Pa Ranjith: I have understood the power of compassion
says the director, whose latest film, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, is arguably his best work yet
Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is evidence of a filmmaker who’s evolving—in craft, in conception, in political conversation. With this refreshing film, he once again breaks oppressive structures, in both society at large and more specifically, in film language. He plays with the format of film and theatre, he introduces a new character in the third act, he sells the importance of dialogue by the extended use of dialogue in this film… Here’s the filmmaker in a long conversation about this film and its unforgettable protagonist, Rene, who, he reveals, is modelled on… himself.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Ranjith, much like many of your other films that lend themselves to various interpretations, there’s quite a bit of talk on social media about what ‘perumpoonai’ at the end of your film might represent.
If I wanted to attack anyone in particular, I’d make it quite apparent—like I did in Kaala. This time, it’s just meant to be a reference to every regressive person who hated the film until then. It’s why I wanted that character (played by Shabeer Kallarakkal) to come in during those final minutes. Some say that it’s a mistake, that I should have brought the character in earlier. Do they think I didn’t consider that? I didn’t need a big villain who travels through the entire film. I just needed a symbol at the end to stand for all the regressive viewers in the theatre.
I notice some in the theatre applauding at the wrong places—like when Kalaiarasan’s Arjun insults a gay couple.
Where someone laughs, tells us a lot about them. If someone laughs at that point, it simply tells us that they are homophobic. I can tell you that I wrote that scene in anger at people who insult the queer community. As a writer, I have established Arjun as a negative character by then, and it’s a strange choice to support him when he’s being offensive. It shows that perhaps they associate themselves with Arjun there.
And yet, Arjun isn’t shown to be beyond redemption in this film.
He’s an innocent man. I like to think of people like him as 'influenced innocents'. They are misguided from birth and are spoon-fed malice. He’s the sort of man who can transform quickly. Therein lies his innocence.
In transforming people like Arjun, is it important for people like Rene, your protagonist, to resist being driven by anger?
I think so. I noticed that most of my arguments in college often ended badly with my opponents hurting me with their choice of words. I remember spending many nights thinking about why I failed to make them see light… what I should have said in those arguments. So, yes, you’re right, it’s important to not let anger influence our choice of words. We must aim to create an environment where people like Arjun can change. There’s no point identifying him as an enemy and looking to isolate him. Imagine the issues Babasaheb Ambedkar must have faced. Imagine the opposition. And yet, not once did he direct his supporters towards violence.
Where your previous films have communicated explosive anger, Natchathiram Nagargirathu seems to stand for compassion and forgiveness. In one crucial scene, Rene even adopts the posture of Buddha.
Yes, I think our society is functioning because of forgiveness. Imagine if a transwoman refused to forgive. Imagine if they all decided to burn our society in anger. Think about her life for a moment. Picture being ostracised by your family for your physical changes. Picture the hurt and the trauma. And yet, so many of them seem to forgive their families. Imagine the inner strength that would take.
And yet, I see a distinction between blanket forgiveness that serves no purpose, and specific expressions of forgiveness that have the power to result in positive change.
Will Ranjith’s films, henceforth, express anger in this quiet, almost contained way?
(Laughs) Anger has many forms. Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is one such form. Sometimes, my anger is harsh. Sometimes, it even hurts me. Let’s see what the next film demands.
For the first time in your filmography, your protagonist is a woman. As a writer, did you have any trouble placing yourself in the shoes of a woman?
A man cannot fully comprehend the life of a woman. I spoke with many women to understand what they endure, to hear their opinions on some of the decisions in my story. For instance, Rene forgives Arjun after being abused by him. Many women weren’t comfortable with this idea, but I felt that I had to look beyond sexuality and gender during that particular point. I was selfish there as a creator and sought to initiate change by proposing open-minded dialogue as a solution—and for that reason, I couldn’t afford to have Rene shut out Arjun. Change is a constant process. I find that about myself all the time. In my recent short film, Dhammam, I made a mistake and had to apologise for it. Being a better person isn’t a destination; it’s a journey.
In this film, Arjun, despite being reasonably educated, doesn’t know how to address a transwoman. Is that an indictment of our education system?
Does our system really teach us how to respect people? Does it tell us about all the important revolutionaries of our country? At the Government of Fine Arts College I studied in, a senior professor, thought to be an intellectual, dissuaded a Dalit boy from talking to a dominant caste girl. Is it enough if our social sciences tell us how our government functions? Is it not its responsibility to explain the divisions in our society and how they can be overcome? I don’t know if our education system will ever allow for such ideas to be communicated.
The original name of your protagonist is Thamizh, but she rechristens herself Rene as an act of protest.
