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.

Pariyerum Perumal

 

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.

Bigil

Atlee’s latest film is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is Vijay, who shines in a double role despite the rambling and overlong story; the bad is the general misogyny of the screenplay where it takes a man to bring success to a female team who were already heading to the India Finals; and the ugly is some awful fat-shaming which Atlee and fellow screen-writer S. Ramana Girivasan seem to feel is acceptable as motivation. The story follows a retired football player who sets aside his gangster persona to coach a women’s football team, but despite some superficial similarities this is no Chak De. However, getting past the bad and the ugly, Rahman’s music is good, the dancing excellent and there is one part of the story which is more than simply token feminism. For a mass entertainer for the holiday season Bigil isn’t a bad option – it’s just that it’s not anywhere near as good as it could have been.

Michael, aka Bigil (Vijay) is a state level football player who is apparently talented enough to get into the national team. His father Rayappan (also Vijay) is a gangster in Chennai who is savvy enough to push his son towards athleticism and away from rowdyism, recognising that this will inspire others in the neighbourhood. Rayappan is a typical filmi gangster – out to defend the poor and marginalised against everyone trying to exploit them, chief of which is a rival gang, headed by Alex (I.M. Vijayan) and his son Daniel (Daniel Balaji). But neither Rayappan nor Bigil understand the internal politics of football in India which works against his success, and when Rayappan is killed, Bigil gives up his dreams and return to being plain Michael, head of the rowdies in his area and defender of the helpless.

When Michael’s friend and Tamil Nadu women’s football team coach Kathir (Kathir) is injured, Michael is persuaded to take on the task of coach instead. Something the women resent since they blame Michael for Kathir’s injury – which is totally true. The women need a coach in order to be able to compete, but although much of the film takes place in Delhi at the football championships, this is never about the women’s team and their battle to overcome poverty and adversity to win. In Atlee’s film the women are incapable of making it by themselves and need Michael to show them how to train effectively and ultimately goad them towards victory. Michael is able to convince a conservative husband to let his wife compete, persuade Anitha (Reba Monica John) to take off her face scarves and play after she is assaulted with acid and induce Vembu (Indhuja) and Thendral (Amritha Aiyer) to play together as a team. All while simultaneously dealing with gang attacks from Daniel and internal attacks from the Head of the Football association J.K. Sharma (Jackie Shroff). The assumption that the women need a strong and capable man to lead them to victory is condescending and patronizing, but Atlee breezes past this issue so that Vijay can be seen to be a sensitive, caring and motivating kind of guy. Up until he wants Pandiyamma (Indraja Shankar) to get angry out on the field and uses fat-shaming insults to get her there. Not cool at all, and really incredibly disappointing that in 2019 this kind of behaviour is being legitimised by a major star in a big budget film.

That’s the most of the bad and the ugly out of the way – and the rest is the good. Vijay smiles and dances his way through inspirational numbers, kicks a football around the field and beats up the bad guys with plenty of energy and joie de vivre. The fight scenes involve the usual ‘one man-against-the-masses’ sequences, but they are well staged and the stunts are generally impressive. The football action is almost as good, although it does look staged and filmi, particularly compared to films such as Sudani from Nigeria where the action is more realistic.  However Atlee gets points for getting women’s football onto mainstream screens, and for promoting the game as one that everyone can play. It’s also good to see some recognition of the challenges faced by the team members, despite most of these being glossed over and only mentioned in Michael’s motivational speeches. There are two exceptions – Gayathri (Varsha Bollamma) is shown as having to overcome a prejudiced and narrow-minded family situation, although again it’s her husband who makes the decision and allows her to play. Anitha has a much better story as the acid-attack survivor who has to come to terms with her injury and loss of confidence as a result.

The best parts of the film have nothing to do with the women’s team, but instead are focused on Michael and his relationship with his father. As Rayappan, Vijay is simply superb and totally convinces as an older don trying to do his best for his family and his area. The relationship between father and son is beautifully written and the effects well done to allow both Vijay’s to converse together, hug and generally interact as if they were together in reality. The conversations between the two reveal much about both characters, and it’s this emotion that is more truly inspirational than any of the plot around the football team. Here there is some of the best acting from Vijay, where he isn’t a superstar, but instead simply a father trying to do the best for his son (naturally with some great actions sequences too) but there is light and shade to the character and Vijay does an excellent job in portraying these shadows as well as the strengths of the character. Michael is a more typical Vijay ‘hero’ persona, but there is still some depth and again Vijay is excellent in the role.

Naturally there is also a romance, this time a physiotherapist who comes with Michael to help the team in Delhi. Angel (Nayanthara) has rejected a number of marriages while waiting for Michael to come to his senses and marry her, but apart from this show of spirit, she’s a typical Tamil filmi heroine who just has to look pretty for the songs and support her man through thick and thin. Nayahthara does what she can with the role, but it’s thin pickings despite some good comedy in her introduction. This would have been a much better film if Nayanthara had been the coach and the gangster thread between Michael and Rayappan a side theme, but I guess that’s a little too much to ask for.

The film does look fantastic and the song sequences in particular are brilliantly picturised. There is plenty of colour and A.R. Rahman’s music fits beautifully into the action. Rekhs (aided by Harini) comes through with brilliantly translated song lyrics and even translations of written signs that are significant for the plot. Directors and producers take note – this is how you subtitle a film for an international audience – it makes all the difference when subs are in idiomatic English and easy-to-read yellow.

Atlee does throw everything into this film, and as a result some of the threads simply don’t work within the larger context of the story. Although Jackie Shroff is the main villain, he’s never very threatening, and Daniel Balaji gets a much better storyline and resolution for his character too. He makes a great villain and his flawless performance is one of the highlights of the film. Meanwhile, Yogi Babu and Vivek indulge in some unnecessary slapstick, but the comedy from G. Gnanasambandam and George Maryan is subtler and funnier as a result. The film is at its best when focused on Vijay and this is where Atlee excels. He knows how to make his leading man look good, and how to keep the action exciting. Worth watching for Vijay, the excellent dancing and action scenes and for the colourful spectacle of it all.