G Mohan’s Draupathi, set in modern Tamil Nadu and released in February, was a surprise hit. Despite being an independent, low-budget, crowdfunded film, it stirred up a controversy even before it hit the screens. Based on its trailer, many viewers accused it of a casteist slant in the dialogues. The film’s release proved the accusers right. A few critics have, with justification, called it out for supporting caste endogamy. But what explains the success of this film when anti-caste films such as Vetrimaaran’s Asuran (2019) and Ranjith’s Kaala (2018) and Kabali (2016) have also done well in Tamil Nadu?
Draupathi does not have the star cast of Asuran, Kaala or Kabali. All these films were produced by big production houses and funded by corporates, but Draupathi was not. It was community-financed—some say the funds came largely from the community the director belongs to.
Draupathi is the story of the eponymous character, played by Sheela Rajkumar, and her husband Prabhakaran, played by Richard Rishi, who struggle against corporate encroachment into their village, and a fake marriage racket where groups of ruffians (read as Dalit) target, entice, marry and cheat women of respectable (read as ‘upper’ caste or castes that aspire for upward social mobility) background.
Draupathi is a fiery activist based in Vizhupuram, a district that is a Vanniyar stronghold. A fact the director makes no bones about is that it is this community that he is portraying. Caste icons and T-shirts bearing the logo of the Vanniyar caste associations are openly displayed.
The villain of the film is a political leader, referred to as “Annan”, and Karuna, his henchman. Annan, some commentators say, resembles the prominent Dalit leader Thirumavalavan, though the director has denied this. Annan and Karuna are involved in the fake marriage racket and are portrayed as footsoldiers of a corporation that is intent on taking over land in the village.
Draupathi’s uncle, a community leader, says in the film that “these people”—Annan and Karuna—should be thrashed if they set foot in the village. Whether he is referring to the corporates or Dalits is left ambiguous. In fact, the movie uses many such conveniently ambiguous references to cloak its casteist narrative. For instance there is a reference to the Ilavarasan case, in a manner that suggests that it was fake. [Ilavarasan was a Dalit youth who married a Vanniyar woman and was found dead in suspicious circumstances, seven years ago in Tamil Nadu. While police authorities claim it was suicide, Dalit groups allege that it was murder.]
In any case, Annan and Karuna are the film’s anti-social elements, and they express the belief that in order to step on “those people’s land”, they need to first lay their hands on “those people’s women”. Both are brutally executed by Prabhakaran. The lawyer, Guruthevan, praises Prabhakaran for killing such “lowly people”—keezhthanamanavanga— and defends him and Draupathi in court. Guruthevan demands in court that a law be passed to document all registered marriages on CCTV cameras. He also wants a provision for registered marriages to take place only in the presence of the parents of the couple. He wins a partial victory: the court supports video recordings of such marriages.
There are three key themes in the film. One, that corporates corrupt village/community life. Two, that the footsoldiers of such corporates are the ‘other’ or “lower” castes, who have no concept of community or honour, and who will go to any extent to break tradition. The fake marriages are exactly this—a tool to break established norms. Three, and most important, is the film’s assertion that castes exist and that the most we can aspire to is to seek equality among the members of a caste while maintaining differences between castes.
The first theme is not unique to Draupathi. Several popular Tamil films, such as Pattikada Pattanama (1972), Sakalakala Vallavan (1982), Mahanadhi (1994), Thiruppachi (2005) have displayed urban city spaces as corrupt, unscrupulous, morally fallible and/or violent, while villages are generally presented as innocent and harmonious utopias. Film critic Venkatesh Chakravarthy has noted that in several Bharathiraja films, the outsider who visits a village is usually responsible for introducing or resolving the moral turbulence in society.
In a sense, Draupathi is a replay of the theme that what is external to the village cannot be a part of its organic rural schema. But while its predecessors showed the outsiders as casteless, rootless cosmopolitans, Draupathi implicitly ascribes to them a caste identity; that of being Dalit. Dalits in the film are shown to be at ease with modernity and urban culture. In fact, this characterisation represents an anxiety; what MSS Pandian has called the “slipping hegemony of intermediate castes”, i.e., the inability of such castes to come to terms with Dalit mobility.
Dalits, especially the Paraiyar caste, and a few intermediate caste groups such as the Nadars, Mudaliars and Chettiyars, have welcomed urbanism. It can also be observed that they are not particularly emotionally attached to land or agrarian occupations. They have been able to use urban spaces to their social and economic advantage. This transition that has not been easy for Dalits, but is preferable to the oppressive village atmosphere.
On the other hand, intermediate castes that are excessively emotionally attached to land and agriculture—like the Gounder, Thevar and Vanniyar communities—tend to view the urban with suspicion if not outright hostility. A detailed study of the patterns and motivations of honour killings in Tamil Nadu might reveal that the pro-urban communities are less likely to be involved in such crimes/acts, while the pro-agrarian communities show the opposite tendency.
