UNCEASING WAVES

On Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on December 12, 2016

Read full article on The Wire

“Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK is not hostile towards any minority or ethnic group and does not claim to represent any nationalism or ethnocentrism. It even eschews the progressive anti-Brahminism of the erstwhile Dravidian movement and claims to represent all sections, upper-caste and lower-caste alike. Although it has a strong base among the Thevar castes, AIADMK also enjoys considerable popularity among other intermediate and lower castes, as proven by its win over the Vanniyar-based PMK and the Adidravida-based VCK in the recent elections.

The AIADMK is also not anti-Communist in its discourse since its Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader) MGR and his protégé Jayalalithaa, the Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader, feminised), claim to be spearheading societal progress and change. In practice, neither MGR nor Jayalalithaa have allowed any form of trade unionism to emerge under their rule. For instance, brutal police operations against Naxal supporters under MGR’s rule caused no public outrage. Likewise, whenever parliamentary communist parties have fought elections against Jayalalithaa, they have been  faced with electoral decimation.

That leaves only the DMK as a powerful and credible challenge to the AIADMK. If the party is consistent on one thing, it is its opposition to the DMK and even this is not on ideological grounds; it only claims to be a better DMK.

AIADMK is marked by an explicit absence of ideology. But then, it is only in its absence that ideology becomes most imminent.”

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After Jayalalithaa… Few Comments

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on December 12, 2016

It is not a failure of the Dravidian movement that a Brahmin woman took over a Dravidian party; the fact that she has defended OBC, SC and ST reservations and the TN government has implemented the same without any tampering whatsoever is a testimonial to the movement’s success.

***

Despite being sworn enemies, the DMK leadership has shown remarkable decency in their condolence messages for JJ. At such times, one is tempted to ask, would have the AIADMK responded in a similar manner had it been the DMK leader who passed away? If the AIADMK’s response to Murasoli Maran’s demise in 2003 is any indicator, it would have been quite depressing. This is of course, a negative speculation. In 2016, maybe, could one positively speculate that a level of political decency has been reached among the parties? Full credits to the DMK for their gestures – even if it was purely symbolic, symbols do matter to politics. And I hope the AIADMK also responds reciprocally when the time arises…

DMK leaders making filthy sexist remarks on Jayalalithaa has been noted and criticized by Indian journalists writing obituaries for her today – I hope they are also sensible and sensitive enough to record and criticize filthy casteist remarks made by AIADMK leaders on Karunanidhi when they write articles about the DMK patriarch in the future. Verbal abuse, sexist or/and casteist innuendos, character assassinations, unrepentant logical fallacies are commonplace not just in the political terrain of Dravidian politics – but also among intellectuals, writers, poets, literary critics in the Tamil scene. Observing some of their fb walls for a few days will give one access to a litany of swear words.

Political decency (which is VERY different from political correctness) is important. It is the grounds on which democratic dialogue can sustain itself. In the absence of any radical Third, the Dravidian parties are the only bulwark against a marauding Hindutva mobilization. If the time comes, only if there is political dialogue between the two main parties, can there be an effective, democratic opposition to the Hindi-Hindu centralization that is going on. And this is the time for the DMK and AIADMK to identify their political enemy not in each other, but elsewhere. Hope the next gen leaders are up to it!

***

JJ’s demise has brought out all sorts of charlatans into public view. Analysts praising her feminism. Journos scripting a K. Balachander story of an innocent Brahmin woman cheated by unscruplous non-Brahmin thugs. DK defending the Sasikala crime syndicate. Hindutva supporters opposing Sasikala on ethical grounds. Lefty critics equating JJ with Modi and trivializing the latter’s crimes. Ultra-Dalitist critics equating JJ with MK and ignoring the former’s vastly superior social capital. DMK critics of Mannargudi Mafia acting as though Azhagiri does not exist. AIADMK critics… well, no such thing exists.

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Joker – Some Points

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on August 20, 2016

1. Somasundaram is (again) one of Koothu Pattarai’s great gifts to Tamil cinema. This man deserves accolades at several levels. I fervently hope he does not get misused by the film industry like that other great Koothu Pattarai product, Pasupathi.

2. This movie shows how political satire must be made. Except maybe for MR Radha’s performances, this movie is an exemplar of the genre.

3. Strength: The story, the actors. It is really tough to elegantly play the role of a mentally unstable person who thinks that he is perfectly normal. DiCaprio did that in Shutter Island. Somasundram does it here. Madness plays in the iris of his eyes and on the corner of his lips.

4. Crux: The toilet. Normally, the suppressed, ‘dirty’ aspect of a caste society, the toilet is the center of this movie. The director’s genius is revealed here.

5. Flaw: The pedantic dialogue of Mu Ramasamy in the climax. His “religion is evil, caste is evil, politics is evil” perspective makes it look like AAP propaganda. The movie should have ended with Somasundaram’s death.

6. Comment: Someone should send Slavoj Zizek a subtitled copy of Joker. He may write a chapter on how not only Somasundaram’s character of Mannar “a beggar who believes that he is a king” is delusional, but ha ha, even the king who believes that he is a king is delusional. That is, psychopathology is not a obtrusion in society, but its core. So maybe, it is not just Mannar who believes that he is the President is mad, even the President who believes that the politics of development has delivered is also mad. And so on and so on. And so on.

