This is not a review but a deeper meditation on Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai. Undeniably relevant to the discourse on the annihilation of caste are the subject and subtext of this film: questions about men, masculinity and their breaking free from emotional redundancy in caste society. The higher the caste, the higher the level of emotional redundancy among men in our society. Sarpatta Parambarai deals with male (dalit) pain and anxiety to break free from this suffering. We often forget to consider our pain while talking about change or liberation from it. So let us get the facts right: some dalit men in caste society suffer more because they stand precisely in the middle of oppression and liberation. In this place, they are privileged as men compared with women of their communities and, at the same time, oppressed when compared with the rest of caste society. ‘I am historically denied water by men as women of higher castes are.’ ‘I have no say outside the home.’ ‘I am mocked for my caste.’ ‘I am seen as a subject worthy of contempt among other castes.’ ‘My capabilities are undermined.’ ‘I am stereotyped in movies, newspapers and public discourse.’ This internal monologue is the emotional theatre of a dalit man. His discreet inner world is also prohibited from getting visibility in the public eye. If at all his inner world gets visibilised, it is reduced to a contemptuous category. No wonder such an emotional state of being, fuelled by undecipherable anxiety and excruciating social loneliness, leads him down the road of self-destruction. I have seen many dalit men: able, hard-working, brilliant storytellers and wonderful human beings, eventually consumed by alcohol or the social loneliness cunningly developed by society to consistently reject their sense of personhood as soon as they are recognised as dalit.
In Sarpatta Parambarai, however, I witnessed hope. I felt it in my bones, the hope not to get lost in the social loneliness of caste society. In India, it is rare for a movie to talk about your deepest pain without erasing the history of your being and remaining true to the community that gives you the strength to deal with that pain.
As Sarpatta Parambarai begins, we find the protagonist Kabilan working at a seaport as a porter, loading and unloading gunny bags. But he is more interested in boxing than work. He anxiously awaits his shift to get over so he can watch bouts live. Boxing is in his blood—we need no reason to understand why. He has a profound instinct to labour, which he seeks to invest into something bigger, more meaningful, and spiritually healing. His anxiety explains more: boxing is his only meaningful inheritance. Slowly, the subtext of the film also reveals the significance of what boxing means to him and what spiritual healing can be to a dalit man.
Kabilan’s father, Munirathnam, was a great boxer in independent India. He was killed in an ambush because of his unbeatable boxing prowess. Munirathnam was a dalit man in newly-democratic constitutional India, where boxing became his pursuit for regaining respect and reclaiming lost dignity. And he did all of this through hard work. So, a dalit man who outshines feudal and brahmanical men when opportunities were equally and fairly distributed becomes a thorn in the eyes of those very feudal-brahmanical forces. He is plucked out by their violence. A flower that one day dares to bloom, under the sun and winds of constitutional values newly-arrived in the most divisive society in the world, is crushed before it fully blossoms.
The memory of this violence, and his father fighting unabatedly against the goons who ambushed him, became a defining event in Kabilan’s life. It made boxing an inevitable process to his spiritual healing. However, Kabilan’s mother, Bakkiyam, a single parent, raised her son amidst challenges with an instinct to protect him from the violence associated with boxing in her world. She attempts to stop him from getting involved with boxing in every possible way. As a man and a dalit, Kabilan’s instinct always resists his mother’s efforts to stop him from watching the bouts. His instincts outweigh everything that seeks to contain him. Eventually, he finds himself in the boxing ring where he repeats the glory that once his father had earned. He works hard to reach here. He is conscious of who he is. His peers remind him of their struggle for fair and equal opportunities. He feels the weight of history, social experiences and caste and prepares to bear all this weight. But the past repeats itself in other ways too. Once again, his glory and achievements are perceived as threats to patriarchy and brahmanical manhood.
Remember, action-drama films primarily showcase the fall and rise of the protagonist. But Sarpatta Parambarai is more than an action sports drama. It is a document of the dilemmas of a dalit man who breaks free. Since Kabilan’s glory as a boxer becomes a threat to others, it creates circumstances that force him to commit acts of violence to protect his honour. Violence, as his coach reminds him, is the first step towards the downfall of a boxer. Not only does his violence snatch his glory from him, but it also disrupts him psychologically. He gets involved in an alcohol-brewing business, becomes an alcoholic, loses the fitness that a boxer must command, becomes irritable, falls to the extent of man-handling his mother—and then is filled with untenable guilt. He has fallen. The attacks his father faced also reappear in his life, yet, somehow, he protects himself. History was on the threshold of repeating, but Kabilan is saved, unlike his father. It makes him think.
By the time this happens, Kabilan has become a self-destructive man. He has been killing himself, physically and psychologically, with drinking and the burden of guilt ever since he attacked his mother. His relationships with the women in his life, his mother and wife, start crumbling. Anger, ambiguousness, irritability, and guilt replace love in his life. Still, the assault on him when he was in a drunken state makes him realise a greater truth. “Males cannot love themselves in a patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules,” says Bell Hooks in her book, The Will To Change. Hooks also wrote, “That love and domination can coexist is one of the most powerful lies patriarchy tells us all.” Kabilan feels after he mistreats his mother and fails to treat his wife with love, care and sensitivity, too, that he has allowed himself to be destroyed by the rules of brahmanical patriarchy. According to these rules, as a dalit man, he must be destroyed if he strives, even through hard work and talent, for equality in society or even claims dignity and respect for himself. The attack on him also reminds him of the past, his father and generations ruined by self-destructive anger, addiction and loneliness. Kabilan determines to break free.
What Kabilan needs is discipline, hard work and reorient himself towards his instincts, which have faded in the course of his addiction and destructive spiral. He achieves this by working extremely hard again. Again, he proves himself a man worthy of respect and dignity in the same society that once saw his dignity fall in the ring. In his essay, Healing from Manhood, John Stoltenberg says, “Loving justice more than manhood is not only a worthy pursuit, it is the future.”
Observing Kabilan’s rise-fall-rise step by step, we arrive at the moment of witnessing the process through which a dalit man, conscious of his history and downfall, chooses justice over manhood. It reflects how he establishes himself as a beautiful mind in a society that crushed his dreams, aspirations and ability to think for himself. Kabilan does not fight for himself but on behalf of those dalit men who were forced to self-destruct despite proving themselves worthy of respect and dignity.
This transformation is why Sarpatta Parambarai is not just a film. It is a new lesson in our time about the world of dalit men who choose justice over manhood to make society a place where people will never give up hope of spiritually healing from the assaults of brahmanical patriarchy.