Dalit History Month: Sisters from all walks
As Dalit History Month comes to end, let’s take a moment to understand on the need for more intersectional women characters, how diversity off screen propels it, some landmark moments from our past
When Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargiradhu was released, a film that stood apart in his oeuvre, it told a poignant and powerful message through the lens of a Dalit woman. Rene was the centre of the drama troupe the film was based on, and she proudly asserted her identity as a Dalit woman and Ambedkarite. Her path wasn’t easy, as a glimpse of her childhood oppression is shown, (which had parallels in Ranjith’s short from The Victim), but Natchathiram Nagargiradhu certainly benefitted from a woman at its heart of it. This aspect of intersectionality felt elevated in Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, amid the many other films about people from the fringes of caste-riddled society.
Rene is one among the many intersectional characters that Tamil cinema has been witnessing of late, including Kovai Sarala’s Veerathayi in Sembi, Rohini as Indrani in Witness, and Thamilarasi (Bhavani Sre) from the recently released Viduthalai. All these women not only try to break away from the shackles of the identity that they carry from being the lowered caste but always bear the brunt of gender-based oppression too.
For director Deepak, who helmed Witness (which chronicles a conservancy worker-mother fighting for justice for her son who deceased during a manual scavenging act), it is important such stories are told through a woman’s perspective simply because it holds more power. He recalls how it has been mothers through whom some of the most important stories were told. “Be it Arputhammal’s struggle to fight for her son Perarivalan, or Henriette Pressburg, communist philosopher, and Karl Marx’s mother, stories told from these mothers’ point of view stand the test of time. In Witness, since we are talking about a political issue not seen in commercial cinema, we wanted to bring a psychological and emotional connection as well. A mother only would have been able to tell this story,” he adds.
What does history show?
While the gender scale has been imbalanced throughout the history of Tamil cinema, it cannot be completely written off that feminism was not a core point of storytelling. But what remained absent was the representation of women from all classes and sections of society.
Writer Stalin Rajangam says that India’s modernity in terms of technology, thoughts, and communication has been evolving, with women too embracing it, but it was always those on the upper side of the caste ladder and the privileged ones that tapped into these developments. Quoting examples of K Balachander’s films where women began to speak about liberation and questioned the structure, Stalin adds that literature works by Jayakanthan, and T Janakiraman, shattered the set frameworks of what society perceives women to be.
“Mara Pasu by Janakiraman talked about a woman who breaks away from the pressure of marriage and leads an independent life. She talked about Marxism. This leads to societal norms and hierarchy being broken. At the same time, these women were not the ones who came from marginalised communities. In the 80s and 90s, stories on women's freedom were curtailed. Rural stories, traditions, and caste pride became the topics for films and did not give importance to stories of women. Films like Ponnumani (1993), Uttama Raasa (1993) showed regressive practices against women,” Stalin recalls.
Tamil cinema also had a phase notoriously known for showcasing the bodies of Dalit women as objects of desire or lust. “From Radha’s character in Mudhal Mariyadhai to Poonguzhali in Ponniyin Selvan, they have been sexualised. Actors like Disco Shanti, and Silk Smitha have been depicted voyeuristically and they seldom played as a lead and were always seen through the lens of lust. For example, Aasaiya kaathula thoodhu vittu song (Johnny, 1980) is also one of the instances, which sexualises tribal women's bodies,” points out Shalin Maria Lawrence, a writer.
Intersectional characters are important for bringing in the much-needed diversity for a platform that is about communicating stories. Apart from the representation and inclusivity, bringing in intersectional characters paves way for heterogeneity. “When there were just films that talked about the White culture, Pursuit of Happiness showed a different walk of life by talking about poverty and race. Film directors reflect only what the general society thinks, and nuances within the femininity have not been explored beyond showing women characters who come from a privileged background. Even if they had shown such characters, they have been reduced to be eye candy or comical characters,” Shalin adds.
“However, in the 2000s, there was a change when directors began to identify with the subaltern culture,” says Stalin, adding, “Directors like Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj, TJ Gnanavel came to the forefront when stories of Dalits rose. They had their ears on the ground, and showed how women from the lower strata fought, so naturally the discourse changed.”
Still a long way ahead?
Even as we think Tamil cinema is on the path of progression with more Dalit women characters being forth onscreen with dignity, there is still a long way to go. Theatre artist, trans, and Dalit rights activist Living Smile Vidya says, “It is important how we show Dalit women. After directors like Pa Ranjith's entry in cinema, the way they are portrayed has changed. It also gave a pressure to filmmakers that the women cannot show them in a bad way, or make them adhere to wrongful stereotypes."
At the same time, she asserts the need to show more trans women onscreen, which adds to the importance of intersection. “For me, you need not necessarily talk about Dalit politics, but you can have them in your films and that helps a lot. Trans and queer characters should also be included and normalised. Gay men are mostly represented for comic effect, and we almost never see lesbian characters. A lesbian woman can still be a daughter, sister, friend, or lover, apart from just being known for her sexual orientation. It is high time we move past just showing their existence, and write roles for them that has agency,” Vidya adds.
Vidya strongly believes the one simple way to enforce this change is to hire queer people. She mentions that filmmakers need not always hire on the basis of caste or gender, but keeping inclusivity in mind can go a long way in saying better stories for wider audiences. “You should let Dalit and trans actors play every character. If a cis heterosexual person can play a trans person, it should be the other way too. Transwomen too should be hired to play cis heterosexual women onscreen. If makers can offer training to people to act like trans people, it can be done by hiring us too. If this is not done, it becomes an unfair system, right? Out of the 100 transwomen roles written in cinema, it is not often we come across a powerful character like Super Deluxe's Shilpa, and we don't get cast in that role too. When a character needs to 'look like a transwoman,' you hire a man, and when you need an actor for a character that nobody immediately identifies as a trans woman, you go for a woman like in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui. Why not just cast trans women?" she questions.
Need for women onboard off screen too
Actor Semmalar Annam has portrayed two strong Dalit woman characters in Maadathy and Sennai. While in the first film, she played a woman from the oppressed, washerwoman community, in Sennai, Annam essayed the role of an undertaker who never finds a resting place for herself.
Echoing Vidya's sentiments, Annam thinks it is important that women should come behind the camera to elevate the representation onscreen. “With Maadathy, it was a woman director (Leena Manimekalai), which automatically brings the perspective of a woman. There are also new directors coming up who would want to bring new thought processes and different voices of people. These films might have less commercial value, but documenting such voices and pain is important. With my experience, I feel when such people take the reins, intersectional characters will automatically come to the fore,” says Annam.
Working on such films ignited Annam’s passion for direction, and the actor is set to turn director soon. “The film will talk about a woman’s pain and struggle. Since I have done both indie and commercial films, it could be my experiences drawn from them that made me write such a film. Many filmmakers do understand that women are not just sex objects.”
Shalin points out we are yet to show more women from the minority sections and there is still a major lack of representation when it comes to women directors from marginalised communities. “OTT is trying to break this space, but when it comes to mainstream theatrical releases, we have been following the same template. We need more women counterparts of Pa Ranjith,” signs off Shalin.