Leena Manimekalai’s absorbing ‘Maadathy — An Unfairly Tale’ is narrated like a folktale showing the multifold oppression faced by the most oppressed: women
A river forms an intrinsic part of Maadathy — An Unfairly Tale. It is written into the very fabric of the narrative, acting both as catalyst and character; it is where people take a plunge to freshen up and cleanse themselves; it is also where the blood flows — whether from menstrual cloth or otherwise. The riverside is where the members of the dominant caste walk around freely without being worried about being watched by the ‘others’. On the bank of the river live the invisible characters of Maadathy, the Puthirai Vannars, the most oppressed and a sub-caste group among Dalits. A small geography can be mapped around the river; invisible boundaries are drawn to cage the members of Puthirai Vannars. We saw this caging aspect in Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan recently, though Maadathy was released before that. “Only when death happens in our family do they allow us to cross the river,” says Veni (Semmarlar Annam in a yet another remarkable performance. How long will the mainstream filmmakers ignore her?) to her daughter Yosana (played by Ajmina Kassim), the women of Maadathy.
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When looked from a broader angle, the river becomes the symbol of the oppressor and the oppressed. It is, for the most part, a mute spectator and an unwilling participant of caste violence. But, for Yosana, the river is a way out; a liberation from the blind realities of caste. It is where she gets a social and sexual awakening. Perhaps that is why the ghost of Yosana lurks around the riverside and hills of this fictional village, also because she has nowhere to go. A free-spirited young adult, Yosana is very much a ghost of Maadathy (she reminded me of Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle) and one suspects the filmmaker wouldn’t mind such a reading. Yosana is as much a ghost as she’s a small deity but more about that later.
- Cast: Semmar Annam, Ajmina Kassim, Arul Kumar and Patric Raj
- Director: Leena Manimekalai
- Duration: 90 minutes
Leena’s absorbing Maadathy is everything about the umbrella definition of “gaze”; to be sighted and unseen at once. When Veni and Yosana rush their way through the common pathway to their house, in the fear of stumbling onto a dominant caste member, the worst happens. They immediately take refuge behind a tree and when the member raises concern, Veni says they are the “unseeable” as opposed to the “untouchable”, often slapped against the Dalits. This “unseeable” part, or wilfully turning blind-eye to caste-based violence, is the most compelling aspect of Maadathy. It is compelling in how Leena creates an atmospheric horror out of a social issue, without trading her craft in return. You could sense the tension building right from the opening scene and it is only a matter of time when the worst arrives. In that sense, Maadathy is not driven by a conventional plot, but by images. It begins and ends like a folktale about goddesses among women, when a passerby, also a woman, chances upon a tattered hut. Inside the hut lives a boy who narrates the tale of a village blinded and doomed by caste.
Veni, her husband Sudalai (Arul Kumar) and daughter Yosana live inside a forest, the only place that was allowed to them, and are nocturnal. They aren’t to be sighted in daylight by dominant caste groups, although they will be exploited for their labour — from washing clothes to digging the grave. Veni carries a ball of fire within her, like her mother, grandmother and great grandmother. The fire is Yosana, who, let us say, is at an age where she is exploring her sexuality. But Veni, like most women of her caste, is weighed down by caste atrocities perpetrated against her people. The ball of fire is a culmination of fear that has been for generations. But Yosana isn’t aware. All she seems to care is to engage with Nature, even if that comes with a heavy price.
The camera’s gaze is an important part of Maadathy, yes. But equally important is what you infer from it. The issue of caste is what the film is about, yes. But also patriarchy. The latter is the most common denominator, irrespective of whether you belong to the oppressed or dominant caste. If you remove the prism of caste, for a moment, you will realise an underlying comment on how ingrained patriarchal institutions are. In giving a voice to the most oppressed among the caste hierarchy, Leena holds a mirror to show the multifold oppression received by the most oppressed: women.
Like, for instance, the film opens with shots of all kinds of gold worn by a woman who, along with her husband, is on a way to a temple. Needless to say, they are newly married. In the manner in which the camera captures the gold makes you wonder if the excess is a result of dowry. The patriarchy, hence, is not told but implied. There are two scenes built around violence to register the larger point of dominance and control. Without revealing much, let us say it involves sexual assault and rape. But the manner in which these two scenes are written, with arrack as an excuse to commit a ghastly act, raises questionable doubts in an otherwise powerful film.
About Karnan, I had written in my review: “People of Podiyankulam never die. They become small deities instead.” Maadathy’s narrative is built on a similar contemplation. But it is not this contemplation that is fascinating, but the dual nature of women in a patriarchal system. A parallel story — about the curse the villagers will be subjected to, if they don’t construct a temple for their goddess — runs along with Veni and Yosana, exposing the hypocrisy of men and the God-fearing society, which, on the one hand, is conditioned to worship the goddess and at the same time, treat the women like an object of desire. Notice how Yosana becomes Maadathy, named after a deity. Malayalam filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Ozhivudivasathe Kali and S Durga were an exploration of this unfair treatment. Maadathy only furthers this argument by crafting a sturdy drama around the dual role played by women in a caste-hegemonic society: of a goddess and a slave. That echoes in the opening credits which has something to the effect of: “Behind every deity, there is a tale of injustice.”
Maadathy — An Unfairly Tale is currently streaming on Neestream