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Opinion | This skinny blue dog is me

A fine new Tamil film about caste oppression offers angry protest music and flashy visuals, but also serenity and grace

A still from the 2018 film, Mari Selvaraj’s ‘Pariyerum Perumal’.
A still from the 2018 film, Mari Selvaraj’s ‘Pariyerum Perumal’.

A young man lies across a railway track, wounded, unconscious, about to be run over by a train. As the soundtrack reprises a familiar song—with a chorus that mimics a dog’s howling—a thin mongrel, bright blue, unreal, approaches. It licks the man’s face until he is awake, then slowly dissolves into the air.

This scene, from the Tamil film Pariyerum Perumal, written and directed by Mari Selvaraj, reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s beautiful Dog Star—a short story in which another dog-lover is saved by a triggered memory of a beloved animal (or is this a supernatural visitation? You can interpret it either way). The protagonist of this tale is an astronaut working on a space station far from earth, but the eponymous hero of Pariyerum Perumal is forced by circumstances not just to stay grounded but to think of himself as a lowly creature—a slithering snake, a crawling scorpion. Or a black dog.

Pariyan (played by Kathir) is a lower-caste boy who wants to study law and dreams of becoming another Ambedkar, but is persecuted at every turn: whether he is trying to understand classes held in English, or romancing a classmate. Throughout all this, he carries the memory of his beloved dog Karuppi, with whom he used to go hunting, but who was brutally killed—another way of putting the subaltern “in his place".

I should admit to a minor annoyance I felt during the first few scenes of this film. With some of the most important “people" in my life having been of the canine ilk, I’m not pleased to see a dog used as a metaphor or MacGuffin in a story (even when the story is about something important like caste oppression), rather than depicted on its own terms as a sentient, sensitive creature. And Karuppi is very much a symbol. If the dog in Samuel Fuller’s 1982 White Dog stood for an incurable strain of racism (the film centres on a dog that has been conditioned to attack black people), Karuppi—glowing blue in her apparitional state—stands for the oppressed. She is a version of the hounded Pariyan, and both are in danger of meeting the same fate. (“In the wilderness without you, how will I find my way?" he sings “Your paw scrapes are my trail. You are not just a dog. Aren’t you ME?")

And yet, there is something so honest and immediate about Pariyerum Perumal that my reservations fell away. In any case, Karuppi apart, this is a symbol-laden story. Which also raises a question: can a film that deals seriously with caste tyranny avoid being angry and allegorical?

In recent times, the question has been answered with a firm “No" by, among others, the work of Nagraj Manjule: Fandry, which has a languid tone for the most part but moves towards a distressing climax and a Fourth Wall-shattering final shot that turns the gaze on the audience; and Sairat, with its indelibly pessimistic last scene. In an earlier age, during the 1980s, there were sting-in-the-tail works like Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh and Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai, which suggested that things might never meaningfully improve for society’s most downtrodden—or that if change has to come, it must be swift and anarchic; there is no room for incremental, compromised progress.

Pariyerum Perumal is in some ways gentler and more sanguine than those films. It combines many tones, shifting from angry protest music (accompanied by visuals that play like avant-garde music videos) to lilting romance (the weakest segments in my view) to droll comedy provided by Pariyan’s friend Anand. (If you’re a Hindi-film viewer unfamiliar with contemporary Tamil cinema, the affable Yogi Babu, who plays this part, looks like someone took Johnny Lever and inflated him with an air-pump like they used to do in Tom and Jerry cartoons.) There are disturbing sequences such as the one when Pariyan’s effeminate father visits the law college, and interludes featuring an old hitman who impassively murders people in the name of “honour". But equally, there is an unforced warmth running through the film, which manages somehow to persist till the end.

It bears mentioning that Pa. Ranjith, who produced Pariyerum Perumal, helmed another of the year’s most vibrant films, Kaala, and filled it with hard-hitting observations about caste even as he was working with the superstar persona of Rajinikanth. At the end of that film, the protagonist dies, but also stays alive in a larger, more effective sense as a movement for equality continues in his name.

Without giving too much away, the ending of Pariyerum Perumal is composed and quiet compared to the showy, percussive triumphalism of Kaala’s last sequence—or the despair of Sairat or Fandry. The last scene here features a genial conversation between two people from opposite ends of the caste divide, romantic music, and another of those symbolic images: two near-empty glasses of tea with a delicate flower between them. And yet, given everything that has gone before, there is still some tension below this placid surface—you feel so much could still go wrong, and other black dogs could turn blue.

Above The Line is a column on cinema and how it presents the world.

He tweets at @jaiarjun

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