Even before Mari Selvaraj’s Maamannan was released on June 29, the film triggered several discussions and debates in the media. At its audio launch, the director, who is part of the anti-caste wave in Tamil cinema, said that Maamannan was inspired from the anger and confusion he felt when he watched Bharathan’s Thevar Magan (1992). Selvaraj, who hails from a Scheduled Caste and identifies as Dalit, made his comments in the presence of Kamal Haasan who had not only played the lead in Thevar Magan but had also written the film.
Thevar Magan was inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster saga The Godfather (1972) and Girish Karnad’s Kaadu (1973), a Kannada film with two warring villages at its heart. Haasan’s film – which won five National Awards – revolves around a family feud within the politically powerful Thevar clan in a south Tamil Nadu village, and traces how the liberal hero, who wishes to break free from the feudal order is brought back within the fold.
But was Thevar Magan an anti-caste film or was it a film that ended up fanning the caste pride of the dominant caste group? In Selvaraj’s reimagination of Thevar Magan, the perspective shifts from the powerful to the powerless, and in doing so, the director establishes a counter-narrative to the iconic older film.
Casting Vadivelu as Maamannan
In Thevar Magan, Vadivelu – then a young and upcoming comedian – played the role of Isakki, a servant in the Periya Thevar (Sivaji Ganesan) household. Isakki is subservient to the family, and ready to lay down his life for their welfare. When Sakthivel (Kamal Haasan) returns to Thoovalur village with his modern, London-educated girlfriend Bhanu (Gautami), he creates quite a flutter. Oblivious to the tensions in the village, Sakthivel asks Isakki to open the doors of a temple that had been closed due to the existing feud between Periya Thevar and his half-brother Chinna Thevar (Kaka Radhakrishnan) and the latter’s son Mayan (Nassar).
Though Isakki knows that opening the temple will put him in a precarious position, he does so on Sakthivel’s command. But the repercussions are severe – Isakki’s hand is chopped in retaliation. Yet, when an apologetic Sakthivel visits him at the hospital, Isakki only reiterates his devotion to the Periya Thevar family. By Selvaraj’s own assertion, he deliberately chose Vadivelu for the role of Maamannan, a Dalit politician, because of Thevar Magan’s treatment of the character. But was Isakki from the Dalit community in the original film? Not necessarily so.
Apart from the feuding Thevar brothers in the film, the caste location of the others in the village isn’t specified. But, Isakki, many argue, is likely to have been from the Thevar community himself. Not only does he have easy access to Periya Thevar’s family, he also sings ‘Thekatthi Kallanada’ while surreptitiously opening the doors of the temple. This appears to be a reference to his caste identity – Kallar (meaning ‘thief’).
The Thevar community comprises three subcastes – Maravar, Kallar and Agamudayar – which is collectively known as the Mukkulathor confederacy. The Thevars are classified as OBC (Other Backward Castes) in Tamil Nadu but are an influential clan, and politicians across party lines pay tribute to the community’s tallest political leader and patriarch, Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, on his birth and death anniversaries.
Selvaraj, however, interprets Sakthivel and Isakki’s Master-Slave relationship to be a caste dynamic. In Maamannan, Rathinavel (Fahadh Faasil plays the character who is closely modelled on Sakthivel of Thevar Magan) is from a dominant caste while Vadivelu is clearly playing a Dalit protagonist.
The politics of naming
When Pa Ranjith made his first Rajinikanth film, there was a reason it was titled Kabali (2016) after its Dalit protagonist. Wearing a stylish grey suit, Rajinikanth looks at the camera and says, “Do you think I’m the sidekick Kabali from earlier Tamil films who would come when beckoned by Nambiar (an actor who frequently played the main villain)? This is Kabali da!”
In his interviews, Ranjith has spoken about how names that are common among oppressed caste people were given to negative or criminal characters in Tamil cinema. By naming his hero Kabali, Ranjith was rewriting the rules. Selvaraj, his protégé, does something similar in Maamannan.
