With Maadathy — An Unfairy Tale, Leena Manimekalai skewers the blindness of dominant castes to oppression

Bharathy Singaravel

Nov 15, 2019 10:14:02 IST

Is Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy “shattering,” “devastating” and thoroughly “harrowing” to watch? Yes, all of the above. But I’m attempting to steer clear of these trite phrases often used by writers to describe films on oppression by a society that is, one could argue, fairly immune to feeling rancour about injustice. Emotional currency might be what you trade in at the ticket counter. Cinema that deals in atrocities has an assembly-line fixture for invoking rage, indignation, heart-break and righteous retribution. As a writer, I find myself hoping that a reader’s eyes won’t glaze over when they see the familiar litany describing films on persecution.

I want to convince you that you must watch Maadathy — An Unfairy Tale. Not so that you can feel the shame and sense of emptiness that I did, but because these are stories that need to be known. The deliberate blindness of dominant castes to the fact that an entire sub-caste of Dalits’ sole purpose is believed to be invisible labour, can be held to account only by both filmmaker and audience. Maadathy is a story woven from the day-to-day lives of Puthirai Vannar women. Maadathy is also the name of one of the mother goddesses worshipped in rural Tamil Nadu. Like many non-Vedic gods, her claim to divinity is through oppression.

“Nobodies do not have gods, they are gods,” is Leena’s tagline. Fearsome village deities across the state tend to have origin stories that are a combination of myth — and often, tragedy. The lore around them is told within the framework of personal “encounters,” local legend and popular mythology. Leena’s film foregrounds a pattern: the history of these “nobodies.” Many of these vengeful guardian deities are testaments to caste and gender violence.

 With Maadathy — An Unfairy Tale, Leena Manimekalai skewers the blindness of dominant castes to oppression

Still from Maadathy – An Unfairy Tale

The lead character, Yosana, her mother hounded, humiliated and violated, her grandmother’s implacable grief — all take form in a terrifying and unforgiving being. Wilful blindness comes back to curse perpetrators and the ignorant equally. This being demands that we possess knowledge. Know who Puthirai Vannars are. Know their oppressors. Know that they are considered a slave-caste. Know that they are required to wash menstrual cloth, the garments of the deceased and bury the dead. Know that they are expected to stay hidden so that the sight of them doesn’t “defile” others. Know that women and adolescent girls are raped without consequence. Maadathy entirely takes away its viewer’s claim to rage. It flings our ignorance back at us as an indication of culpability.

This is a film made possible by the communities in question. The actors are Puthirai Vannars, Pallars and from Other Backward Castes such as the Nadars, who have a strong regional presence. So far the lives of Puthirai Vannars are poorly documented; that such a sub-caste even exists isn’t common knowledge. The film was shot in the Tirunelveli district, an area a large section of my family comes from. When Leena and I first spoke, I was taken aback. This was the first time I was hearing of them. Ignorance, besides being a privilege, re-establishes the forceful invisibilising of an entire community.

Leena spoke to me at length about community participation of the kind her film attempted: “Because it is cinema, we could see how role-reversals affect people. A Puthirai Vannar actor plays the village elder. One of the Puthirai Vannar characters was played by someone from the Pallar community. It was interesting to see how some of them came to terms with caste hierarchies, especially when they may have to play someone from a caste they considered beneath them. A few even left the project because they were unable to stomach it.” She sees “salvation” in art even though she believes that “caste is encoded in our genes”. But I’m not sure if there is anything such as redemption for generational, targeted violence.

Earlier this year, the film came up before the Regional Office in Chennai of the Central Board of Film Certification. The film was refused an Adults Only (A) certification on the grounds of “Religious Contempt, Nudity, Strong Language and Portrayal of a Minor Girl in Infatuation.” Unless the suggested heavy cuts were made, the RO refused to award the certification.  Given that it was made with the intent to reflect the lives of the Puthirai Vannar community as closely as possible, the actors speak in the local Tamil dialect replete with colourful swearing. When violations are matter of daily occurrence, it shouldn’t be so surprising if harshness bleeds into everyday conversation. The demand to erase that to make it more “palatable” is an attempt at silencing. Rather than stand aside and let the facts be known, it attempts to sanitise only the evidence of oppression.

This August, a CBFC Tribunal in New Delhi overturned those cuts. Maadathy premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in October. On Monday, 11 November 2019, it had its India premier at the Kolkata Film Festival in Hall I of the iconic Nandan Theatre. Nandita Das released the teaser trailer a day before the screening, much to the filmmaker’s delight. With the (A) certificate finally granted, the film is set for a theatrical release soon. This film needs to be watched, urgently, but our collective outrage when watching it will be a pitiful offering.

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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2019 09:46:14 IST