Rajinikanth reading a book. For fans used to seeing their superhero blaze on screen, with some dizzying special effects thrown in, that is a rather tame scene to introduce Kabali. In the much-awaited movie, which releases on Friday, July 22, the camera pans through the grills of a prison cell before finally settling on Kabali, the character Rajinikanth plays in the movie, as he reads ‘My Father Baliah’, a memoir by Dalit thinker Y B Satyanarayana on Dalit lives in pre- and post-independent India and their yearning for education. Fans of director Pa Ranjith say they are not surprised — that it’s a “signature Ranjith shot”.
With his 2014 movie Madras, Pa Ranjith, the director of Kabali, had triggered a debate on using cinema as a medium to tackle the representation of Dalits in Tamil cinema.
The young production crew of Kabali is predominantly Dalit — from director Pa Ranjith to cinematographer G Murali, from art and costume director Tha Ramalingam to lyricists Uma Devi, Arun Raja Kamaraj and M Balamurugan. While some of them refuse to be tagged to their caste, saying cinema is an art that recognises skill over any kind of identity, others acknowledge that their past struggles shaped them.
After Madras, which was admired for its realistic portrayal of Dalit lives in North Chennai, Ranjith had asserted in multiple interviews that he doesn’t believe in talking about his caste but in the annihilation of caste itself.
While it is a long-standing Dalit grouse that the state’s Dravidian politics and anti-Brahmin movements have been largely indifferent to Dalits, experts say they have always been the backbone of Tamil films.
Citing the example of musician Ilayaraja, P Ramajayam, a political analyst, says, “While Dalits had the ability and talent that made several projects successful, many of them remained invisible because they didn’t have financial muscle or godfathers in the industry. The industry always ran on the capital of Chettiars or Gounders or Marwadis and rarely had any Dalit entrepreneurs. But with movies such as Madras, there has been a change.”
In Madras, Ranjith had boldly tackled caste, probably the first such attempt in mainstream Tamil cinema, with its portrayal of characters who read Dalit literature and with blue-coloured props displaying B R Ambedkar’s writings.
G Murali, 40, cinematographer of Kabali who worked in Madras, says Ranjith is a director “who reflects the voice of marginalised sections”. Despite being a Rajinikanth movie, Murali says, Kabali has that “Ranjith signature”.
In Kabali, Rajinikanth’s character speaks up for ‘oppressed Tamils’ in Malaysia. “The lives of Malaysian Tamils are part of our history. Ranjith’s movie throws some light on that,” says Murali, who says he doesn’t want to be tagged to any caste. “Caste has mostly been used to segregate. Artistes have no caste. We can overcome caste, so I don’t believe in any such distorted portrayal of identity,” says Murali, who hails from a middle-class Dalit family in Uthangarai in Krishnagiri district of the state. A fine arts graduate who studied cinematography at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Murali’s parents are retired school teachers.
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Tha Ramalingam, the 37-year-old art director and costume designer of Kabali, says though his Dalit identity is a strong part of who he is, he has never faced any discrimination. “The ‘international education’ I received was from my village school, and my father, a Theru Koothu (a folk art) artiste, was my first super hero,” says Ramalingam, who was born in a village near Villupuram.
Ramalingam, who says he played the Theru Koothu during village festivals, lost his father when he was 10. “My father and Rajinikanth are my two super stars,” he says.
He says unlike in the rest of Tamil Nadu, his village hardly saw any caste violence. “During the festival of Thiruvizha, the Dalit god would visit all caste Hindu homes in the village and shower them with blessings. So now when people in my village hear about Kabali and my role in it, not just Dalits, but the entire village feels proud. Nobody see me as a Dalit in my village,” says Murali, who used to walk up to 8 km to the nearest school in his village.
About 120 km south of Chennai, the village of Athipakkam near Tiruvannamalai is cheering for Uma Devi, 30. “The entire village is happy. They have all been saying ‘she is our girl’,” chuckles Uma Devi, who penned two songs for Kabali. A PhD in Tamil Literature from Madras University, Uma had won four awards for her lyrics in Ranjith’s ‘Madras.’
Unlike Ramalingam’s village, Uma’s Athipakkam has been a hot bed of caste atrocities. Growing up in these parts, she says, inspired her to dream big, “not just to get a job like everyone else but to escape from all inequalities.” In one of her writings for The Indian Express earlier this year, she recalled how on her way home from class, she would have to cross a village of Vanniyars (OBCs) and how the upper-caste men would throw stones at her. The first girl in her family, perhaps even in her village, to attend a regular college and complete her PhD, Uma says her father Kuppan, a farm worker, is happy for her. “He sent me to Chennai for my studies and told me that the purpose of education was not just to make money but to become independent. If not for him, I wouldn’t have got these opportunities,” she says.
It was in a studio in Chennai, far removed from the searing tensions of Athipakkam, that Arun Raja Kamaraj, 31, wrote Kabali’s blaring signature song, ‘Neruppu (fire) da.’ The 3.36-minute-long song has 24 lines and it took Kamaraj barely 20 minutes to write it. “Music director Santhosh Narayanan was my senior in college. One day, he called me to his studio and I wrote ‘Neruppu da’ there,” says Kamaraj, a computer science engineer who hails from a Dalit family in Kulithalai near Trichy.
His parents worked as nursing assistants in the state health department. “I studied in a Tamil medium school,” he says, adding he never faced any caste discrimination. “We need to discuss caste if opportunities are denied. My story was different. My dream was to become a film director. I got this opportunity (to write the lyrics of Neruppu) while working as an assistant director in a movie,” says Kamaraj, who has written songs for movies such as Pizza (2012) and Jigarthanda (2014).
M Balamurugan, 46, popularly known as Gana Bala, has penned and lent his voice to a Gana song in Kabali, one of over 300 such Gana songs he has sung in the last three years. Gana is a genre of music that has evolved from the slums and poor neighbourhoods of the state. Balamurugan, who sang his first Gana song for a movie in Attakathi (2012), is known for his earthy voice, something he links to the “struggles” he faced growing up. “Like many of us Dalits, I too struggled a lot. But while others were starving, my family ate at least once or twice a day,” he says, insisting that he has never been attached to his Dalit identity.
Can you identify my caste from my lyrics and the songs I have sung,” he asks.