7. On a serious note: Look at it this way. Mannar thinks that the President is a post that has power. The President knows that the post has no real power, but acts as though it does. So who is the Joker?

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Liberal Feminism or Subaltern Misogyny? No Thanks!

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on August 14, 2016

The subaltern hypermale dominating and disciplining the upper-class, ostensibly upper-caste, female is a usual theme in Tamil cinema. While MGR did this by his mere presence by his being the patriarch par-excellence, the later ‘heroes’ did so almost always by recourse to physical violence. This is why Rajanayagam’s analysis in his “Popular Cinema and Politics in South India” where he argues that MGR emphasizes the valorous man and Rajinikanth emphasizes the virile man needs to be expanded. Rajini, Vijay, Dhanush and others, NEED to emphasize the image of the virile man to compensate for the lack of either virility or valor. And the only way this compensation plays out is on the body of the independent woman who is harassed, harangued, and humiliated to play a disciplined role.

As bad as the reel world is, real Tamil society is a lot worse. Women wearing leggings, women driving two-wheelers or cars, women in academia, women on facebook, women writing poetry, women supporting radical politics, women seeking protection of the law, or women just living their own lives, are all subjects of vulgar attacks by self-declared subalternists who need to demonstrate their virility (i.e. compensate for a lack) by attacking such women and claiming it to be part of a class struggle and what not.

Liberal feminism has a thousand problems and raises a thousand questions. But defending and glorifying subaltern misogyny has no answers to it.

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Mani Ratnam or Bala?

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on April 23, 2015

Watched Mani Ratnam’s “Anjali” and Bala’s “Naan Kadavul” back to back. Here are some thoughts:

A Still from Anjali

A Still from Anjali

Mani Ratnam’s “Anjali” was undoubtedly his best film. A middle class melodrama about a petit-bourgeois family with three children, the youngest of whom has a terminal illness, in addition to having a stunted mental development. Performance wise, everyone in the movie was brilliant (except the Janakaraj role, which is a caricature). And all central characters in the movie are cute, desirable, adorable. The central focus of the film, the child’s suffering and its impact on those around her, is converted to an aesthetic phenomena. By the power of her innocence, she converts an entire neighborhood of mean kids into shedding a tear for her. When the movie finishes, you too might be left crying, because you too are a target of this conversion. But what really lies beneath your platonic compassion is a perverse pleasure that you have enjoyed – that you have done your duty by feeling for an innocent, sweet, suffering child. You can leave feeling human.

A Still from Naan Kadavul

A Still from Naan Kadavul

Bala’s “Naan Kadavul” also deals with disability – but instead of the aestheticized, and anesthetized, suffering of an individual subject in a ‘normal’ middle class family, he introduces you to the suffering of the underclass among the underclass – beggars. Suffering, in Bala’s vision, is not some catastrophic event, but everyday existence. Bala takes pain to whole new level. He takes you to the the daily life of a class to whom the closest relationship the middle-class viewer might have had is one of condescending charity. The central character of the “man-god” (Arya) only lampoons the godlessness of religion. Spirituality and humanity are not venerated – their failures are exposed. There are no cute characters and the only character which you might find ‘tolerable’ – the blind beggar played by Pooja Umashankar – is beaten to a pulp and seeks salvation in death. (Note: Death is the only thing that the Hindu variant of liberation theology can offer.) Bala’s aesthetics, or anti-aesthetics, breaks the platonic trinity of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In the end you are left feeling overwhelmed by emptiness. Or, closer to the human essence.

Mani Ratnam tests your middle class sympathy. Bala tests the limits of your middle class stomach. Mani Ratnam offers you a pseudo-reality for you to enjoy the illusion of reality without its harsher side-effects. “Beer without alcohol”. Bala on the other hand offers you that very reality that you are unwilling to admit, that dark corner of humanity that society tries to repress. If great art is meant to be something penetrative, Bala is the greater artist. Mani sir only scratches around the surface.

So, Bala > Mani Ratnam.

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Pirapaharan at Sixty: The Meaning of the Man

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on December 8, 2014

Originally published on Sangam

Is Pirapaharan dead?

Ten years back, TamilNet senior editor and military analyst Taraki Sivaram wrote a brilliant piece on the political legacy of Pirapaharan at fifty.  Come 26 November this year, the founder-leader of the LTTE and one of the most brilliant military minds of South Asia will turn sixty.  Quite a lot has been said, by both admirers and adversaries, about the life of the man.  But what is his meaning?

It is impossible to understand Pirapaharan unless one understands the interrelated essences of Sangam poetry – love and war – and its influence on the Tamil military tradition.  The ethics of Tamil akam poetry, that of unconditional love towards the object of concern influences the ethics of the puram poetry, which calls for unconditional fidelity to the king and the kingdom.  However, even this unconditionality carries within it a condition that reinforces the unconditionality.  For instance, the woman of virtue (Tamil progressives will, and with ample justification, criticize this, but let us leave discussions about gender problems in epic poetry for another day) is the object of love because she is a woman of virtue, the love has a platonic character because of the virtuous nature of the object.  Likewise, the soldier’s fidelity to the king is because the king is loyal to the kingdom, and the king’s loyalty to the kingdom commands the soldier’s fidelity.  The object of love and the object of fidelity function as cornerstones in a discursive network, without which the network would collapse.  In other words, they provide meaning to the meaning of things.

