Have we stopped believing in ‘Unity in Diversity’?

I once heard an urban legend that when White Americans first heard Elvis Presley on radio, they assumed him to be a black man because of his obvious Black influence. When word got around that Elvis was actually a White dude, there was a marked increase in his popularity.

While I have not been able to verify this claim in any article about his initial rise to popularity, it intrigued me all the same. Is it true that we gravitate towards art and entertainment created by those whom we deem to be our own? Is our choice in entertainment media just an exercise in jingoism?

This is a very depressing thought. Do we take our differences so seriously that the merit of the art matters so little to us?

I liked Ahaa and found Kanda Naal Mudhal passably entertaining. But in general, I found that my Brahmin friends like both movies a lot more than I do. The church wedding scene at the climax of Minnale certainly put a smile on my lips as church weddings were not depicted very convincingly until then. It probably makes a difference only if you are familiar with church music. And all this is in a very forgettable movie which had not convinced me to be invested in the characters at all.

We all love it when an actor gets our dialect right. Vairamuthu consistently used the names of cities and towns in his lyrics as people got much attached to those songs. So we got ‘thenmerku paruva kaatru Theni pakkam veesum pothu‘ and ‘Maanamadurai mamara kilaiyilea’. We adore it when our specific culture is depicted on screen. This is the closest most of us are going to get to seeing ourselves on the big screen.

I strongly remember thinking “A woman wrote Vaseegara? So that is why it sounded so refreshingly different.

All this variety seems to have come only after Barathiraja burst into the scene. Movies pretended that caste did not exist and only class distinction existed at all. They always seemed so whitewashed to remove all traces of caste. This is of course based on my own reading of Black & White movies. I am not all that knowledgeable about movies.

But we need more variety. The movie making elite should never be a homogenous group. We need more directors, writers and lyricists who come from minority populations.

We need more Muslim directors. The movie scene is incomplete when such a large group of people are represented only as foil and not as their own agents. I have never seen a nice rom-com with a Muslim Jodi. I have never seen a casual scene where a Muslim woman wakes her son up saying that he is too lazy and should not be late to the mosque. We don’t see their life. And it really is high time, no?

All this yearnings for heterogeneous movies does not make the reduction of someone’s taste in Maniratnam and/or Kamalhassan movies to merely sharing their caste, any less absurd.

I mean, I’d have understood it if they were 2 obscure filmmakers long forgotten by the general public. But Maniratnam? And Kamalhassan?

Consider the Illayaraja top 100 albums that I collected as a tribute. A good 40+ songs of the 100 pictured as screenshots can be tracked back to K.Balachander, Maniratnam, Kamalhassan or the very prolific Vaali. Would I have been called casteist or classist for the very same choice had I been a Brahmin? It just doesn’t seem right.

We don’t think of class when we call 2 friends a “Deva-Surya” pair. We don’t think of caste when we use a “Nee Azhaga Irukanu Nenaikala” quote. On the same note, we don’t think of Vadivelu’s caste or Goundamani’s caste while laughing at a Kaipulla joke or All-in-all Alagaraja quote.

Caste is not continually on our minds while we interact with each other unless we permit some people to deposit poison in us. We need to learn to give space to a truly heterogeneous group of filmmakers without taking away from the achievements of those who came before them.