Indian film and the Dalit identity: Perariyathavar is the cinema that a caste-society needs to become humane

Yogesh Maitreya
·6-min read

Historically, Indian cinema exploited the labour of Dalits in its making, whilst erasing or appropriating their stories. This was not an accidental practice. When their stories were told on screen, it would be by savarnas who also played their characters with patriarchal, sexist and casteist undertones.

The scenario has slowly changed, and the identity of Dalit characters in cinema €" directed by a Dalit (and a few non-Dalit) filmmakers €" has become explicit, transcending boundaries of caste and class. These filmmakers have helped shape visual storytelling that combines "justice with aesthetics".

"Justice with aesthetics" was rarely present in cinema made by savarnas, or it was seldom honest. Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers have filled this gap, while creating a new wave of cinema that is more appealing to a Dalit-Bahujan audience.

In this series, we examine 10 Indian films that count not only among the finest cinema the country has produced, but are also intertwined with justice, politics, and aesthetic.

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To call Perariyathavar (2014; Malayalam; dir. Bijukumar Damodaran) a drama, tragedy or indeed any existing movie genre would be to reducing it to a limited, popular definition of cinema. If it has to be defined, then Perariyathavar is magical objectivism. The movie does not claim to be fictional, warning us at the very beginning: "All the incidents portrayed in the script have been occurring in Kerala (India) for the last 10 years."

And yet, to us viewers, these characters appear to be from another world €" a world to which we shut the doors of our eyes long ago. Perariyathavar's biggest achievement then, is that it takes us into this long-invisibilised world, through the eyes of a man (played by Suraj Venjaramoodu) employed as a sweeper with the Kollam Municipality Corporation and his son (master Govardhan). The son often communicates with his deceased mother: a metaphoric intervention in which she becomes a diary for him to note down his thoughts and emotions. The son's narration and the father's eyes are the means through which we are brought into this world.

Perariyathavar starts with its climax, and we're then reeled back to the moment where the story actually began. The father and son live in a slum adjacent to a railway line. A garage mechanic, band musicians, young boys from West Bengal who have come to Kerala in search of work €" these characters from the locality are the protagonists' acquaintances. The father and son live in a tin house; during the monsoons, the roof leaks. Their only "window" is a square opening covered by a jute sack.

Amid the smells of the sewer, the clatter of passing trains, ban rehearsals, and the neighbourhood cacophony, the father and son maintain silence, nurture a flowering plant, and maintain a small fish-pond; a sub-text of their hopefulness. Subtleties of this kind abound in every frame of the film; neither dialogue nor noise €" it is the finely constructed silences that are the strength of Perariyathavar. The use of a background score is rare, but the sounds of the background make each scene appear compellingly real. The audience feels as though they are part of the cinematic moment €" the hallmark of a great film.

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Film societies began to emerge in India after independence, although a few predated 1947. The most influential of these were perhaps from (then) Calcutta. Needless to say, these were fully governed by savarna members, and some among them had a feudal inheritance. These film societies were meant to create an atmosphere that in turn would lead to world-class cinema being produced in India. Yet, none of them seemed to care €" or lacked the intellectual honesty to admit €" that this was not possible with only Brahmin-savarnas dominating the field.

The resources and means of production of cinema were dominated by savarnas for decades, due to which cinema in India became an effective medium to create a false consciousness. This is also because creators of cinema gradually became apolitical €" i.e. they ceased to be a part of any social movement that was intended to create a just, equal and fraternal culture.

It is only with the rapid circulation of new technology that Dalits managed gain access [to the field] and their stories became cinema. Perariyathavar €" among the finest films to emerge from India in the past decade €" stands testimony to this achievement.

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Three scenes in the film indicate Bijukumar Damodaran's brilliance as a director. In the first, the father buys a toy car for the son and as they are about to cross the road, they are abruptly taken aback by a speeding car. They come to a halt, and the owner of the car shouts at them. The toy car falls from boy's hand, and is crushed by the swift traffic. In the second scene, when a strike leads to the municipality shutting down work at the dumping yard, the now unemployed father stands at a chowk where people come and hire individuals for labour. The father gets a job at a building construction site, and their employer herds all the workers into a truck to ferry them to the location. At a traffic signal, the father's eyes travel to a tempo halted alongside their truck; it is transporting tied-up buffaloes. And in the third scene, the father sweeps a road, the missing six or seven-year-old daughter of a pavement dweller, is found by him; she has been raped, and is wounded and bleeding. There is complete silence during the scene. All these scenes are stories in themselves, sensitive and profound ones, but interwoven within the overarching narrative of the father and son.

Perariyathavar is a beautiful, poetic rendition of stories kept outside the fold of cinema in India for decades. For the viewer, Perariyathavar also provides scope to understand the much hyped, overrated communist discourse from Kerala and its claims of liberating people because it depicts the people and realities that have been left out of this idea of liberation and justice. The treatment of migrants from West Bengal seeking work as informal labourers, the insensitive displacement of Dalits, the negligence towards municipal workers, and finally, the suppression of people demanding their rights €" all suggest the apathy and prejudices of a communist state. Perariyathavar is certainly an "intellectual, sensible cinematic tour de force". But to feel it, we need to break free ourselves from our old pathological habit/approach towards watching films. Perariyathavar is precisely the cinema which a caste-society like India needs to get humanised.

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Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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