In this beautifully made and wonderfully expressive film, writer/director Mari Selvaraj paints a very clear picture of the issue of caste in India and the difficulties encountered by those of a socially prescribed lower status. For someone from the West, caste seems such a complex and confusing area, although prejudice is something that is sadly all too common everywhere in the world. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Pariyerum Perumal is that no-one faces any consequences for tormenting others simply due to their social class, even when they are involved in inciting hatred and even plotting murder. The amount of violence and hatred against those who are somehow considered as ‘other’ is almost unbelievable and I watched much of this film with my heart in my mouth waiting for the next sickening attack or outbreak of abuse against the protagonist Pariyan (Kathir). And yet Pariyerum Perumal is compelling viewing, partly due to the well-crafted story, but also thanks to Kathir’s outstanding performance and my favourite character in the story, a dog called Karuppi.
The issue of caste is raised from the opening scene as Pariyerum Perumal (aka Pariyan) and his friends are relaxing in a waterhole after hunting. The approach of a group of higher caste men prompts the group to leave the waterhole, although most leave only after grumbling about the situation. To my eyes at least, there was no discernible difference between the two groups, or any offence committed by Pariyan’s friends against these other men, which makes the animosity displayed difficult to understand. One of the men urinates into the water hole which seems incredibly juvenile and petty, but their next action is infinitely more evil and cruel as they kill Pariyan’s beloved dog Karuppi in a graphically violent attack. Just as shocking though, is the fact that Pariyan and his friends simply mourn their loss and move on. There appears to be nothing they can do and they seem resigned to the lack of justice and inequity of their situation. Throughout the film it’s this sense of being unable to fight back and of having no recourse to justice whatsoever that is the most appalling aspect of the story. It’s also this acceptance that makes Pariyan such a fascinating character as he fights to keep his place in college and remain friends with Jothi Mahalakshmi, aka Jo (Anandhi), a girl from a higher caste.
Pariyan has a seat at college in Tirunelveli where he plans to study law, but almost immediately he runs into problems. His lack of English opens him up to ridicule from the other students, while his lower status also singles him out for abuse and mistreatment. Although the college principle (Poo Ram) seems to be supportive, the other lecturers are less accepting, particularly when he questions their use of English as the main teaching language. Luckily, he quickly makes friends with Anand (Yogi Babu), who is friendly and approachable, despite being from a different social group. Anand is of higher caste, so he doesn’t come in for the same rough treatment as Pariyan, and for the most part he also seems relatively unaware of exactly how badly his peers behave towards his friend. Yogi Babu is perfect here as the bumbling friend who tries his best to keep Pariyan out of trouble and Anand injects some comedy into the story that helps to lighten the darker tones.
Trouble however seems to be Pariyan’s middle name as he upsets Jo’s family and the other students with their friendship. Strangely Jo seems totally oblivious of her family’s animosity towards Pariyan which even extends to her cousin hiring a contract killer to dispose of him after initial attempts to warn Pariyan off seem to fail. In reality, while Pariyan is in love with Jo, he’s not prepared to risk everything to remain friends with her, and it’s Jo who keeps pestering Pariyan rather than the other way around. After he is humiliated at a family wedding, Pariyan tries to avoid Jo, even though he desperately needs her help with his English. Jo cannot understand why Pariyan keeps trying to avoid her, while Pariyan seems unwilling and even unable to explain to her exactly why he cannot continue as her friend. Jo’s innocence is more problematic for me, as the abuse and attacks on Pariyan are quite blatant and leave visible marks. I can’t understand why she immediately assumes that Pariyan didn’t turn up for the wedding, given that it was out of character for him not to obey her instructions. I can more easily understand Pariyan’s reluctant to let Jo know exactly what was going on, since there has to be a certain amount of pride involved, while I can see that trying to get Jo to understand the issue would likely take a huge amount of effort! Pariyan later explains that he doesn’t want to diminish Jo’s father in her eyes. It’s a lovely and mature explanation and highlights Pariyan’s strength of character to be able to rise above his tormentors and take the higher ground.
As Pariyan is alternately beaten up and verbally tormented by his abusers, he sees his dog in visions where she appears painted blue. I had to do some investigation, but discovered that the colour blue has been adopted as a symbol of Dalit resistance in India and represents non-discrimination. The visions of Karuppi seem to give Pariyan the strength to go on, and even save him from death at a crucial point in the story, so it seems apt that Karuppi has her own inspirational song (add link here) and also appears in the powerful Naan Yaar.
A secondary track follows an old man, Thatha (Karate Venkatesan) who surreptitiously murders members of the lower caste and who is ultimately contracted to kill Pariyan. Horrifyingly, these murders are made to look like accidents or suicides with no-one aware that the deaths were deliberate. Thatha’s very ordinariness and his apparent belief that the people he kills are no better than vermin to be destroyed is a shocking comment on the society that allows such intolerance to occur. However, although the film is talking about Indian (and specifically Tamil Nadu) society, the themes explored here are universal and hold a mirror up to the world to-day in a way that doesn’t allow for any avoidance of the topic or absolution by ignorance. The message from Mari Selvaraj seems to be – look, see just what is happening right under our noses and we all do nothing to stop it! Most poignant is Pariyan’s simple acceptance of everything he endures, right up until his father (Vannarpettai Thangaraj) is also attacked. It’s another simple but effective statement that Pariyan is caring and protective of his father, and that in part the violence directed against someone else makes him take a stance, if not actually fight back. Pariyan’s father is also an unusual character, adding further layers to the story and more insight into Pariyan’s capacity to tolerate mistreatment.
Kathir is excellent throughout and turns in a powerful and believable performance. His demeanour appears perfect for the character, including keeping his eyes down and trying to make himself appear as small as possible when confronted by Sankaralingam (Lijeesh) and the other students, but standing tall and becoming livelier when talking to Jo and his own friends. He adds many different layers to Pariyan and clearly shows his struggles while also allowing Pariyan’s joy in finding his ‘guardian angel’ in Jo and his obvious love for his dog Karuppi to shine through. He really is terrific here and fantastic in a role that needed care not to become too preachy or self-righteous, or simply end up as a kind of moral avenger with no shade of grey. Anandhi isn’t as lucky, and her Jo is a bit dim and rather too naïve. She does a good enough job with the role, but her character is underwritten in comparison to Pariyan, and she’s really only in the film to be the reason for most of Pariyan’s struggles. One other standout is Marimuthu as Jo’s father, who perfectly conveys his disgust at the idea that someone of a lower caste might be involved with his daughter but also manages to show his fear that any comeback may also fall on Jo. The conflicted emotions are well balanced and provide yet another viewpoint on the issue.
Mari Selvaraj has taken a sensitive subject and delivered a terrific commentary on the role of caste for both young and old members of society. Despite the brutality of many of the scenes, the film doesn’t ever seem to be glorifying violence or adding in cruelties just for shock-value. Rather this is a clever intertwining of a societal issue with a coming of age story that delivers on both the personal level and on the larger stage. There is enough laughter and joy to balance out the brutality, although be warned that the death of Karuppi is incredibly distressing and realistic. Overall, not one for the faint-hearted, but the final message of hope and the underlying call to fight back against suppression make this a more uplifting film than the storyline would suggest. 4 ½ stars.