In less than a decade, film-maker Pa. Ranjith has almost single-handedly kick-started a discussion about caste discrimination and caste privilege not just in caste-conscious Tamil cinema but also in caste-conscious Tamil society.
Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Ranjith stressed the need for urgency in social reform and the importance of safeguarding secularism at a time when the Sangh Parivar seems to be setting the political agenda.
Mr. Ranjith said his work, be it the movies or the organisation Neelam Panpattu Mayyam (Neelam Cultural Centre), would continue to focus on pushing for social and cultural change.
“Social reform is my intention. Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhi debate about what is needed: political reform or social reform. I believe that there can be no true political reform without social reform. But, what is the status of social reform now? People continue to say, ‘it will happen, it is happening’… but has there been a major change? We are working towards creating major social and cultural change,” he explained.
Elaborating on the need for creating a counter-culture for Dalit communities, Mr. Ranjith said, “What is the culture here? Is there recognition for music by the Dalits? We are at a juncture where it is important to instil confidence and self-belief to the people.” The scheduled castes were often being referred to as ‘oppressed’, ‘disenfranchised’, ‘broken’ etc. for far too long by all kinds of politicians including by those who called themselves ‘liberal and progressive’, he asserted. “And in the process… instead of enabling their collective rise in society… merely slot them as victims alone.”
In all of his films, he has reflected his political ideas in the narrative. If it was the impact of grass root party politics in ‘Madras’, he had taken on the BJP-Sangh Parivar mode of politics in his last film ‘Kaala’ in which three political philosophies — Periyarism, Ambedkarism and Marxism — come together cinematically to triumph over the Sangh Parivar’s brand of politics.
Mr. Ranjith agrees that while it is important to join forces against the Sangh Parivar and the BJP, it is also equally important to critique policies of ‘liberal and progressive’ political parties that articulate the kind of politics he supports.
“BJP is a casteist and a religious party. They will encourage it. But, we expect the so-called progressive parties to do the right thing. We want the Congress party and its allies to come to power and BJP to be defeated. But, why are the progressives that we trust confining Dalits to reserved constituencies, not fielding women and Muslim candidates? Dravidian parties routinely field candidates based on their caste. When will we change this system?”
As a young film-maker trying to make films with a Dalit perspective, Mr. Ranjith said he had found the going tough initially.
“When I made ‘Attakathi’, someone told me that Madurai audience apparently will not like it because I am showing Dr. Ambedkar’s photo,” he said. “When I made ‘Madras’, producers and actor Karthi had a lot of faith in me. In ‘Pariyerum Perumal’, there is a scene in which the character says he wants to become like Dr. Ambedkar. Director Mari Selvaraj had faced the same issues when he was pitching the film to producers — couple of them didn’t like it because they thought it will affect the film’s box office. They weren’t casteists at all. So, I decided to produce the film. I had to create a model to show that the audience will watch the film if the film is interesting.”
He also criticised the ‘liberal progressives’ for continuously thwarting the push for radical change by Dalits throughout history. “Middle class, liberal progressives often thwart the radical nature of demands of Dalit community at every stage. They just want to indefinitely postpone it as it will affect the mainstream. Dalits have to be careful with this kind of progressive politics.”
He added, “When a leader indulges in a religious or caste polarisation, progressive forces oppose it [the leader or a party]. But, when the same leader takes the right position in a common issue, such as Cauvery issue, the progressives accept it. Everything is forgotten then. This approach will not lead to any social change.”
Urging people to vote against Sangh Parivar forces, Mr. Ranjith said, “BJP and Sangh Parivar is creating more divisions within the society and separating the population into communities. The people in the society are religious. We do not live in a secular, progressive society. Religious groups will use that to turn people against each other. If they come back to power, they will create more problems in the society.”