Director: M Manikandan
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi
Manikandan has made several films we have enjoyed—like Kaaka Muttai and especially Aandavan Kattalai. But the Manikandan who has made Kadaisi Vivasayi is not that man,he is not that mainstream filmmaker. This is not to say Kadaisi Vivasayi is not a mainstream film. It is. And yet, it isn't. If the regular mainstream film tries to make you laugh or cry or give you a message, Kadaisi Vivasayi tries to… make you one with the universe.
Or at least, it tries to make us one with earth, with the soil that we share with crows and peacocks and ants and elephants and a ninety–year–old man named Maayandi. He is the Kadaisi Vivasayi of the title. There is an obvious, very literal reason for this title. Everyone around Maayandi has sold their lands. They are now doing other things and this man is the last farmer, the "kadaisi kivasayi" who takes his cattle and ploughs his field.
But there's also a less obvious reason for the title. It is the fact that Maayandi and people like him are the last of a kind. During a festival, some people want a mud horse made. And whom do they go to? To the last remaining potter in the village, a man who still uses a potter's wheel. When he operates that wheel, the people look on as if he is doing magic.
Maaayandi too is a kind of… magician, a shaman with plants. Look at his very name. Maayandi: which refers to a great caring god. In a beautiful scene, Maayandi tastes the punnaaku that he is buying for his cattle. He senses its quality. But more importantly, he cares. He cares about what he is feeding his cattle. He cares about each plant, because it has life. It is a living being. And the big irony of the story comes about when he is accused of killing some other living beings. He gets caught in a strange and almost surreal court case and ends up in jail.
Usually, the emotions in a film come from the story, the characters. Here, the emotions come from a higher plane. It's almost as if the plot does not matter.
Let me explain. The screenplay works as it should. It sets up the world we are entering. Then the inciting incident happens. Then we see what happens in that court case. All of this is from the classic screen-writing manual. But here's the difference. Instead of leading us from one event to another event, the screenplay leads us from one big thought or metaphor to another big thought or metaphor.
Take the moment where Maayandi is in jail and he looks at the trees outside. The walls of the jail are so high that he can see only the tops of the trees. In another movie, we would see Maayandi weep. Or we would see him protest against his arrest. Or we would see him fall at the feet of the lawyer. But he does none of those things. He is led along from situation to situation, thanks to local politics – and it's almost like the story is functioning on its own, without its protagonist.
Or take the point about him being illiterate. How beautifully it is brought out, how beautifully it is placed in the screenplay, and how beautifully it makes us look back at how much he knows despite his lack of bookish knowledge.
Or take the Vijay Sethupathi character. He is a devotee of Lord Muruga, which is why the inciting incident eventhappens around peacocks. Like Maayandi, he also has a god's name: Ramiah. But is Ramiah a man or a metaphor? He wears a number of watches all the way up his arm. All of them seem to be broken. In other words, he is… timeless.
Earthly time has no meaning for him. And his most beautiful scene looks like a sorcerer's trick. The two bags he carries around are a reminder of the emotional baggage he carries around – and then, suddenly, he doesn't need them anymore. He has an exquisite scene with a sadhu who eats only discarded food from a dustbin. Again, the scene is so filled with spirituality and inner meaning that you forget it has nothing to do with the actual "plot".
Maayandi is partly hard of hearing, which is again a sort of metaphor. Just like the Ramiah character has no use for earthly time, Maayandi has no use for the conversations of earthly people today, who are nothing like him. The local god has no human shape, which again is a kind of metaphor. Or at least, these things invite us to think beyond the plot. Even the running joke about a bald man and his attempts to grow hair says something about how we always find deficiencies in our lives. Because compared to his agony, another person with a physical issue—a dwarf girl—seems much more content. Even Yogi Babu is used as a philosophical figure. Imagine that.
There is a lot of gentle comedy—especially in the scenes where other people are asked to take care of Mayandi's land. But nothing is loud and everything is organically part of a whole. Take the scene where we discover how healthy Mayandi is for his age or how he doesn't have power in his house—and therefore no fans etc. This is a very strong commentary against our consumerist lives today. But it plays like bits of comedy. That's the beauty of it.
Kadaisi Vivasayi is a beautiful example of how to talk about important things without giving boring lectures. It talks about things like organic farming and GMO crops and pesticides and murders being committed for land. But the way they are woven into the screenplay, we don't even get lengthy conversations. We get either throwaway lines or jokes, like the terrific one Maayandi makes about seedless tomatoes.
Even the scene where a jailed man learns how easy it is to grow plants has an element of absurdism in it – how can we not know that all it takes to be a "farmer" is sunlight and water and soil? In fact, the film itself is a plea to bring back all the ancient farming knowledge that we have lost. But Manikandan is saying: Look, these things are important to me, but I don't want to hit you on the head because your priorities may be different. And that is the best way to make a message movie.
The last stretch? Without spoiling it for you, let me say that it is the only thing that did not fully work for me. It felt more mainstream than the rest of the movie. But I can also understand the idealism behind these scenes. And the sight of the peacock spreading its feathers and dancing is such a sign of hope. I can see why these scenes are needed.
Vijay Sethupathi has a small role but he is superb. He brings certain dimensions to the character that I have never seen on his face on screen. I liked Rachel Rebecca, who plays the judge. Her character shows how one can see an innocent man and yet be bound by laws and rules to consider him guilty. And the old man, Nallandi, is a perfect fit. I won't call him a great actor in the "technical" sense. But that is exactly why he is so good. He really makes you see a man who is perhaps out of his element, a man whose odd rhythms of speech and lack of hearing make him as awkward as a new actor standing before the camera.
Like Maayandi, Manikandan's cinematography is one with the earth, one with the soil. The only pretty shots are those of the sun and moon and clouds. Otherwise, he uses a colour palette that seems to have been bleached out by a merciless sun. Even that scene I mentioned earlier, with Maayandi looking at the trees—it could have been a beautiful shot. Instead, we get a beautiful emotion.
Manikandan does not manipulate us. These same emotions could have been played at a high pitch, with a lot of melodrama. But Manikandan does not do that. He does not sentimentalise this story. There is no "ayyo pavam" business.We feel the film because Manikandan lets the emotions build slowly naturally and enter us like air – not because the background score is wailing with a hundred strings. This is a film with utmost dignity.
This dignity is there in the staging. This dignity is also there in the superb background score by Santhosh Narayanan and Richard Harvey. Manikandan uses the score minimally –which shows how much confidence he has in his material and in his own talent as a director. The first time we hear music in the film is when Maayandi relaxes at night after a long day –there is a lovely acoustic guitar passage. Elsewhere, I think I heard a pan flute. There are songs, like the famous "Karapanaiendralum karchilai endralum", written by Vaali. The only times we hear a bigness in the score is when the moment deserves it – like in the scene with the sadhu and Ramiah. In other words, like Manikandan, the score does not manipulate us. It underlines either the bigger themes of the film or the smaller emotion of a particular scene.
Kadaisi Vivasayi is open to a lot of readings and interpretation and you will all take away something from this beautiful movie. But here is what I took away. Maayandi says that because of his nilam, his land, he has a reason to wake up. Otherwise why should he get up in the morning? What will he do? This impacted me profoundly because it locks into something I think about a lot: purpose. What is the purpose of Maayandi's life? To grow more life. Can you get a more beautiful summation of existence than that?