In our schools, you see certain kinds of names getting mocked. Contemporary names seem to be more preferred. Rene, like me, loves the Thamizh language. In fact, up until class 10, I was called P Ranjith. I changed my initials to Pa because I wanted my name to feel Tamil. And like me, Rene is rather disappointed and irked that our Tamil language hasn’t helped to unite people beyond the division of caste.
In a quick animation montage, you present the oppression that has irrevocably impacted Rene’s personality.
What I show barely covers the million ways in which I have been broken by oppression. Rene is Ranjith. She’s rather reticent for this reason, unable to truly bond with people, unable to sink deep into friendships. In fact, this is perhaps the first film in which I’m talking about myself at such length. It’s not just me, of course. It’s what countless oppressed people go through, with their lives and personalities being irreparably damaged. Some try to live by ignoring it. For some others like me, it’s impossible for some reason.
Rene explains that hers isn’t a personal identity, but a social identity—much like yours. It must be rather pressurising for you to know that if you made a mistake today, an entire community might be condemned for it.
(Laughs) I know they are all waiting for it, and will vilify so easily, so effortlessly. I can’t express my choices so easily anymore. I try, however, not to be a stereotype. I try to stretch limits. I have understood the power of privilege. I used to wonder how some people of average intelligence and knowledge were so unafraid to speak loudly, but I have understood that their courage comes from their privilege. For the longest time, I was scared of speaking my mind even though I felt I was right. And there’s, today, the added complication of having to be perfect as a progressive person. A person of regressive thought can get away with saying horrible things, but I might get cancelled for making a small mistake.
And this film speaks against cancel culture as well.
Yet, let me clarify that I’m not presenting compromise or forgiveness as a solution to victims. I believe that a victim’s feelings are always more important than a persecutor’s. So, it’s really up to individual victims on how they want to respond to being slighted. With Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, I thought I could afford to be more objective than subjective, and so, I’m suggesting that maybe through a combination of forgiveness and willingness to change—maybe—we could see some progress.
Rene often expresses her resistance through her laughter that’s as terrible as it’s beautiful.
I’m like that, I think. For a lot of things that are said and done in our society, there’s really no other response except laughter. It can communicate everything from anger to empathy. In response to my recent short film, Dhammam, there were calls for me to be arrested that came from a circle of people I least expected it from. I thought they were intellectuals and yet, they were unable to look beyond the basic visuals of a film. I was hurt at first, and then, I found myself laughing alone. There was nothing to be said really.
The film laughs at the notion of ‘nadaga kadhal’ by mounting a ‘nadagam’ against ‘kadhal’. Do you sometimes feel like it’s harder to provide solutions than create problems? It seems easy to attack inter-caste marriages as being planned with ulterior motives, but harder to fight such blanket vilification.
That’s because Dalit hatred is common and it’s easy to play harmful ideas off it. Nobody can truly escape the malicious subconscious effects of this Dalit hatred that’s at play in our society. Only through conscious thought can our subconscious biases be fought off. This idea of ‘nadaga kadhal’ can be easily sowed when society at large is already against the oppressed. We can fight these malicious ideas only through patient dialogue. That’s my idea of protest.
The film, a love story, shows how men try to possess and how insecure they are when a woman speaks of past relationships. When did you get past similar insecurities in your life?
After meeting my wife, Anitha. Shortly after we were in love during college, she told me she had liked a boy when she was in Class 10. This revelation drove me crazy for a few days. I kept thinking about that man. Everywhere I went, I imagined seeing him. (Laughs) I had to change myself to overcome that insecurity. A poem by lyricist Thamarai helped a lot. It’s about a man speaking about all his old relationships, as he’s hanging out with his new girlfriend under a tree. At the very end, the woman says she once kissed a man named Murugan under that same tree. (Laughs) It made me realise how natural it is for both men and women to have relationships. Buddhist ideas on possession and how it can make one selfish, have also influenced me.
There’s a scene where Rene speaks of being entranced by stargazing in Ladakh. I’m assuming that’s your experience.
Yes! It was a beautiful experience to be humbled by all those stars. Kalai (actor Kalaiarasan) and I lay down, watching stars all night. I have always looked up at them. Sometimes, even when I’m on my bike, I can’t help but watch the sky. It has given me much peace.
Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is a reflection of your evolution—as a filmmaker, as a social reformer. What’s the biggest change you have undergone recently?
I think I have understood compassion as a political tool. I have learned this from Buddha. I understand its language. I now realise I must speak on behalf of my opponents as well. In order to fight off opposition, we must understand it. We must save our opponents from themselves.