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The Brahmin and the Citizen

The film Anniyan that was a recent box-office success in the southern states, works within an ideological framework that constructs the brahmin and the non-brahmin as naturally opposed to each other. The film's narrative poses the brahmin as the citizen ideal and the non-brahmin as its lawless all-pervasive "other". However, the film is in effect a statement about actually existing democracies wherein the brahmin and the citizen can exist only as never realisable ideals. The brahmin's individuality is overridden by his caste identity, which thus contradicts his claim to being a citizen. At the same time, for very many citizens, citizenship remains an unrealisable concept, for access to power and justice in a modern state, as the film demonstrates, relies very often on extra-legal means. The film thus raises several binaries that are opposed to each other, for instance those between a citizen and a non-citizen, caste and citizenship, democracy and mass participation, etc, failing in the end to resolve the contradictions it raise

The Brahmin and the Citizen

Shankar’s Anniyan

The film Anniyan that was a recent box-office success in the southern states, works within an ideological framework that constructs the brahmin and the non-brahmin as naturally opposed to each other. The film’s narrative poses the brahmin as the citizen ideal and the non-brahmin as its lawless all-pervasive “other”. However, the film is in effect a statement about actually existing democracies wherein the brahmin and the citizen can exist only as never realisable ideals. The brahmin’s individuality is overridden by his caste identity, which thus contradicts his claim to being a citizen. At the same time, for very many citizens, citizenship remains an unrealisable concept, for access to power and justice in a modern state, as the film demonstrates, relies very often on extra-legal means. The film thus raises several binaries that are opposed to each other, for instance those between a citizen and a non-citizen, caste and citizenship, democracy and mass participation, etc, failing in the end to resolve the contradictions it raises.



he recent multi-lingual film by Shankar, Anniyan (‘The Stranger’, 2005), invited adverse criticism from different quarters in Tamil Nadu, despite being a box-office success in the four southern states. Primarily Tamil in terms of its mise en scene, the film has been read and dismissed by critics as probrahmin and fascistic. Shankar has been subjected to similar criticism for his previous films as well. His film Gentleman (1993) was widely viewed in the state and elsewhere as offering a defence of the anti-Mandal agitation. In a political milieu where the categories of the brahmin and the non-brahmin have, in their bipolar opposition, acquired a self-evident naturalised presence, such criticisms function within an unreflexive framework of political common sense.1 Interestingly, in Andhra Pradesh, where mainstream politics is not framed by these categories, the film grossed the maximum revenue and appears to have been primarily viewed as “mega-entertainment”. In this context, it is necessary to fashion alternative strategies of reading which are conscious of how sedimented categories – in this case, the brahmin and the non-brahmin – reiterate pre-existing political commonsense and also render the film’s other meanings invisible. This is a necessary task both to unsettle what William Connolly calls the “inertia of shared vocabularies”2 and to account for the nonbrahmin’s pleasure in watching the film which is apparently probrahmin.

It is indeed true that Anniyan performs its ideological work within the conceptual framework that views the constructs of the brahmin and the non-brahmin as natural and opposed to one another. It sets in opposition the brahmin as the citizen ideal and the non-brahmin as its lawless all-pervasive Other. After all, Shankar, as much as his critics, is a product of the same political milieu framed by these categories. However, what seems to us to be interesting in the film is the unresolved pathos and angst that surrounds the efforts to produce the brahmin as the “citizen ideal” and its unrealisability. By failing to affirm the brahmincitizen, the film unwittingly becomes a statement about actually existing democracies wherein the brahmin and the citizen can exist only as never realisable ideals. Indeed, the very act of pursuing these ideals leads the chief protagonist of the film, a young brahmin lawyer with “unwavering” fidelity to law, to contaminate both the brahmin and citizen ideals.

The failure of the normative citizen, the normative brahmin and the incompatibility between the two figures leads to schizophrenic delusion and an incoherent narrative in the film. Releasing pleasurable affect, this delusion and the incoherence are also the most productive elements of the film that can help us excavate its other meanings that cannot be contained within the opposition of the brahmin and the non-brahmin. On the one hand, as the incoherence of the narrative stems from the contradictions of modern political arrangement comprising the state, the civil society, populations and the unreachable ideal of enlightened citizenry, it offers the possibility to reflect on larger questions such as citizen-making and democracy. On the other, it also provides an occasion to look at the inassimilable nature of the brahmin ideal as the organising principle of democratic society. We intend to follow these leads in the present paper. Let us begin with a brief synopsis of the film.



