Indian activist filmmaker Pa. Ranjith has revealed an extensive production slate featuring top stars and socially relevant themes.
Ranjith was at the Cannes Film Market, where he revealed “Vettuvam”, a linked film and TV series, a co-production between his and Aditi Anand’s Neelam Studios and Golden Ratio Films, the film production arm of Vistas Media Capital.
First up for Ranjith is “Natchathiram Nagargirathu,” starring Dushara Vijayan (“Sarpatta Parambarai”), Kalaiyarasan Harikrishnan (“Kuthiraivaal”) and Kalidas (“Paava Kadhaigal”). The film is set against the backdrop of the Tamil-language theater scene and explores different facets of love that go beyond gender, and includes straight and LGBTQ+ romances, Ranjith says. The film, which also explores how these various kinds of love works on a political level in Tamil Nadu, is due a July release. It is a co-production between Yaazhi Films and Neelam.
Next is an untitled film starring Vikram (“Mahaan”), set against the backdrop of the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka. Ranjith was due to start the film after his blockbuster “Kabali,” starring Rajinikanth, but decided to wait until the two “K.G.F.” films, which have the same backdrop, released in 2018 and 2022. After watching the “K.G.F.” films, about a Bombay gangster who breaks the hegemony of the mafia ruling the gold fields and becomes India’s biggest don, Ranjith realized that his story is completely different. His film is a period piece about working class miners who discover gold in the 19th century. The film is a Neelam co-production with Studio Green.
The scripts of the Vikram film and “Vettuvam” are being written and the latter will begin production in November. Once “Vettuvam” is complete, Ranjith will begin a film with acting legend Kamal Haasan. Details are under wraps and Ranjith describes it as an “important” film that will “tackle a major issue” and will be based in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district. The film is for Haasan’s Raajkamal Films International.
Also in the works is Ranjith’s Hindi-language debut, based on the life of 19th Indian tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda who led a movement against forced conversions to Christianity during the British Raj. The film will be produced by Namah Pictures (Majid Majidi’s “Beyond the Clouds”). All these projects will be executed over the next three years.
In addition, a series which bookends Ranjith’s 1975-set boxing film “Sarpatta Parambarai” (2021) will explore Indian society through the lens of boxing history over three seasons, beginning in colonial times and ending with political skullduggery in the 1990s.
Neelam’s slate also has projected mentored by Ranjith including “Dandakaranyam,” to be directed by Athiyan Athirai (“Gundu”), about a young man’s struggles to secure a government job; “Ill,” by Akiran Moses (who assisted on “Kabali”), where a road rage incident between two denizens of a stressed out capital city will set in motion a series of events that will ultimately unleash a gang war; and “Kizhakinthiya Company” by Lenin Bharathi (“Merku Thodarchi Malai”), which explores the legacy and the scars left behind by the British Raj’s Criminal Tribes Act, 1871.
Regarding the underlying themes of his work, Ranjith says that Indian mainstream cinema always tells stories set in certain communities with tales of the oppressed Dalit caste confined to small arthouse films. He says that producers were afraid that they may not find an audience and recover their investment if they back mainstream films about Dalits.
“The Indian caste system is full of graded inequalities, meaning that films are made only about the other castes and nobody thought about the outcasts, the Dalits, and even the ones that did showed them in a stereotypical light,” says Ranjith. “Dalits were shown as dirty, dark-skinned, unclothed or as comic relief or murderous villains. Examples of Dalits as heroes are infinitesimal. Heroes are usually upper or middle caste. Even if there is a lower caste hero, there will be a plot point that explains that he is born into a higher caste.”
“I am telling stories of our people, because no one else is going to, and no one else will address our issues,” says Ranjith. When the filmmaker began his career he was advised that telling Dalit stories wouldn’t work at the box office. “At that point I decided, I will make only stories about Dalits. This is going to be my life and style of work. And unlike what people feared, the films worked. And because of that I got films, including two with Rajinikanth.”
Ranjith debuted with “Attakathi” (2012) and followed up with “Madras” (2014). Superstar Rajinikanth starred in “Kabali” (2016) and “Kaala” (2018).
After Ranjith proved that mainstream films about Dalits can be box office hits, it started a wave of successful films on social issues, including “Pariyerum Perumal,” “Asuran” and “Gundu.” “Now, everybody wants to deal with issues,” says Ranjith. “It has created a discourse.”
Ranjith adds that issue-based films need not be serious all the time, they can be all out entertainers, or comedies, but they need to be socially responsible and break stereotypes, which is what he looks for as a producer.
Internationally, these films will appeal to audiences who understand oppression, like films set in Black America, Africa, Palestine and Iran, Ranjith says.