How Kollywood casteism shaped the jallikattu protests

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 12, 2018 14:41 hrs
A still from Kamal's Virumandi

(A still from Kamal's movie Virumandi)

There is no heroism in several people leaping on a confused bull.

There is no heroism in one person leaping on a confused bull.

There is no truth in saying the bull is like a family member unless one is in the habit of tying up family members for hours, rubbing chilli powder on their private parts and eyes, biting their extremities, damaging their vertebrae, forcing alcohol down their throats, and locking them up in an enclosure until one feels like leaping on them.

There is no bull which feels a sense of honour at having been selected above all others to rape a cow. Mating is natural; breeding is not. In trying to “save” indigenous breeds, what dairy farms are actually doing is enforcing large scale rape.

No one who has read about, leave alone visited, dairy farms can believe that cattle are actually treated as family; not when most male calves are sold off long before they should be weaned.

Under these circumstances, why is Kollywood – including the self-proclaimed animal rights activists among the actors and actresses – united in its support of the monstrous bloodsport that is jallikattu?

The reason is, perhaps, that Kollywood, over the last three decades or so, has turned jallikattu into a mass spectacle, tied into Tamil pride, when it is in fact tied only into casteism, sexism, and animal abuse.

Rajinikanth went from villain to household name with his Murattu Kaalai (1980), a film in which his bull-taming character was fittingly called Kaalaiyan.

Kamal Haasan has always brought in bull-taming scenes in his films, from Singaravelan to Virumaandi.

Often, the taming of the bull becomes a metaphor for the taming of the heroine.

And the overpowering of a helpless being by someone who is a “real man” reinforces the toxic machismo which has always been the cornerstone of Tamil culture.

The other factor, one which is not often raised, is the casteism inherent in jallikattu, both in its screen and real-life versions. While MGR and Sivaji Ganesan have also acted in films featuring bull-taming, it was nearly always a metaphor for the rich, bold shrew who had to be beaten into submission.

But later films pandered to particular castes, and as reward for it, have made their stars extremely popular. Films such as Singaravelan, Virumaandi, Ejamaan, Chinna Gounder, Thevar Magan, and others inevitably glorify the caste of the hero, and these are inevitably castes which are involved in jallikattu.

The origins of jallikattu are the subject of debate, since there are references to various forms of bull-fighting in Sangam literature.

It appears from some texts that farmers would select grooms for their daughters based on their efficiency with taming the bull – perhaps not necessarily because they wanted abusive husbands for their daughters, but because they figured a man who was strong enough to control a bull would be strong enough to till his fields and provide for his future wife and children.

In other texts, it seems to have been a gladiator sport, where people would compete to pull a chain of coins off the horns of the bull, which may have given it its name – “salli kattu” being the chain of coins that was tied to the bull’s horns.

Whichever of these stories is true, it is indisputable that the “sport” involved the non-consensual torment of an animal for the purpose of betting, which cannot be said to belong to any one culture. The giveaway of brides for displays of toxic masculinity is not a specifically Tamil tradition, as our mythology indicates all too clearly – the women in The Ramayana and The Mahabharata were all won by feats of archery.

More troublingly, though it has been pitched as a level field for humans, where a person of any caste could compete, there have been incidents of skirmishes when a Dalit successfully “tamed” a bull belonging to an upper caste farmer.

A friend whose family has been involved in jallikattu – though he has made his stance against it clear – told me the competitors are required to wear a thread around their wrists, the colour of which indicates their caste. When those of lower castes are injured, they are left to rue their insubordination and not given medical help.

So the practice against which Kollywood is so afraid to speak is both casteist and sexist.

Perhaps the actors who have spoken in support of jallikattu are worried humanitarianism will affect their vote banks, since they all appear to have political ambitions.

It is important for us to call out oppression of the voiceless and the helpless under the guise of “tradition” and “culture”. The prioritisation of “tradition” and “culture” was the reason sati survived as long as it did.

Jallikattu and the mindless protests around it only preserve the culture of sexism and the tradition of casteism. What all Tamilians need to think about is whether there are any circumstances under which cruelty could be justified to preserve casteism and sexism.

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