Director: Mari Selvaraj
Cast: Kathir, Anandhi, Marimuthu
Pariyerum Perumal (The God on a Horse) is the name of both Mari Selvaraj's film and its protagonist (Kathir). Pari — for the purposes of this review, let's call him that — is a lower-caste youth from a small village. He finds himself a fish out of water when he joins the Government Law College in Tirunelveli. Jothi Mahalakshmi, aka Jo (Anandhi), is an upper-caste classmate — she's also upper-class. But she's blind to these differences. She just sees a diffident boy. She helps him learn English, a language he doesn't know and the language the lecturers at college conduct classes in. She becomes a friend. She begins to have deeper feelings. She invites him to her sister's wedding. (The wedding hall is named after her, so you know how wealthy she is.) There, her father (Marimuthu), takes Pari by the hand and leads him to a room. You know what's coming. You've seen it in several class- and caste-based films — Balaji Sakthivel's Kadhal, for instance.
But two aspects stand out. First, the father. He doesn't go: How dare you be friends with my daughter? His reaction contains more fear and sadness than rage: Do you think it's wise doing this? If you continue, my people will kill not just you but also my daughter. Is it a veiled threat or a father's desperate plea? Marimuthu's carefully shaded performance brings out this dichotomy superbly. He doesn't seem to hate Pari, but he's bound by society. Second, it's what happens when angry youths from Jo's community break into the room and begin to beat up Pari. In a film like Kadhal, we register the victim's pain. Here, we see his helplessness, his humiliation. It's emotional. Kathir gives an extraordinary physical performance, but in close-ups, he takes us into Pari's soul.
This helplessness, this humiliation — it's a thread that runs through Pariyerum Perumal. And it's not just brought about by them. In a moving passage that revolves around Pari's father, we see how we can (choose to) be humiliated by our own people, when they don't live up to society's standards. This is a remarkably level-headed film that tackles both the without and the within. (Even as we are oppressed, we can end up oppressing ourselves.) Even at college, there's a balance: if a professor with a vermilion mark (but of course) wants Pari out, there's also a compassionate teacher who cares about Pari. (As an aside, I hope future films also address the class balance: What if the Dalit boy belonged to the upper-class, and the upper-caste girl was poorer? What would someone in the Marimuthu character's situation do then?)
Pariyerum Perumal is about rising above this helplessness, this humiliation. It's about becoming assertive, even aggressive. Early on, we see Pari at a waterhole with his friends. When he sees some upper-caste youths walking towards them, he urges his friends to leave. He doesn't want trouble. He just wants a way out of his life, and that way out is through education. (This is a post-Pa Ranjith phenomenon in the movies. In films like Kadhal, the boy was content to remain a labourer.) But as the humiliations mount — through speech (English is used as a weapon to demean him), through actions (he's pushed around endlessly) — this "nice boy" begins to transform into an Angry Young Man. He even distances himself from the girl who loves him.
This is what sets Pariyerum Perumal apart from other caste-based Angry Young (or Old) Man narratives — say, Pa Ranjith's (he's the producer) Rajinikanth films or even Madras. In the latter, the awakening came through external forces (a friend's death, and so forth). This is a far more internal film. It feels personal in a manner that resembles reading someone's diary. (Perhaps the lack of star power makes it easier to get more specific.) But Ranjith's influence is still seen. As in Madras, there's a unique sense of time and place, an attention to a way of life that feels almost anthropological. Note the staging of the koothu performance, or the quick-cut montage stretches in the song sequences (Santhosh Narayanan's work is magnificent) that show Pari studying, working, talking, singing, dancing, just being.
At first, I was apprehensive about what lay in store. The film opens with a card that says: Caste and religion are against humanity. No one doubts the truth of this statement, but I wondered if Pariyerum Perumal was going to be a finger-wagging message movie. There's a cringey bit when Pari meets the principal at the law college and says he wants to become a doctor… as in, Dr. Ambedkar. Again, a laudable ambition, but it's too direct (plus I felt it wasn't Pari speaking so much as the director). The writing in the early scenes is flabby. We get three scenes that show Pari struggling with English. (I loved the teacher who allowed him to cheat during an exam, though.) And a drunken scene in the second half feels out of place. But the simmering anger binds everything together. Yogi Babu helps. He gets some crackling lines and infuses some lightness that plays off against Pari's angst.
