The time is 2017. The place is a village in western Tamil Nadu. Through newspapers and radio, a victorious and empowering Dalit story plays out: the consideration of Ramnath Kovind for the post of President, and his eventual election. The New York Times celebrated the news as "a rare achievement for a member of a community once known as 'untouchables' and one of the most deprived groups in India". There are two ways to read Ramnath Kovind's storyline, which becomes a parallel/background narrative in director Thamizh's Seththumaan: (1) the circumstances of your birth need not stop you from aspiring for one of the highest offices in the country, or (2) as that Times report said, this is a "rare achievement", and the reality is what someone like Poochi (Manickam) faces. Every. Single. Day.
Poochi is a basket-weaver who wants option (1) for his thigh-high grandson, Kumaresan (Ashwin). The boy's parents were killed during an incident of caste-based violence, and when we first see Poochi and Kumaresan, we see their shadows. This gives us a sense of the scorched terrain these two have to travel to get to the faraway school the boy studies in. This also hints at them being mere shadows in the larger scheme of things. Poochi's sole mission is to make his grandson a powerful man, with a dozen servants a finger-click away. And for that, education is key. Poochi is content to stay in the shadows and play by society's rules if that means Kumaresan can escape this (figurative) darkness.
The most brilliant aspect of Seththumaan is the manner in which it sets up the central conflict. I wondered if the "villains" of this story would be those from the dominant caste, who would do everything to stop Kumaresan's education. But Thamizh's screenplay (partly based on Perumal Murugan's story, Varugari, or Fried Meat) springs a surprise by setting up the conflict between two dominant-caste men, who are cousins: Vellaiyan (Prasanna) and Subramani (Suruli). In other words, the writing respects Poochi's non-confrontational stance (he's still in the shadows), and the point emerges: even when the conflict is between dominant-caste men, it's people like Poochi who end up victims.
The central relationship in the film is, of course, the one between Poochi and his grandson. But the dynamic between Vellaiyan and Poochi is also beautifully detailed. This is no simple master-slave equation. It's a complicated master-slave equation. On the one hand, Vellaiyan thinks nothing of having Poochi cook for him (and giving him the first portion of food in reward for his labour) or offering financial help without even being asked. When the issue with his cousin comes before the panchayat, he understands that Poochi cannot come forward as his witness because he would get beaten up by Subramani's men. In a lesser film, Vellaiyan would have coerced Poochi. Here, he gets what it's like to be Poochi.
And yet, look at the way Vellaiyan behaves with the pig-rearer Rangan (Kumar). This is a fearless, outspoken person, and Vellaiyan is more curt with him, more exploitative. And you begin to wonder if Vellaiyan's kindnesses to Poochi are a result of the man "knowing his place" and behaving in a deferential (even servile) manner. As I said, it's complicated. The Rangan-Poochi relationship is equally nuanced. Rangan keeps urging the older man to speak up for his rights, and yet, he tells Poochi that educating Kumaresan might be an expensive proposition — maybe the boy should also learn to weave baskets! These aren't rock-steady characters created specifically to mouthpiece a cause. They are flawed human beings, with all the contradictions that come with being human.
Thamizh sets up several contradictions along the way. The government school students sing the Thamizh Thaai Vaazhthu while the local CBSE school students sing the national anthem. The CBSE school has a bus to pick up and drop off students, while Kumaresan has to walk several kilometres to get to school. The most provocative part of Seththumaan (meaning "pig", like the title of Nagraj Manjule's Fandry) is the way it weaves in the caste-politics of food. Vellaiyan has a craving for pork, which is forbidden for men of his community. (He might end up being mocked as "panni thinna paradesi"!) This angle could have been its own movie (the conflict point is right there!), but Thamizh does something fantastic: like the Ramnath Kovind track, he makes it another parallel narrative. This is what you call layered screenwriting.
People are killed for eating beef. Kumaresan's teacher laughs when the boy says he eats all kinds of meat. Like with men, there's apparently a hierarchy with animals, too — and pigs are the lowest of the low, because they eat shit. When Vellaiyan's wife learns about his pork-eating plans, she asks Poochi if he is trying to "bring them down to his caste". There's a big laugh (and perhaps a dig at vegetarians, who are usually from the dominant castes) when Vellaiyan says even plants grow on manure, i.e. shit!
The film's grand set piece is the detailed preparation of pork — from capturing the squealing animal to killing it and chopping it up and cooking it. And how interesting that it's Vellaiyan, a man from the dominant caste, who makes this point: we have the right to eat anything we want, and who are you to say otherwise! But note his discriminatory tendencies even with pork. He doesn't want to buy the meat from the market, because that might not be fresh and they may also mix in parts of the pig you don't want to eat. Put simply, even with pork, he wants some kind of… "purity"!
There's some rawness in the making and in the performances that took me some time to get used to — but slowly, this becomes its own kind of strength. The film has a rough-edged docu-drama feel, and Pratheep Kaliraja's hand-held camera practically becomes an "observer". The only real issue I had was with the dialogues (credited to Perumal Murugan), which are stuffed with exposition. There's a scene where Poochi visits his niece's family, and they reminisce about a tragedy. There's another scene where Vellaiyan remembers how they used to kill a pig in the old days (versus now). This is all very important information for the audience, but I wished these conversations had been designed better. I wished they had been "invisibly" woven into the scenes instead of being placed right on top.
But then, Thamizh seems to be working in the grand tradition of Tamil cinema. (Ours is, after all, a very verbose film culture.) He likes sentiment. He likes punchy lines. What Poochi says at a tea stall that discriminates by serving Dalits in paper cups is practically a "mass" line. It activates the applause centres in your nervous system. This line also makes us see that Poochi isn't quite the simpleton he appears to be. And there are several places where Thamizh shows he can be subtle. He never goes for all-out melodrama, which we see in the music, too. Bindhu Malini's score is powerful but minimal. The last stretch is practically made for a big orchestra. But all we get is the rustle of wind.
This is a quietly shattering work. Thamizh has made a movie from his heart, and if films are a reflection of their makers, he seems to be a quieter kind of revolutionary than his producer, Pa Ranjith. Thamizh leaves us — the audience — with rage. But with the exception of a few lines by Rangan, he doesn't put his rage up on screen. It broke my heart (just as it breaks Poochi's heart) to see Kumaresan being drawn to the cleaning of the slaughtered pig. Here's this kid, with his electronic watch, with his ability to be the first-ranker in class, with his casual use of "bye" when taking leave of a friend — still, there's that primal pull. Despite Poochi pushing him away, he keeps coming back to it. The closing portions, again, are a surprise. Again, Poochi — despite being the protagonist — isn't the actor. He's the acted-upon. Again, even when the conflict is between dominant-caste men, it's people like Poochi who end up victims.