In a sense that is Pirapaharan.  At sixty, in what some call the ‘post-conflict era’, the symbolism of Pirapaharan speaks that Tamil nationalism is alive and kicking.   The 5 lakh students who got out on the street in Tamil Nadu in early 2013, and thousands of protestors in the diaspora who challenged the injustice of the international community carried his image.  These activists believe that this image signifies Tamil nationalist resistance to oppression.  But isn’t this ‘idol worship’ problematic?

Commenting on the veneration of revolutionary leaders, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle writes “‘Hero-worship’ becomes a fact inexpressibly precious; the most solacing fact one sees in the world at present.  There is an everlasting hope in it for the management of the world.  Had all traditions, arrangements, creeds, societies that men ever instituted, sunk away, this would remain.  The certainty of Heroes being sent us; our faculty, our necessity, to reverence Heroes when sent: it shines like a polestar through smoke-clouds, dust-clouds, and all manner of downrushing and conflagration.”  An oxymoronic, mostly moronic, ‘liberal left’ discredits the idea of leadership.  No less a person than Lenin believed that a revolution required revolutionary leaders who stuck to their principles, and were willing to make decisions that the ordinary could not make.  This belief is reinstated by contemporary philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, who also argue that a true revolutionary leader represents a Universal over and beyond narrow particulars.

While Lilliputian minds would fix a region, religion or caste label to Pirapaharan, the real ideological significance of Pirapaharan is that he transcends these narrow particularities and serves as a Universal referent for Tamil nationalists.  Not only is Pirapaharan now a symbol of Eelam Tamil nationalism, he has also transfigured as a symbol of Tamil civilizational consciousness.  What else explains the tens of thousands of youth in Tamil Nadu considering an Eelam Tamil leader as their own Tamil hero who provided a promise of Tamil renaissance?

But every great uniter is also a divider.  As Pirapaharan becomes the symbolic standard that unites patriots, he is also the standard that separates traitors.  The Pirapaharan school of thought, which is the radical extension of the thoughts of V. Navaratnam and SJV Chelvanayagam, as much as it is a standard for evaluating patriotism, also becomes the scale by which treason is judged.  To be a true Christian, it is imperative to believe in the struggle between Good and Evil, not just external Evil, but also the Evil that is internal.  Likewise, to be a Tamil nationalist in the footsteps of Pirapaharan means not just an opposition to the Sinhala state and its allies, but also traitors who undermine the struggle from within.  And for that, we need to keep reminding ourselves what Pirapaharan means, what is the idea of Pirapaharan.

Coming back to the original question – Is Pirapaharan dead?  This might confuse some people, but I would say that Pirapaharan the individual died when he founded the LTTE. Ever since, what has existed is an idea.  An idea that means sovereign Tamil Eelam; the creation of a society that is based on universal principles of justice and equality; a society without regionalism, communalism, sexism or casteism; a society where the love of heroic passions replaces the lust for trivial sentiments; a society without particularist chauvinism or cheap liberal cosmopolitanism; the creation of a people who resonate the glories of the Tamil past purging it of all darkness and enriching it with the emancipatory narrative of a universal future; the idea that the impossible can be made possible by the Will to Freedom.

And ideas, like heroes, are immortal.

Finally, when people ask questions like “Will Pirapaharan come back,” I remember a conversation I had with a Jesuit in Chennai.  I asked him “Do you really believe in the Second Coming of Christ?”  He replied nonchalantly, “I do not know if he will come or not. But if he does, I want to be sure that I have remained a true Christian, that I have done all in my power to serve the humanity he so loved so that he will be pleased on arrival.”  This is precisely the spirit that Tamil nationalists must adopt now.

Indian PM’s Boycott of CHOGM, Foreign Policy, and Tamil Nadu’s Role

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on November 12, 2013

Originally published on The Weekend Leader

Contrary to claims in certain sections of the Indian media that the Indian Prime Minister not taking part in Sri Lanka’s CHOGM compromises the country’s ‘national foreign policy’ in favour of ‘regional interests’, a decision by the highest political authority of India to avoid participation in this event is precisely in favour of India’s national interests.

If India really had long-term strategic vision, it would completely boycott the CHOGM, but that is a different argument.

Let us also leave the moral question of engaging with Sri Lanka – a country accused of genocide, war crimes, systematic rape and torture – aside.

What could be a rational reason for Dr. Manmohan Singh to boycott the CHOGM?

The Arthashastra emphasises that the welfare of a state depends on an active foreign policy. The operative word here being ‘active’.

An active foreign policy takes into consideration not just relations between states, but also intra-state relations, especially those between power blocs within a state, and the geographical location of these power blocs.

In the Sri Lankan context, an active foreign policy of India must, in all rationality, be mediated by the geographical and demographic power bloc that is Tamil Nadu, which is historically and culturally, not to mention emotionally, connected to Tamil Eelam.

In that sense, the ‘regional interests’ of Tamil Nadu must be part of any Indian foreign policy calculation vis-a-vis Sri Lanka.

At no point of time in history has pro-Tamil Eelam activism in Tamil Nadu been so politically charged and conceptually clear as in the years succeeding the genocide in May 2009.

