Mandela (2021)

Madonne Ashwin’s political satire takes an election in a small village in Tamil Nadu as the backdrop for issues of caste, corruption and electoral rights. It’s mostly framed as a comedy, but there is plenty of emotional drama in the final scenes, and for all the jokes, the issues still come across as serious problems for society. Yogi Babu shines in the lead role, playing a low caste barber with easy humility and plenty of charm. G.M.Sundar and Kanna Ravi get to snarl at each other across the village divide, while Sheena Rajkumar is excellent as the level headed postmaster adding sanity to the proceedings.

The story is based around the fact that the village of Soorangudi is divided in two with a fierce rivalry between those who live in the north and those who live in the south. The rivalry is caste based and to try and keep the peace, the village leader has two wives, one from each faction in the village. But Devi, from the north, wants her husband to favour her son Rathinam (G.M. Sundar) while southern Valli stands up for her son Mathi (Kanna Ravi). As a result, while the arrangement may be to try and create peace in the village it has the opposite effect for the leader’s household. All the president’s attempts to improve the village founder at the feet of the village rivalry and there is no peace for anyone in the village while Rathinam and Mathi each try to make their mark.

The film starts with the kidnap of a man heading out into the woods for his morning ritual dump. His presence is needed at the unveiling of a new toilet in the village to ensure that the northerners enforce their ownership and block any southerners from trying to use the new facility. But the southerners also turn up in force, and in the ensuing chaos the toilet is smashed, ensuring no-one, north or south, is able to use the hygienic solution to public defecation. The scene sums up the problem in a microcosm. There is the leader, trying to forge a centralist path, but harangued on either side by his two wives. The women of the village look on in horror as the men once again destroy something that would have made their lives much easier, while the village barber Smile (Yogi Babu) is humiliated and belittled for no other reason than his lower caste status. It’s perfectly done and an excellent introduction to the various characters and their place in the village hierarchy.

When the village president suffers a stroke, his two sons each vow to stand in the election, pitting north against south in a race to win precedence. The votes are equally split between the two brothers until Smile, with his new name Nelson Mandela, is the recipient of a brand new voter card. Suddenly Mandela has the deciding vote in the election and no expense can be spared to buy his favour.

The basic idea here is excellent, and for the most part the film lives up to the introduction, poking fun at numerous societal issues within the village which afflict the greater population on a more general scale. Having been in Tamil Nadu a few years ago while local elections were being held, I well remember the mania that seemed to ensue, and writer director Madonne Ashwin captures the hysteria around the election perfectly. At the same time, each scene references a political issue. Whether it be caste, the lack of local education, poor roads and public defecation, all are brought to light as the brothers focus on what their (male) supporters want and ignore the needs of the village completely.

What works well is how Mandela reacts when Rathinam and Mathi each try to buy his vote with favours. It’s very natural that he accepts everything he is offered and tries to get as much as he can out of the two warring brothers. As the situation escalates and the bribes become threats, Mandela’s bafflement with the way he is treated is clearly depicted although there is still the same resigned acceptance that this is just his lot in the world. Mandela’s attitude is contrasted with that of his apprentice, Sideburn, who quickly sees that nothing has really changed, and the villagers still don’t respect Mandela or what he does for them. It takes an act of violence for Mandela to understand he is still at the very bottom of the village hierarchy, and realise that he will be discarded just as soon as the election is over.

Another excellent piece of writing sees Mandela get his name from the postmistress Thenmozhi (Sheena Rajkumar), who arranges an account for him along with an ID and voter card. Thenmozhi is a person who gets things done. She fixes the broken door to the post office herself and extends a helping hand to anyone who needs it. Her character is the breath of fresh air that the village needs, but refuses to take, while she is the only person who seems to show Mandela any respect. It’s always refreshing when there isn’t a female romantic lead, and in fact Thenmozhi is the absolute opposite. She’s from another village so doesn’t buy into the north/south divide and has no prejudice to overcome. I loved her firm, no nonsense attitude and Sheena Rajkumar does an excellent job with her character.

Mandela is a clever look at the political system that pokes fun at the leaders, their followers and even the issues that fuel political debates. It’s funny and charming at the same time, mainly thanks to Yogi Babu, but there is a serious message that still gets across despite all the laughs. Definitely one to watch and an excellent addition to the genre. 4 stars.

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