Category Archives: Literature, Cinema, Etc.

Hinduism in Tamil Cinema

Tamil cinema is a difficult term to firmly define, and is a part of the much wider used term of ‘Indian Cinema’. A brief history of the development of Tamil cinema and of the politics surrounding it is helpful in understanding how and why Tamil cinema portrays Hinduism the way it does.

There was uncertainty among critics over what defined a film as Tamil early on in Tamil cinema’s development, for there was no firm or sole ‘Tamil’ element within Tamil cinema to define it (Hughes 22). While scholars agree upon the film Kalidas as being the first Tamil film, not everyone else agreed with this idea (Hughes 10). One film critic, for example, saw the film Valli as being the first Tamil film instead of Kalidas (Hughes 12). As the film critic differs in opinion compared to scholars, Hughes argues that this suggests that other ways of depicting the development of Tamil films do exist and that they would have been built upon differing criteria over the definition of ‘Tamil film’ (Hughes 12).

Tamil films at this time were not strictly to do with Tamil culture, language, or the location of the production. For example, the film Kalidas was filmed in Bombay like most Tamil films were between 1931 and 1934 (Rajadhyaksha 254). Part of the difficulty for critics with giving Tamil Cinema a firm definition was based upon the fact that many of these so called Tamil films, like Kalidas, had non-Tamil elements within them. The definition of a Tamil film was not solely based upon the film being shot in Tamil for it was usual for Tamil dramatists, actors, and musicians to be contracted by studios in Bombay and Calcutta and for them to be moved from the south (Hughes 9). Language was not always a firm definition for Tamil films either, as in Kalidas, most of it is in Tamil but the male lead speaks in Telugu (Rajadhyaksha 254).

Tamil films were also not simply to do with those who lived within Tamil Nadu as the production of these films at this time involved people throughout India and even people from abroad (Hughes 9). Production of films was not merely an independent affair as productions within the main Indian languages shared many things such as costumes, movie sets, stories, music, and even the actors with one another (Hughes 10).

Things began to change when Tamil films began to be produced mostly in the south, instead of places like Bombay (Mumbai), but this did not stop critics from questioning what was Tamil about Tamil Cinema (Hughes 16-17). Despite being locally based within their productions, Tamil films were still involved with a lot of different people from around India (Hughes 17). The producers and studios of Tamil cinema were also more interested in hiring people for their work experience over hiring those who spoke fluent Tamil (Hughes 17).

Another shift occurred within Tamil Cinema when the defining of ‘Tamil films’ became even more complex with the politics of the Dravidian movement (Hughes 18). Politics became more involved in these films as people, such as the DMK, began to use films as a means of pursuing their political desires. These political desires included the Tamil nationalists’ who argued that the Tamil culture, the Tamil people, and the Tamil language were the last bit of the original Dravidian culture that had once encompassed India (Younger 100). To do this meant that the nationalists had to cast out many aspects of Hinduism: Sanskrit and Hindi languages, the caste system, and even Hinduism itself as elements of an ‘alien’ ideology (Younger 100).

When paraphrasing Sumathy Ramaswamy, Ravi points out that the Tamil language is very important to the Tamil people as the language itself is now the ‘critical centre’ of the Tamil culture (Ravi 48). The Pure Tamil Movement wanted to get rid of the Sanskrit elements within the Tamil language (Hughes 19). They wanted to do this because they viewed Sanskrit as a language that had been brought by the northern Brahmin migrants and had been forced upon them (Hughes 19). The Tamil language was a means of going against the ‘alien’ ideology of Hinduism by using it instead of the Sanskrit and Hindi languages.  This common feeling of being in opposition to Hindi drew together many different types of people within the Tamil community when Hindi was being established as the national language of India (Ravi 48). Scholars also talk about a ‘cultural renaissance’ during the Anti-Hindi Agitation of 1965 which relates to this ‘opposition of Hindi’ for it contained anti-Brahminism ideas, the pushing away of traditional Hinduism as something from the north, and a growing distrust of anything northern (Forrester 22).

