Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper extends the linguistic anthropological concept of register to consider aesthetic film styles of realism. Interrogating forms of realism in the contemporary Tamil cinema of south India, I look at the way in which repertoires of filmic form are enregistered vis-à-vis meta-filmic stereotypes of various sorts, in particular, to emblems of putative cultural authenticity (called “nativity” in the Tamil film industry). Taking up Dalit critiques of recent Tamil cinema, through an ethnographic analysis of a 2004 film, Kaadhal ('Love'; dir. Balaji Sakthivel) that centers on the (im)possibilities of inter-caste conjugal love/marriage, I show how emblems of caste identity and otherness are entextualized in complex ways vis-à-vis realist styles. Such entextualization, as one phase in a larger twinned process of enregistering realism and caste, simultaneously voices (the director’s) caste critique of caste violence while offering resources for theatrical uptake for upper-caste viewers to assert domination over Dalits. This ambivalence, as I show through close analysis of the film and with interviews with the director and ethnography with viewers, is a function of how a realist filmic style confronts the taboo performativity of representations of caste and female sexuality that it attempts (and ultimately fails) to narratively entextualize; such performativities mediate the representationalist possibilities of realist style in Kaadhal, both making it possible and impossible at one and the same time.