On Jallikattu protests

Wanted to do a podcast on it last week. It may or may not happen, but I'll record my general views here.

The protesters: 

They are mostly young men and driven by their own sense of victimization as Tamils in the hands of an indifferent system - represented by the governments in the State and the Centre, and the Supreme Court. Jallikattu might just be the face of many grievances that belie their motivations. I see many strands in the protests that I agree and sympathize with, but there are also others that make me uncomfortable. Especially the many claimants -- mostly Hindus -- who surface every now and then.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that they chose to subject themselves to all the discomforts inherent to protesting in the street in blistering sunlight (as opposed to sitting at home or worse a 'peaceful' candlelight vigil for an hour at night) and that in itself begs a measured assessment. It doesn't matter that some of them might be completely clueless. It's true of any protest. Isn't this what the colonial masters told every indigenous freedom movement: that they do now know what they really want; that they cannot run their own country? The small truth in it is completely outweighed by the big ethical claim against it.

The cause:

Enough has been written about the 'Arab spring' and numerous other 'post-social media' uprisings on how various events come together. Protests like this are discursive even if they start with a singular, easily identifiable goal. It is as critical, if not more important, than having a goal that is superior in other ways but strategically unwieldy.

The desire to be a part of something that earns some activist cred is in there too, but again, it's ok. To those questioning the legitimacy of these protests citing 'their' -- because a good number of them were in their early teens then -- inaction during genocide of Eelam Tamils in 2009, the conflicts around Cauvery water sharing,  or the more recent spate of farmer suicides and the like: this is the cause and this is the moment they've chosen. Or this when the stars have aligned. Either you see this as an opening that your favourite cause could exploit in the future or lament those lost opportunities. Regardless, this cause isn't so perverted to deserve delegitimization at the hands of self-identifying progressive Tamils. I would suggest keeping your snide cynicism muted for now.

The effect:

It's undeniable that we are witnessing a defining moment in modern Tamil history that no one wants to be in the wrong side of, at least in Tamil Nadu. Given the sheer number of protesters (and the trade organizations that have pledged support), this can no longer be dismissed with the usual North Indian condescension.

Elected governments to judges of the supreme court, everyone plays to the gallery if not by their ugly prejudices. One went so far as to say that "the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender." One might think this is what the leader of  a khap panchayat said before he hanged someone in the village square, but no, it was a supreme court judge. (You're also welcome to remind yourself of the ruling on the national anthem to be played in all cinemas.)

And how about this gem?
"Tamil tradition and culture are to worship the bull and the bull is always considered as the vehicle of Lord Shiva…Jallikattu or the bullock cart race, as practiced now, has never been the tradition or culture of Tamil Nadu.
As early as 1500-1600 BC in the Isha Upanishad, it is professed as follows: 'The universe along with its creatures belongs to the land. No creature is superior to any other. Human beings should not be above nature. Let no one species encroach over the rights and privileges of other species."
Yes, this too is from the supreme court judge, in the ruling made in 2014 that effectively banned jallikattu in all forms. The brahmin judge actually employs some bullshit upanishad to date and validate Tamils' claim. (It's important to read this in the context of the archeological findings in Keeladi and how the BJP government is trying its best to scuttle the project.)

Speaking of justice, there's a simple rule that underwrites justice: it must be applicable for all applicable cases. So yes, Tamils would shut up and walk away if you banned all forms of animal cruelty, all over the country.

The protestors have articulated these views consistently and vociferously in the last two weeks in English media in spite of the aforementioned condescension and in some cases blatant hostility. I would be surprised if the upcoming ruling does not reflect any of these developments.

About jallikattu:  

As I mentioned elsewhere, I personally do not care about jallikattu. In fact, I agree with some of the arguments against it; I'm not stating my views on it further. I do, at this juncture, want to emphasize that if I were to accept the notions of animal cruelty, I want the Tamil people to take a call on that. This is the fundamental argument against 'civilizing missions' by alien powers.

To make my position clearer: I'll support Jallikattu because the ban is imposed on Tamils by entities that I detest -- the Indian govt and the brahmin judges of the supreme court. If Tamil Nadu managed to secede at some point, I'll probably be on the other side. I'd also rush to add that this would not serve as a universal model (nothing would).

Final thoughts:

I don't know what the immediate outcome is going to be. What I am excited about, though, is that these protests have signaled a clear warning to the assholes who are relentless with their projects of homogenization. Tamils were only a fabled monolith until yesterday (1965 was a long time ago). Today they have again demonstrated that they could really be that if the calling was 'right'. And honestly, I don't care whether its non-violent or otherwise.