Politics are firmly connected and intertwined within Tamil cinema’s history for many politicians and their politics influenced what Tamil cinema produced. For example, C.N. Annadurai had a film called Velaikkari which scholars say had “a strong social theme and message” (Jesudoss 22) and he was also the founder of the DMK, the Dravidian political party, which opposed the Brahmin hegemonic notions of caste and religion (Jesudoss 22). Themes within Tamil cinema were largely influenced by the politics of groups such as the DMK and, therefore, these politics affected how different aspects of Hinduism were portrayed within Tamil film. Scholars often touch upon how Tamil cinema subverts popular Hinduism notions, such as the Brahmins being the elite, and focus a lot upon the ‘anti-Brahmin’ ideas that appear throughout many films.

E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker’s Self-Respect movement dominated Tamil films at this time and “brought anti-northern [and] anti-Brahmin themes” (Hardgrave 290). The hegemonic ideas (i.e. the caste system) of Brahmins being at the top of the system and the most powerful are linked tightly to many notions and ideas within Hinduism. These ideas are teased and questioned within Tamil film. For example, one scholar expresses how the Brahmin character, in a film with an urban setting, is often a character who is shown to be a self-righteous and principled individual who is trying to maintain traditional caste values (Ravi 49). When discussing how Nala Damayanti, a Tamil comedy film, differs from the usual conventions of Tamil cinema, Ravi explains that it seems to go against a usual Tamil cinema convention for it seems to have hero who is Brahmin (Ravi 52). Brahmins are rarely heroes in Tamil cinema (Ravi 49). However, he also notes that this character’s Brahmin-ness is condensed down into his dialect while it is from his actions that Ramji, the character, becomes associated with Tamizhan (Ravi 52). A Tamizhan is a “member of ethnic community defined by Tamil as his language and whose origin is in the southern sub-continent” (Ravi 52).

These sorts of films have not always been readily accepted by everyone. The film Parasakathi was banned, for example, for a time as it questioned the status quo. It was a film that talked about social problems as well as religious superstitions, and it had a big effect on the middle class people because it had Tamil sentiments and ideals (Jesudoss 23). When the screenwriter was interviewed, he stated that he had wanted to “introduce the ideas and policies of social reform and justice in the films [(Parasakathi and Velaikari)] and bring up the status of the Tamil language as they were called for in DMK policies” (Hardgrave 292). DMK policies called for the Tamil language to be seen highly and in opposition to Hindi.

The director of Parasakthi was also unsurprised that it caused a reaction for he stated in an interview that it was intended to and that the reaction was unsurprising for they “were challenging the social law itself” (Hardgrave 292). The director of Parasakathi used his films as a means of making political statements about religion as he stated that the DMK are not against ‘the temple’ but are against the people, who he called evil-minded’, who use it (Hardgrave 292). He also went on to explain that the DMK are monolithic, which goes against elements of Hinduism, and that they do not agree with the bribing of god with puja (Hardgrave 292). Puja is a term to describe a way of worship through ritual in Hinduism (Rodrigues 343). The film Velaikari also attacked religious ideas such as puja, which was used within the film and showed ‘issues’ within religion, and is considered to be a ‘revolutionary film’ (Hardgrave 291-292).

After the success of films like Velaikari and Parasakthi, Tamil cinema created a series of films with social themes (Jesudoss 23). They also used stories that related to Tamil ideas of things such as valor and love as well as their affection for their own language (Jesudoss 22-23). As Jesudoss explains when paraphrasing Baskaran, scholars consider these films and Tamil cinema to have produced a ‘major revolution’ and he explains that this was unsettling to those in the higher castes (Jesudoss 23)

Tamil cinema is credited by scholars to have brought about social changes (Jesudoss 23). It was used to strengthen some social and religious ideas but also questioned and tested traditions and customs (Jesudoss 23). Tamil Cinema formed into a means of culturally expressing the Tamil culture/people (Jesudoss 23). Today, Tamil films are still engaging with this cultural expression idea (Jeusdoss 23): reinforcing Tamil identity, Tamil language, anti-Brahminism, and questioning/challenging of different aspects Hinduism.



Rajadhyaksha, A. and P. Willemen (1999) Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Forrester, Duncan B. (1966) “The Madras Anti-Hindi Agitation, 1965: Political Protest and its Effects on Language Policy in India.” Pacific Affairs Vol. 39, No. 1/2: p. 19-36.

Hardgrave Jr, Robert L. (1973) “Politics and the Film in Tamilnadu: The Stars and the DMK.”  Asian Survey Vol. 13, No. 3: p. 288-305.

