Why Pa Ranjith’s Tamil OTT film ‘Dhammam’ has angered Buddhists

The film shows a young girl climb a Buddha idol and say he never believed in God anyway; the portrayal is disrespectful and demeaning, allege Buddhists

Pa Ranjith Dhammam
In the opening scene of Pa Ranjith's short film,' Dhammam', a school girl climbs onto the statue of an abandoned Buddha and pretends to be flying in the air

The newly-released Dhammam, part of an OTT anthology titled Victim, streaming on SonyLiv, has landed its director, the acclaimed filmmaker Pa Ranjith, in a controversy. The 30-minute film Dhammam (or Dhamma), which refers to the teachings of Buddha, is said to disrespect the spiritual leader and allegedly mocks his philosophy.

The story takes place in a farmland, in which sits an abandoned Buddha idol. The story revolves around a handful of characters, including a school girl, who are all involved in a crime scene, an outcome of a sudden burst of anger fuelled by caste high-handedness.

The violence takes place before the Buddha idol and it is shot in such a way that Lord Buddha appears to witness the whole incident with a calm composure and a smile.

‘God or no god’

Non-violence, or ahimsa, is one of the most important teachings of the Buddha. The recent controversy is not about the story of the film but the depiction of the Buddha in a particular scene. In the opening scene of the short film, a school girl (played by Poorva Dharini), climbs onto the statue of the abandoned idol and pretends to be flying in the air.

Her father (played by Guru Somasundaram), a farmer, who was tending his field, spots her and shouts at her to get down. He yells at her, saying it’s the God and she should not defile it by climbing it. To which, the defiant girl retorts that the Buddha himself declared that there is no god. The father ponders over this momentarily but forces the girl to climb down anyway. 

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While some have praised Pa Ranjith for reminding them that ‘We have no gods, only The Buddha and his Dhamma’, this scene has upset minority Buddhists in the state. They expressed their dismay and shock at this scene, especially since he always portrayed the Buddha in a positive way in all his earlier films.

‘No ethics in visualisation’

Bodhi Ambedkar, secretary, the Tamil Nadu Buddhist Sanga Council, said Buddhism is not a mere religion but it is about following a value-based life.

“Buddhism is a religion but there is no God. However, a visualisation like the girl standing on the statue’s shoulders will further attract more demeaning portrayals like passing urine on the statue or the statue to be garlanded with footwear. Filmmakers should have some ethics, but, Ranjith has violated this code,” he said.

Ambedkar added that the short film’s trailer had shown the girl standing on the idol with her footwear. However, after the council’s objection, the film crew removed that part but retained the rest of the scene.

“Ranjith is not a Buddhist. He shot this scene just for cheap publicity,” said Ambedkar.

Bikku Mouriyar Buddha, member, Tamil Nadu Minorities Commission, felt Ranjith was mocking government schools and encouraging Dalits to be defiant and question the state government.

“The director is showing a girl from a government school defiantly climbing a statue. It not only hurts Buddhist sentiments, but also shows government schools in a bad light. It provokes people to take an anti-government stand. Moreover, in India, we have understood Buddha as a rationalist. But, in many other countries, he is considered as a God. Proper respect should have been given to the idol,” he said.

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What angers Mouriyar further is that even after a week has passed since people objected to the scene, the filmmaker has still not given an explanation and neither has he removed the alleged offensive scene.

Need for respect

A Chennai-based advocate and Buddhist researcher who requested anonymity, also felt the scene was unnecessary.

“It can be viewed from two points. One, across the world, the Buddha is seen as a religious leader who established a religion. So, one has to pay the respect that is due to him as one would for any other religious leader. Two, since a significant number of Dalits across the country have embraced Buddhism, filmmakers like Ranjith take the religion for granted,” said the advocate.

Buddhism is the third largest religion in the world. He feared that as the film goes global on OTT platforms, in the countries where Buddhism is a state religion, it would create a huge uproar. “People have already raised a hue and cry in a few countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand,” he alleged.

Buddha as an atheist

“Buddha is being considered as a guru (teacher). There is nothing wrong in the scene. It’s just a stone and the girl climbs on it. But the dialogue she delivers by sitting on the shoulders of the Buddha idol is questionable. She says the Buddha himself has said that there is no God. That is true. But that is just one of things he preached. Reducing the Buddha to that one particular teaching, as an atheist, has hurt the sentiments of the followers of Buddhist faith,” said the researcher.

Only if the child is taught to respect the idol, will he or she respect the Dhamma. The director has deliberately made the child climb on the idol to convey his political views, the researcher alleged.

Talking to The Federal, advocate and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi’s deputy general secretary Gowthama Sanna objected to this scene as a Buddhist. He said that Ranjith has created the scene without any deep understanding of Buddhism. The scene comes across as childish, he felt. However, he refused to say more since the VCK party has largely remained silent, giving tacit support to the filmmaker.