Poisoned trees bear poisonous fruits

Of late, there has been a clutch of Tamil films that have endeavoured to show the Hindu right-wing in poor light, associating its rituals with violence and oppression. The two most notable examples are Kaala and Petta, both starring Rajinikanth. Kaala was a modern adaptation of the Ramayana but told as if from Ravana’s point of view, although far from being an attempt to legitimise a ‘demon’ king, it is a story of a Tamil leader from Dharavi who fights off a Hindu thug. Petta on the other hand was less politically aware and more inclined to be entertaining, and found easy villains in the gau rakshak. So far so good.

However, a problem quickly arises in Petta that doesn’t in Kaala, nor in Kabali, also starring Rajinikanth and also directed by Pa. Ranjith, and Kaala‘s thematic predecessor. Both Kabali and Kaala were anti-caste and pointedly targeted Hindutvawadis, who have discriminatory practices hard-coded into their spiritual culture, and so carefully guided their protagonists away from all the markers of conservative Hinduism.

Petta is not so careful. It is not hard to sell the idea that a right-wing extremist is a bad person to an audience in a part of the country that largely thinks of itself as the last bastion of resistance against Hindutva nationalism. However, and like most Tamil movies that feature themes of Hinduism, Petta legitimises astrology. In a scene at the beginning of the film, an astrologer tells a goon that his ‘bad time’ has started because Kaali (Rajinikanth) is en route, referring to ‘astrological conditions’ that are unconducive to success and/or fulfilment.

In so doing, it reveals that it is unmindful of the fact that a) astrology is a form of oppression, and b) astrology and right-wing extremism exist on a continuum. Aside from its pseudoscientific credentials, astrology derives its oppressive power from the following attributes:

  1. It centralises knowledge in the hands of a few practitioners — who tend to be upper caste when they’re also high-profile — who don’t have any kind of accountability
  2. It derives its authority from scriptural utterances whose authority cannot be questioned
  3. It is deterministic and undermines human endeavour

Taken together, it is evidently a manifestation of the same superstitions and authoritarian tendencies that make right-wing extremism so potent, and so insidious. In turn, this renders Petta‘s positioning of the gau rakshaks hard to believe. If the gau rakshaks are one form of Hindu oppression, then Kaali is simply another, that somehow it is a question of kind and not degree when in fact it is one of degree.

To argue that one practice is harmless and the other is harmful would be to actively ignore the harm that festers in both of them, as much as a poisoned tree bears poisonous fruits. And while hypocrisies inhabit all of us, it is important that we acknowledge them instead of denying that they exist.