To understand Pa Ranjith the filmmaker, it is important to know his story, to know the heartbreak of a child who finally learns to encompass within a word the reason why he feels discriminated against. “As a child, I always wondered why things around me were the way they were. Why did I have to live in a cheri (slum)? Why was the man who sold me my favourite bambaram (top) careful to not touch my hand when accepting money? Why was I told to keep the change down?” shares Ranjith, whose films give voice to the underdog who has been relegated to the fringes for long.
These questions made sense to him once he started reading. Dr BR Ambedkar, Periyar and Karl Marx allowed him to understand the reason behind the questions in his mind.
The situation he grew up in made him a conscious individual. And, the reason why his films either revolve around or have an undercurrent of politics is because “the situation I grew up in made me a conscious individual. I didn’t go out of my way to become political; it was a part of my life. But, it was while studying Fine Arts in Egmore that I understood organised politics”, he says.
But, times have changed. And, Ranjith is worried that this awareness has come down. “Political awareness is systematically being brought down among youngsters by the State. The youth are not doing it themselves. Traditionally, in Tamil Nadu, youngsters have taken to the roads and fought for what they think is right. This is a rich legacy from pre-Independence days. That is the case across the world. Be it the ‘Black Lives Matter’ or various other movements, youth have propelled change.”
Ranjith is credited with bringing alive the Dalit voice on screen, giving new life to the traditions and lifestyle of the community and showcasing them with delicate detail. Be it love for football in North Chennai or the fondness for gaana and rap. But, the filmmaker disagrees. “I don’t think I started off wanting to bring Dalit stories to the big screen. I brought my life, what I’d seen, what I grew up with, my experiences. And, that is something true of every director. As for rap, I grew up surrounded by so much music, including rap and gaana. It is impossible for me to tell a story without them. In fact, it is logical that I tell a story using them. Also, I set my stories in backgrounds that I am familiar with. With every film, I choose scenarios that resemble what I grew up with. That is why I chose Malaysia, and now Dharavi. Somehow, oppressed people across the world, beyond caste, race, language and religion, are linked by class. And, I want to explore this connection and bring out its layers.”
In the process of creating art for the big screen, Ranjith goes through degrees of transformation as a storyteller. “Every person I meet, every political perspective I arrive at, every script I write… all of them affect me. I’m constantly evolving as a person. So is my filmmaking,” he says.
In an industry that, more often than not, seeks ‘fair skinned faces’ over talented ones who look Dravidian, his latest Kaala celebrates the dark skin tone. In fact, creating a niche for himself within the industry must not have been easy for someone who is deeply rooted and clear about the kind of movies he will be associated with. “It has been a challenging journey, but it was possible too, and I am happy about that. There is a space to work this way; it was not made available to us, and we must fight till we can. The more people make such films, the merrier. We can bring about lasting change.”
This outspokenness and the fact that he’s done two back-to-back films with Rajinikanth (Kabali and Kaala) have many speaking of how his films are being used to showcase his brand of politics. And, predictably, the controversies pile on just before release. As this is being written, it is still unclear if the film will release in neighbouring Karnataka, despite the Karnataka High Court directing the State Government to provide adequate security to theatres screening the film. How has Ranjith coped with all the scrutiny and stress? “I always tell myself that something done with honesty will find a way to seep into the thoughts and minds of people. Opposition to a creation isn’t anything new. All the ideologies of justice have had their fair share of opposition and controversies. For instance, if after all these years, Ambedkar is still relevant, in fact more so, it is because of the honesty in what he said and did. Those opposing him had to change masks so many times to sustain themselves. I continue to learn a lot from him. I also learn from the Black Movement, historically and even in its current form.”
Ranjith also credits the women in his life, his amma, wife and daughter, with his learning, and for giving him the inspiration to create female characters that are bold, sassy at times, and generous to a fault. “Actually, all the women I see inspire me in some way or the other,” says Ranjith, and goes on to narrate something he feels deeply about. “I go for a run every morning on a ground full of men. When I see a lone female runner, I am reminded of the time when as a child, I would walk from the Dalit side of my village in Karlapakkam, to the road on the other side, holding my bag close, dreading when someone will call out and question why I was walking that way. I know that tension, and I feel that girl might have a similar tension in some corner of her heart. She runs to fight that, and that’s why I think women are inspiring. They constantly fight that little voice trying to scare them.”
He feels strongly about the position of women in society. “Of all the kinds of oppression, the one highly systematised and accepted in many ways is the oppression of women. Due to many factors, women are made to accept that oppression.”
Before the interview, I had promised to not ask a single question regarding working with the Superstar. But, one has to ask him this. Having worked with the big names this early, does Ranjith the fanboy ever take over the director? “Actually, it does, with any actor I work with. You either tune actors to your script or write keeping them in mind. But, when the actor becomes the character, you can’t help being a fanboy. That happened during Kalaa too.”