Chennai: Maamannan, a Mari Selvaraj political thriller and actor-producer Udhayanidhi Stalin’s last film before he commits to life as full-time politician, attempts to reiterate his party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) commitment to its original ideology of social justice. This comes at a time when Tamil Nadu has seen multiple instances of discrimination against members of the Dalit community.
The film talks about caste oppression within a party whose ideology is ‘equality and social justice’.
Vadivelu, who plays the titular character Maamannan, a two-time MLA, is mistreated by the party’s district secretary Rathnavel (played by Fahadh Faasil), an upper-caste Hindu and a product of dynastic politics.
Mari Selvaraj makes references to the DMK when he shows the film’s fictional party — Samathuva Samooganeedhi Makkal Kazhagam — and the top leadership as ardent followers of Dravida Kazhagam (DK) leader Periyar. The DMK was formed when C.N. Annadurai decided to form his own party that would engage in electoral politics, unlike the DK. The DMK till date continues to carry forward the teachings of Periyar, Anna and M. Karunanidhi.
Udhayanidhi is the son of DMK chief and current Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin.
Mari Selvaraj’s first two films — Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan — both spoke about caste oppression faced by Dalits, and his latest, too, touches upon some of the untold stories of caste-based violence and oppression, reserved constituency politics, and the harsh reality of caste-based voting.
“Cinema has been an integral part of the social fabric of Tamil Nadu and from Justice (Party) to Congress to the Dravidian parties, all of them have used cinema as a tool,” said A.S. Panneerselvan, political analyst and a fellow at Chennai’s Roja Muthiah Research Library.
Speaking to ThePrint, DMK spokesperson and advocate Manuraj Shunmugasundaram claimed that the intertwining of cinema and politics in the state was the “direct outcome of the Dravidian movement”.
At the end of Maamannan, Vadivelu’s character is made the speaker of the assembly.
Social media has been abuzz drawing comparisons between how AIADMK chief and then Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa had appointed P. Dhanapal as speaker in 2012, making him the first Dalit speaker of Tamil Nadu assembly. In the AIADMK’S second term under EPS, Dhanapal continued as the speaker.
“The DMK has nothing to brag about. They have not done anything in the state for social justice. It was the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa’s rule that got 69 per cent reservation. It was the AIADMK which appointed the first Dalit speaker to the assembly,” said former AIADMK MP Dr J. Jayavardhan.
According to Manuraj, though, the DMK pioneered social justice measures through landmark legislative reforms as far back as in 1970. He spoke about several schemes of the DMK like ‘self-respect’ marriage legislation, abolition of hereditary priesthood, provision of scholarships to students from SC & ST communities, succession rights for women, and all-caste dwellings in Periyar Samathuvapuram, among others.
“Many of these schemes and policies have found resonance in theatre, cinema and popular fiction as well. This has ensured that the social justice philosophy has been taken to the public at large and created a more harmonious society.”
However, in the past six months, there have been over five cases of caste-based discrimination in temples where those belonging to the Dalit community have been refused entry.
The ruling DMK with its silence on the issue has brought upon itself the Opposition AIADMK’s criticism that the DMK has not worked for social justice.
‘Political leaders’ comments being used to publicise films’
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state vice-president Narayanan Thirupathy, a censor board member, said he would like to see a film as a film and not from a political angle. “Off late, in Tamil Nadu people are using political leaders’ comments to enhance or publicise a movie so that the film does well.”
Praising the film for showcasing the caste-based disparities within political parties, Director Pa. Ranjith, had tweeted, “Udhayanidhi must be aware of the immense challenge of caste discrimination within the DMK. We believe that Udhayanidhi will take steps toward abolishing discrimination inside the party.”
To this Udhayanidhi replied that the DMK from “Parasakthi to Maamanan” has been fighting caste discrimination through its cinemas. Parasakthi was a 1952 film written by M. Karunanidhi and is considered a landmark ideological film for the DMK.
“Every time the party (DMK) has come to power, social justice has been given central importance in the laws and schemes brought out, and the party continues to fight for this in the political field,” added Udhayanidhi.
Crusade for social justice
According to a post-poll survey carried out by Lokniti-CSDS and reported in the media, the DMK was able to win northern part of the state in the 2021 assembly elections with the support of the Dalit community, and in the western part — considered an AIADMK fortress — it was able to break in due to the support of the Arunthathiyar Dalits.
The AIADMK and its allies in the north had the backing of dominant castes like the Vanniyar — a sub-caste of the politically and economically influential Gounder community, to which its current chief Edappadi K. Palaniswami (EPS) belongs — and the Mudaliars, an influential land-owning community.
In the western belt, too, the AIADMK had the support of the Gounders.
In April this year the DMK had brought together 19 political parties for a social justice conference. While various political parties mobilise opposition support on various issues — for instance the Aam Aadmi Party taking up the issue of central government’s alleged misuse of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED), and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee protesting Centre’s “discrimination” against Bengal, the DMK has been sticking to theme of social justice.
However, Tamil Nadu has witnessed several instances over the past months where members of the Scheduled Castes (SC) were denied entry into Hindu temples.
For example, at Mazhai Mariamman temple in Alampallam, located in the Thanjavur district, Dalits were denied entry by the dominant Vellalars, a sub-sect of the Gounders. As a consequence, revenue officials sealed the temple. C. Umarani, the village panchayat president, told ThePrint, “Following the temple’s closure and our persistent demand for temple entry, the dominant caste members convened a meeting and decided to withhold employment opportunities from Dalits. Additionally, they began pressuring us to repay any loans we had taken.”
Alampallam is a reserved constituency for SC women, but following the tiff over the temple, Umarani said the dominant castes stopped involve her in the affairs of the Panchayat. “I was the one who took the temple issue to the district collector. They even said that I won only because of their support and now I have acted against them.”
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)