Pariyerum Perumal: Civility in an Uncivil, Casteist Society

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Among other things, the film showcases how the campuses in Tamil Nadu are widely demarcated among the student population based on caste.

Pariyerum Perumal (God Who Mounts a Horse) is a very strong film. It invites a society, which is entrenched with casteist prejudices, for a debate and asks people to rethink these extreme forms of incivility. It takes us through the highly emotional struggles of a scheduled-caste youth who aspires to become a spokesperson of dignity and human rights for his community. He thus wishes to become like his role model, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, an unparalleled revolutionary leader of modern India.

A very fine and nuanced portrayal of what happens to those with such aspirations in a casteist society forms the bulk of the story. The young, debutant filmmaker, Mari Selvaraj, takes us through the life of a marginalised community youth who comes to face the realities of a casteist society beyond his village. Almost an everyday feature of the society we live in, where everything is determined by caste, the protagonist, Pariyan, undergoes different forms of humiliation.

This article is less a film review and more a symptomatic textual analysis of the film, drawing upon concepts of humiliation and shame to explain why Pariyerum Perumal is the most important film representing south Tamil Nadu in the last 30 years of Tamil cinema.

There is another South
Pariyerum Perumal is definitely a milestone in terms of redefining how southern Tamil Nadu has been constructed in Tamil cinema. The landscape of southern Tamil Nadu, Rajan Krishnan argues, has been constructed as a “metonymic extension of the caste identity of Thevars.” In an article titled “Madurai Formula Films”, a co-author and I observed the existence of a symbiotic relationship between caste politics and cinema, particularly through the naturalisation of intermediate caste markers and narratives largely found in the films of south Tamil Nadu.

Over the past three decades, one particular intermediate caste cluster – the Thevar community – has regularly featured in the movies and great emphasis has been accorded to their caste standing, valour and martial prowess. The films, explicitly or implicitly, celebrate caste dominance and become vehicles for, and expressions of, the assertion and pride of the Thevars or other intermediate castes. 

Right from the first few scenes, Mari Selvaraj tries to break that metonymic construction through his different frames of Tirunelveli town. For instance, he shows statues of the Dravidian leaders but also of Kamaraj, Ambedkar and Muthuramalinga Thevar, and the corporation building named after V.O. Chidambaram Pillai in the background. This is important, because films on south Tamil Nadu mostly focus on the image of Muthuramalinga Thevar alone, either in the form of statues or portraits, thus marking it as a landscape of the Thevars. This is evident in the title sequences of films like Karimedu Karuvayan (1985) and Subramaniapuram (2008).

It should be noted here that largely in Tamil cinema, the lives of subaltern groups have become invisible or misrepresented, or showcased in a way that justifies their place in the social order as those of clients in a patron-client relationships. In this sense, and as M.S.S. Pandian has argued, Tamil film was more of an exercise of cultural hegemony. However, the entry of director Pa. Ranjith heralded a new cultural revolution within Tamil cinema, which systematically addressed this cultural invisibility and devaluation of subaltern cultural forms. Following in his footsteps, Mari Selvaraj has marched a step ahead and has broken this strongly established tradition of cultural representation.

Humiliation as a central trope
Humiliation may be defined as the act of engaging consciously in degrading a person or group, a “process of subjugation that damages or strips away their pride, honour or dignity.” In the case of India, as pointed out by Gopal Guru in Humiliation: Claims and Contexts, the social and cultural context in itself is suffused by such processes. He posits ‘caste of mind’ as the repository of humiliation and the archaeology of untouchability, and sees it as the ‘minefield of humiliation’.

As a crucial feature of the casteist order, public humiliation of castes lower down the hierarchy – particularly Dalits – often invokes images of pillory, flogging (Una) and parading them naked (Khairlanji). Though such practices of public degradation and ridicule are banned by law, they are still prevalent in contemporary Indian society. Public humiliation within the caste context is all about the exercise and demonstration of power, here through their power the dominant castes exert force on others, shame and humiliate them to reinforce their claim to an elevated position of power. Shame and humiliation within the casteist social order has long been the means to exert social and political power.

Pariyerum Perumal showcases the different forms of humiliation that the protagonist has to undergo because of his caste. The impossibility of love with a dominant, intermediate-caste girl who is deeply in love with him, the horrors of casteist dis(honour) killings, and classrooms as spaces of discrimination – all form part of the film’s narrative. Like in most cases for the Dalits, classrooms as a space are not a space of equality but of varied forms of discrimination.

