Lungi vs. Vetti – Thamiz cinema costume is a race and class superstition

A look at how race and class dynamics have influenced the portrayal of Lungi and Vetti in the movie Thamiz.

There is a complete contrast in the portrayal of Lungi and Vetti in the movie Thamiz. For many decades, the white vetie entity has enjoyed the status of a respectable traditional costume for the protagonists of Thamiz films. Whereas, the Thamiz film industry has reduced the lungi to the goons’ dirty clothes or TASMAC dance sequences, creating a stereotypical on-screen image for the costumes. However, famous filmmakers like Pa Ranjit, Vetrimaran and Marie Selvaraj have changed a paradigm in the portrayal of lungi in Thamiz movies. In Thamiz blockbuster Carnan, the protagonist Dhanush wears a printed and checked lungi as he bravely rebels against the systematic oppression of caste. Actor Dhanush also popularized lungi in critically acclaimed films like Adukalam, Vada Chennai and Asuran. The versatile wasit-rap outfit appeared as a ragging style statement on the silver-screen when superstar Rajinikanth wore a black coil / lungi in a black movie. With the recent spotlight on the lungi in the Thamiz film, the modest outfit is challenging the underlying caste and class prejudice.

Actor Dhanush wearing lungi in Karnan movie.

Actor Dhanush wearing lungi in Karnan movie.

Lungi and veti are both traditional Thamiz cultural clothing derived from Kiladai – a waist-length undergarment worn by Thamiz people until the Middle Ages. The white vetis with decorative borders are notable in the Choja murals restored by Telugu heroic rulers in the 16th-17th centuries. The Brahmins and other influential non-Brahmin castes of the Nayak society wore panchakachcham and mulakachcham dhoti, which were wrapped around the waist, wrapped around the front, passed through the middle of the legs and tapped on the back. The lower caste people of the racial class wore a veil which was a rather short cloth which was tied around their waist in a tube-silhouette without the middle of the legs. In the colonial era, zamindars and bureaucrats working under the British combined ankle-length white dhoti and vetis with British clothing such as blazers, jackets and long coats.

Statue of King Tirumala Nayaka wearing dhoti  17th century, Madurai

Statue of King Tirumala Nayaka wearing dhoti 17th century, Madurai

The ankle-length white veil that symbolized the dominant color fashion over the years appeared in the 80s-90s Kollywood films as a dignified garment of the Thames man that promoted color arrogance and dominance. Thalaivar Rajinikanth Yezaman wore a primitive Vetti-sattai in the film where he played the role of a village headman. Action hero Vijayakanta notoriously wore white veti-sattai at Chinna Gounder where he played the role of village zamindar. Actor Saratkumar Nattamai donated a white vet for the role of village head in the film. Saratkumar also played Vetti-Sattai Luke for the role of Shaktivel Gounder in Suryavamsam. In Thevar Magan, London-educated Shaktivel, starring Kamal Hassan, trades in his western shirt and trousers for white veti-sattai when he inherited the role of village chief from his father. In the Mani Ratnam movie Nayakan, actor Kamal Hasan is looking from head to toe for the role of Dharavi’s vigilant gangster Velu Nike. Paan Ranjit’s Kala, which is also set in Dharavi, re-imagines Rajinikanth wearing a black kaili / lungi. According to Marie Selvaraj, the elderly who are accustomed to the oppression of the hegemonic caste wear veti and thandu and dress equally with the savarna hegemony. In contrast, Puliankulam’s more rebellious youth are depicted in lungi – where the fabric symbolizes their incompatibility with established satirical politics.

Superstar Rajinikanth is wearing a lungi in black and Vetti in Yejaman

Superstar Rajinikanth wearing Kylie / Lungi in Kala and Vetti in Yejaman

Lungi boasts a much larger trade history and global presence than Vetis. In the early 12th century, Thames merchants exported small checked scarves to the Middle East where it was known by the Persian word “lungi”. The waist-wrapped garment, commonly known as “Kylie” or “Saram”, was invented by the East India Company in the 17th century. Checked Kylie was popularly worn by Muslim men, and cut and tight bodies were made by Tamiz women. The most lucrative textiles exported as checked Made Cotton, “Madras Cotton” or “Madras Check” were woven and exported from colonial India. The demand for lightweight and comfortable Madras cloth was so high in the West that local European textile tycoons appealed to their government to reduce its imports. Due to the popularity of Madras Czech, countries like Switzerland, Japan and Korea created “Imitation Madras” for which the East India Company responded with “Real Madras Handcarchis” also known as RMHK. Madras checks first arrived in the United States in the 18th century and later became a symbol of American luxury in the 1930s. Handkerchiefs and Kylis were the two main product lines of Madras cloth and by the 20th century, Kylie’s demand surpassed that of handkerchief replicas, leading to the rise in popularity of modern lungi. In the 21st century, the lungi is a very formal wear in Myanmar. The waist-wrapping dress is also popular in Islamic countries in the Middle East, Africa, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia, where Muslims wear lungi in the mosque – a dress where they pray.

In an interesting contrast to the concept, lungis are undesirable in many temples across India. Lungi is banned in some cinema halls, hotels, restaurants and other elite places in India. The clothes we wear are influenced by various socio-cultural factors including caste and class structure. The positive portrayal of lungi in New Age Thameez movies is just a small but significant step in changing the racist and racist notion associated with clothing.

Black lungi

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