Ethir Neechal And Mandela: Tales Of Greed And Oppression, Film Companion
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Deceit sleeps with greed. Sorry. It’s old-fashioned to start an essay with a provocative proverb like this. But, hey, old is gold. Throughout our times, when we take a U-turn to look at what we have achieved in art, it is wonderful to notice how a work of art directly or indirectly connects with another one, since it’s not only history, but also art that repeats itself, with more contemporary questions and arguments. While watching Madonne Ashwin’s Mandela (2021), I felt happy to find an invisible and purely coincidental link to K. Balachander’s 1968 film Ethir Neechal (translation: ‘Swimming against the current’). Though the protagonists share a comparable situation, the way they are being subjected to it and reacting to it shows the different layers of discrimination that encircle the oppressed, and the irreparable human obsession with money and power. This is not a review of either of these two movies; I will just attempt to compare some scenes, and study the actions of some characters, to understand the treatment of this thesis. Because they say actions speak louder than words. No more proverbs, I promise. This piece contains spoilers.

Maadhu, played by the legendary comedian Nagesh, is a college student who lives in a mansion amidst some haughty middle-class families. He is the go-to person for those people. He buys provisions and medicines, helps with all the house chores, remembers the train timings, college timetables, important dates, etc. In exchange, they offer him a place to stay (it’s a reclusive space under the stairs) and food (no, they rarely provide it). He is intelligent and hilarious; he doesn’t refrain from making fun of their paradoxical behaviour. He firmly believes that education is the only key to get out of his miserable situation and works hard at it. Almost everybody there is hostile towards Maadhu, except Sabapathi (Major Sundarrajan), a pensioner, and Nair (Muthuraman), a cook.

Then we have Paaru, played by the veteran actress Jayanthi, daughter of a tenant couple, who returns home after undergoing a treatment for mental health-related issues. Everyone frowns upon her, is afraid of her and teases her. But in reality, she just doesn’t want to be controlled, she wants to be free, and loves everybody unconditionally. She’s disturbed and angry at the society for calling her ‘mad’. K. Balachander reflects the society’s gaze in this character. A woman who wants freedom, who wants to make her own decisions, who wants to defy the societal norms – oh dear, she must be crazy, right?

The plot kicks in when Maadhu gets to know that Paaru’s parents want to get her married to him. He also initially fears that she’s mentally ill and dangerous, but accepting the situation, he ‘decides’ to love her, in order not to be shocked when he has to marry her! Later, he finds out about the real character of Paaru, and regrets misunderstanding her. They both start loving each other. Between Maadhu and the tenants, many problems come up and are resolved, because, although they don’t like Maadhu, they need Maadhu to take care of their house-related work.

Now, if we look at Mandela, we can say that Mandela (Yogi Babu) is almost a modern-day Maadhu, but with enormous layers of discrimination and hatred. He too lives in a secluded place in the middle of a village, sleeping in a hammock tied to a tree. Apart from hairdressing services, he also buys rations, and is forced to do other terrible chores without any remuneration, to survive in that village among the upper-caste oppressors. One major difference being that while Maadhu is in a private space (a household), Mandela’s case deals with a public space (a village). Compared to Maadhu, Mandela is discriminated against in every way possible, and is treated inhumanely by the villagers. His ambition is to fulfil his late father’s dream of opening a salon. So he tolerates everything and says, “I know it hurts, but we must carry on.” He doesn’t even have a political identity. It’s Thenmozhi (Sheela Rajkumar), an employee of the postal department, who helps him get one. So it narrows down to almost the same situation: the villagers don’t like or hate Mandela, but they need him.

Also read: Mandela is a Chuckle-A-Minute Guide to Your Right to Vote

In one of the major scenes in Ethir Neechal, a man from Kuala Lumpur comes  to that mansion. He announces that he is a millionaire and that Maadhu is his son, whom he left alone a long time ago, and then he leaves. Maadhu doesn’t know it initially. But everyone else hears about this and understands that Maadhu is going to inherit his new-found millionaire father’s property. In a beautiful, dramatic and surreal song sequence, ‘Sedhi ketto’, started by Nair, the greedy tenants remind Maadhu what he ‘meant’ to them, how they ‘helped’ him and how they ‘fed’ him without refusing. Later, they all come to shower him with goodies, things that would make his staircase life luxurious. They ‘murder’ him, like a murder of crows would do to a vadai. Perplexed, Maadhu seems to enjoy this ‘new normal’, and feels happy about it.

In Mandela, when both the dominant caste parties came to know about Mandela’s voting rights, they want him to vote for one of them. Something that starts as a casual threat slides into desperation and soon they’re ready to do anything to get Mandela’s vote. Like Maadhu, Mandela is also happy about these sudden events. He doesn’t seem to have any future plans; he just wants to take advantage of this weirdly favourable situation.

Another interesting thing to note is how the parties fight among themselves to pull Maadhu and Mandela to their side. One party builds the salon for Mandela, while the other one buys all the furniture! Their competition progresses as Mandela is unable to decide whom to vote for. The highest point is auctioning his vote. Whereas Balachander literally compares them to dogs: as they all quarrel over who should give water to Maadhu, and we see tight close-ups of their grimaces, their voices muted, we hear dogs bark with rage in the background. That’s where Maadhu wonders: “What is this! They sent me out calling me a dog, now they are barking! Why?” No offence meant to the dogs, though.

The tipping point happens suddenly in both of the films. In Ethir Neechal, when Maadhu is boasting about his newly acquired possessions and his millionaire father, Nair tells him that this is just a fabrication by Paaru, and executed by Nair himself, out of frustration with the way the mansion people treated Maadhu. The millionaire father of Maadhu turns out to be none other than a sarakku master who works with Nair at the restaurant. Following a second ‘Sedhi ketto’ song sequence by Nair, people just come back and take away all the goodies they had given to Maadhu. He treats in humorously. Finally, he admits that he wasn’t really happy when it all came, and he isn’t sad either when it’s all gone.

In Mandela’s case, it is violent. When he came to know that once he made his decision in favour of a party, the opposite party would chop off his arm, he tries to escape from them. Both the parties now join to destroy whatever they had given to him, and they also physically assault him and his friend.

Also read: Caste & Discrimination in Karnan and Mandela

Coincidentally, both films use humour (satire) as an essential ingredient to cook up the thesis. Maadhu and Mandela abruptly become metaphorical ‘objects of desire’ that need to be possessed by the oppressors, in order to achieve their goal. Naturally, once they find out that Maadhu and Mandela are of no use, the oppressors show their true faces. Ethir Neechal doesn’t really focus much on their greed or this mental transformation in the behaviour of people. This doesn’t necessarily influence the ending of the film. But Mandela uses it very wisely to convey the power of an individual’s rights. It does influence the following sequences where the protagonist uses his vote to develop the village. Despite providing a deus ex machina kind of ending, Mandela surely advances the discourse on caste-based oppression and greedy politicians, and underlines the value of democracy.

Mandela is on Netflix, and you can find Ethir Neechal on YouTube.

Ethir Neechal And Mandela: Tales Of Greed And Oppression, Film Companion

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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