Classrooms as spaces of discrimination
Pariyan joins the Tirunelveli Law College to fulfil his grandfather’s wish for the community to have a spokesperson in the form of an advocate to voice their concerns. The Law College principal, while giving him admission, tells him not to participate in political activities within the college and concentrate on studies. Pariyan nods his head and tells the principal: “I will become a Dr.” The principal responds that “this is a law college and you can’t become a doctor here but an advocate,” Pariyan replies: “I didn’t refer to the medical doctor but Dr Ambedkar.” In a tone of appreciation, he asks him to go while asking his office assistant to note down his statement of “becoming like Ambedkar.” When the assistant asks why, he tells him that over-enthusiastic guys like him will get caught in some trouble and that this note would serve as a reminder.

In another scene, an upper-caste English lecturer humiliates Pariyan after the latter is unable to comprehend teaching in the English language because of his basic educational training in Tamil. The lecturer humiliates him in front of the whole class as someone who entered the institute just because of the quota system. An angry Pariyan shouts at the lecturer and angrily takes the notebooks of all the other students and asks him to read what they have written. The lecturer sends him out and later looks at the notebooks of other students to find that they too did not understand a word and had just scribbled, thus highlighting how dubious the notion of merit is when referred to without understanding social conditions.

Later, midway through the film, after facing different forms of humiliation both within the classroom space and outside, Pariyan responds to pressure by transforming from a soft-spoken guy to an angry person. As a result, due to the handiwork of his antagonists, he has to face disciplinary action. The college has a new principal now who knows that Pariyan is being victimised because of caste prejudices. Instead of taking disciplinary action, he advises him about his own subjective experiences of discrimination as a son of a cobbler who ekes out a living on the streets mending footwear, and how, as a law student, he faced the worst of caste prejudices and still took it as a challenge and rose to become a law college principal. He tells him how people who insulted him then are coming to him now with folded hands showing respect.

He asks Pariyan to do whatever he thinks is right, and a colleague intervenes and tells the principal that Pariyan, seeking revenge, might pick up a fight with those students who insulted him. The principal then responds, “He’s going to commit suicide anyway. Let him fight them before he does that; we can’t do anything against those [dominant-caste] students, so why should we prevent him?”

In the above-mentioned sequences, it is very important to note the symbols at work, the principal, who was in office during the time Pariyan joins the college carries a typical prejudiced mindset that we often see in our daily lives. As soon as Pariyan expresses his ambition to become “like Dr Ambedkar,” the principal foresees a potential troublemaker and expects disciplinary action in future. The principal has a portrait of Gandhi on his desk and carries this notion that the problem lies with the Dalits and perceives them as habitual offenders. On the other hand, in the scene where Pariyan expecting reprimand stands in front of the new principal, he has Ambedkar’s portrait on his desk. As a Dalit who had a subjective experience of humiliation and knows how casteism is widespread, he forgoes punishment and advises him to overcome prejudice and leaves him free to do what he wishes to do.

These scenes show how higher educational institutions, which ought to provide space to cultivate critical minds, have become a space of casteist prejudice, of covert and overt forms of discriminatory practices. I bet most of us who watch these scenes can’t suppress our thoughts harping back to how Rohith Vemula became a victim of such caste prejudices within the university space. You can pick any random scheduled caste student and ask them about caste discrimination in classrooms, and there will usually be a tale to tell. The perpetual psychological fear of being discriminated against and humiliated based on their identity is a lived experience that they have to undergo inside educational institutions in India. By restricting social interaction, the Dalit students are thus faced with deprivation of capabilities, a common feature practised and perfected by caste Hindus in educational institutions to maintain and safeguard their caste privileges. Another important issue that the film discusses in a powerful way is how the feeling of love between two adults becomes impossible in a caste society.

How love becomes impossible
The film’s heroine, Jothi Mahalakshmi (Jo), hails from a dominant intermediate-caste family who, unaware of the implications of cross-caste love, slowly falls in love with Pariyan. Through her actions and frequent references to Pariyan, she gives her family members (especially her dad) no doubt that she has deep feelings for him. Jo invites Pariyan to her sister’s wedding and claims that he was the only person she had invited in the whole college, thus expressing her affection for him. Following a careful ploy, her father sends Jo, who was anticipating the arrival of Pariyan, away and when he arrives, her father takes him inside a room.

