Friday, June 21, 2024

A critical reading of Pa.Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargiradhu

When Natchathiram Nagargiradhu teasers with the corporatized “Rainbow” backgrounds were released, I was wondering if Pa.Ranjith is trying to blend in with the status-quo liberal mainstream rainbow narrative. Nevertheless, the Pa. Ranjith fangirl in me brushed aside those thoughts and hoped very earnestly that this film would indeed counter my scepticism. Being an authentic and brave director who brought out very fresh, relatable and raw characters like Attakathi Dinesh and Madras Kaali, my expectations for NN were similar.

Fast-forward to NN’s opening scene, Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” plays in the background with the protagonist “Rene” and her half-asleep boyfriend lying on a bed. I was quite intrigued by how unlikely of Pa.Ra to choose this song to which most of us Thamizh audience would have no actual connections with. To those who watch Hollywood films and Netflix series, this is a typical introduction where a 70s or 80s song is the background score when the protagonists are introduced. The opening scene did not live up to the expectations that I had as a Pa.Ra admirer and the film went downhill from there.

It was evident that Pa.Ra was influenced by the Corporatized Global Diversity and Inclusion trends which have taken over Hollywood and now every other Hollywood movie from the gigantic US imperial ventures like Marvel to DC has inclusive characters, ironically. NN had similar vibes where a Lesbian couple, a Gay couple, a Trans woman, a Fat man (for the body positivity representation, I assume), a commie man, a regressive conservative man (who needs benevolent ideological education by the radical progressive woman protagonist), even a white woman and finally the Protagonist the almost flawless Ambedkarite Dalit radical woman are present. NN would definitely pass the Bechdel Test (but for Wokeness). These characters are more of tokenistic representations rather than one who as audience we could empathise with or relate to.

One notable part in the film which is realistic is the location of the film in Auroville, Pondicherry in a bougie setting and as in real life, all the Pride characters in the film except for one character are from Upper Class and well-off background who live here. We sure do get it Pa.Ra, that, progress flows from the upper-class pride gang to the unaware lower class who are oblivious to what pride even means or whether pride has material reality ever for those who live from hand to mouth. This further establishes how NN is more of a fantasy movie with which a huge chunk of the Thamizh audience Pa.Ra dreams about initiating a conversation would not be able to relate to. I didn’t go to NN to watch yet another Netflix Sex Education which was what it turned out to be. Even the aesthetics in the film were very fake and polished, just like the Netflix ones. Compare it to the raw backgrounds of bus travels, college playgrounds and Dinesh’s home backyard in Attakathi and the playgrounds and the congested apartments in Madras, Pa.Ra sure did fail in trying to portray a realistic aesthetic.

Rene orates a beautiful poem by Dalit Poet Sukirtha Rani, but fails in her delivery. The poem of that intensity needs deeper portrayal when it is put forward in a theatrical performance. Pa.Ra did show his brilliance now and then. He delivers the scene revolving around the conservative dominant caste household of Arjun when they come to know that their son is in love with a girl from a marginalised caste background effortlessly. He is at his best when he enacts a theatrical play called “Kaatu Poonai vs Naatu Poonai” which is about honour killings and love. That would sure taunt the audience’s conscience. Then again, what Pa.Ra fails in this portrayal is that he places the blame on the individual casteist father or the casteist family alone, rather than the systemic caste structure in place. This is the usual liberal narrative which espouses that “I change, then the world follows suit” which unfortunately is not how systems of oppression are torn down.

Other characters like Iniyan the commie BF is not radical enough to be caste-conscious and has no significant arc in the plot aside from evoking emotions of nostalgia and jealousy within Rene. Rene’s conversation with Iniyan is almost always benevolent, which is very typical of liberal feminists, who prod the slightest display of regressive character in a man or a woman. I wonder if Dalit women would relate to Rene at all. Rene boasts about herself as the epitome of a liberated woman who is self-sufficient, independent and even someone who dismisses small compliments about her beauty. She is nihilistic, which is very quintessential of liberal feminists, rather than an Ambedkarite radical as she claims herself to be. She is affected by caste oppression, but she never places the criticism of caste systems kept in place by the state. Nor does she talk about solidarity politics of Dalit liberation, which comes from working shoulder to shoulder with the community. She is a single, brave, liberal, Bohemian warrior whose dreamy talks of shooting stars and Milky Way can somehow break structures of caste hierarchy. This is the archetypal liberal nihilism, which is the dominant thought among almost every progressive today.

The other pride characters are introduced to the oblivious and regressive audience (portrayed by Arjun) in a fashion similar to the online version of the woke gang policing people about genders and pronouns, which gets updated every other day. Arjun is confused when he sees a Transgender person who is dressed in a saree, and he is immediately taught how the transgender person should be addressed as “Transwoman”. And he is dismissed and laughed at for his regressiveness by his fellow progressive theatrical peers. Pa. Ra sure did take online conversations to the screen, which felt like a bizarre mess.

I had to come to terms with the fact that Pa.Ranjith a once Dalit radical writer who changed the course of movie direction in Thamizh cinema has also succumbed to the liberal politics of the Global Market economy where identities in itself are commodified. And just like we had “Black Panther” the ideological rebels to white supremacy being commodified by the same white supremacist imperial Marvel capitalist venture themselves and sold as Superhero “T’Challa”, the Black panther to oblivious Black Kids as representative of Black Power, I would not doubt if Pa.Ra created a Dalit superhero commodified to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of the Global liberal order. My once favourite Pa. Ranjith becomes yet another sell-out who knowingly or unknowingly has fallen for lumpen liberalism and espouses it as radical revolutionary politics.

Pauline is from Tamil Nadu. Apart from her 9-5 career as a Data Analyst, her interests include politics which span from Globalisation, Postcolonial Nationalism in India and abroad, the imperial project of Islamophobia and, Christian and Muslim Liberation Philosophies.

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