The time is 2017. The place is a village in western Tamil Nadu. By way of newspapers and radio, a victorious and empowering Dalit story performs out: the consideration of Ramnath Kovind for the publish of President, and his eventual election. The New York Instances celebrated the information as “a uncommon achievement for a member of a group as soon as referred to as ‘untouchables’ and one of the vital disadvantaged teams in India”. There are two methods to learn Ramnath Kovind’s storyline, which turns into a parallel/background narrative in director Thamizh’s Seththumaan: (1) the circumstances of your delivery needn’t cease you from aspiring for one of many highest workplaces within the nation, or (2) as that Instances report mentioned, it is a “uncommon achievement”, and the fact is what somebody like Poochi (Manickam) faces. Each. Single. Day.
Poochi is a basket-weaver who desires choice (1) for his thigh-high grandson, Kumaresan (Ashwin). The boy’s dad and mom have been killed throughout an incident of caste-based violence, and once we first see Poochi and Kumaresan, we see their shadows. This offers us a way of the scorched terrain these two must journey to get to the faraway college the boy research in. This additionally hints at them being mere shadows within the bigger scheme of issues. Poochi’s sole mission is to make his grandson a strong man, with a dozen servants a finger-click away. And for that, training is vital. Poochi is content material to remain within the shadows and play by society’s guidelines if which means Kumaresan can escape this (figurative) darkness.
Essentially the most sensible side of Seththumaan is the way through which it units up the central battle. I puzzled if the “villains” of this story could be these from the dominant caste, who would do the whole lot to cease Kumaresan’s training. However Thamizh’s screenplay (partly based mostly on Perumal Murugan’s story, Varugari, or Fried Meat) springs a shock by organising the battle between two dominant-caste males, who’re cousins: Vellaiyan (Prasanna) and Subramani (Suruli). In different phrases, the writing respects Poochi’s non-confrontational stance (he’s nonetheless within the shadows), and the purpose emerges: even when the battle is between dominant-caste males, it’s folks like Poochi who find yourself victims.
The central relationship within the movie is, in fact, the one between Poochi and his grandson. However the dynamic between Vellaiyan and Poochi can be fantastically detailed. That is no easy master-slave equation. It’s a sophisticated master-slave equation. On the one hand, Vellaiyan thinks nothing of getting Poochi cook dinner for him (and giving him the primary portion of meals in reward for his labour) or providing monetary assist with out even being requested. When the difficulty together with his cousin comes earlier than the panchayat, he understands that Poochi can not come ahead as his witness as a result of he would get overwhelmed up by Subramani’s males. In a lesser movie, Vellaiyan would have coerced Poochi. Right here, he will get what it’s prefer to be Poochi.
And but, have a look at the way in which Vellaiyan behaves with the pig-rearer Rangan (Kumar). It is a fearless, outspoken individual, and Vellaiyan is extra curt with him, extra exploitative. And you start to surprise if Vellaiyan’s kindnesses to Poochi are a results of the person “realizing his place” and behaving in a respectful (even servile) method. As I mentioned, it’s sophisticated. The Rangan-Poochi relationship is equally nuanced. Rangan retains urging the older man to talk up for his rights, and but, he tells Poochi that educating Kumaresan may be an costly proposition — possibly the boy must also study to weave baskets! These aren’t rock-steady characters created particularly to mouthpiece a trigger. They’re flawed human beings, with all of the contradictions that include being human.
Thamizh units up a number of contradictions alongside the way in which. The federal government college college students sing the Thamizh Thaai Vaazhthu whereas the native CBSE college college students sing the nationwide anthem. The CBSE college has a bus to select up and drop off college students, whereas Kumaresan has to stroll a number of kilometres to get to high school. Essentially the most provocative a part of Seththumaan (which means “pig”, just like the title of Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry) is the way in which it weaves within the caste-politics of meals. Vellaiyan has a longing for pork, which is forbidden for males of his group. (He would possibly find yourself being mocked as “panni thinna paradesi”!) This angle might have been its personal film (the battle level is correct there!), however Thamizh does one thing incredible: just like the Ramnath Kovind monitor, he makes it one other parallel narrative. This is what you name layered screenwriting.
Individuals are killed for consuming beef. Kumaresan’s trainer laughs when the boy says he eats all types of meat. Like with males, there’s apparently a hierarchy with animals, too — and pigs are the bottom of the low, as a result of they eat shit. When Vellaiyan’s spouse learns about his pork-eating plans, she asks Poochi if he’s making an attempt to “convey them right down to his caste”. There’s a giant snigger (and maybe a dig at vegetarians, who’re often from the dominant castes) when Vellaiyan says even crops develop on manure, i.e. shit!
The movie’s grand set piece is the detailed preparation of pork — from capturing the squealing animal to killing it and chopping it up and cooking it. And the way fascinating that it’s Vellaiyan, a person from the dominant caste, who makes this level: we’ve the suitable to eat something we wish, and who’re you to say in any other case! However observe his discriminatory tendencies even with pork. He doesn’t need to purchase the meat from the market, as a result of that may not be recent and so they may additionally combine in components of the pig you don’t need to eat. Put merely, even with pork, he desires some type of… “purity”!
There’s some rawness within the making and within the performances that took me a while to get used to — however slowly, this turns into its personal type of energy. The movie has a rough-edged docu-drama really feel, and Pratheep Kaliraja’s hand-held digital camera virtually turns into an “observer”. The one actual subject I had was with the dialogues (credited to Perumal Murugan), that are full of exposition. There’s a scene the place Poochi visits his niece’s household, and so they reminisce a couple of tragedy. There’s one other scene the place Vellaiyan remembers how they used to kill a pig within the previous days (versus now). That is all essential info for the viewers, however I needed these conversations had been designed higher. I needed they’d been “invisibly” woven into the scenes as an alternative of being positioned proper on prime.
However then, Thamizh appears to be working within the grand custom of Tamil cinema. (Ours is, in spite of everything, a really verbose movie tradition.) He likes sentiment. He likes punchy strains. What Poochi says at a tea stall that discriminates by serving Dalits in paper cups is virtually a “mass” line. It prompts the applause centres in your nervous system. This line additionally makes us see that Poochi isn’t fairly the simpleton he seems to be. And there are a number of locations the place Thamizh reveals he can be refined. He by no means goes for all-out melodrama, which we see within the music, too. Bindhu Malini’s rating is highly effective however minimal. The final stretch is virtually made for a giant orchestra. However all we get is the rustle of wind.
It is a quietly shattering work. Thamizh has made a film from his coronary heart, and if movies are a mirrored image of their makers, he appears to be a quieter type of revolutionary than his producer, Pa Ranjith. Thamizh leaves us — the viewers — with rage. However except for just a few strains by Rangan, he doesn’t put his rage up on display. It broke my coronary heart (simply because it breaks Poochi’s coronary heart) to see Kumaresan being drawn to the cleansing of the slaughtered pig. Right here’s this child, together with his digital watch, together with his means to be the first-ranker at school, together with his informal use of “bye” when taking depart of a buddy — nonetheless, there’s that primal pull. Regardless of Poochi pushing him away, he retains coming again to it. The closing parts, once more, are a shock. Once more, Poochi — regardless of being the protagonist — isn’t the actor. He’s the acted-upon. Once more, even when the battle is between dominant-caste males, it’s folks like Poochi who find yourself victims.