I recently watched Sivaji-The Boss and it made me wonder why Tamil cinema (and other “regional” cinemas) doesn’t seem burdened with the NRI problem, of re-positioning the NRI within the national family. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a Tamil film along the lines of a DDLJ or a K3G, blockbuster Bollywood films that reclaimed and redefined the NRI as one of our own. I find this intriguing, especially given how strongly the Indian diaspora of late-modern capital (90s, high-tech migration) has been defined by cities like Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad.
In Sivaji, Rajni plays an NRI who returns to Chennai with the lofty aim of serving the poor by providing them access to free education, healthcare, and so on (synopsis here). It is striking that there isn’t a single instance in the film when Rajni’s outsider-status is questioned – in contrast to NRI-focused Bollywood films (Swades is the obvious parallel here), here Rajni’s outsider-status is located within a corrupt political landscape and he is like any other person (only richer) in a city like Chennai who cannot get anything done without the help of powerful politicians and wheeler-dealers. There is no hand-wringing about who Rajni is – he is a Tamilian, and that’s all there is to it.
The easy way out, of course, is to fall back on the national-regional hierarchy that has been in place for over 7 decades now (since the advent of sound in cinema) and suggest that “regional” cinema’s concerns are “regional” and not (trans)national. But would it not be more productive to conceptualize Tamil cinema as having always had a trans-national dimension in the sense that it interrupts the narration of the nation by Bombay cinema? This is the argument that Vijay Devdas makes in a piece on “Rethinking Transnational Cinema: The case of Tamil Cinema” (link). Devdas surveys Tamil cinema from the period after independence to the late 1970s to argue that –
“…over time, there has been a shift within Tamil Cinema from a pan-Indian construction of the nation, that was part of the anti-colonial cinema of British India, to the call for communally centred, closed, ethno-nation, premised on a discourse of Tamil cultural nationalism.”
It is perhaps because of the strength of this discourse of Tamil cultural nationalism that Tamil cinema feels no need to re-territorialize Tamil NRIs.