswarya, now an unhappily wedded mother pillion-riding her same-caste husband, spots Murugan as a mad man at a traffic signal. This is where some young Thevars in the audience shout in Madurai's cinemas: 'Keep off our women. '
In a decade that witnessed the entrenchment of the fair-skinned north-Indian heroine (Khushboo, Naghma, Simran, Jyotika) as the ideal accouterment for the dark Dravidian hero, Kaadhal pitted a dark Tamil woman (Sandhya) against a believable, vulnerable man (Bharath). But caste overrode their Tamilness.
Kaadhal and its success offer several pointers to how Tamil cinema has renegotiated its relationship with politics. In the early 1990s, a spate of films sported caste names such as Chinna Gounder, Thevar Magan, Thevar Veettu Ponnu and Kunguma Pottu Gounder, and several protagonists played traditional panchayat chiefs strutting their caste identities in a rural-feudal setting. These films glorified caste and became vehicles of assertion of pride of the middle castes. Cinema at this juncture reflected the developments in the political and social realms.
While the southern districts witnessed bloody clashes between dalits and Hindus, castes such as Thevars, Vanniars, Naickers and Nadars were asserting themselves in the public sphere. Cinema cashed in. The song Potri padadi penne/ Thevar-kaladi manne (Praise the land touched by Thevar's feet) in Thevar Magan, which eulogised Thevars, triggered caste clashes even in college hostels.
While in the heydays of Dravidian ideology--from Annadurai to MGR--cinema was used as a tool of politics, in the 1990s politics became a tool for cinema. The 2001 assembly election saw the emergence of several parties affiliated to specific castes and the DMK trucking with them. After the DMK alliance was routed, these caste-based parties wound up. The strident use of caste names in film titles and for protagonists also waned. However, caste identity has come to be stated through cultural markers, dialect, food and location.
In the last five years, marginal castes hitherto invisible in Tamil cinema, such as Vanniyars, have found a space via filmmakers like Thangar Bachan (Azhagi, Solla Maranda Kathai and Thendral). Their rise coincides with the coming of age of the Vanniyar-based Pattaali Makkal Katchi led by S. Ramadoss. Like Kaadhal, Bachan's films do not spell out but imply the caste ethos.
Parallel to such 'regional', caste-oriented aspirations, Mani Rathnam emerged as someone who took on 'national' issues. While the Dravidian cinema scripted by DMK stalwarts like C.N. Annadurai (Velakkari 1949) and M. Karunanidhi (Parasakthi 1952) had engaged with local issues of non-Brahmin assertion, language, and self-respect, a tradition that continued up to MGR's oeuvre, Mani Rathnam, after initially dabbling in dramas and love stories, sought to herald the arrival of the Tamil as a national citizen. This coincided with the emergence of the DMK and AIADMK as national players in alliance governments.
Roja (1992) with its anti-Muslim bias was attuned to Hindutva-style cultural nationalism in the year of the Babri Masjid demolition. After making Bombay (1994), he even agreed to cuts demanded by Balasaheb Thackeray. The film offered a romantic recipe for communal harmony and endorsed Thackeray's view of the Muslim victim as accused. Rathnam's films, running only in 'A' centres in Tamil Nadu, had style and technical wizardry but were backed by little substance. His apparently deracinated urban protagonists speak in murmurs in dim, back-lit rooms. In Kannathil Muthammittal, flooded by picture-postcard images, he gives the short shrift to both the Eelam and adoption issues. Around the same time, Bala, a fresh directorial voice, made Nanda which captured the same Rameswaram with an imagination that eluded Kannathil.
The contrast is most telling between Sakthivel's Kaadhal and Rathnam's Alaypayudhe (remade as Saathiya in Hindi).While Kaadhal captures the real struggles that a couple faces in a city, Alaypayudhe's couple moves into an unfinished building decked with Fab India furnishings. Rathnam may be slick but offers no progressive relief: his heroines bear the brunt of burdensome elements of tradition. Till marriage they are child-like, sing, dance and frolic. After marriage and loss of innocence, they become obsessed with their thali (mangalsutra).
The past decade also spelled the death of a few genres that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s: the rural-background film (of Bharathiraja, S.P. Muthuraman, Kasthuri Raja), the social melodrama (of Visu, V. Sekhar), and the relationships dramas of K. Balachander. The emergence of Sun TV as the most powerful medium in Tamil society since 1995 led to television weaning away most of the women audience from cinema halls.
Every day from 7.30 p.m. to 10.00 p.m. various kinds of soaps keep most Tamil households hooked. Filmmakers like Balachander have in fact switched to directing and producing serials. Cinema thus came to be burdened with the task of attracting a predominantly young, male audience not drawn to TV serials. It was around this time that caste appeal came to be made via cinema to one segment, and depoliticised entertainment was lapped up by others.
The high point of such entertainment has been the masala formula mastered by Vijay, the highest paid Tamil actor who has churned out at least three hits annually in the last five years. Distributors call him 'collection king'. With minimal acting abilities, Vijay, shorn of any caste affiliation, does the same fight-love-dance-comedy routine in film after film and ensures that he is watched. This kind of cinema passes for a celebration of 'youthfulness', but in fact represents the political apathy of the younger generation.
The Vijay formula films also indicate that following successive Dravidian party regimes and the prospering of the upper strata of non-Brahmins, the Tamils can forget about waging political struggles and simply sit back and enjoy. The angst of Gunasekaran-Sivaji Ganesan's character-in the DMK vehicle Parasakthi has no place today. The angry, rebellious, anti-establishment voices of the seventies and early eighties have become the establishment. The youth, contained and contented despite high unemployment levels, seem to meekly accept Vijay's message of 'enjoy life'.
Tamil cinema remains an embarrassment confined to Tamil Nadu.