Edited excerpts from a video interview between filmmaker Leena Manimekhalai and Baradwaj Rangan:
Your film is about this section of Dalits called the Puthirai Vannars—they are a washer community and they are given the so-called unclean things to wash like menstruated rags, clothes of the deceased and so on. There is also another impression which is that they should remain out of sight of the people of the village. How did you come across the story of this community?
I have read this novel called Koveru Kalithaigal, which is a Sahitya Akademi award winning novel, which is written by Imayam and I read it as a work of fiction. But I came in contact with them physically in Tirunelveli, when I was in the middle of a documentary feature project called Rape Nation. I came across an article that said the people of this community are perpetually displaced because they are not able to protect their women and they are few in number and thinly spread, who are hired as one family to labour hundred families by their oppressor caste. They are dalits within dalits. They are given a certain place to live, a certain place to be buried and collected data say that there were around 500,000 of them in the 70’s and now according to many research articles, there are about 100,000 of them, but we don’t really know, because there is no census based on caste. Even though Dr. Ambedkar spoke about them, they are invisiblised and unaccounted because they are actually invisible labour taking up a forced occupation. They are scavengers, they are washing the clothes of dead people, menstruating people and the dalits. He clearly states that “no civilisation can be guilty of such greater cruelty”.
I was in Tirunelveli after my participation in a film festival in Kerala and I met Master Chandru, we call him Oviyar Chandru, Chandru Appa because he is a very respected artist and he put me on to the people, especially the ones who live in the village of Vikramasingapuram in Tirunelveli district. I got in touch with Moorthy Ayya who is the first graduate from there, who is now a retired government officer and he was the door for me. His family became my extended family and I stayed with them, travelled to the villages of Tirunelveli, where I heard the women, men and children of this community, infact Moorthy Ayya’s sister herself was killed because of sexual violence and the oppressor community built a stone in her name because they were so afraid of her rage. So they are actually worshipping her. We see Maadathys in every household there. The stories that I heard as lived experiences of Puthirai Vannars became the film Maadathy.
What made you decide that you wanted to frame this story as a folklore?
After extensive interaction with the community, I somehow felt that this whole concept of ‘unseeability’, where they have to exist but not be seen, had a lot of mystery to it, even though it was very cruel. This particular community is believed to do black magic, they know medicine, they are basically artists themselves. Within the community, they are also known as Raapaadis—people who sing at night on the streets and they encrypt the good or bad within their songs. Though these people were considered unseeables, they live in Sudalais – crematoriums and they also live in Puthar, from Puthara Vannan which means bushes. The community have a crucial cultural role in the rituals for the dead people and hence they are very closely connected to the crematoriums. Their proximity to nature is special, they co-habit with animals and birds, though their economy is from the clothes they wash, they hunt birds, animals and river creatures and eat them. They wear nature just like clothes. Their harmony with nature is phenomenal. All of this contributed to me telling this story as a folktale. I also come from the Western Ghats, my village is a few kilometers from the village where I shot and in fact the forest portions in the movie were shot in my village, as it was easier to get permission. I found the stories to be close to my heart because it was similar to the stories I heard from my mothers and grandmothers, because we too worship the deities like Isaki, Mariyamman, Renuka Devi etcetra. They are not somebody who descended from the skies, they were our ancestors with extraordinary lives and these stories have been memorialised. Like we don’t go to the institutionalised mainstream gods, for us when the month starts or when it is full moon or when something good or bad happens in the family, we go to these small gods or deities or little gods or however you may call them. For me they are the icons of social order and they are the symbols of resistance. So somehow I thought that I should make this as a grandmother story, how I heard it from my mother and grandmother and I wanted to get into the folklore space, and I felt it could retain the essence when it is conveyed as fiction, rather than a documentary.