The new generation activists, smooth, suave and adept in their use of social media for political purposes, have generated tremors in the state in their protests against the US resolution earlier this year.

The heat generated by the Tamil Nadu youth, besides inspiring diaspora youth to stage similar protests, also compelled the Tamil Nadu government to pass resolutions calling for a referendum among the Eelam Tamils.

And it is precisely their pressure and that of grassroots Tamil political parties, which compelled Tamil Nadu State Assembly to pass a unanimous resolution calling for a full Indian boycott of CHOGM in Sri Lanka.

There is another thing to note here. While pre-2009 pro-Tamil Eelam activism in Tamil Nadu was directed primarily against Sri Lanka, after May 2009 the informed political discourse began challenging the role of the world establishments – especially the US and India – and their role in assisting the Sinhala state.

Except during the period of anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu, at no other point has Tamil civil society been mobilized en masse to challenge a policy of the Indian Centre.

After all this, if Dr. Manmohan Singh, the political head of the Indian state, goes to Sri Lanka, not only would it have been suicidal for the Congress party’s political prospects in Tamil Nadu, it also would have given fuel to greater anti-Centre sentiments in the region.

So, a decision for Dr. Singh to boycott the CHOGM is indeed taken in ‘national interest’.

If those ‘experts’ in the media commenting on “foreign policy objectives” and placing national interest over “political expediency” fail to take this into account, it only reflects their sad ignorance of ground reality.

It should be added here that activists in Tamil Nadu are not satisfied with this gesture alone and continue to demand a total boycott of CHOGM and the removal of Sri Lanka from the body.

Informed activism in Tamil Nadu has a reached a stage where it knows to differentiate a symbolic gesture from a strategic victory.

Yet, can anything be deciphered from Dr. Singh’s decision?

One, the Indian government realizes that Tamil Nadu can turn volatile on Sri Lankan issue and therefore is trying to balance collective Tamil sentiments.

Two, the pressure exerted by peaceful democratic mass movements in Tamil Nadu has a potential to influence the centre via the periphery.

Three, Indian foreign policy on Sri Lanka cannot be blind to the power bloc of Tamil Nadu as it has been doing all the while. It needs to take in the ‘local’ factor into consideration if it indeed has a long-term ‘national’ vision.

Overall, Dr. Singh’s absence at the CHOGM signifies a symbolic victory for Tamil Nadu. Though symbolic, a victory nevertheless!

After all, the British Prime Minister is attending the meeting despite protests in his country against the same. Besides, this move is also a snub to Northern Province Chief Minister Wigneswaran and certain ‘analysts’ from Colombo who were pleading with the Indian PM to attend.

The power relations are rather explicit here. It is obvious that a strong Chennai carries more impact than a dummy in Jaffna or the stooges of Colombo.

India needs a serious re-think on its overall policy towards Sri Lanka. In this Information Age, the Tamils world over have emerged as a well-networked community.

Activists from three centres of Tamil power namely Tamil Nadu, Tamil Eelam and the Tamil Diaspora actively engage in knowledge sharing exercises through various medium, constantly expanding their spheres of influence in opinion making.

Through shared images, notes, articles and videos, the Tamils are constructing a political discourse that informs them of the oppression the Eelam Tamils suffer in the island and the remedy that is required.

And this creates intellectual ammunition for critical and radical voices in the Tamil Nadu polity.

The key questions that Indian foreign policy analysts with vision should consider is this – given that it is in the very nature of the Sri Lankan state to be hostile to Tamil interests, wouldn’t you rather lose Sri Lanka as a friend than gain Tamil Nadu’s enmity?

Does India really want to create instability in Tamil Nadu for the sake of creating stability for the Sinhala state? Does India want to antagonize a Tamil community that is global in its reach and potential for the sake of a failed state?

As for Dr. Singh’s decision, this symbolic victory of the Tamil Nadu activists must be converted to a strategic victory by eventually compelling the Indian government to do a complete re-evaluation and an overhaul of its current myopic foreign policy towards Sri Lanka.

A Comment on ‘Moodar Koodam’

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on November 3, 2013

Originally published on The Weekend Leader as “Portrayal of Tamil assertion in films”

First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed watching debutant director Naveen’s Moodar Koodam (Fools Gathering). A low budget movie of a genre that is rarely taken up in Tamil cinema – dark humour – it was good entertainment.

The comic storyline, interspersed with even more comic flashbacks, the lack of an infallible hero and his often senseless romance, a narrative that gives weight to all characters, make the movie a worthwhile watch.

While I appreciate the style of the movie, I have to disagree with some aspects of its content. The director seems to have unnecessarily mixed what could have been a good comedy on its own with a social commentary that is banal.

The semi-pedagogical dialogues on communism and the ills of capitalism seem rather pointless especially at a time when most communists in India don’t know what it is that they are fighting for.

The romanticising of the rural as naively good and the cursing of the urban social elites as being morally corrupt has become a boring theme.

This ranting against English, IT professionals, the upwardly mobile has been hammered through Tamil cinema enough.

After a point, the contempt for knowledge and modernity gets really annoying. And it also makes one wonder whether what is being advocated is a rule similar to the Sharia laws…

But why is it that the Tamilophile is usually a crass, frustrated, lower/lower-middle class male who mostly behaves like a sociopath?

