The first movie script Pa Ranjith wrote ran into a hurdle on the first page. “It described a house with a portrait of BR Ambedkar on the wall. The producer asked me to remove it. He said that Ambedkar’s photo was meant for the walls of a police station, not a home. I refused. But he was insistent. I had to agree,” says Ranjith.
Despite that first compromise in Attakathi (2012), which tells the story of a young boy in love, the 35-year-old Tamil filmmaker has not shied away from his politics. In films like Madras (2014) and Kabali (2016), he tells the stories of the life of oppressed communities. His newest film, Kaala, is being seen as the rocket fuel that will propel Rajinikath into Tamil Nadu’s politics — and, perhaps, help him shed the suspicion of being the BJP’s agent in the state.
Pitted against Rajinikanth in the film is Nana Patekar, who plays a politician. Power hungry and clad in pristine white, he promises to “clean the country” of filth. Black, “the colour of the proletariat”, takes on feudal white in the film. “When Dalits having one meal a day itself is considered as a revolution, what is the dirt you are talking about? It is their minds that are filled with garbage,” says Ranjith, when we meet in Chennai, a week after Lt. Governor, Kiran Bedi, ordered a stop to the free rice scheme in Puducherry as punishment for villagers, mostly farm labourers and daily wage earners, who had allegedly failed to keep a neighbourhood clean.
Ranjith’s office is in a spacious apartment complex in Egmore. In the front room, a group of men huddle around a carrom board. A bookshelf is crammed with Tamil books, at least over 100 on Ambedkar, Dalits, Dravidian politics and Indian history. Every room has a sketch of Ambedkar on the wall.
Kaala is Ranjith and Rajinikanth’s second film together — a creative coalition built on give and take. “Rajinikanth is very careful about everything, from props to dialogues. He will ask questions, and he expects you to explain the reasons behind your decisions. He believes that his work should reach the masses. So, he does not like films that are too ideological,” Ranjith says.
Rajinikanth announced his entry into politics bang in the middle of Kaala’s shoot. With its sharp anti-establishment credo, its advocacy of land rights for slum dwellers, the film could be the vehicle the actor needed — though Ranjith denies any overt connection.
“I will not say that this is a heroic movie but one portraying the life of urban poor. ‘Land is a right’ is the idea that Kaala pushes,” Ranjith says. His protagonist, says Ranjith, is an ordinary man in the movie, a father or a grandfather-like figure, a man of the people. “Our urban policies furiously evict, displace and destroy the lives of slum dwellers overnight. And it tells them that there is no need for slum-dwellers in cities,” says Ranjith.
Ranjith, a Dalit, grew up in a remote village, Thirunindriyur, in Chennai’s suburbs. His home was a one-room structure built by the government when MG Ramachandran was the chief minister. “My dad spent a little more money later and added a small verandah too,” he says. His father Paandurangan, an employee in a state-run industrial corporation, and mother Gunavathy, continue to live in the village with his younger and elder brothers. “The house has been renovated now. But life hasn’t changed much. My parents don’t bother about my films. Neither do they want to come and stay with me in the city,” Ranjith says.
His childhood was a sheltered one, and he does not recall striking instances of caste stigma. Nor did he feel any attraction towards cinema. “The only movies I got to watch were those screened on Doordarshan on Sundays,” he says. Nevertheless, he ended up joining the Madras Fine Arts College, in order to work towards a career in animation — he was inspired by a neighbour who was an art director in Tamil films. Till then, he says, his only link to the outside world was his elder brother Prabhu, a lawyer associated with Dalit organisations. “I remember hearing his stories about caste issues in city colleges. He introduced me to Ambedkar,” Ranjith says.
On the one-hour train journey from Thirunindriyur, about 35km east of Chennai city, to the college in Egmore, Ranjith began to read voraciously. “Dalit Murasu, a publication edited by Punitha Pandian, played a big role in making me read more and introduced me to Russian literature as well,” he says.
Among the hundreds of films he watched in college was Iranian filmmaker’s Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997), which was a turning point. “I was not able to read the subtitles as my English was very poor. But I remember weeping copiously. That was the first spark, it was when I started thinking like a director,” he says.
One among hundreds of aspirants in Chennai, Ranjith was lucky when the script of Attakathi was greenlighted. His second film, Madras, broke new ground in the depiction of slums, as a place that was home to not just gangsters but football enthusiasts, IT professionals and those aspiring for a better world.
In his short career, Ranjith has been lauded as well as reviled for his perspective on caste. “When a non-Dalit talks about caste or the oppressed, it is seen as revolutionary. When I do it, it will be interpreted as casteism due to my Dalit identity,” he says, adding that many fail to understand the essential goal — “which is equality.” Cinema, especially, he points out, is a collective expression. “A movie is made with the help of so many people, irrespective of caste. I cannot work in a mainstream film industry by selecting Dalits alone. But since I am vocal about Dalit people, every act is interpreted through a caste lens,” he says.
Ranjith has no illusions about the degrees of freedom the industry offers. “As a popular filmmaker, I work in a very limited space. In cinema, we have to learn the language of that mainstream to connect with people. If my movie speaks my language, it will not reach people. A popular filmmaker has to connect with viewers first, and tell them that he is not different from them. My language has to resemble the movies, characters and lives that have entertained them so far,” he says. But, as with his other movies, Kaala will test if Ranjith succeeds — in trying to tell a new story, in a familiar language.