(2012) “What is Tamil about Tamil Cinema?” In South Asian Cinemas: Widening the Lens. Sara Dickey and Rajinder Dudrah (eds.). New York: Routledge. pp. 8-24.  Special edition of  South Asian Popular Culture Vol. 8 No. 3.

Jesudoss, Perianayagam (2009) “Tamil Cinema.” Communication Research Trends Vol. 28, No. 4: p. 4-27.

Ravi, Srilata (2008) “Tamil Identity and the Diasporic Desire in a Kollywood Comedy: Nala Damayanti (2003).” South Asian Popular Culture Vol 6, No. 1: p. 45-56.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The ebook: An Online Introduction. Online: Journal of  Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

(2008) Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India’s Other Film Industry. Selvaraj Velayutham (ed.). New York: Routledge

Younger, Prakash (2010) S. Velayutham, ed. “Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of Indian’s Other Film Industry.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies Vol. 19, No. 1: p.99-102.

Related Research Topics


Kollywood vs. Bollywood


Tamil Identity

Tamil language

Politics within Indian films

Self-Respect Movement

Dravidian Movement

Anti-Hindi Agitation




Related Websites


Article written by: Holly Travis (2015) who is solely responsible for its content

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The Silappadikaram

The Silappadikaram is a Tamil epic that is speculated to have been composed around the fourth to sixth century AD (Zvelebil 178). It is said that of the Dravidian languages “Tamil has maintained the greatest purity and has preserved some of its original literature” (Adigal VIII). Of what are called the “Great-Poems” or the “[f]ive major poetical works in Tamil” only the text of the Silappadikaram and two others survived (VIII). The author, Prince Ilango Adigal, was the supposed brother of King Senguttuvan who appears later in the story, although no other Tamil poems mentioned that the king had a brother (Zvelebil 179). There are two existing commentaries, one which is ancient (the Arumpadavuri) and the other from the fifteenth century by Adiyarkunallar (Adigal IX). This story has been translated into various languages but most are not exact in depicting the tale like the original language (Zvelebil 172).

The Silappadikaram begins in the city of Puhar in the kingdom of Chola, a bustling trading town in which Kannagi and Kovalan are to have a marriage arranged by their parents (Holmstrom 3). After the marriage Kannagi “spent most of her day learning about the household” and “[s]he knew that both Kovalan’s parents and her own looked to her to maintain the traditions and honour of her family…” thereby illustrating her devotion to her role as a wife (6,8). This role involved learning her duties as a partner and homemaker from her mother in law, then implementing her skills in a way to make home life harmonious for Kovalan and herself. Years later a dancer named Madhavi captures Kovalan’s eye.  Kovalan starts another life with this woman, even having a child with her, all the while neglecting Kannagi (12-13).  Kovalan becomes increasingly charitable in his new life, especially to those who have made mistakes, and he ends up frittering away his fortune (14). He starts to sell his and Kannagi’s own possessions and feels an overwhelming sense of guilt and restlessness (15).

One day he returns to Kannagi declaring “[a]ll these years I’ve lived with a woman who cannot tell the difference between truth and falsehood. On such a woman I have wasted all my ancestral wealth. I bring you nothing but poverty. I am bitterly ashamed” (25). Kannagi tells Kovalan to take her anklets, given to her by her mother as a wedding gift, to help him get his fortune back (25). This act shows her dedication to her husband even after years of loneliness and abandonment.  Kovalan decides they need a new start so they sneak out of Puhar at night and start their journey to Madurai in the Pandya kingdom (25-26). They stop and talk to the “renunceint” Kavundi who decides to go with the couple on their long journey (27).

Many events happen along the trip, quite a few with lessons attached.  For instance, a monk reminds the group that “each of our actions is like a seed that is sown and is bound to bring a harvest of its own kind,” which told of how karma affects people based on their behaviour (30). Another lesson comes from Kavundi who, after turning two people into jackals when they teased Kannagi, stated that “[d]isrespect is no small thing”. This once again illustrates how one’s life should be lived, in this case in regard to the treatment of others (32).  They also stop at a temple where “Aiyai, goddess of hunters” is being worshiped (35).