“Rules” Ramanujam, aka Ambi (Vikram), an unmarried brahmin lawyer, begins his day by itinerating as part of a bhajan-singing group, casting a secretive glance at his love, Nandini (Sada). As he leaves for the court, an anonymous postcard announcing the incarnation of Anniyan who would remove all social ills arrives. On his way, a cyclist accidentally spits on his face but refuses to apologise. Midway in his travel, the break-wire of his twowheeler snaps and he barely manages to reach the automobile shop. He gets into a crowded bus only to find Nandini being physically harassed by a local ruffian. With the help of fellow passengers and the bus crew, Ambi gets him to the police station. He admonishes the police officer for beating up the ruffian and advises him to secure his conviction in the court of law.

Ambi is then seen in the court appearing for a poor woman who is unable to pay the excessive rent charged in violation of

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 the Rent Control Act. He loses the case as he fails to produce stamped receipts as proof of the rent collected. Walking on the road, he notices a crowd standing around an accident victim. Ambi’s effort to stop a car so as to transport him to the hospital, turns out to be fruitless. By the time Ambi manages to take him to the hospital in an ambulance, he dies.

The cumulative effect of the day’s experiences makes Ambi anguish over the state of the society. As he sits in front of his computer, the anonymous postcard that arrived in the morning gets swept in the wind and lands on the keyboard. Ambi enters the portal of Anniyan and complains about the owner of the car who refused to transport the accident victim. In the following sequence, a ghostly and forbidding Anniyan hijacks the car with its owner to a buffalo pen. The buffalos run over the car owner and turn him into a mass of human pulp. Police officer Prabhakar (Prakash Raj) and his assistant Chari (Vivek), the latter a close friend of Ambi, find a indecipherable jumble scribbled in blood on the car.

In Ambi’s house Chari finds him hiding mementos and greeting cards meant for Nandini. Ambi confesses his love towards Nandini and worries that it will be improper to express it. At Chari’s suggestion, Ambi accompanies the neighbouring families including Nandini’s, to the Thiravaiyaru music festival. Chari’s repeated attempts during the train journey to make Ambi express his love to Nandini fail. Constantly complaining about the lack of amenities in the train, Ambi forbids everyone from eating the substandard meals supplied by the railway kitchen. Once again, he returns to Anniyan’s portal and files a complaint against the kitchen contractor, Chokkan. Anniyan confronts Chokkan in the railway kitchen and kills him by throwing into a cauldron of boiling oil. Prabhakar and Chari who come to investigate the crime discover a jumble scribbled on the cauldron.

Succumbing to Chari’s constant prodding, Ambi writes a letter in the form of a formal application to Nandini. But he gives it to her parents claiming that it is not proper to give it to Nandini without their consent. Nandini responds by characterising Ambi as a dull, uninteresting, rule-bound character, and rejects his offer of love. Soon she receives gifts of rose plants and parrots from one Remo. At his invitation, she goes to a fashion show featuring him and gets totally charmed by the English-speaking and westerndressed Remo.

Meanwhile, Ambi gets kidnapped by the hirelings of the breakwire manufacturer who is about to lose the case filed by Ambi in a consumer court. Despite his pleading that he is a curd riceeating brahmin who cannot match them in physical prowess, they beat him black and blue. We for the first time see the metamorphosis of Ambi into Anniyan. Ambi as Anniyan not only thrashes his tormentors, but also kills the break-wire manufacturer by letting dozens of leeches to feed on him. Next morning, Prabhakar and Chari find the body of the victim as well as a jumble scribbled on a tin sheet in its vicinity. Unable to decipher the meaning of the jumbles, they seek the help of Ambi whose knowledge of Sanskrit is commendable. Ambi explains that the jumbles are taken from Garuda Puranam and they refer to punishments that wrongdoers would get in their afterlife in the court of Yama, the lord of death.

At the request of Nandini’s mother, Ambi accompanies Nandini to register the sale of their land. He objects to her effort to undervalue the transaction to avoid stamp duty and, in return, draws her displeasure. Meanwhile, Remo takes her to a posh hotel but she wants to leave so as to handle the formalities of the land sale. At the mention of land sale, Remo violently transforms into Anniyan and tries to kill Nandini for cheating the state exchequer. Nandini realises that Anniyan, Remo and Ambi are one and the same person. She calls out for Ambi. Anniyan stops, becomes Ambi and swoons.

Doctors diagnose that Ambi is suffering from multiple personality disorder. Under hypnosis he recounts how during his boyhood, his sister got electrocuted because of the wilful negligence of a linesman of the electricity department and his father’s efforts to get justice failed. A visibly shattered young Ambi asks his grandmother how justice would be delivered. She tells him about Yama’s court and Garuda Puranam. Ambi claims that he became obsessed with rules in his life after this early tragedy.

