The Invisible Other: Caste in Tamil Cinema

The Invisible Other is a documentary film that explores the presence of caste in films and film production in Tamil cinema, especially since the 1990s.
The documentary is just a central node that is meant to connect the corollaries that are to follow in the coming weeks/months. Hence there are several lose ends in films that are intentional; it’s meant to trigger tangential questions (possibly directed towards one of the corollaries). The collection's chief purpose is to serve as a knowledge base of sorts -- if it doesn't do much towards social change, it would at least serve as an archive, I hope.

Some of the planned corollaries include:

Awareness of caste in general and within cinema - interviews from various students.

Thevar Magan's influence on the film industry, Tamil audience, politics and its legacy.

Dravidian movement's effects on caste in Tamil cinema and in public discourse.

History of Caste in Tamil Cinema

Censorship and caste

Challenges for aspiring film makers

The Invisible Other - Teaser 2: Paramakudi 'Chiyaan Boys'

The Invisible Other - Teaser 1: Introducing Caste

Yaaruda Mahesh: Problematic but Subversive (not the other way)

I'm not all that active in social media and I have no memory of catching a glimpse of the supposedly fervent promos for the film Yaaruda Mahesh. I got to know of the film through Tamil Talkies review in youtube (one of the only people I check out regularly). He mentioned something about 'Vadivel' Balaji and 'Robo' Shankar being funny in the film. I've liked both guys in spite of their occasionally insipid humour and sexual innuendo on television. In fact, I've grown to like that humour because it was high time that that part of the 'Tamil culture' is given a space in mainstream media. It's markedly sexist, crass and simply male -- the kind relegated to bars and (men's) Hostel Day skits. But its existence needed to be acknowledged by wider audience.

After watching the entire film twice the same day, I felt that this segment alone more or less sums up the director's intent. He wanted to make people laugh, let loose and in the process break a lot of rules that have come to define Tamil humour in films (but not elsewhere). He just wanted to string up a series of sketches with a fairly well conceived script (a model comparable to the Scary Movie series). Obviously many of the idiots who didn't like the film were complaining about how 'things didn't make any sense'. I don't think they got it. I'm even more convinced of that when I read a few reviews that refer to 'Vadivel' Balaji as transgendered. Fuck me!

Anyway, this scene starts with Shiva looking for Mahesh (read the story in Wikipedia). He enters a house where he's greeted by a middle aged woman ('Vadivel' Balaji). They start of with some exchange that's somewhat relevant to the script and quickly move on to a sketch even before 'Robo' Shankar enters the scene. (Part of it, as it turns out, has already been done once in Vijay TV.) It's not unlike those of Goundamani+Senthil or Vadivelu, but it's largely self-citational and even meta. That is, the humour is embedded in the fact the audience knows these people are from television and they know what they're going to do. It's funny because we know the woman is a man and nobody on screen is alluding to that. It's funny because they don't care how obscure their pop-culture reference is. It's funny because the impersonations are unoriginal, predictable and hence recursive - probably the best kind. I could not have picked another scene to illustrate how the film tried its best to be not taken seriously; that the 'film' is to carry the humour and not the other way.

Another area where they've pushed the boundaries liberally is with one of Indian cinema's oldest follies - dubbing. To my knowledge Goundamani was the first person to exploit it with ease. The guys in YM have dubbed the film with the least attention to lip-synching and more to mocking the scene. The characters, especially Jagan, seem to have a lot to say when they're not facing the camera than when they are. It's like watching the film with the characters themselves. You pass a few comments and they pass a few, everyone's happy.

Then comes the sexually laced dialogues that run throughout the film. Now, the so called double-meaning dialogues are not new to Tamil films but it's how coy these guys have been is what stands out the most. The guys in the film want to have sex, so do the girls. No shame, no guilt. There's the scene in which the guy is probably fondling the girl's vagina and says "kallu sooda irukku?" (lit: the griddle is hot) and girl just smiles in agreement (it's in reference to a very popular 'adult joke' that I've heard when I was 8). To me this is de-perversion of human genitals in a sexual context. It's the treatment that makes the difference. I would even suggest that this goes a long way in the normalization of sex as as a recurring act of pleasure in one's life (as opposed to a milestone). I find the arguments that this is crass and problematic puritanical (cultural, feminist or whatever the basis is). The supposed damage caused by such expressions are far outweighed by the benefits [1]. It's time that both men and women participated in 'vulgar' exchanges in public. They actually do, in lower income communities. The elites have English. It's the bloody middle class that doesn't seem to know what to allow into their living rooms.

Granted there are several pitfalls/problems with the film (ex: one could argue why abortion was never thought of as an option - wink, wink) but I'm willing to let them slide. A film like American Pie or Road Trip may not have contributed much to Hollywood but I really believe that Yaaruda Mahesh has to Tamil cinema. We'll see the evidence in the films that follow. If anything, I hope that film-makers say 'Fuck you' to the Censor Board and just go with the A certificate. To hell with the 'family audience' and their children.

After watching Yaaruda Mahesh I found Soodhu Kavvum to be really slow and didn't have enough laughs. It's debatable as to whether laughter is the latter's promised deliverable. It probably isn't, but I'll say it anyway. It wasn't as funny. Tamil cinema may have its need for irony, but it needs blunt and unapologetic transgressiveness more than anything else. Yaaruda Mahesh tries to address that need in its own little way.

In general, there's reason to be optimistic about Tamil cinema, it seems [2].


1. This films underscores how bad the film Boys was, it's the quintessential definition of vulgarity.
2. Will try to expand on few other films that I watched recently.

Public Anger

When there's enough 'counter-backlash' to all the backlash caused by a stupid 'film' and a bunch of cartoons, all the 'backlashers' will have to get tired and say, "fuck it, as jobless as I am, even I cannot respond to all this counter-backlashing." Here's my cowardly contribution to the counter-backlash - let passion of all kinds be drowned by senseless mockery:


I got a puppy (a boxer) in June, 2011. It's been a very interesting year since then. Yeah, that's it. Let's see if this is the 'reboot' I needed to slowly post something more often.

Fire Drill

There was a fire drill today in my office. What's the point of a fire drill if it's planned ahead? Everyone/everything is at their 'best behaviour'. They would have gotten a much more meaningful measurement of whatever -- you know, infrastructure, support systems, mental preparedness etc. -- if they had told us after the fact.  Of course, it would have tested some friendships too: “Sorry for pushing you down the stairs! I have a cat who can’t live without me.”

The drill reminded of this sketch.

Day Dream: 'Making a mockery' with Lollu Sabha's Rambhala

This episode features Rambhala -- writer and director of the 'cult' comedy show Lollu Sabha from Vijay TV. He spoke about many things including: his early days in Vijay TV and how Lollu Sabha came to be; controversies surrounding several episodes including 'Bakery'; about 'Tamil Padam' and his attempts to make it to films. The interview was recorded last Saturday and plays for about 70 minutes. Since it was recorded over cellphone, there's some quality loss but it's mostly negligible, I hope. I'll try to add descriptive timeline soon.
Download mp3

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