The Paruthiveeran (2007) film song performed by the singing troupe orchestra in the background provides us an idea of the heroine’s caste, though it is never made explicit. Jo’s father, through questions about his village, identifies Pariyan’s caste (a unique way of finding a person’s caste in India) and confronts him about his effrontery in being friends with his daughter. He advises Pariyan that members of his caste would not only murder the latter but also his own daughter. As he is talking to him, an angry mob of male relatives and youth from Jo’s community break into the room and beat Pariyan severely, one among them eventually urinating on him.

Here, both the act of shaming and inflicting humiliation are marked by power in a form of both physical and psychological violence. Pariyan, who is shamed and humiliated, keeps it to himself and does not share this with Jo. His struggles to free himself of the memory of this deep, intense shame were poignantly portrayed in the film. In many cases, these forms of shaming and humiliation are deadly, as they leave an ineffaceable mark on those who survive. Humiliation, for the victim, represents this agonising knowledge of the power and violence of the public witness and gets embodied with the shamed individual. The presence of others when acts of shaming and humiliation occur is extremely important. Though the act of humiliation in this context happens within a room, there were a lot of individuals present as witnesses to the act.

With a sterling performance, the actor showcases the emotional turmoil that he undergoes with regard to the impossibility of love grounded in an uninhabitable casteist environment. Pariyan, instead of seeking revenge by taking up arms, practises civility and restrains from violence even after multiple attempts on his life and various acts of humiliation including the disrobing of his father to ridicule him and make him run for cover. He showcases how such forms of power relationships embedded in acts of humiliation can be reversed, and makes his shamers feel ashamed of themselves. This he does through practising civility of gradual distancing as a form of individual protest. Carrying his dream of becoming like Ambedkar, he tries to overcome the humiliations he faced by practising restraint and not giving up, thus foreseeing a future society where a more equitable and dignified treatment can be made possible through debates. This film is an appeal to the responsiveness of fellow human beings trying to prick their conscience; it is to make them feel the guilt as practitioners of the most carefully planned discriminatory social structure.

Pariyerum Perumal’s symbolism
As with any Tamil film, there is a lot of symbolism at work in this film as well. Apart from the points mentioned above, the film showcases how the campuses in Tamil Nadu are widely demarcated among the student population based on caste. This is shown through close-up shots of the coloured wristbands, which are used as a form of identification by respective caste students. It is a common feature in most of the schools and colleges in the rural, semi urban and some urban pockets of southern Tamil Nadu.

Taking examples from real-life incidents of recent attacks in Srivaikundam Taluk, the film has a scene where Pariyan who is traveling in a local bus, is pulled out of the bus and taken to a nearby field to be attacked. Fighting off his assailants in a highly realistic action sequence shot in a plantain farm, he runs away to the other side. The men too stop chasing him, which is when the audience could listen to the lines: Ethanaiyo ratha valigalai engal mudhuginil thandavane athanaiyum vatti mudhaludan ungal karangalil thandhiduvom (You have slashed our backs for long, giving us innumerable pains but soon we will repay it to you in the same manner) in the background and the camera cuts to show a group of men and boys dancing to the song ‘Poradada vaalendhada’ (Herald a sword and fight) on a tape recorder, thus showcasing that he is safe as he has entered his village. The song here acts as a spatial marker indicating the soundscapes of caste, which restrict his attackers’ movement forward and ensure his safety.

The most touching scene in the film is when Pariyan decides to take his real father to meet the principal. He was reluctant to do so earlier because of the father’s profession as a street theatre artiste who performs as a female dancer at village music festivals. The effeminacy associated with the profession has made him refer his dad as an agriculturist who owns bullock cart. Following his decision, he goes to meet the father, who is getting ready for a koothu performance. And while watching the performance along with the audience, he sees his father among female Karagattam dancers, making his moves to a famous folk song in south Tamil Nadu among the Pallars that captures the life and times of anti-caste martyr Immanuel Sekaran. The song performance, interspersed with ‘slices of time’ shots, shows Pariyan doing mundane things with his father, mother and their pet dog Karuppi, to showcase the emotional bond of a village family life. If this scene speaks to close bonds within caste, most of the film speaks to the exclusive identities that caste can generate.

The caste murders committed by an old man targeting youngsters who are involved in cross-caste relationships with such ease and expertise to make it look like an accident, reminds us of some of the honour killings that shook Tamil Nadu in the recent past. The old man claims the committing of such murders as a sacrificial offering to the lineage god. In a slightly implausible sequence that speaks to the power of civility, the old man is troubled when offered an assignment to kill Pariyan, saying that he knows him and he is a nice person who can be talked to. Jo’s relatives, however, insist that he should be killed as things have gone out of hand. The limits of civility are seen when – in failing to do the assignment – the old man commits suicide instead. The old man’s suicide speaks to the same emotional and psychological turmoil experienced by Jo and Pariyan.