Indeed, in Draupathi, Mohan depicts the Vanniyars as true sons of the soil. For them, soil (mann) and women (penn) are repositories of community honour. But among the pro-agrarian intermediate castes, the Vanniyars are also at the lowest rung in terms of the customary social hierarchy. They are economically a most-backward group.
The Vanniyars have tried to fashion themselves as Kshatriya for generations, constructing fanciful histories of their community and trying to claim they are descendants of the Tamil kings of yore. Imagination plays a much bigger role than historical fact in asserting caste pride. This should be read as their attempt to compensate for their socio-economic backwardness with caste pride.
These modern attempts at Sanskritisation—a theory propounded by eminent sociologist MN Srinivas—are the Vanniyar’s way to gain status within the traditional Varna hierarchy. But it is important to note that the change in relative position in the caste hierarchy that they are seeking is not necessarily accompanied by any structural change in their economic status.
Yet this effort has struck a chord somewhere. For instance, the Facebook profile of Draupathi’s director has his name mentioned as Mohan G Kshatriyan. When asked in an interview what the rationale for the suffix is, Mohan G said that he has read that a Kshatriya is “one who defends society”. When the interviewer probed him about what he thinks the other varnas do, he dissimulated, claiming he is completely unaware of them. Plus, he cited the popular film Baahubali to highlight the noble qualities of a Kshatriya.
The Thomas Theorem, formulated by the sociologists WI Thomas and DS Thomas, explains that when men define their situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Hence, one consequence of the Vanniyar self-definition as Kshatriya is their growing animosity towards the Dalits. However, Vanniyar casteism is not the same as Rajput or Bhumihar casteism. While the latter are supremely confident of their “superiority”, which is based on their exalted status in the traditional caste hierarchy, Vanniyar assertion is a result of a deep identity crisis, which it further exacerbates.
To explain further, the Vanniyars may (justifiably) claim reservations in jobs and educational institutions from the government, on the basis of their real socio-economic backwardness, but their simultaneous claim to superiority on the basis of a fictitious reconstruction of their past rests on shaky foundations. To “prove” that they are superior, they must project themselves as martial, violent and “different” from the Dalits.
The film Draupathi falls in this rut: it emphasises on the “need” for caste differences, even considers such distinctions laudable. But to do so, it obfuscates the similarities that exist between a vast majority of the members of the Vanniyar and the Dalit communities, both in terms of their recorded history and their objective economic conditions.
The film also has a curious gender politics, on which Vilasini Ramani provided several crucial insights. Many other films that glorify caste pride, be it the commercial successes such as Thevar Magan (1992), Chinna Gounder (1992), Nattamai (1994) or flops such as Muthuramalingam (2017) or Devarattam (2019), centred on hyper-masculine protagonists, both heroes as individuals and representing their community’s nobility on screen. Female characters are mostly passive, and held to be “ideal” women because of their timidity.
In Draupathi on the other hand, the female lead is the prime mover of the plot. Where heroes of Tamil cinema are usually fulfilling a mother’s wishes, here is a rare film where the goal of the male lead is to fulfil his wife’s vow. Indeed, women in Tamil cinema can be authority figures only when they are mothers. Wives are expected to submit to the male. Not so here. Draupathi urges the women of her community to take pride in themselves, seek education and social power. There is not a single scene in which she is seen doing domestic work. She has a higher responsibility—to her caste group.
The film seems to say that women must seek empowerment in and through their community, and that without this community, which is determined by birth in a caste, they would be prey to unscrupulous predators from the “outside”. There has been much debate on how toxic masculinity informs caste. Draupathi is a good case of toxic casteist femininity.
Many Vanniyars have received the movie positively as have members from social groups who share the film’s cultural anxieties. The film was also lavishly praised by the BJP leader H Raja, who is notorious for his communal statements. While there are many films glorifying the Thevars and Gounders, and of course the Brahmins, in Tamil cinema, Vanniyars have been largely left out. For Vanniyar zealots, this is a special moment because Draupathi is the first film after Marumalarchi (1998) to explicitly portray Vanniyars as assertive.
Given the successive rout of the Vanniyar-centric PMK in elections for over a decade now, this film is a morale booster. However, older Vanniyars from Chidambaram may painfully remember that the release of Marumalarchi two decades ago was stalled in that district by the powerful Vandayars, a subsect of the Thevar caste, who were irked by the film glorifying those whom they considered “lower” caste. That a few Thevars are now supporting Draupathi is an ironic twist—but ironies do not last long in history.
Draupathi may seem to voice irrational concerns and anti-Dalit prejudices of a few intermediate and upper castes but it cannot build a “unity” on this basis. Without a powerful story or memorable performance, it will soon be forgotten, even by its critics.
(With thanks to Vilasini Ramani for crucial insights on the film.)
The author is assistant professor of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). He is working on the political thought of Periyar EV Ramasamy. The views are personal.