When the group finally gets to Madurai, Kavundi leaves Kovalan and Kannagi in the care of Madari an animal herder (47-49). When Kovalan goes to the smith to try and sell one of Kannagi’s anklets, the smith thinks Kovalan stole the piece of jewellery from the queen (53). King Nedunchezhiyan was informed of this and put out the order “[s]ee if the thief has the queen’s anklet in his possession. If that is really so, kill him immediately and bring me the jewel to the queen’s chambers” (56).  The order is carried out and Kovalan is killed (58). Kannagi receives the news of her husband’s unjust death and is devastated. She calls out to the Sun God who replies “this city which accuses him shall be destroyed by fire” (63).  Kannagi goes before the king and shows him his mistake, for the queen’s original anklet had pearls whereas the one taken from Kovalan had rubies (68). Kannagi gives the Sun God the order to “not on any account spare the wicked” and the city is burned (70). Only the goddess of the Royal Pandya house, Bharatan, was left (72). The goddess tells of how both Kovalan and Kannagi were connected in a past life. In that life Kovalan had killed Kannagi’s husband by mistake; this caused Kannagi so much grief that she had thrown herself off a cliff (74). The goddess told Kannagi that “[a] virtuous life is good in itself, but may not prevent the sins of a past life from bearing fruit”, putting into perspective why these unfortunate events had happened to Kovalan and herself (74).

The next segment of the book is a chapter about the Cheran King Senguttuvan. He heard the story of Kannagi and how she was carried from the Chera kingdom by the gods to join her husband (77). Senguttuvan decided to get a block of stone from the Himalayas to carve a likeness of Kannagi the “Goddess of Steadfastness” (80).  He marvels at how “three great Tamil Kingdoms had been linked together by the story of Kannagi”, meaning the Chola Kingdom (where the story began), Pandya Kingdom (where Kannagi destroyed the city of Madurai), and his own Chera kingdom (where Kannagi was taken by the gods) (85). Each had been a part of Kannagi’s journey and she affected people from all three kingdoms profoundly.

One thing that should be noted about the Silappadikaram is that throughout the whole story many different religious sects and rituals were mentioned. This reflects the diversity of the setting it was written in. When leaving the city of Puhar, Kannagi and Kovalan pass by “the great Vishnu temple”, “seven Buddhist Viharas”, and “wandering Jain monks” (26) all within close proximity to each other showing the obvious acceptance of multiplicity.  At the time of Kannagi and Kovalan “Brahmanism (Hinduism), Jainism, and Buddhism – were at the time harmoniously coexisting in the south” (Adigal VIII).

The Silappadikaram showed that some deep rooted traditions of India that can still be seen today. A main theme in the story is karma which is still a modern principle present in India today. In the book not only was Kovalan warned about his actions in the present causing bad future karma, the murder he committed in a past life brought him an unfortunate end. Various other traditions, such as Kannagi and Kovalan’s arranged marriage, finding an auspicious day for the ceremony, and consulting astrologers, reflects part of Indian culture that is still prevalent today.

Another interesting aspect of the Silappadikaram was the portrayal of the ideal woman. Throughout the whole story Kannagi proved how pure and true she was. Through her husband’s infidelity and misconduct she stayed faithful and chaste. When Kovalan comes back to her,    Kannagi is willing to do anything to help her husband including selling the anklets that were from her mother as a wedding gift. When Kovalan is murdered, Kannagi would have killed herself willingly for her husband immediately if she hadn’t had the duty to uphold his honour by clearing his name.  In the end, Kannagi destroys a whole city for her husband and remained loyal throughout. It is because of this that King Senguttuvan is so impressed by her story that he erects a statue in her honour, making it clear that Kannagi was a version of the ideal woman of that time.

The Silappadikaram, by Prince Ilango Adigal, is a story about a woman and her husband as they struggle with the problems of fidelity, right and wrong, and justice. The core themes of the Silappadikaram are very relevant to the human experience, which is probably why it still is a well read story today. It is a tale that produces good insights to the culture, lessons, karma, and ideals of the Tamil people who hold it dear.    

References and Further Recommended Reading

Holmstrom, Lakshmi (1996) Silappadikaram Manimekalai. Madras: Orient Longman Limited

Adigal, Ilango (1965) Shilappadikaram (The Ankle Bracelet). New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation

Zvelebil, Kamil (1973) The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India. Leiden :E.J Brill

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Arumpadavuri





Ilango Adigal

Tamil Literature

The Five Great Epics

Chera Kingdom

Chola Kingdom

Pandya Kingdom

King Senguttuvan


The Goddess of Steadfastness


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article Written by: Kelsey Erickson (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.