Anniyan finally makes a public appearance in a stadium. Addressing a large gathering, he compares India’s poor economic performance with that of Singapore, Japan and Korea and declares that callousness is a national disease that prevents India from prospering. He warns the people that unless they mend their ways, their fate will be similar to that of his victims. People cheer him and in the melee, he gives the slip to the police dragnet set up by Prabhakar. Working on video images of Anniyan, Prabhakar finds a close resemblance between Ambi and Anniyan. He also finds that the telephone number that was used to lodge complaints to the Anniyan portal is from Ambi’s area. Prabhakar raids Ambi’s house and arrests him. Under torture, Ambi transforms into Anniyan and roughs up Prabhakar and other policemen. On the weight of the video clippings of the psychiatric session and the police interrogation and the psychiatrist’s evidence, the judge refuses to punish Ambi for the doings of Anniyan and commits Ambi to two years of custodial clinical supervision. Two years later, Ambi emerges from the clinic cured.

A visibly changed Ambi marries Nandini and embarks on a honeymoon trip. They run into a man publicly consuming alcohol in the train and Ambi takes Nandini away from the scene instead of fighting with him. However, we soon see that he is able to throw the offender out of the train without batting an eyelid. The film ends with the suggestion that in his new integrated persona, Ambi would keep eliminating enemies of civic life without having to transform into beastly alien.

Brahmin as CitizenBrahmin as CitizenBrahmin as CitizenBrahmin as CitizenBrahmin as Citizen

Perhaps the most productive way of looking at Anniyan is to contemplate as to what Ambi’s transitions into Anniyan and Remo mean. Both the transitions, which are intense moments of narrative incoherence in the film, are meant to compensate for the failures of Ambi. In the first case, it is the failure of Ambi as the law-abiding citizen-brahmin to enforce the will of the state and in the second, Ambi as an emasculated tradition-bound brahmin-citizen. Both these flaws and the compensatory transitions into the figures of Anniyan and Remo are, as we will see, closely intertwined. We will show how these transitions, despite being moves to recover ideals unrealisable in the figure of Ambi, render the very ideals even more deeply problematic.

Before we engage with the transitions of Ambi into the figures of Anniyan and Remo, it is useful to reflect on two general aspects of actually existing democracy as an overall backdrop to unravel the ambiguities of the film. First, how the ideal of citizenship attracts the pre-existing template of the ideal brahmin, even when citizenship is claimed to be a deracinated concept. Second, the relationship between extra-legal, citizenship and democracy.

In order to speculate on how it becomes possible to imagine the brahmin as encapsulating the ideals of the citizen, it may be worthwhile to take a brief look at the instructively ambiguous manner in which the figure of the brahmin is represented in French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s well known classic The Gift.

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

Mauss uses the brahmins in his book as one of several instances to make an argument against the market economy which, in his opinion, has reduced man to an economic animal. Citing several texts, he discerns three main characteristics of the brahmin:

(i) kings and others were enjoined to bestow gifts on the brahmins which guaranteed wealth in this life as well as in future births of the gift-giver; (ii) The brahmins are wary of accepting gifts from kings; and (iii) brahmins extol the virtue of giving and in one instance a brahmin was chided by a spirit in the forest for giving away too much. On the basis of these schematised features of the brahminic order, Mauss sees in the brahmin a survival of a defiance of the market economy. However, his deployment of brahmins as an example of gift exchange is equally marked by certain critical ambivalences. He speculates whether brahmins evolved the norms to suit themselves as they solicited and received gift, but did not reciprocate it but for their religious service: “The codes and the epic books that have as much authority were drawn up by the brahmins, and, one may say, if not for them, at least for their advantage, in the very era of their triumph… In the event, the theory, the “law of the gift” that we are about to describe, the danadharma, is only really applicable to the brahmins, to the way they solicit and receive a gift – without reciprocating it save through their religious services – and also to the way a gift is their due.”3

Thus, in the scheme of Mauss, the brahmin is an ambivalent example of a system outside the market economy, as he doesn’t seem to integrate with the society through exchange but is rather a self-alienating law-giver enforcing injunctions on others. In a footnote Mauss remarks, “The cunning brahmins in fact entrusted the gods and the shades with the task of returning gifts that had been made to themselves… For his part, the brahmin did not return gifts, did not invite, and did not even, all said and done, accept invitations.”4 The brahmins exceptional status, being “a divinity among divinities”, is grounded in the theory of his disinterested service to society in his own terms and not soliciting rewards (except for the injunction already made that others ought to give him the needs of life).

