Battleground love: Where anti-caste and queer politics meet
As a director of big-budget Tamil cinema, Ranjith makes no bones about the anti-caste agenda of his films. In his latest feature film, the 39-year-old director has added another layer to his activism: the politics of queer love
In Mumbai, Pa. Ranjith would best be remembered for his 2016 stunner, Kabali, which featured Tamil superstar Rajinikanth. On the eve of its release in July that year, fans gathered outside a Matunga temple and poured milk on Rajinikanth’s larger-than-life cutouts. Six years later, Pa. Ranjith is on a flying visit to Mumbai to talk about his new film, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, which, in a first for him, showcases queer relationships, including a lesbian couple, a gay couple and a transwoman in a relationship with a cis-gendered man.
As a director of big-budget Tamil cinema, Ranjith makes no bones about the anti-caste agenda of his films. In his latest feature film, the 39-year-old director has added another layer to his activism: the politics of queer love.
The idea to explore the stories that society weaves around love, said Ranjith who was in Mumbai on Sunday, was the term coined years ago to disparage relationships between Dalit persons and their dominant or upper caste partners. “It was called “drama love” – a Dalit person’s love, I mean. Popular politicians also used this term to talk about how Dalit or a scheduled caste person entraps upper caste or dominant caste persons by pretending to love them, only to access their wealth or property. This soon became part of the general vocabulary. Recently, I watched a video on YouTube where the anchor went around asking people what they thought about “drama love”. A lot of persons even now believe this is a real thing: that it’s a way for Dalit people to change their lifestyle. It hurt me a lot. Why can’t people just get that love is love?”
This then, was the genesis of Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, a film about a motley crew of actors who come together to put up a theatrical production themed on love even as they each bring their own prejudices and biases into the mix, which come up against the central character’s (Rene, played by Dushara Vijayan) anti-caste, Dalit feminist politics.
“I lived in a caste village, and I experienced discrimination as a Dalit person. I was a good student, I had friends but as we grew up, upper caste people detached themselves from me. Festivals took place in my village and I could not get involved. I was relegated to being a viewer, I couldn’t participate. When I went to college and I would talk about caste, I was accused of being casteist! People are prejudiced. I realised that I had two options. Either I don’t talk to them about caste, or I talk about caste using the right language. Finding the language, in whichever medium, requires practise. It’s a process,” he said.
Independent film critic from Chennai Aditya Shrikrishna said that unlike the rest of mainstream Tamil cinema, Ranjith’s depiction of Dalit stories is celebratory. “Exploring queer characters and their relationships or even their life in general isn’t common yet in Tamil cinema. It exists in some independent cinema, web series anthologies and supporting characters in mainstream cinema if at all. But over several decades inter caste romance has been depicted in many films, often tragedies dealing with caste-based violence. Filmmakers like Ranjith try to distinguish such depictions by celebrating Dalit stories and being anti caste in their gaze.”
While this may be Ranjith’s first film that depicts same-sex relationships, it isn’t his first activist engagement. In 2017, he produced a short film called Ladies and Gentlewomen, made by Malini Jeevarathnam, who assisted Ranjith in his earlier films. Jeevarathnam’s documentary delves into the history of lesbianism in Tamil Nadu, focusing also on rural women. The Neelam Cultural Centre, a collective of artists and activists in the anti-caste movement, founded by Ranjith, also has a network of volunteers who provide legal and other kinds of support to transwomen across the state who are victims of atrocities.
Ranjith’s depiction of the same-sex and transgender couples in his films was consciously “casual”. “The audience needs to see different genders, different kinds of love, without giving too much of an explanation of their existence,” he said. However, the casualness of the depiction is underpinned by a serious engagement with the violence non-normative love expressions face.