A short film by director Pa Ranjith called Dhammam has given rise to controversy among Buddhists in and beyond the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. At issue is the reverence and respect that should be paid to a statue of the Buddha, an issue that is raised in the film itself. The Tamil Nadu Buddhist Sangha Council (TNBSC) has said that it will resort to legal action if the scene is not removed from the film.
Dhammam opens with a scene in which a girl climbs up on a Buddha statue and, standing on its shoulders, extends her arms and pretends to fly. She is surrounded by rich green fields and a gray sky. Her father, working ankle-deep in water in the field below, sees his daughter and shouts at her, asking why she is playing on “our God.” The girl replies: “Buddha himself has declared that there is no god, and you are calling him a god.” (The Minute News) The scene closes with the father pondering his daughter’s words.
Through the film, director Ranjith seeks to address India’s caste system, an often-contentious issue in Indian religious and political discourse. Dalits today continue to face discrimination at multiple levels, often in the form of physical violence.
Dalit is a term that is often used in India for people previously deemed “untouchable” or “outcaste” by members of India’s higher castes. As explained by BBC News: “India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of social stratification surviving to this day. . . . The system bestowed many privileges on the upper castes while sanctioning repression of the lower castes by privileged groups.” (BBC News)
Many in the higher castes still believe that contact with a Dalit will pollute them. Also, in India, the feet are believed by many to be an especially dirty and polluting part of the body. Hence, a Dalit girl placing her feet on the shoulders of a Buddha statue challenges deeply held social mores. Ranjith attempts to draw attention to the topic through the lens of the Buddhist philosophy of universal compassion.
The image of the girl on the Buddha’s shoulders has inspired an appreciative digital artwork.
Several other people on social media have expressed appreciation for Ranjith’s depiction of Buddhist thought.
Nonetheless, many people have also spoken out against the scene. The TNBSC has threatened to take legal action against Ranjith. The council has stated that the scene hurts the religious sentiments of Buddhists, and they have demanded that Ranjith remove the scene from the film and offer a public apology. The TNBSC has also asked the state government of Tamil Nadu to ban the scene from being shared online. The TNBSC has added that they are unwilling to accept any explanation from the director.
Gowthama Sanna, deputy general secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), also said that he found the scene to be offensive.
“When we see the sarcastic responses to the reactions to the scene that insulted the Buddha, we can understand that reasoning has decayed in the land where Buddha and Ambedkar appeared. It is superstitious to believe that Buddha can be approached in any way that is rational. The next step of that superstition is to believe that just by uttering the words Buddha and Ambedkar, one knows everything about them,” he said in a Facebook post. (The News Minute)
Sanna added: “Even Ambedkar worshipped the Buddha, but to say that we will climb on his head and believe that it is rational is an expression of supreme ignorance. Also, it is rational to hope that garlanding Ambedkar with slipper garland and desecrating Periyar’s statue will not be included in this [category].” (The News Minute)
The film is one of four films in the Victim anthology directed by Ranjith. It was released recently on the SonyLIV OTT platform.
Buddhists threaten legal action against Pa Ranjith over depiction of Buddha in Dhammam (The News Minute)
What is India’s caste system? (BBC News)
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