Southern Lights: Tiladaanam

Southern Lights: Tiladaanam

Director: K.N.T. Sastry

Cast: H.G. Dattatreya, Jaya Sheela, Brahmaji

K.N.T. Sastry's Tiladaanam (The Rite… A Passion) can be seen as a companion piece to Vamsha Vriksha, the Kannada drama discussed in this column last week. Both films are about an aging Brahmin forced to reckon with a changing world, exemplified by the next generation. In Vamsha Vriksha, it was a daughter-in-law, who wanted to go to college after the death of her husband. Here, it's a son, who's a Naxalite.

First, a word about the title, which refers to the ritual of giving sesame seeds as alms, which transfers the giver's sins to the receiver, who is now considered an outcast. When we first glimpse Subbaiah Sastry, he's receiving tiladaanam from a couple. The priest hands the offering to the couple and instructs them to "drop it to him from a height." This done, they also drop a few coins, which Subbaiah accepts with a smile. He's fallen on hard times, which is why he is reduced to being the recipient in this rite, instead of presiding over more auspicious events, like asking the gods to bless newborns or newlyweds.

In the next scene, Subbaiah is told that someone has died. He's asked to be one of the four pallbearers. We soon see him near a white-shrouded corpse, but there's a problem. One of the other pallbearers wants to be paid Rs. 200 for his efforts. A man – presumably the dead man's son – says he can only afford half that amount. Subbaiah is moved by the man's entreaties. He says, "Don't pay me, sir. Give it to him instead. The poor fellow must be in dire need." But the pallbearer spurns this offer. "You ceased to be a Brahmin when you started accepting tiladaanam. It is the lowliest thing to do. Who wants charity from you?"

This rejection finds an echo when Subbaiah spurns an offer of money from his son Raghuram, whose presence we are alerted to as Subbaiah passes by burning bodies on the road. He asks a policeman what happened, and learns that some Naxalites killed three innocents in a bombing. Soon, we see Raghuram bending under a tap for a drink of water. He looks up and stares at himself on a poster announcing a reward of Rs. 1 lakh for his capture, dead or alive. He smiles and heads to his father's house. He's been away for long, and only the news that his wife, Padma, has delivered a boy is bringing him home again.

Subbaiah opens the door. There's no warmth in the welcome. When Raghuram asks about his son, Subbaiah says, "You've done nothing for me. Now, let's see what he does for you. He was born under an inauspicious star, which means your life is in danger." Raghuram goes to Padma, who begins to weep about their dire situation. Raghuram says, "How can I explain myself to you? You will not understand. I try to help those who cannot afford even one meal a day." The irony is not missed. Subbiah says, sarcastically, "Oh, but he cannot feed his own family."

It's not that they hate each other. The tone of their exchanges is just the result of them having nothing in common

Raghuram says, "Father, your customs and traditions are for a man-made god. My struggle is for the oppressed and the poor." And we cut to a flashback of the family in more prosperous times, when Subbaiah had arranged for a number of Brahmins to be fed. Raghuram, seated under a picture of Lenin, tells his father, "You could sit at home and recite the Vedas instead of doing all this." Subbaiah replies, "The Vedas are not just for reciting. They are to be followed, too. The Vedas preach that one should share what he has with the ones who are in need." Which, in a way, is what Raghuram is doing now. As Raghuram says, it's just that he's following the path of Marx instead of the path of Subbaiah's gods.

It's not that they hate each other. The tone of their exchanges is just the result of them having nothing in common. After a simple meal, Subbaiah tells Raghuram, "Have you thought of us? You ruined all your mother's dreams. It wasn't enough that you ruined an innocent girl's life, but you also sired a son." The argument continues for a while. At the end, Raghuram extends a wad of cash, but Subbaiah refuses to accept it. "I can also earn this kind of money," he says, "reciting out-of-context hymns like the Brahmins here. But that money is as loathsome as the money you are giving me." He won't touch this money. Put differently, this outcast priest has reduced his son to… an outcast.

Tiladaanam is available to stream on hotstar here.

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