Cinema is often considered to be reflecting medium of a society's collective values and ethos. It offers an encyclopedic knowledge on the underlying anthropological trends of a society that it portrays.
Before I proceed, I wish to declare a caveat. I personally detest these caste distinctions and its demeaning machinations.Personally i have no faith or belief in such a system. My objective is only to provide an unbiased analysis of how a portrayal of a Brahmin or to a greater extent the institution of Brahmanism(i.e. its core beliefs, customs and practice etc.) has developed over the years in Tamil cinema. I have watched many of the movie I propose to discuss in this blog (except for those pre-independence oldies, which I have merely read about it).
Like all other Indian cinema , divinity was the predominant theme in Tamil cinema. The first Tamil talkie "Kalidas" was based on a Hindu mythological story plot. Brahmins in those days had a powerful influence on the cinematic industry partly through their financial clout and artistic domination. "Harishchandra" another classic of the era, protrayed a cunning role of Brahmin who demanded Raja Harishchandra's wife and son as "guru dakshina". K Subramaniam, another pioneering filmmaker of the era was the first who ventured to portray the evils of Brahminical domination. His 1935 classic film Nandanar storied around the a rich Brahmin land lord who ill treats his feudal serfs, only to realize one day one of them is actually an incarnation of Lord Nataraja. In Seva Sadanam, which explore the paradox of domestic abuse and prostitution,( a demanding role palyed by MS Subbulakshmi in her first film), witnessed Natesa Iyer ripping his sacred thread in disgust. This incident created quite a furor in the Brahmin circle in those times. (it seemed the Brahmin men had no sympathies for MS's character who forced to prostitution by her abusive husband). "Thayagabhoomi" was perhaps the only film in India to be banned by the Bristish after its successful run.Even the theme of this movie was controversial with a Brahmin teaming with Dalits to strive for the country's independence.
The decade after the independence saw the emergence Dravidian ideology into Tamil cinema. "Parasakthi", which propelled Shivaji Ganesan to popularity, was harsh in its portrayal of Brahminism. A controversial scene wherein a Brahmin priest attempts to rape a woman in precincts of a temple. The ensuing decade witnessed marginalization of the community in the cinematic field. Shivaji's performance in "Vietnam Veedu" portrayed the human side of a joint Brahmin family in post-independent India. Perhaps this is one of the few films wherein the Brahmin is viewed within a larger Tamil society framework.
In majority of Tamil movies I have seen, Brahmins are portrayed as being alienated from the mainstream society. They were either viewed as a sickling of the society or the vilified personification of money and intellectual power. One movie in the seventies that is contrary to the this popular perception was "Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal" which was based on Jayakanthan's novel. Lakshmi (who won the National Award for her role)played a role of single woman for ma conservative household who defiled the traditional norms reserved for women in the society. Bharathiraja's "Vedham Pudhithu" was noted for its realistic portrayal of the changing dynamics of Brahminism. For the first time the subject of Brahminism was explored within the complicated caste equation of the Tamil society. It also showed another aspect of Brahminism that hardly any movies highlihted, the plight of Brahmin women and her status within her family. (Amala played the role of the destitute Brahmin lady being thrown out of her community).
A macho-Brahmin image in Anniyan and Gentleman was a welcome change from the decades of vilification. "Gentleman " explored the subtle machinations of the reservation. The film dared to show a Brahmin being caught on the wrong side of the reservation system. Coincidentally both these films were directed by Shankar. Also there some time tested Brahmin family centric movie like "Aa aha"(which even my grandmother relished, one modern movie she thoroughly enjoyed). "Villadhi Villan" saw Sathyaraj playing a cunning Brahmin lawyer who uses his intellectual skills only to achieve his selfish ends.His role reminds me of Shakespeare's Shylock, who finally ended up losing his honour and his daughter(played by Nagma). But the off late there is a disturbing trend of attention being showered on so called Brahmin heroine roles . Most of the hero-centric movies invariably has the leading lady from a conservative Brahmin family. The heroine is made an object of lust by her insistence on clinging to conservative culture and peculiar dialect of Tamil. The movies that come into mind are Saami, Sethu and Sivakasi(remember the song 'Vadu maanga'). So we now have heroes being shown as perfect embodiment of Dravidian race while the Brahmin ladies as the meek Aryan subjects.
One song that comes to mind from Chellame goes like this." Arya udhadugal unnadhu, dravida udahugal enadhu. Aryam Dravidam onnrai kaalakutamae'. Alas after 75 years of Tamil cinema, we end up the with the same old racial projections being imposed on Brahmins. Having said that it would be too naive to say that Tamil cinema has stereotyped the community in its portrayal. But definitely in the seventy five years of Tamil cinema, a radical shift in the way Brahmins are portrayed is visible, from being venerated in the pre-independent era, to the venal during the heights of Dravidian movement, to the marginalized in post-Dravidian politics era.