The song “Naan yaar” (Who am I?) in the film stands out for its metaphors: it reflects not only the trauma and mental agony of the protagonist who faces all the humiliation based on his identity but also the prevailing social prejudices. Through quick cut shots, it highlights Rohith Vemula’s suicide, Ilavarasan’s death, and the practice of double tumbler system, inability to pull the Kandadevi temple car, the Keezhvenmani killings, the Tamirabarani massacre, sewer deaths and spatial discrimination in the form of separate habitations outside village proper. Splashed with colours of blue, the song celebrates these deaths as martyrdom, thus spreading the blue revolution as a path towards social justice and equality.

The film ends with a beautiful scene metaphorically indicating the need for a debate through those two tumblers juxtaposed to each other and markedly separated by a jasmine flower. The glass tea tumblers are still remnants symbolising the longstanding caste discrimination in Tamil Nadu, where members of the marginalised castes are served in different tumblers. The film, in other words, goes a long way in addressing the issues that have been systematically silenced in mainstream Tamil cinema. Before I conclude, I wish to discuss what the film misses out.

Invisibilising resistance
The film’s narrative clearly provides us with an idea of the director’s intentions in handling such a sensitive subject, i.e. the need for a debate. However, one important criticism, which is an outcome of this effort to give room for debate, is the invisibilisation or rather a self-censorship of the retaliatory politics practised by the Pallars (Devendrars) in southern Tamil Nadu. In the last few decades, the main axis of caste antagonism in the south has been between Thevars and Pallars. Pallars are the highest status and most developed of the scheduled castes in Tamil Nadu. They have high rates of education, and large numbers have migrated to the Gulf for work, meaning they have escaped agrarian dependency on higher castes.

This dynamic, however, is absent in the film. For example, in the initial scene where Pariyan and his friends are washing their hands near the waterhole, a set of dominant-caste youth approach to use it, so Pariyan indicates his friend that they should both leave in order to avoid confrontation. And when they leave, they discuss among themselves, “How long should we remain silent?” Pariyan tells them that “They own all the land and fields and we have nothing.” This immediately reminds one of the film Bharathi Kannamma (1997) in which Maayan, a Dalit who turns into a rebel hiding in the forest following his ostracisation after marrying a Thevar girl, confronts the protagonist Bharathi, a Dalit youth who works for the Thevar landlord. The former questions the spinelessness of the Dalits and asks them to assert and fight back against dominance, but the hero, a loyal servant retorts that “For our people to stand up, our ancestors should have amassed wealth for three generations or at least an assured meal for tomorrow. You think about the future but I am concerned about today’s fate and that’s why I remain submissive.”

That film sparked major violence in Southern Tamil Nadu leaving the filmmakers to censor a song following widespread Dalit protests. The film also faced protests from Thevars because it features one scene where a Thevar is forced to apologise to a Dalit. Things have definitely changed a lot since 1997, the emergence of leaders like K. Krishnasamy of Puthiya Tamilagam gave a militant edge to Dalit politics and checked the violence perpetrated by the Thevars against Pallars by speaking and practicing a language of retaliation. A militant form of Dalit politics marked the landscape during the Post Ambedkar centenary 1990s bringing in numerous changes. The emergence of a strong Dalit counter-mobilisation in the Pallar dominated southern districts of Tamil Nadu resulted in unprecedented levels of caste based violence and resistance. Pallars are increasingly assertive and reject markers of dependence or inferiority. They spearheaded the Dalit resurgence in Tamil Nadu, but the film completely whitewashes this history of a subaltern resistance, which has altered the social configurations in southern Tamil Nadu.

Mari Selvaraj perhaps omits this history because he wishes to emphasise the value and importance of civility against caste, and to break a cycle of violence that has left countless people dead in caste clashes. My colleague and a sociologist, Hugo Gorringe pointed out that the director here is seeking to make a point about civility against caste rather than reproducing the Thevar Magan (1992) logic of a highly masculine and supremely violent man telling people not to be violent at the very end. If that is the case, one can appreciate the intention, whilst noting that films like Pariyerum Perumal , and Dalits speaking and acting as equals are only possible precisely because of groundwork of counter-mobilisation and consciousness raising laid by Dalit movements.

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a Visiting Fellow, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Goettingen, Germany.

Source: The Wire

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