With this long-time penchant for norm-giving and being the putative ideal for society, the brahmin’s eagerness to subsume himself into the normative citizenship is more or less predictable. In the opening sequence of the film, as Ambi leaves for the court, he finds things at home in a disarray. Combining the notion of cleanliness with civic order, he declares “I hate disorder”. As we will see, this love for “order” “oscillates between its use as a verb of command (to order) and a noun of harmonious design (the order).”5 It is also important to bear in mind here that his predecessor, the colonial modern brahmin was an embattled personality. He joined the contractual economy in full vigour while at the same time claiming to retain his ritual superiority.6 Such being his genealogy, the post-colonial brahmin is tragically laden with all the contradictions of multiple idealities he is eager to assume. The most profound irony of Anniyan is that, while Ambi wants to employ archaic punishments enjoined in Garuda Puranam to realise norms of citizenship and to enlarge notions of justice, his ultimate goal is to reinvent India as an economic superpower, a haven of free-market economy like Singapore – a long way from the concerns of Marcel Mauss indeed.

Now let us turn to the question of the extra-legal. As evident from the synopsis of the film, Anniyan is as much about the brahmin as citizen ideal as about the contradiction between the ideal citizenship and the extra-legal that marks the negotiations of everyday existence of the most. While Ambi as citizen concedes the monopoly of violence to the state (as evident from the sequence involving the local ruffian who misbehaves with Nandini), Anniyan not only leaves the bounds of legality, but also wrenches from Yama the right to punish wrongdoers. This makes Anniyan a beastly, menacing anti-thesis to the ideals of brahmin-citizen combination, which he purports to champion. In important ways, this ambiguity captures the classic contradiction between mass democracy and modernity as enshrined in citizenship ideal. As Partha Chatterjee has argued, for large sections of the population in most democracies, extra-legal is a way of negotiating livelihoods. He names the domain of these negotiations as the political society in opposition to the civil society which is rule-bound, normative and governed by canons of law. Importantly, despite their participation in the extra-legal, the state cannot ignore the members of the political society. Their departure from the citizen ideal has to be tolerated as the politics of mass democracy critically depends on them. This leads to the persistent lament of the civil societal elite that mass democracy comes in the way of modernity: “…in actual practice, governmental agencies must descend from the high ground to the terrain of political society in order to renew their legitimacy as providers of well-being and then to confront whatever is the current configuration of politically mobilised demands. In the process, one is liable to hear complaints from the protagonists of civil society and the constitutional state that modernity is facing an unexpected rival in the form of democracy.”7 The unrelieved angst of the film about the political society cannot but lead to a position against mass democracy while claiming to recover the citizen ideal in its purity.

Against the general backdrop of these two points about the relationship between the figure of the brahmin, citizen ideal and democracy, and between democracy and the extra-legal, let us now turn to Ambi’s ambiguous journeys that transform him into the beastly Anniyan and the seductively masculine Remo.


With a deftly drawn Iyengar caste mark, ‘thiruman’, on his forehead and a well-kept tuft adorning his head, Ambi is an exemplary brahmin – bhajan-singing, religious, and not giving away any external marks of his brahmin-ness. But his idyllic, exclusive and conflict-free brahmin world does not survive beyond the boundaries of the ‘agraharam’, the exclusive brahmin residential quarters, and the extended space of the Thiruvaiyaru music festival. Being a lawyer and a rule-bound citizen, he has to encounter the larger world of others. The film marks this outside world as distinctly non-brahmin and extra-legal. But for a music sabha secretary who initially refuses Nadini a chance to sing in the sabha but gets away with his life by heeding to the decree of Anniyan, and Nandini who escapes death by appealing to love, the rest of the law-breakers, who die violently at the hands of Anniyan, are non-brahmins. (Truthful to the injunction of brahminism, Anniyan shuns brahminocide.) The world of the non-brahmin extra-legal challenges Ambi both as a brahmin and a rule-bound ideal citizen. While his fidelity to law is mocked at as not knowing how to negotiate the real world, his brahmin identity incites irreverence. He gets contemptuously addressed as ‘poosari’ (temple priest) because of his tuft; and his attempt to assure that he is a lawyer are ignored – an allusion to the imagined or real marginality of the brahmin in contemporary Tamil Nadu.

The rule-bound citizen ideal has other domains of revenge too. It is the inner world of emotions and affect. When Nandini rejects Ambi’s offer of love, she compares him to a calculator and algorithm. After all, Ambi could write his avowal of love only

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 in the style of a formal application. In other words, he has to leave behind passionless governmental rationality and traverse the path of fantasy and spontaneity. An unconscious victim of rule-bound modernity that is super-imposed on his traditionbound brahmin persona, Ambi can only pathetically ask Nandini whether his love will be accepted if he dons jeans and t-shirts like the pop singer Michael Jackson. The outer world of nonbrahmins and the inner world of romance are, thus, available to Ambi only on the basis of abandoning brahmin-citizen ideals. Ambi’s way of overcoming these lacks is to transit into the figure of Anniyan and Remo.

