A still from Leena Manimekalai's Maadathy

Direction: Leena Manimekalai

Cast: Semmalar Annam, Ajmina Kassim, Arul Kumar, Stella Raj

The story of Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy is almost folkloric in its simplicity, but if the final scenes remind you of The Shining, it may be no accident. The film, billed “an unfairy tale”, is really a horror story — about a subsection of Dalits in southern Tamil Nadu, called Puthirai Vannaar. As the name suggests, they are washerpeople, but they wash “unclean” things — say, the shroud on a just-buried corpse, or the pieces of cloth used by menstruating women. Even worse than this occupation thrust on them is the condition that they should remain out of sight of the others in the village, because even seeing them could be polluting. The irony writes itself. They are cleaners, yet they are considered unclean. They are humans, yet they are like gods: they “purify” things while being practically invisible. Hence the tagline: Nobodies do not have gods; they are gods.

A still from Leena Manimekalai's Maadathy
A still from Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy

The plot revolves around Yosana (Ajmina Kassim), a young girl from this community. Our first sight of her is while she’s taking a dip in the river, and the simple act appears almost like a ritualistic “purification” ceremony. Leena uses water throughout her film — the river, for instance, is mute witness to the atrocities heaped on Yosana’s family, which includes father Sudalai (Arul Kumar), mother Veni (Semmalar Annam) and a doting grandmother (Stella Raj). Yosana is frequently seen frolicking in water bodies, and is shown as one with nature, whether it’s her pavadai patterned with flowers or the numerous creatures that surround her: fish, a rabbit, monkeys, an itinerant baby donkey that loosely evokes Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, given that this story, too features a young girl, abusive men, rape… Leena’s most subversive use of a creature is perhaps the parrot on Yosana’s shoulder, an image that instantly references dominant-caste deities such as Meenakshi, Andal and Kamakshi.

At times, the cinematography (Jeff Dolen, Abinandan Ramanujam, Karthik Muthukumar) may seem too ad-film pretty — when we glimpse the sun through Yosana’s fresh-from-a-swim hair, or when a spray of turmeric segues to sprinkles of rain. But these images remind us of the beauty the still-innocent Yosana sees in the world around her, the beauty that her weary mother has little time for. Back home, Veni worries that her daughter roams around like a “wild bird”, that she cannot be controlled. Semmalar Annam is deeply moving as this woman who has accepted the fact that freedom is not for them. Unlike Yosana, she uses the river only for her work, and then, she quickly retreats to her hut. One conversation between mother and daughter breaks your heart. Fed up of constantly being scolded by Veni, Yosana begins to weep. When Veni consoles her, she asks about their relatives. Veni says they live along the river, too, in hiding — and it’s only after something major happens, like a death, are the likes of Sudalai and Veni “allowed” to cross the river and see their family. Like I said, this is a horror movie.

Gentler viewers may be horrified even by the sex and raw language — for the scent of lust hangs over the film right from the opening scene, a framing device involving a newlywed couple. Yosana’s parents sneak out of their hut to make love. A woodcutter who secretly yearns for Veni spits at her when she dares to step out during the day: “Kundi-yila kozhuppu koodiruchu.” Another man boasts of his erection caused by thoughts of the village heads’s big-bottomed wife. But it’s not unusual to see lust in the context of married couples or randy young men. The surprise is that Yosana, too, is beginning to become aware of men — especially after she sees one take a dip in the river in full-frontal glory. Karthik Raja’s gentle score is used to colour these gentler feelings. The atrocities like rape, meanwhile, play out with no background music. There’s just the grunts, the screams, the sounds of the forest.

These aesthetic choices imbue this simple story with texture and quietly immersive power. Leena — who also wrote the screenplay, with Rafiq Ismail and Yavanika Sriram — doesn’t resort to shouting to make us hear. Her unobtrusive docu/fiction style builds a series of small vignettes around Yosana — some horrific, some beautiful, some sad — that lead to the text in the title card at the opening: The Indian subcontinent is a land of a million subaltern deities, and behind each deity lies a tale of injustice. Maadathy is a “legend” (a superheroine “origin story”) woven around the titular deity, and it’s telling that Her temple is situated in a detour off the main road, along a path covered with rocks and reeds. Yes. It could be the setting of a horror movie, and the deity, too, is horrific in her punishment. You think I am unseeable? Then this is what you get! Is it fair that people who had nothing to do with Yosana’s story end up punished, too? But then, if the world has treated you unfairly for centuries, vengeance is perhaps more satisfying than benevolence.

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