The flab slowly melts away. (The second half is marvelously focused.) The scenes become deeper, too. We get a "villain," a sort of contract killer who wipes out lower-caste men. I found the early scenes with this character somewhat odd, because he chooses the most public spaces (a bus, a pond where others are swimming) instead of catching them alone — but as I thought back about it, it could also be symbolic of how innocents are killed right in front of our eyes. The emotional logic trumps the "logical" logic. Later, when this killer attempts to do away with Pari, he leaves him on the train tracks, unmindful of the fact that Pari (who's simply unconscious) might wake up before the train arrives. But again, emotional logic is at work. The scene harks back to a horrific (and I mean, horrific) death at the film's beginning.
The killer's death is a bit of poetic justice — but more significantly, it shows how evil doesn't always have to be vanquished with weapons. Sometimes, all it takes is for the good men to not be cowed down, that they stand up and resist. And we come to Karuppi, Pari's dog. (She gets a fabulous song, whose lyrics are gut-wrenchingly intimate: Ippo odane naan unna paakkanum / Mookkil mugam vachu orasanum / un naakil nakki en azhukka kazhuvi poganum.) As in Kaala, the dog is a mongrel: "unpedigreed". But the symbolism goes further. She's coloured blue — she comes to represent the spirit of a people, the equivalent of an animal spirit of the Native Americans. These conceits (also the surreal music video for Naan yaar, where Pari becomes the voice of the oppressed) might sound too sentimental, but on screen, they are unflinching and hard.
The cinematography (Sridhar) is equally unsentimental. We get wide shots, handheld shots — nothing elaborate. The effect is that of documentary-like immediacy. It doesn't even look like colour correction was done. This parched, sunburnt atmosphere is that of unvarnished life. Which is not to say there are no cinematic moments. Note the effectiveness of the scene where Pari hurls a stone at the windshield of a car and talks to the man in the driver's seat through the hole. It's as though a window has been cracked open, a new way of seeing. Mari Selvaraj stages some superb moments: Pari crouching in the ladies' loo as girls run around screaming, for instance. And the action choreography set in a plantain field is beautifully lifelike, a universe away from the one-sided one-versus-many fights we see in our films.
This sense of a lived-in life extends to the songs, too. The one that plays after Pari and Jo get to know each other shows their burgeoning relationship even as it depicts the college-campus violence around them. Jo is a weak link. I think she's meant to be a guileless… devathai (angel), in Pari's words (or perhaps it's really a Mari Selvaraj thing, for the film abounds with angel talk) — but she comes across as too cute. (I couldn't decide if it was the character or Anandhi's performance.) Her scenes (the one where she breaks her bangles, the one where she reveals she loves Pari) belong in another movie. But she's undoubtedly a voice of reason. As much as Pariyerum Perumal speaks out for the oppressed, and against the oppressor, it doesn't set up easy opposites. We get textured opposites. Yes, Anandhi has had many of the advantages Pari hasn't, but she's also our eyes into Pari's world. Her decision to take up law happened in a snap. His decision has the kind of backstory that wouldn't be out of place in an epic.
Scene after scene, Pariyerum Perumal urges the oppressed to fight. Early on, after Pari's friends have been summoned by the cops as suspects (they're usually the first ones to be summoned), an older man says, "Naamalum oru naal adippom." When Pari's teacher worries that Pari might get violent, the headmaster — who has himself seen his share of oppression — says, "Room-la thooku pottu saavartha vida sandai pottu saavattum." It evokes whistles. It's a punch dialogue that's also a punch in the gut. And there's some running visual commentary through the film — newspaper headlines that announce the death of a Dalit (the first such headline is of the former President KR Narayanan). At the end, the headlines feature the death of an upper-caste man. But there's no celebration. The astonishing last scene is a sobering reminder that Pari still cannot speak out as easily as Jo does. The scene depicts an uneasy truce. It suggests that talking to each other, understanding each other is the first step, and it ends with a shot that's like a still-life painting we can ponder about for hours. It's not an ending, really. It feels more like a beginning.