Transition 1

Let us first engage with Ambi’s transition into the figure of Anniyan. Anniyan, the vigilante, is a figure outside the realm of law. Modes of punishment that he inflicts on those whom he perceives as wrong-doers, belong to the archaic Garuda Puranam and not to modern law books. As a brahmin, he exceeds his castebound brief by coveting the role of Yama, the god of death. Appropriately, in the first execution that he carries out as Anniyan, he mounts a buffalo, the vehicle of the Yama in mythologies. Significantly, the punishments are, according to the invoked text, to be meted out only to the dead after taking stock of their whole life. Ambi, as part of his psychosis, punishes the living, collapsing the distinction between the after life and the life in this world. This will be similar to a devout Christian enacting scenes of Dante’s Divine Comedy by establishing torture chambers in contemporary Italian society. As a “citizen”, he takes to violence which is the exclusive prerogative of the state as per the social contract – a trait common to all vigilante films. It becomes a glaring source of contradiction in Anniyan since Ambi’s very ideal is steadfast subservience to law. The rule-bound brahmincitizen Ambi will not let police officers take law into their hands and furthermore will not allow himself to commit suicide (after Nandini rejects him) as it is illegal. But Ambi as Anniyan performs gruesome murders with absolute impunity using wildly arbitrary criteria.

Though the film justifies this by enacting a split between justice and law, the very move distances Anniyan from the citizen ideal. In other words, only by giving up the citizen ideal, Ambi as Anniyan could ensure justice. In the sequence where Ambi transits into Anniyan for the first time on screen, we initially hear his voice speaking a swear word, a non-brahmin slang, as if from nowhere. This disembodied voice signals the so-called physical and psychic violence of the non-brahmin world becoming the vehicle for Anniyan to ensure justice. The very participation in the extra-legal thus gives Ambi as Anniyan a nonbrahmin quality. After all, the film, in its effort to recover the brahmin-citizen, scripts the extra-legal as belonging to the world of non-brahmins. Tellingly, the caste identity of Anniyan is ambiguous in the film. While his demeanour and language are manifestly non-brahmin, the reference to the Garuda Puranam and his chanting verses in Sanskrit as he kills his victims are attempts to recover him as a brahmin. This ambiguity is a result of an attempt to shelter the brahmin-citizen from the world of extra-legal and the simultaneous impossibility of realising that ideal.

The ambiguous caste identity of Anniyan is once again suggested in the film by the transformation of Ambi’s brahmin tuft while he transforms into Anniyan. Seen as the sign of innocence and virtue by his friend Chari, the transition of Ambi into Anniyan is marked by Ambi’s tuft unfurling and falling in front of his eyes in the form of menacing locks. While one is reminded of the famous case of Chanakya, who allegedly untied his tuft swearing to tie it up only after liberating the kingdom,8 the very masculinity which the unfurled locks evoke, distances Anniyan from the brahmin ideal and gives him a non-brahmin gloss. After all, it is a well known stereotype drawn from the origin myth of varnas that the brain belongs to the brahmin and the brawn to the non-brahmin.

Transition 2

As we have mentioned earlier, the transition of Ambi into the figure of Remo is a move to compensate for his lack of masculinity. Before we proceed to analyse the implications of this, we need to signpost the fact that this lack of masculinity is not an individual trait of Ambi, but something intimately connected with the ideal figure of the brahmin-citizen. As a citizen he is emasculated since a rule-bound citizen has to surrender at the altar of state any claim to violence. In other words, violence becomes the monopoly of the law/state and not of the citizen

– a feature fundamental to social contract. However, a citizen being an individual can treat marriage as a contract outside the realm of the so-called public and as a matter of individual “choice”. This is where the brahmin identity of Ambi becomes emasculating. As a brahmin Ambi is bound by traditions and cannot act as an individual seeking the hand of the girl he loves. Girls are given away only as a gift by parents (‘kanniga danam’) to the person they choose. Hence Ambi, in his anomalous self as brahmin-citizen, hands over his love letter meant for Nandini, not to her but to her parents.

