Director: Jaikumar Sedhuraman
Cast: Semmalar Anna, Bava Chelladurai, Guhan CS
We know of Dalit cinema by big-name Tamil filmmakers like Pa. Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj. Parallely and interestingly, a smaller stream of Dalit cinema has begun to emerge in Tamil. Foremost among these is Leena Manimekalai’s wonderful Maadathy — The Unfairy Tale. If you haven’t seen the film you should do so at once, because, to my knowledge, it is the only Tamil Dalit film which has a female gaze, not just the director’s but also the protagonist’s.
Now we have Sennai, which means red dog. It features actors familiar with indie cinema like Semmalar Annam and writer-activist Bava Chelladurai.
In Tamil cinema, with a few exceptions, all filmmakers want is to say something. They all have a story and interesting things to say. But when it comes to taking the one-liner message to the audience right and in an interesting way, they struggle. It’s different with Sennai, though.
From the title, director Jaikumar Sedhuraman springs a complete surprise. The title design is made of arrows and what looks like the bushy tails of foxes or dogs. The Dalits in this film are the sennai, the bushy tails come from them. The others are the dominant caste who worship Lord Ram and the arrows in the title come from them.
Now a clever title design alone cannot make a film, of course. But this film is so strange and beautiful in its screenplay design as well. One part of it is a traditional drama with character and narrative arcs; another is a suspense drama; and the the third is a street play that is performed in front of a wall with an illustration of Ambedkar. Throughout the story we see people getting ready for this performance.
Sennai is about life, about the survival of these Dalits, about what they do to live. Yet a majority of it is set in a crematorium, a place of death. In a film like this about the dominant caste and oppressed caste, it’s inevitable that some kind of messaging creeps in. But I really liked the way the director leaves a lot of his messaging to his visuals and to quotes by famous people. For instance, an oppressed woman drags a corpse across a temple, a mosque and a church as the camera keeps tracking her. In another scene, three people are wearing the colors of the Indian flag. The shot is filmed through their legs, where we just see these colors and the rest of the film is taking place on the other side.
The messages when they appear as quotes come from the words of Rumi or Ambedkar or Lenin. We see them as words on a calendar or painted on a wall. This way, these words get across to us but they are never thrust into the mouths of the characters. So, even while people are not saying these words, we recognize them as part of the film’s larger sociopolitical landscape.
And when the characters speak about things like the importance of education, the screenplay takes care to place them far enough apart, preventing them from sounding like a lump of preachy statements. For example, we hear a transwoman say that education is important. A little later, we hear a Dalit man tell us how he was denied education — that he actually got into a school but because of the oppression by the teachers and the students he voluntarily quit.
The beautiful thing about the screenplay of this film is the central message that the director wants to convey. It is more than just platitudes. There’s something larger here. Whatever the director wants to convey takes the nature of a fable, which becomes a spine of the screenplay. A crucial character in this fable is named Periavar, perhaps a reference to Periyar.
I’m going to leave it for you to find out what this fable is all about but it is broadly about how an ecosystem in order to survive needs both vegetarians (you know who that refers to in this case) and non-vegetarians. The boldest stroke of Sennai is that this fable is narrated not as a big lump, but bit-by-bit by various characters. You first hear a little about the fable. Then there’s somebody who continues the fable. And then somebody else who continues it and so on. So, it doesn’t come together all at once.
This fable, running in parallel to the film’s story, lends a very interesting jagged quality to the film. Because of this, the film is able to accommodate a number of styles and symbolisms. Yet some of the symbolism can be heavy, like the fact that a dominant caste man is lying in a hospital bed with the book of Manuneethi by his side. Or that a bunch of blind men are often seen singing Dalit songs. And there is one outright villain, a government doctor, who won’t even touch Dalits to treat them.
It’s not that there aren’t people like this. Surely there are. But when you’re writing a screenplay you have to find shades in people, give them a few more traits. This guy appears particularly as a one-dimensional villain.
All taken into account, Sennai is a very very impressive debut.
Let us look at it visually. There are at least two shots from the point-of-view of dogs that are following the people. These could be the sennai of the title. In another almost french new wave kind of touch, a man actually spits on the camera lens as if rejecting this kind of cinema itself. The film has a Thevar Tea stall — you don’t generally find the names of these other castes mentioned in such films. There is a madman in the film whose blabbering probably makes the most sense, in the screenplay packing all of this into one hour is probably the most impressive thing of all.
I’m going to end with a spoiler: There’s a character named Anita who actually becomes a doctor, unlike the real-life Anita who could not become one because of a failure in the NEET exam. When such a hopeful touch occurs in this movie, it feels organic instead of being forced to give a happy ending. And that’s what’s really nice about Sennai. It is a movie made with conviction, with the desire to tell something. But the way the screenplay is written,the movie is filmed, the characters act — Sennai comes across like a piece of cinema rather than a political pamphlet thrown at our faces to read.
*Sennai is streaming on Gudsho