Director: Madonne Ashwin
How do you make an unsentimental political drama feel good and funny? Madonne Ashwin does that by setting the story in a self-contained, remote village, somewhere in the Tirunelveli-Nagercoil region. Like Panimalai in Vaayai Moodi Pesavum (whose director Balaji Mohan is the creative producer here) and Mundasupatti (in Ram Kumar’s Mundasupatti), Soorangudi is an idyllic town with only a few hundred people—they look harmless even when they’re violent, like characters in a Tintin comic.
For a political comedy, you rarely see a cop because it’s not that kind of a political film. Mandela is The New York Times meets Amar Chitra Katha, a superb comic book treatment of a serious issue: what money and caste do to our elections.
Soorangudi has two castes that live in separate areas—Vadakkur and Thekkur. A local election contest between two step-brothers, Rathinam (GM Sundar) and Mathi (Kanna Ravi, who can be hilariously deadpan), hangs by one vote: Nelson Mandela’s. Yogi Babu’s Mandela is neither from Thekkur nor Vadakkur. The casteless (and practically homeless) man and his sidekick Kirudha (Mukesh) make a barebones living as barbers who make house visits (through the back door). What could a Nobody with a deciding vote do?
At first, like in Rajinikanth-starrer Baba, Mandela squanders his leverage for material favours—a gift of a mirror for his saloon by Vadakkur and a donation of a barbershop chair by Thekkur eventually snowballs into an overhaul of Mandela’s material situation and social status. Scenes of a disenfranchised person being the focus of an election campaign are depicted believably. They give you a genuine things-are-right-with-the-world-at-last feel. Perhaps because Mandela getting what he wants by playing each faction off the other makes for neither good election nor interesting drama (though it makes for great comedy), the brothers turn on him.
And with that, the film turns on its own sensibility. When Mandela is at his lowest point, we hear the lyrics “pagalellam maraindhaal kooda kanavugalil irul illai (there’s no darkness in my dreams even when the day disappears).” So, his shocking decision when pushed to a corner near the film’s end isn’t consistent with his character or the film’s mood (but then, he was beaten up for merely asking to use a toilet!) Perhaps, the realities of caste catch up with both Mandela and the film, eventually.
Madonne Ashwin teases out a tentative drama (and a message of hope) out of a farcical observational comedy. Soorangudi becomes yet another remote village. Without the rose-tinted glasses of comedy, Mandela becomes, for a stretch, another depressing depiction of our social reality. The comic book has pages gashed.
The film has subtext everywhere. For example, both Mandela and Kirudha are from an oppressed group, and yet, they aren’t treated the same. Mandela is treated special because he has a vote. Loyalists in each faction resent minorities (read Mandela) getting all the attention (and benefits). But Mandela doesn’t need its subtext to be entertaining. The droll joke-a-minute tone of the film means that it’s not just about the message (even if it’s an important one).
The film consistently works (even in its more dramatic parts) at a scene-to-scene level: like a brief moment with an old guy waiting to have his armpit shaved, or the scene where Mandela’s vote is auctioned to the highest bidder—the auctioneer is upset at first, complaining that he’s never auctioned a vote; how could he possibly fix a starting price? This turn from the apparently moral to the immediately practical is, in a sense, the reverse of the journey Mandela takes. It starts as a practical critique of our social structures and ends as a moral fable about the value of a single vote—while keeping you laughing non-stop.