Tamil youth have broken the habit of not giving enough of a damn about anything. This is the first step that was long overdue. Never mind the virtues of the reasons behind, the step is virtuous in itself. They may not stand up for cauvery, for dying farmers, against dalit atrocities or against corporate plundering. But when they do, even if it's half assed, and not outright abominable, let them be. Let's not rush to poke holes and undermine it.

The Tamil may not remain conscious and steadfast against globalization and other mechanisms of modernity that'd invariably subsume his/her identity into a bossu, or worse an Indian ji, but s/he would have been a willing participant in it. And that is what matters here.

On standing up to the State

Tweets from April 2016 (before the 2016 assembly elections):

In spite of the inherent flaws/problems in any form of nationalism, Tamil nationalism has deserved a decent mind to voice it and Anna, perhaps, came the closest. In Seeman’s hands, it’s just a travesty. He’s taken it to such ridiculous levels that no one would want to re-invent it anytime soon.

Keeping the merits of his ambitious plans aside, how does he plan on tackling the judiciary (and the looming art 356) if gets to power? At what point would he openly declare that India and TN cannot get along and we need to go our separate ways etc.? Doesn't he foresee it? Obviously I'm not talking about the individual, Seeman, here, but the ideology that seems to have some sway among the OBCs online.

Incidentally, the ones who have thought about that situation seem to be fine with an eventual 'violent' struggle, but not strong on details. And this has to be the Indian State machinery's greatest success: the disenchanted’s faculties are saturated by the impossibility of sustained resistance that they don’t venture into imagining the ways they could counter it systematically (the Maoists might qualify to be an exception).

Others continue to peddle the lie that things be done within the system. Except these are things that one couldn’t care less about when history is zoomed out to view decades and centuries together.

Originally tweeted here: https://twitter.com/englishtamil/status/724618919097434112

On Tamil victimhood etc.

 Just wanted to unload some random thoughts on this.

 I'm not a big fan of privatisation, but if privatising all forms of domestic transportation would get rid of the north Indian security personnel who insist on speaking only in Hindi in Coimbatore railway station, I'm all for it. Really, bus terminals feel a lot less suffocating in spite of the heat and the CO2 plumes because one does not need to pass through dozens of gates 'manned' by north Indians wielding semi-automatic assault rifles.

I was screaming "talk to me in Tamil, asshole", in my head, the first few days but soon got too tired to even feel properly annoyed (all this in October 2016). I can see why it seems like a lost battle. I do notice the increasing presence of non-native workers in restaurants and wherever else one has direct interaction with people. But I cannot in good conscience hold a grudge against the poorest of the poor as much as it upsets me to see the landscape change gradually and perhaps irreversibly. It's the state machinery's operatives that are problematic.

Is one to assume that Tamil Speaking RPF, CRPF and BSF personnel are 'protecting' railway stations and air ports somewhere up north? Is it impossible to pick a few dozen Tamil speaking officers of the BSF to work in Tamil Nadu's airports? (I remember an idiot reasoning "well, Tamil officers will act favourably to Tamils". Like, how, fucker? The way German officers are favourable to Germans in Frankfurt airport?)

Then come the doctors. There seems to be a dramatic increase in the number of Hindi speaking doctors in hospitals in Tamil Nadu. This before the gradual but definite reduction of Tamil doctors one could expect, owing to the introduction of NEET to get into med schools (oh, also, TN's reservation model won't apply anymore. So the few who are likely get into med schools in TN are also likely to be, well, Brahmins).

And now the Supreme Court is asking these ridiculous questions about what a bull ought to do. Seriously? Is a bull meant to pull carts on hot, paved roads? Is a horse meant to carry a human in its back? An elephant meant to drag tonnes of logs uphill? Really, which of these animals had a say in what the humans force them into? Truth is, it's a free for all when it comes to animal cruelty. So do not for a second pretend that it's otherwise. The feudal sport of jalli kattu can go to hell with the stupid reasoning about preserving various native species, but do not employ the most vacuous logic because the aggrieved are Tamils.

Then there is cauvery (yes, it's so old that it can only be the last on the list)

So internal logic, class conflicts, dangers of ethno-linguistic nationalism etc., aside, Tamils have a lot of 'generally acceptable' reasons to feel victimized by India. Yet, it's only the crazy bunch that articulates it thus.

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.

©2009 english-tamil