There is more to Ambi’s emasculation as a brahmin. His emasculated identity is, importantly, not based on his status as an individual but on his belonging to a caste-community. If the notional citizen figure is a deracinated individual, the figure of the brahmin-citizen is not. The norms of caste negate individual choices and enforce caste rules. The closely-knit world of “agraharam”, bhajan-singing groups, children learning Carnatic music in public mantaps, and the Thiruvaiyaru music festival offer, at the first look, an idyllic picture of conflict-free castecommunity. However, it is equally a world of surveillance and social control. Ambi could only cast a secretive look at Nandini when she is teaching Carnatic music at a public ‘mandop’, and keeps in hiding the gifts and greeting cards he wishes to give her. In short, surrendering one’s individual identity to the demands of the caste-community is the other source of Ambi’s emasculation. Further, the brahmin’s own self-definition works in the Tamil context (and perhaps elsewhere too) within the binary opposition between mental and manual labour, a point which we have referred to earlier, (while the brain belongs to the brahmin, the sinews to the non-brahmin). Discounting the body is thus a source of brahmin power. Simultaneously, it also works as a source of his lacking certain forms of masculinity. When Ambi pleads with the hirelings of the break-wire manufacturer that he cannot take the beating because he is a curd rice-eater, he at once asserts his brahmin identity and acknowledges his lack of access to embodied forms of masculinity.

In understanding the figure of Remo as compensating for Ambi’s lack of masculinity, we need to first take a look at the way Nandini is represented in the film. She emerges as a figure rejecting both state and community. She is accustomed to the extra-legal as evident from her dissuading Ambi – albeit unsuccessfully – not to get into a row with the ruffian who physically harasses her in the bus. She also willingly courts the extra-legal in trying to register a property by undervaluing it. And it is not the community-bound Ambi, but the ultra-modish Remo carrying

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

a Christian-like name and marked as thoroughly western, who wins her love. In her first encounter with Remo, a usually demure Nandini oversteps the norms of caste community in being dazzled by the ultra-modern fashion show in which Remo features. Of course, the film tries to recover Nandini for the community. In one of the last sequences of the film, Nandini, as suggested by the psychiatrist, tells Remo that she loves only Ambi, thereby rendering the personality of Remo redundant. However, when she marries Ambi at the end, it was an Ambi without the distinguishing marks of his brahmin-ness – the tuft and ‘thiruman’.

In sharp contrast to community-bound Ambi, Remo is a sign of deracinated individualism in the film. Despite being marked as a Christian, his desire is unencumbered by community identity. He could desire and impress upon Nandini, a brahmin woman living in an agraharam immersed in brahminic practices such as singing Carnatic music in the Thiruvaiyaru music festival. Thus, his desire too is represented as deracinated. This individualism, unencumbered by the community, is his source of masculinity. The self-indulgent narcissism of the song with the refrain ‘R-E-M-O, Remo, Remo’ is a tribute to his unmatched individualism. Thus, Remo is a figure antithetical to Ambi, the latter functioning within community norms, the former outside them. Given this opposition between Remo and Ambi, Ambi as Remo cannot but be a figure of contamination. Ambi recovers his masculinity, which is surrendered to the caste-community, by ceasing to be a brahmin. In short, if Anniyan makes the citizen ideal unrealisable, Remo does the same for the brahmin ideal. The brahmin-citizen thus emerges as a mirage, though the film tries to affirm it. Getting deracinated as Remo and breaking free from caste-bound restrictions, Ambi’s brahmin selfhood is compromised and his claim to uncontaminated brahmin authenticity is no longer a possibility.

A Political InstanceA Political InstanceA Political InstanceA Political InstanceA Political Instance

The deeply contradictory and hybrid outcomes which the brahmin-citizen ideal produces in the film do not belong to the world of cinema alone. Significantly, it has real life resonance

– both in the domains of the personal and the political. Before concluding the paper, we will give an illustration that shows how the actual existing democratic politics cannot recover the brahmincitizen ideal. It is well known that the ideal citizen, who is deracinated, is expected to partake in rational public debate by means of the so-called veil of ignorance. In other words, the public debates should keep identities in the hiding and the civic ideal should be based on the “common good”. In the specific Indian context, one of the forms this ideal takes is to demand that caste should be kept out of political discourse and should be confined to the domain of the personal. Let us now turn to the fate of such an ideal in the actual domain of the political. We will do this by taking up, as an instance, the case of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s election campaign during the 1991 parliamentary elections in Tamil Nadu where talking caste in the political domain has a history of almost a century.

The 1991 parliamentary election in Tamil Nadu was preceded by the premature and controversial dismissal of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government on the basis of a highpitch campaign by opposition parties. The campaign had all the ingredients which would make it a brahmin conspiracy. As the Sunday Observer noted, “Unfortunately for the brahmins of Tamil Nadu, all those involved in the ouster of the DMK government were brahmins. Apart from Jayalalithaa who had taken it up as a mission, there was Subramaniya Swamy (a Madurai Iyer), Rajiv Gandhi (seen in Tamil Nadu as a Kashmiri brahmin) and of course president R Venkatraman, who signed the sack order, is a Puttukottai Iyer.”9 Within hours of the dismissal of the DMK government, the brahmin association of Pallavaram, a Madras neighbourhood, brought out handbills describing the dismissal as the decimation of the sudra rule.