Haven’t we had enough with Katradhu Tamizh where the protagonist, a misogynist, goes around killing, beating and molesting people because they did not conform to his notion of Tamil culture?

Or rather, why can’t a smooth and suave and socially refined man – or for that matter, woman – be a Tamilophile? The latter would be the really radical thing to portray.

Likewise, the scene from the movie, where one of the protagonists harasses a guy for talking to him in English, which is in wide circulation in social media, cannot appeal to the learned.

A positive assertion of identity cannot be based on paranoia and insecurity and berating your own for neglecting their ‘roots’, real or imagined. But again, to be fair to the director, maybe this is why he called his movie ‘Moodar Koodam’.

A much radical portrayal of Tamil assertion can be seen in a particular scene in the movie Tamizh Padam. A reel Manmohan Singh calls up the protagonist asking him to take-up a police assignment, speaking to him in Hindi throughout.

After hearing out the Indian Prime Minister with an indifferent look on his face, the protagonist replies in Tamil “Sorry PM ji, I don’t know Hindi” and cuts the phone.

The Indian PM is left with a bewildered look on his face. Comedy apart, this scene speaks more for an assertive Tamil nationalism than all the “Tamil kalaachaaram (culture)” jingoism that we have been subject to in other movies.

When you look at it, the protagonist of Tamizh Padam is really ‘speaking truth to power’ when he tells the highest political authority of India that he (symbolically representing Tamils) can’t speak Hindi, and refuses to engage in further conversation.

This is the real positive assertion of identity – being confident without being xenophobic, refusing to entertain dialogue with the Other who does not recognize you, while at the same time not boring yourself and those around you with didactic rants.

Indeed Tamil Nadu’s identity politics of the future cannot be like Moodar Koodam – a gathering of fools.

Tamils Stand With Rojava Kurds And Condemn Ethnic Cleansing By Islamists

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on September 23, 2013

“Our struggle will be everywhere,
and in our hearts, these flags
that witnessed your death,
that were bathed in your blood,
will be multiplied like the leaves
of the infinite springtime.”
-Pablo Neruda

We received the news of the horrible ethnic cleansing of Kurdish civilians in Rojava with great anguish. It is reported that Islamist thugs affiliated with the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra front carried out this brutal massacre in Rojava/Western Kurdistan, located in Northern Syria, over the last few days. It is also reported that civilians were butchered inside their homes, women and children were raped, and that there were also beheadings.

In a revealing report on OpenDemocracy, a Kurdish activist says “The people attacked us Kurds just like that in Tal Abyad, because Arab Imams had announced fatwas declaring it is religiously ‘Halal (permissible)’ to kill Kurdish men, then take their property, women and children as slaves. It is really scary to hear it when the mosque is next door to your house in a small town like here, Tal Abyad.”

Rebelling against a tyrannical regime is not just the right but also the duty of an oppressed people – this is the valuable lesson that the oppressed have learnt ever since the glorious Jacobin revolution in France. The French Revolution of Robespierre also taught us that a rebellion that forgets virtue and replaces one sect of tyrants with another is not rebellion, but barbarism. We understand that these so-called al-Nusra ‘rebels’ and the other Islamist ‘rebels’ in Syria represent precisely this barbarity. All progressive activists must rebel against the brutal and inhumane actions of these pseudo-rebels.

True to their hypocritical nature, the Americans have been harping only about an alleged chemical weapons attack by al-Assad’s forces. But the US has only given a half-hearted condemnation of the massacres of Kurds. AKP ruled Turkey has also shamelessly disregarding its peace process with the PKK and flouting all norms of humanity, has helped the anti-Kurdish Islamist gangs in Syria.

When the news of the atrocities committed on the Kurds reached grassroots activists in Tamil Nadu, they reacted with righteous anger. Activists from Tamil Nadu, urban mass political movements like the May 17 Movement, Balachandran Students’ Movement, Islamic Youth Movement Against Genocide, and others from across the world, stand in solidarity with the Kurds in this time of pain and resistance. We strongly condemn not just the brutalities of the al-Nusra hoodlums but also condemn the international powers that aid and abet such savage forces.

We are aware of how an imperialist-sponsored genocide was carried out on out brethren in Tamil Eelam. And we are also aware of how the US – which give Sri Lanka military advice to cluster bomb the Eelam Tamil people and silently watched as the genocidal Sri Lankan state used chemical weapons on the Eelam Tamils – is now crying foul at supposed chemical weapons use by al-Assad. The US’ tacit support for the Islamists that carried out the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds is condemnable and shameful.

The Kurdish struggle led by PKK leader Ocalan’s ideology and the Eelam Tamils’ struggle which was led by Pirapaharan’s LTTE indeed share a lot in common. They are the most progressive struggles of their respective regions. They are militantly secular. Their implementation of gender-justice is far advanced of the conditions in their respective regions. And both are opposed, oppressed and repeatedly betrayed by not one just country, but by the International Community of Establishments. Thus, the solidarity between global Kurds and global Tamils needs to grow.

More than any other struggle in the Middle-East, the Kurdish struggle for national liberation represents the quest for reason, modernity and egalitarianism, and a just, secular and inclusive society. One can legitimately argue that the Kurdish struggle represents the ONLY hope for the blossoming of such values in the region.