Though Vadivelu’s character is named ‘Maamannan’, which means ‘emperor’, he’s called ‘Mannu’ (mud or ground) by everyone around him. Interestingly, a song from Thevar Magan that is still routinely played in caste-based events of the Thevar community goes ‘Potri paadadi penne/Thevar kaaladi manne’ (Woman, sing in praise of the mud/ground beneath the Thevar’s feet). The song, composed by Ilaiyaraaja, is extremely popular but has been frequently criticised for glorifying the caste pride of the Thevars. By nicknaming his hero ‘Mannu’, it’s possible that Selvarj wants his audience to look at the oppressive structures on which this caste pride stands.
It’s only Mannu’s son, Athiveeran (Udayanidhi Stalin), who calls his father Maamannan. ‘Athiveeran’ means ‘superhero’ or ‘bravest hero’, and this too is a hark back to Thevar Magan where the veeram (bravery/heroics) of the Thevar community is repeatedly stressed. In a crucial scene, when Sakthivel is trying to reason with his father about breaking away from the old ways, his father tells him about the bravery of his clan and how violence has always been part of it – “When Netaji Subhash Chandrabose gave the call for freedom fighters, most people who signed up were from our community!” In fact, the film begins with a portrait of Subhash Chandra Bose followed by Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, and right after that, we see Ganesan twirling his prominent moustache, suggesting a lineage of heroism.
It’s obvious that Periya Thevar from Thevar Magan is full of caste pride, and this is placed in contrast to his modern son. But the film isn’t critical of Periya Thevar’s views. In fact, Sakthivel becomes “enlightened” about the rightness of his father’s ways and follows in his footsteps. He abandons his ideas about escaping the bigotry of the village and becomes a “son of the soil” – growing his moustache in his father’s style (this too emphasises veeram), dressing like him, and becoming the village’s “saviour”.
Selvaraj’s idea of a brave hero, on the other hand, is a man who can challenge his father and the society around him. As in Thevar Magan, there is an important incident revolving around a temple in Maamannan too. Here, Athiveeran and his friends bathe in the well belonging to the temple and are stoned by the people of the village. His friends die while Athiveeran survives. At the time, his father is a low level worker in a Dravidian party and he decides not to pursue the case because his leader (Azhagam Perumal), Rathinavel’s father, doesn’t want him to. Athiveeran stops speaking to his father from that day.
If Sakthivel of Thevar Magan was an expert in the martial art of Silambam, Athiveeran of Maamannan teaches the martial art of Adimurai, which is practised by dominant caste groups in south Tamil Nadu, particularly the Thevars. In Thevar Magan, the ‘Sandhu Pottu’ song famously displayed Haasan’s skills in Silambam. He is challenged by a man affiliated to Chinna Thevar and Sakthivel puts him in his place with his silambam, marking his body in various places with a sandhupottu and humiliating him.
In Maamannan, the Adimurai scene appears right at the beginning when Selvaraj uses intercut sequences to establish the contrasting personalities of Rathinavel and Athiveeran. While Rathinavel is the sort who won’t hesitate to kill a beloved dog if it doesn’t bring him victory, Athiveeran is the sort who understands power and how to use it responsibly. He explains this in class when a student tries to bully another.
Sitting as an act of defiance
The iconic Thevar Magan poster has two stars from different generations, one seated and the other standing next to him as heir apparent. If Rajinikanth followed in MG Ramachandran’s footsteps and coveted superstardom, Haasan modelled himself on Ganesan who was known for his versatility. The poster is as much about film legacy as it is about the father-son relationship portrayed in the film.
In Maamannan, there is a fleeting shot of a similar portrait of Rathinavel standing next to his father (Azhagam Perumal) in his home. The poster of the Selvaraj film also features father and son, but with an important difference – Athiveeran is seated next to Maamannan as his equal.
Maamannan, an MLA in a reserved constituency, encourages everyone he meets to sit down and not stand in his presence. But, his son discovers that Maamannan never sits in the presence of Rathinavel. This greatly angers him, and the act of sitting itself takes on political overtones.