The overt presence of caste in terms of brahmin vs non-brahmin in the political discourse of the region was captured by Mani Shankar Aiyar when he described his victory as a Congress (I) candidate, thus: “Most significant of all, I, a brahmin by birth (if not by conviction) with “Aiyar” emblazoned (for reasons of regional identity) on my name and on the ballot paper, contested from a constituency of Thanjavur district, the very citadel of the Dravida movement. And became the first brahmin in a generation to be elected from a Tamil Nadu constituency other than Madras South.”10 In the course of the election campaign, Aiyar’s brahmin identity was made an issue by his DMK rival K P Kalyanam. Going by the ideals of deracinated citizenship, bringing the issue of caste into the election campaign is to depart from that ideal. For instance, before the elections, the Tamil magazine Kalki (May 5, 1991) noted, “Caste divisions and religious differences are the first enemies of the nation.” A peeved Mani Shankar Aiyar noted, “…Kalyanam (moderately) and his DMK cohorts (viciously) went around talking neither of development nor of justice nor of national honour but how I was – dare they say it? – a brahmin, no less…” He did not want the play of caste-based differences in the realm of politics. Instead, he was for development, justice and national honour, all of which could partake in the civic ideal of “common good”. Since his caste identity had already been politicised by the DMK, he had no option but to respond to: “I went for the DMK arguments with a string of Kalyanam jokes

– challenging him to find the sacred thread on my body; challenging him to a open competition in the village square to see who could eat more chicken biryani – he or brahmin me…” Thus, under conditions of mass democracy, the brahmin’s political survival as upholders of what is claimed to be citizen ideal and modernity, hinges on his denial of the brahmin identity. Only by occupying the space of the non-brahmin and giving up the language of deracinated citizenship, Mani Shankar Aiyar could confront the challenge posed by Kalyanam.

Mani Shankar Aiyar’s angst at departing from the ideal language of citizenship and denying his brahmin identity is precisely what Ambi, the brahmin-citizen, tries to negotiate in Anniyan. Like Aiyar who had to step into the shoes of Kalyanam, Ambi too has to approximate his extra-legal non-brahmin other in the very act of enacting revenge on the violators of the citizen ideal.

In bringing out the contradiction between caste-community and masculinity in the field of actually existing democratic politics, let us once again stay with the 1991 elections in Tamil Nadu. Responding to the DMK’s campaign that the dismissal of its government was a brahmin conspiracy, K A Krishnaswmay of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), a non-brahmin, claimed, “It was past when the brahmins took all kinds of abuses. Once brahmins were carrying ‘tharuppai pull’ (a grass used in rituals); but now they are carrying AK-47s.”11 Arming the brahmin with AK-47s is an act of endowing him with a hitherto unavailable masculinity. But the acquisition of this new masculinity comes with a price. The brahmin had to give up his traditional tharuppai pull which amounts to giving up the ideal brahminhood.

The semiotics of AK-47 needs a little more elaboration here. AK-47 was a key campaign theme of the brahmin-controlled press, the AIADMK (which openly courted the brahmins and advised them to set up Tamil Nadu brahmins’ associations) and

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 the Congress (I), pitted against the DMK government. Their argument claimed that with the support of the DMK, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), with all its AK-47s, was having a free run in Tamil Nadu. The argument won its day when the democratically elected DMK government was dismissed from power by the president of India. Significantly, while the leadership and cadres of the LTTE are drawn from the lower castes, its support in Tamil Nadu has been and is primarily drawn from the non-brahmins and non-brahmin political outfits. In other words, K A Krishnaswamy’s masculine brahmin attains his masculinity by courting what is essentially treated as the attribute of non-brahmins – carrying the lethal AK-47. Thus, his masculinity is predicated on a clear loss of his so-called authentic brahmin selfhood. The parallel between the substitution of tharuppai pull with AK-47 and Ambi’s transformation into Remo/ Anniyan to recover his masculinity lost to the caste-community, is thus unmistakable.


We shall conclude by engaging briefly with the “failure” of the film – a theme that we have explored throughout the paper

– to affirm at its closure the brahmin-citizen ideal. We will delineate two critical moments in the closure of the film to illustrate this.