The PKK has rightly called for the Rojava revolution to be expanded to the other parts of Kurdistan.

The resistance at Rojava for peace, justice and self-determination will not be intimidated by Islamist gangs or their imperialist abettors!

Let a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand Rojavas blossom wherever there are justice-loving people in the world!

Portrayal of Eelam Tamils in Mainstream Kollywood cinema: Some Observations

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on December 29, 2012

Originally published on JDS

A Dynamic Don - till date, the best portrayal of an Eelam Tamil subject in Kollywood

A Dynamic Don – till date, the best portrayal of an Eelam Tamil subject in Kollywood

Many scholars studying Tamil Nadu politics have noted, and rightly so, the pervasive influence on Tamil cinema on Tamil Nadu’s political landscape. Writing in 1996 in ‘The Eye of the Serpent: An Introduction to Tamil Cinema’, Tamil film historian Theodore Baskaran argues “over the seventy-nine years of its existence, Tamil cinema has grown to become the most domineering influence in the cultural and political life in Tamil Nadu.” Sixteen years later, the statement is still not an exaggeration, with the leader of the ruling party of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalitha, and the leaders of the two major opposition parties DMK and DMDK, Karunanidhi and Vijayakanth respectively, hailing from strong backgrounds in Tamil cinema. Indeed, a walk in the streets of Chennai, Madurai or Salem would expose one to the near omnipresence of the gods of Kollywood – posters on walls, pictures on shops, autos, cars and buses, larger than life cut-outs, mobs thronging theatres that screen blockbusters and so.

Kollywood, or the Tamil version of Hollywood, is term that is used to refer to the Tamil cinema industry that has Kodambakkam in Chennai as its heart. With about 200 films produced annually, with the highest paid actor in India (Rajinikanth) and with huge investments put into the production of a single movie – Shankar’s Endhiran was produced at a whooping budget of over 1.5 billion Indian Rupees, making it the costliest movie to be made in India – it is a thriving commercial enterprise. Taking from Zizek who contends that much of the issues in the so-called post-industrial society can be analyzed through a study of Hollywood, I argue that an analysis of Kollywood Cinema, considering its strong influence in contemporary Tamil Nadu’s political culture, would greatly assist in understanding social aspects of Tamil society.

Now, while many in the Tamil cine world have expressed their sympathies for the plight of the Eelam Tamils, it is only a few actors and directors – and they are mostly not box office hits – who have explicitly empathized with the political struggle of the Eelam Tamils. In fact, despite the claims of many in Tamil Nadu cinema, both on screen and off, that they express ‘genuine’ Tamil sentiments and culture, the portrayal of the Eelam Tamils’ struggle in mainstream cinema has been negligible. Now, this is a relative statement considering the fact that the political struggle of the Eelam Tamils heralded a new phase of militant Tamil nationalism, created a society that reformers and poets of Tamil Nadu could only write about, and waged a war for liberation that was of epic proportions in its moments of both triumph and tragedy. Thus, it is a matter for lamentation that a culture industry in the ‘heart of Tamil civilization’ did not give adequate artistic due in its mainstream medium to an achievement that is claimed by many a Tamil nationalist to have been the ‘height of Tamil civilization’.

This article seeks to briefly explore the few mainstream Tamil movies that have touched on the subject of the Eelam Tamils and interrogate how the portrayal has been executed. By ‘mainstream’, I refer to those movies that have been made for explicitly commercial purposes and have produced by well established production houses. This article does not want into take into consideration Eelam Tamils portrayed in non-mainstream Tamil Nadu cinema not because there haven’t been any, but just because most, if not all, are hardly worthy of critical examination for the sheer lack of artistic form or content. Of course, there is considerable debate on what is mainstream and what is not. And I do welcome the criticism that this labelling is in itself a discriminatory act that pushes other artistic productions to the sidelines. For purposes of providing a general idea of the issue at hand, the article prefers to stick to the definition of ‘mainstream’ mentioned above.

Eelam Tamils have been subjects in some movies while in others, they have been explicitly referred to or allusions have been deployed.

Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondein Kandukondein (2000) has a short starting sequence showing a ‘gallant’ IPKF commando being confronted and horribly wounded by ‘ruthless’ Tamil militants, few seconds after he advises his fellow soldier that in war one doesn’t ask questions and one goes where the country orders to. On the other hand, there are those movies directed by Tamil nationalists like Seeman’s Thambi (2006) and Ram’s Kattrathu Tamizh (2007) in which the directors intend to make positive reference to the LTTE leader.

Thambi revolves around an angry young Tamil man with a perceived sense of injustice, who believes that he can tackle the ills in society by beating up a few goons, giving moralizing lectures to women and making passionate speeches for social harmony. Kattrathu Tamizh is about a young Tamil man, a post-graduate in Tamil language, who is, in all senses of the term, a loser in life. Failing to secure a vocation for himself, this frustrated monstrosity of a man runs into trouble with the law, beats up youngsters for being unable to speak ‘proper’ Tamil, molests Tamil women for wearing western clothes, and kills couples for not acting according to ‘Tamil culture’. The most criminal element of the movie, however, is that the director chose to name the protagonist ‘Prabhakaran’. It is not hard to speculate that in reality, while a character like Thambi would have been ridiculed in the society that existed in the LTTE’s de facto state, Ram’s ‘Prabhakaran’ would have been tried and executed. While the directors might have had the best of intentions while making their respective movies, it is clear that good intentions needn’t necessarily translate into a good product!

