With Maamannan, Mari Selvaraj returns to tell a pinching human drama for the third time, but this time through the lens of a father-son relationship — shared poignantly by Vadivelu’s Dalit politician Maamannan and his son Athiveeran (Udhayanidhi Stalin) — a bond that is strained by a kind of systemic oppression, that is both internal and external. So, as Athiveeran urges his father to put Rathinavel (Fahadh Faasil), a dominant caste politician, in his place, a battle of the wits begins. But as with his earlier two anti-caste films, it becomes clear that this war for dignity doesn’t just involve humans, but also animals.
Animals are everywhere in a Mari Selvaraj universe, something that the director has alluded to years of growing up and seeking comfort amidst their company in his village in Puliyankulam. So, it is not surprising that in a Mari Selvaraj film, his characters are only as significant or insignificant as an animal in the film. In Pariyerum Perumal (out on Amazon Prime Video), his breakthrough debut starring Kathir as a young man coming to terms with what it means to be Dalit student, it is Karuppi, his gentle dog that shows him the way forward. A donkey brings out its claws to find its way to the top in a world of exalted horses in Karnan, and it’s the pig’s time to finally shine in Maamannan.
But apart from the countless ways in which he uses animals to tell stories of injustice and rebellion, the most striking attribute of his gaze is the way he quietly celebrates human-animal coexistence. Mari is at home with these animals and so are they in his vision.
Pigs, donkeys, and an effective subversion
Mari is drawn to depicting discriminated humans, just as much as he is drawn to their animal equivalent. He is drawn not to a tiger or a lion — animals associated with pride — but to a lone piglet in the middle of a pigsty or an inconspicuous donkey. “Thingura panni maadhri enna adichu adichu veratinanunga. Did I run and hide?” Pariyan’s principal (an excellent Poo Ramu) asks him in Pariyerum Perumal. With Maamannan, the director delves deep into this line, but by making this pig his hero.
Athiveeran’s love for pigs in Maamannan goes beyond mere ornamental metaphors such as a tattoo on his wrist. In a brilliant flashback, we see how he’s joined at the hip with the pig right from his teens. A shot of a ritual pig escaping the clutches of its sacrifice is intercut with a young Athiveeran escaping brutes who pelt him and his friends for bathing in a temple well. The young boy and the pig climb up a hill, a spark burning in their eyes.
This scene chillingly foreshadows the theme of “escape”, a theme that can be found throughout the film. When Rathinavel is stopped short of destroying Maamanna and Athiveeran, he chooses to draw blood from their pigs instead, because in his head, the two are about as meaningless as the pigs they herd. And just like the black pig that survived years back, a young black piglet comes out unscathed, amidst its fallen clan. “Why does your son rear pigs?” an aide to Maamanna asks him, contorting his face at the “asingam” that is the pig. We get an answer to this much later when Athiveeran opens up to his girlfriend Leela (Keerthy Suresh). He tells her of his dream — a dream that he had as a young boy, he has been trying to chase all through his life. “I dreamt of pigs with wings. What if all pigs had wings?” he asks, as he paints and makes his dream come true on canvas.
But before the pig's slow rise to rebellion, there was yet another invisible animal that walked on fire. Much of Karnan revolves around two hoofed mammals. At first glance, a horse and a donkey might look similar, but one one is mounted with honour while the other is kicked around with disdain. In Karnan, the two animals can be seen in any given scene coalescing in the background, leading one to read the film as a donkey’s metamorphosis — a metaphor for Karnan and his village — to a horse. But I found myself looking at Karnan as a donkey's struggle to be accepted and celebrated for who it is, rather than its transformation into something it's not.
Karnan (Dhanush) belongs to Podiyankulam, a village in Tirunelveli, where its residents’ legs are tied as tightly as their donkeys’. The image of a donkey plopping on the streets is a stunning analogy about a village that’s dictated to stay still for the lack of a bus stop. The first time we see Karnan question the rope that binds a donkey’s feet together, we know the payoff will reap rich dividends. “We can’t free its legs. Only the donkey’s master can,” Yeman (Lal) tells Karnan. But Mari snatches this power away from the masters (in this case, the oppressing Melur villagers), and places it with Karnan, who takes matters into his own hands and clips the rope off the donkey’s feet before heading to war and demolishing a bus.
Dogs and horses as symbols of power and sustenance
It’s interesting to witness the director’s use of animals over the years. In Pariyerum Perumal, Karuppi is killed even before we see Pariyan’s coming-of-age on screen. But her impact is felt throughout the film, making Pariyerum Perumal an unforgettable feature in his repertoire of anti-caste dramas. “Yaar andha kaattil odanji kedappadu neeya illa naana? Naana illa neeya Karuppi? (Who is lying broken in the forest? Is it you or me? Are you alive and am I dead?)”: Santhosh Narayanan’s opening song makes us register that Karuppi and his master are one and the same, all within a matter of a few incredible minutes.
The next time we see Karuppi on screen is when a knackered Pariyan is trying to make sense of the shame and rage he is made to feel at the hands of bigotry. The spirit of Karuppi runs into an empty classroom, seconds after his best friend Jo walks out the room. Throughout the film, we see Pariyan speak of angels — the angel who let him copy in his 10th boards to the angel who passed over her paper in an English exam. Jo, who aspires to be a third in Pariyan’s line of devathais, eventually becomes one, quietly taking Karuppi’s place. When someone asks him if he loves Jo, he struggles to contend with why the world chooses to only believe in romantic love. “Can’t she be a good friend? Or my dead dog Karuppi? Why can’t she be the tiniest ray of hope in my life?” As she falls for him, she’s seen in a lot more black salwars in contrast to his white shirts, becoming Karuppi.
But when he’s forced to stay away from Jo, Karuppi returns. With her shiny blue coat of fur, she licks Pariyan’s wounds and provides him with the strength to get up and fight when Pariyan suffers the same fate in a railway track that she once did. But Karuppi manages to do something that Pariyan couldn’t — she saves him.
While the dog in Pariyerum Perumal is an indestructible part of a film in which the hero imbibes a dog, Mari treats the animal with yet another layer of nuance in Maamannan. Rathinavel grooms his dogs with care. But unlike Pariyan, he isn’t the dog he’s grooming, for his mongrels are way beneath him. Moments after his dog loses in a race, he brutally kills it, before wiping the blood off his face and moving on to groom yet another dog.
In Rathinavel’s world, dogs are mere pawns in his game to beat the pigs of the world (he sends his dogs to tear into Athiveeran’s pigs). His spirit animal, however, is the horse that he mounts in a powerful shot, where his aides are seen walking literally beneath him with his pack of dogs. But the single most meaningful use of this metaphor comes in a scene bereft of any animal imagery. We hear the horses neigh when Maamanna takes a seat across from Rathinavel in the film’s chilling intermission sequence.
If animals are used as symbols of power in Maamannan, they are used to break a systemic cycle of oppression in Karnan. With Podiyankulam cut off from public transportation, its residents place a lot of power on its pack animals, their only means for travel. Like the donkey, the horse makes a persistent appearance throughout the film’s mise-en-scene. The first time he sees the horse, he makes fun of the little boy who owns it. “What are you going to do with it? We can’t even eat its meat,” Lal says. And from this 22nd minute mark onwards, we see the horse follow Karnan in silence — sometimes found in leisure, groomed and fed with precision as if being quietly groomed for war — throughout the film up until Karnan realises the true purpose of this stallion, mounting it in its climax to save his burning village.