The first moment that we will take up is when Anniyan appears in the public in a stadium filled with people. His passionate speech, which ends with a threat to all law-breakers is set in opposition to abstract nation and its progress, and the not-yetformed citizens. Paradoxically, Anniyan, being a vigilante, does not address the law-breakers as an ideal law-abiding citizen, but as a law-breaker himself. His threat to the law-breakers does not emanate from the location of upholding law but as a dispenser of justice outside the folds of law. In short, the citizen ideal is irrecoverably lost. The very fact that only the threat of violence from Anniyan ensures the affirmation of law further diminishes the citizen ideal. It signifies the end of the so-called social contract. The day after his public threat, the traffic in the city flows smoothly; a Mylapore brahmin boasts to his foreign interlocutor on phone that Chennai is cleansed of its beggars and disorder; and the income-tax department registers a record collection. Only psychotic avengers can make the society function.

The second important moment in the closure of the film that merits attention is Ambi’s persona after he was cured of multiple personality disorder. As he emerges from custodial care, Ambi, to the surprise of his family and Nandini, lacks his brahminic tuft and ‘thiruman’ on his forehead. His friend Chari expresses his dismay about Ambi’s loss of tuft and compares it to castration. And after he is cured, he does not incarnate into Anniyan to push out the law-breaker from the train. He could partake in the extra-illegal as Ambi. Thus, Anniyan has been fully assimilated into the new integrated persona of Ambi. This fusing together of Ambi and Anniyan is the ultimate moment of contamination of the self-righteous Ambi as the law-abiding brahmin citizen figure.

As Bruno Latour has eloquently shown, acts of epistemological purification that modernity endlessly enacts by building dichotomies like nature/culture, people/things, humans/non-humans, etc, are indeed acts of covering up the hybrids that endlessly proliferate underneath. For him, hybrids are “just about everything”. He notes, “…the proliferation of hybrids… saturate the constitutional framework of the modern.”12 In his opinion, only by openly acknowledging the ontology of hybrids, and not by rendering them invisible, we can forge radical politics of inclusivity and tolerance. In a different register, William Connolly also suggests a similar position. He shows that “imagination of wholeness” – in the case of Anniyan, the brahmin-citizen ideal

– “readily spawns arbitrary violence…”13 And he continues elsewhere, “In a world in which the quest for wholeness can foster evil unless tempered by other forces, a certain amount of restlessness becomes salutary.”14 While the film Anniyan fails to affirm the ideal of brahmin-citizen, it also fails to recognise the possibilities that are opened up by the hybrids it unwittingly produces by transcending the brahmin-non-brahmin/citizen-noncitizen dichotomies. The very contamination of the brahmincitizen ideal signals the possibility of a politics that complicates the opposition between the self and other and opens up a potential space for empathy, finding the self in the other and vice versa. Instead of elaborating these radical possibilities, the film slides into a schizophrenic delusion. In merely rejecting the film as probrahmin or fascist, we too will cease to engage with the hybrids, which are welcome results of the failure of the film to affirm the brahmin citizen. It is only by appropriating the enabling possibilities such hybrids offer, we can forge new political strategies by departing from the sterile ideal of the uncontaminated citizen and the bipolar opposition between the brahmin and the nonbrahmin. The popular appeal of the film perhaps lies in its invalidation of such ideals and dichotomies.




1 For a detailed genealogical account of how the categories of the brahmin and the non-brahmin have acquired a self-evident quality in the Tamil political milieu, see M S S Pandian, ‘Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present’ (New Delhi: Permanent Black (forthcoming)).

2 William E Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis and London:

University of Minnesota Press, 1996 (1995)), p 103. 3 Marcel Mauss, The Gift (London: Routledge, 2001 (1925)), p 70. 4 Ibid, p 180. 5 Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization, p 27. 6 For a discussion on this theme, see M S S Pandian, ‘One Step Outside

Modernity: Caste, Identity Politics and Public Sphere’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 17, No 18, May 4, 2002. 7 Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (Permanent Black: Delhi, 2004), pp 40

41. While this elegant formulation accounts for contemporary subaltern politics in mass democracies, we need to be alert to the fact that extraillegal is not merely means of subaltern negotiations. The extra-legal is a world in which elite too participates for reasons other than livelihood. In other words, the political society is only part of the domain of the extra-legal.

8 For a brilliant discussion of the TV serial Chanakya and the juxtaposition of celibacy and emasculation, see Uma Chakravarty, ‘Inventing Saffron History: A Celibate Hero Rescues an Emasculated Nation’ in Mary E John and Janaki Nair (eds), A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economies of Modern India (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998).

9 M S S Pandian, ‘Chicken Biryani and the Inconsequential Brahmin’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XXVI, No 35, August 31, 1991, p 2043.

10 Sunday Observer, July 7, 1991.

11 M S S Pandian, ‘Chicken Biryani and the Inconsequential Brahmin’.

12 Bruno Latour, We have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard

University Press, 1999 (1993)), p 51. 13 William E Connolly, Why I Am Not A Secularist (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p 143. 14 Ibid, p 159.

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

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