Some interesting allusions were made to the Eelam Tamils’ struggle in a few movies that were released after 2009. Murugadoss’ 7aum Arivu (2011), a sci-fi thriller based on the Tamil origins of Bodhidharma and his legacy in modern times, has one such short sequence. After being badly beaten by the Chinese villain and escaping with just their lives, the female lead advises the male protagonist Suriya that Tamil heroism is now pointless, referring to the example of the Tamils “in the nearby country”. Suriya replies that nine countries ganging up on one Tamil person is not heroism but betrayal. This scene is now circulated in Youtube by some Tamil enthusiast with the title 7am arivu about tamil eelam.

Another movie with strong allusions to the condition of the Eelam Tamils is the Selvaraghavan directed Aayirathil Oruvan (2010). The story is of a modern day hunt for a descendent of the Chola dynasty, whose ancestors have been forced to flee their homeland Tanjore in the 13th century. A Pandyan princess, with the help of unassuming allies, discovers the location of the Chola king, deceives him, and calls over her mercenary troops who then wage war on the Chola survivors. Though the Cholas fight fiercely, the modern day Pandyas, equipped with superior technology, guns, bombs, satellite phones etc. defeat them and carry out a sort of genocide. The ending scenes, with the remaining Cholas being herded by the victorious army into makeshift camps, massacres of surrendered civilians, torture and murder of children, gang rapes of Chola women, did ring Sri Lankan bells for quite some viewers – despite the fact that on screen, it was a ‘modern’ ‘corrupt’ Tamil Nadu force doing these things to an ‘ancient’ ‘pure’ Tamil Nadu force. An obvious reason would be the frequent reference to the Tiger symbol, something that many young Tamil Nadu Tamils associate more with Tamil Eelam than with ‘their own’ Chola ancestors. Likewise, many who have listened to the songs in the movie have remarked that Vairamuthu’s ‘Pemmane’ and ‘Thaai Thindra Manne’ implicitly refer to the oppression of the Eelam Tamil nation. Consider the below (crude) translation of lines from the latter.

“The Chola descendents, who once raised the Tiger flag,
are now living off rat meat”

“Crumbling bodies,
Evaporating souls,
A declining nation,
A ruler who cries”

“Oh! If you would but take us to the Homeland,
we will roll in its mud like horses!
The tears hoarded for a thousand years
we will set free like a dam opened!”

“Overlooking the prolonged suffering of the Tamils
Oh planets above circling our heads, do not weep.
In the hope that there will be dawn some day,
Oh the day that bears the night, do not weep.”

Whether or not the poet (who has been known to write poetry sympathetic to the Eelam Tamils) intended to convey the sufferings of the Eelam Tamils in this song, given the highly subjective nature of poetry, many Tamils have inferred that this song is a reflection of sufferings of the Eelam Tamils. Also significant is the fact that this song hit the public barely a year after the worst massacre in entire Tamil history. We can observe a commonality in both of the two above mentioned post-2009 movies – Eelam Tamils’ are alluded to as representing a Tamil purism, a classical heroism that faced a tragic finale owing to circumstances beyond its control.

Now, coming to the portrayal of Eelam Tamils as subjects in a movie, the comedy flick Thenali (2000) of KS Ravikumar had Kamal Haasan playing the lead character of ‘Thenali’, an Eelam Tamil refugee in Tamil Nadu. Having witnessed his father’s death and mother’s rape at the hands of Sri Lankan soldiers, he is in perennial fear of almost everything. The burden of his individual history and of that of his people doesn’t make him a political man – it makes him a comedian who eventually gets assimilated into an upper-middle class Indian Tamil life. Likewise, Bala’s Nandha (2001) features Laila as an irritatingly innocent Eelam Tamil refugee, whose sole desire in life after landing in Tamil Nadu is to get married to a local street thug. The other character of interest in the flick is the local don who acts as patriarchal benefactor to the oh-so-poor-and-oppressed-refugees but would not entertain any ‘anti-social elements’, whatever that means.

And then, there is the ‘critically acclaimed’ director Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittaal (2002). In short, the story is of an Eelam Tamil refugee-cum-orphan who is adopted by a Tamil Nadu family, with Madhavan playing the role of the father, a Tamil radical peace activist – interestingly named Tiruchelvan (a reference to the GoSL collaborator who donned the robe of a holier-than-thou rights activist?). After learning about her origins, the child expresses a desire to meet her surviving mother, but after visiting the island and witnessing the ravages of war, she returns to Tamil Nadu to be a good Tamil girl hopefully.

Travelling to the island as father, mother and adopted child, they are helped by a benevolent Sinhalese, played by Prakash Raj. After passing through suicide bombers, SLA shelling, a boring lamentation song, banal dialogues with the Sinhala gentleman about achieving peace in the island (his opinion is that the conflict is fuelled by external powers wanting to test their weapons. Forget genocidal intent since 1948.), they finally reach the mother, Shyama, a female Tamil Tiger, a role executed with élan by Nandita Das. The Bengali actress’ charm is the only thing powerful about the character who has otherwise been stripped of her politics. Through his female Tiger’s mouth, Mani Ratnam teaches us that the Tamils were fighting for peace. And we were under the impression all this while that they were fighting for a sovereign state in their homeland!

