Cast: Manickam, Master.Ashwin, Suruli, Prasanna, Kumar
Transcript of Hariharan Krishnan's Video Review
What an amazing coincidence for new Tamil cinema, three films in a row dealing with complex social issues in the hinterlands of Tamil Nadu's Villages. We had Arun Matheshwaran's Saani Kaayidham (2022), followed by Arun Raja's Nenjuka Needhi (2022). Now we have director Thamizh's Seththumaan. These three films do not deal with stereotypes of cast hierarchies where we look at good and bad guys or locate issues of the rich and poor in moralistic terms. They help us, especially the disconnected urban middle class, to get a glimpse into the underbelly of Tamil Nadu's village landscape.
Seththumaan starts with an inherent advantage by basing the story on a book called Varugari written by the amazing Perumal Murugan. Quite often you see the film trying to be a bit too authentic to the book's narration especially in the beginning when it introduces the characters of Poochi, the grandfather played by Manickam taking his grandson Kumaresan played beautifully by Ashwin, walking through the arid landscapes to his primary school. This sequence virtually sets off the slow leisurely pace of the film, beseeching the viewer not to be rushed into the usual conflict zone as mostly seen in the first act.
The hyper-emotional clashes that take up in the first act are extremely localized, demanding the viewers again to imagine, for example, how could a simple act of chopping a few branches from a neem tree in the fields cause so much anguish between two cousins. This complaint is taken to the Village Panchayat level where some elders are asked to pronounce a judgment and charge a fine of rupees 2000 which should be given to the local temple. What we are asked to witness is the multilayered ways that cast differences are treated in the rural hinterlands of Tamil Nadu.
The ways that people are slotted into upper and lower strata or their cast system are complex. This very sharply differs from one area to another. Because of situating inequality from such a perspective, the viewer is asked to desist from deciding what is right and wrong and who is right and wrong. Instead, we watch and observe them with complete mindfulness. To make such a perception possible Seththumaan does not have even a single actor who is even slightly known to the audience. Nobody carries any baggage on screen from their previous films. And to add more authenticity, I could clearly make out the usage of live location sound by Pandiyan, the recordist, and the very subdued music track by Bindu Malini, creating a sound design that lets us immerse into the landscapes of the year 2017.
This year 2017 is given a separate layer in this narration by focussing on the election of India's second president coming from the Dalit cast, Sri Ram Nath Kovind. The first president from the Dalit community was KR Naryanan. By projecting such a layer, we get to understand that the subject of Dalit oppression needs a different lens today. Seththumaan literally means the deer in the sludge and in the backdrop it refers to a young pig that promises to be very tasty and cooked. Generally speaking, across most of Tamil Nadu and rural India, wherever we witness a colony of pigs we deduce that a Dalit Hamlet is in the neighborhood and that is why pork is not really served in our non-vegetarian restaurants.
Such imagination of Pork and a delicious one at that is indeed an ironic metaphor of the ways in which writer Perumal Murugan and director Thamizh would like us to comprehend the film. For example, one has heard that the Dalits are served tea in separate clay pots or paper cups in roadside hotels but in this film, we see Poochi's friend demanding to be served in a regular glass tumbler and the shopkeeper obliges. In another scene, Poochi seems to sell bamboo baskets to a slightly upper-class lady who wants to bargain by slashing the prices in rude manners but Poochi is unruffled and argues back saying it is the price or she can keep it free. On that tone, she decides to pay the original price demanded.
The film finally gravitates to a long climax where all these menfolk from a variety of caste hierarchies choose to get Poochi and his friend to bring them a succulent pig and have it cooked so that they can have a delicious party to the accompaniment of local booze. Cinematographer Pratheep Kaliraja is at his best here. Choreographing the entire sequence, a long sequence by the way, from acquiring the pig to the ugly fight out at the end between the cousins with mindful detachment, without getting into the melodrama of their family stories or the social narratives that had stereotyped Dalit violence and representation across media.
What stands out in this amazing debut by Thamizh and Kaliraja's second venture is their original style. They seem to have the poise and grace which they have observed, of course studying great global filmmakers who are grabbing eyeballs across the new wave film circuits. This film was screened at IFFK 2021, the Indian festival in Los Angeles and though it has been receiving a lot of acclaim so far, distributors seem to be very wary of testing it out in the regular film theatrical circuit. I would strongly recommend watching Seththumaan currently streaming Sony Liv, for it taught me the importance of how not to get into hateful expressions but choose to restrain oneself amidst the mindless violence we witness today. Such restraint should not be confused with stepping back in cowardly manners, but as a statement of preparedness to launch oneself into corrective action