It’s important to understand the of this scene. In 1957, the Thevar community unleashed violence against Dalits in the Mudukulathur constituency for voting en masse for the Congress instead of the Forward Bloc party to which Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar belonged. The Collector invited leaders from different communities for a meeting to broker peace. When Muthuramalinga Thevar entered the meeting, everyone reportedly stood up except Dalit leader Immanuel Sekaran who remained seated as a protest against the violence unleashed on his people. This is said to have greatly angered Muthuramalinga Thevar.
Immanuel Sekaran was murdered by Thevars a day later. Muthuramalinga Thevar and others involved in the crime were arrested on the orders of Kamaraj, the Congress Chief Minister. However, they were later released by the CN Annadurai-led DMK government.
Sekaran was hardly the first or last Dalit man to have been killed for showing the audacity to sit in front of a dominant caste man. Since then, there have been numerous reports of Dalits being beaten or killed for aspiring above their designated station in the caste hierarchy – from sitting on a chair to riding a horse or eating along with upper caste people.
In Thevar Magan, there are several shots of people getting up and standing in respect whenever Periya Thevar and Sakthivel enter a place. Isakki, for instance, struggles to get up when Sakthivel visits him at the hospital though it’s because of the latter’s lack of discretion that he loses his hand. But what is viewed as ‘respect’ in the earlier film is called out as caste oppression in Maamannan. It’s no surprise that the iconography of Muthuramalinga Thevar and Netaji that we see in Thevar Magan is replaced with visuals of Ambedkar and the Buddha in Maamannan.
The Messiah Complex
Thevar Magan’s Sakthivel is projected as better than the rest because he believes in humanity over caste, and does not want to indulge in violence. But he is eventually sucked into this world, and the very day after his father’s death, he steps into his shoes (literally – Isakki places the footwear in front of him) and makes the village his responsibility.
Sakthivel marries the naive Panchavarnam (Revathi), who is also from the Thevar community, as part of resolving the village’s problems. He thus breaks off the intercaste relationship that his father had disapproved of, and becomes the man who would carry forward Periya Thevar’s legacy. The fact that the entire village is suffering due to the rift between these two families is never quite termed as caste oppression, with the villagers only aligning themselves with either one of the factions and never having an identity of their own.
When Mayan, Sakthivel’s violent cousin is introduced in Thevar Magan, he is seen petting an Indian hound. In Maamannan, it is Rathinavel who owns several of these dogs. He also has the same family setup as Sakthivel from Thevar Magan – an older brother who is a wastrel, a Thevar caste wife like Panchavarnam, and a father figure who looms over him. Selvaraj uses the dog as a metaphor for predatory power, and by linking Rathinavel with the animal, he dissolves the differences between Mayan and Sakthivel. In other words, both men who feed off their caste privilege, are equally toxic and problematic.
In contrast to Rathinavel’s hounds, Athiveeran raises pigs, an occupation usually associated with Dalits. Just like the hound, the pig too is a metaphor in the film – an animal that lives in a herd and is generally considered to be disgusting. But Selvaraj fills Maamannan with empathetic shots of pigs that elevate the animal’s status in the minds of the audience. In one sequence, a little piglet rises to its feet among a sea of dead pigs – it is a survivor, just like Athiveeran. It’s an interesting subversion in an industry that has routinely used the word “panni” (pig) in a derogatory fashion. Remember Rajinikanth’s famous dialogue “Panninga dhan kootama varum, singam singleah dhaan varum” (it is pigs that come in a group, the lion always comes alone) from Sivaji: The Boss (2007)? There are many more such examples, and Selvaraj overturns all that the pig has stood for so far in Tamil cinema.
Unlike Thevar Magan where it falls upon Sakthivel to ‘save’ the village, in Maamannan, it is the electoral process and the power of democracy that mark Maamannan’s rise. He sits, too, just like Sakthivel sits in Thevar Magan – but in the Speaker’s chair at the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly (in real life, P Dhanapal of the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK became the state’s first Dalit speaker in 2012). He isn’t a messiah but a representative of the people.
Maamannan is, by no means, a flawless film. The second half, especially, flounders with repetitive fights and watered-down drama. Its treatment of women characters, too, is disappointing with none of them getting a well-defined arc. But it nevertheless makes for a fascinating study when watched with Thevar Magan – and what better title than Maamannan when the empire writes back?