A common thread in the above three movies is that in their portrayal of Eelam Tamil subjects on screen, they seek to domesticate the Eelam Tamils for a middle class ‘Indian Tamil’ public. The Eelam Tamils are removed of their political agency and sense and are presented as an object of pity, an agathi (refugee) and/or an anaathai (orphan). Concrete political solidarity is not demanded but an abstract humanitarian sentiment is requested. If one were to put these sentiments into words it would be something like the following. “Ooh, look how they suffer. Let’s marry them. Or adopt them. Or take them under our shelter. Assimilate them into our safe lives. Let us be benevolent providers.” Charity is the gesture appealed for. And as Peter Verkhovensky, the iconoclast character of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils, observed “There’s always something fundamentally depraving in charity.”

Like a slap across the face of the protagonists of these benevolent sentiments, a character in a recently released Tamil movie punches an oppressive Indian cop and declares “We may be refugees. Not orphans!”

Name: David Billa.

Chakri Toleti’s Billa 2 (2012), the prequel to the immensely successful Billa (itself a remake of the 1980’s original Rajinikanth starring Billa), is the formation story of the fictional international crime kingpin David Billa. The protagonist, whose role is played rather soberly by Ajith Kumar, is revealed to be an Eelam Tamil from the island. Though the word ‘Sri Lanka’ is not used verbally, the opening credits sequence, with neo-noir style imagery shows the growth of the boy through the SL conflict into a man on the run. With both parents killed by the war and wanted by the state for activities not discussed, he arrives at a Tamil Nadu refugee camp only to know that he and his people are unwelcome beings who are just merely tolerated. But he is no refugee who would desire assimilation into ‘normal’ society, meek submission, sentimentality, or compliance with the powers that be. In his very first encounter with the camp’s officials where he is asked if he is a terrorist, he makes it clear that he is well aware of the world’s hypocritical morality,

“There is only one difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Victory. Until he wins, he is a terrorist. If he wins, he is a freedom fighter.”

The protagonist is correspondingly amoral. David Billa doesn’t cry or whine about what he lost nor does he fetishize a pristine past. He is not one on whom you write your colourful human rights stories of exotic pain and suffering. He is cold, calculating and cut-throat – incidentally, values that Tamils need now if they are to confront a genocidal Sri Lankan state abetted by an international system of injustice. Consider the lines (crudely translated) from his theme song ‘Unakkule Mirugam’

David Billa: Cold and Calculating

David Billa: Cold and Calculating

“If you are living in hell,
you must learn to become a monster.
Offer sacrifice,
incite fear,
keep growing as they try to cut you.”

“There are no friends.
Nor there are enemies.
You alone are your friend.
You alone are your enemy.”

Lessons for Eelam Tamils in global politics post-2009?

Billa works his way out of the camp and carves his path to the top of the underworld, ruthlessly eliminating those who stand in his way, transforming from a refugee who arrived on the shores of Tamil Nadu with only a few clothes in hand to a criminal mastermind with worldwide reach. He is a self-made subject, as he proudly claims “I am the craftsman of every minute, every second of my life”, not a dependant on the charity of some benefactor in Tamil Nadu. It might sound audacious, but America based Indian director Chakri Toleti’s David Billa is the most desirable portrayal of an Eelam Tamil in Kollywood that any politically sensible Eelam Tamil would prefer.

The flaws in this portrayal are obvious. Though nurtured by the fundamental inadequacies and injustices in the existing system, the organized criminal element does not stand for a radical restructuring of the same. Being indifferent to the system’s codes, he is not that much of a threat to the system as the revolutionary who seeks to smash the current codes and replace them with different ones. But should the oppressed be given the choice between being a charismatic criminal who retains his sense and clinical perception of world, or an object of other’s pity, sympathy and scorn, what should they choose? Isn’t the dynamic don of Chakri better than the toothless tiger of Mani?

Chakri’s Billa says certain things without saying them: The world is a violent place, and violence, at times, can be a necessary way of life. Things are bad; they can get worse unless a life or death choice is made. The word morality rhymes with convenience. Strength is the first virtue. The end justifies the means. And of course, the classic observation from the Melian dialogue, the strong do what they can and the weak endure what they must. At the risk of sounding cynical, these observations that can be inferred from Billa 2 have far more bearing on the Eelam Tamils now than any puerile belief in comfortable spaces of ‘peace’ and ‘integration’ or for that matter abstract eulogies of pure pasts. Despite being only a hagiography of a fictional criminal, Billa 2 is the closest in one can get to an Eelam Tamil real politic in Kollywood. If this is the beginning of a trend, it should be encouraged.

Yes, an accurate portrayal of the political, social and existential condition of the Eelam Tamils is yet to be found in Kollywood. Considering the impossibility of any free Eelam Tamil cinema developing under unitary Sri Lanka, it is really imperative that Eelam Tamils in the diaspora cultivate their own talent to produce cinema that can be an accurate and critical reflection of their life as a nation facing genocide.

Till then, thank Kollywood for Billa 2. Even if David Billa’s accent is purely Tamil Nadu Tamil.

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