Puthirai Vannaar is an ‘unseeable’ caste group, in Southern India. Their forced-occupation is to wash clothes of other Dalits, the dead and the menstruating women. Sighting them is said to cause pollution and harm those who see them so they can get out and hunt for food only at night. This film is a tale about a young girl who grew up in this slave caste group and how she came to be immortalised as their local deity, ‘Maadathy’.
Maadathy is the second feature film of director, Leena Manimekalai, a noted poet, activist and documentary filmmaker, following Sengadal (2011). The film opens up an entire world that co-exists in this very country. But few of us are aware of its existence and its inhabitants as they barely eke out a living in the woods and forests, fending for whatever food, or what goes for food, they can get to just breathe in and out every minute. They are ‘unseeable’ even to the Dalits who stay in the nearby villages which means, they cannot show their faces to these Dalits. They live in the woods and hide behind bushes if they hear approaching footsteps and declare that they are ‘unseeable’. That, however, does not stop the approaching men from raping the women from behind so that the faces are not seen.
Maadathy has a somewhat prosaic opening of a newly married urban couple forced to halt in the woods because the bride has begun her periods and needs a napkin. She goes looking for it in a distant hut and is surprised to see the walls covered with strange drawings and paintings. A small boy – off screen – begins narrating to her, the tale of Maadithy, how this girl-Goddess of the Puthirai Vannaar was ‘born’ and how she is still worshipped by these ‘unseeable’ people. This interaction between the young bride and the faceless narrator is used as a framing device.
The paintings, one after another, come to life and as the narration begins, the story gets unravelled as layer after layer of inhuman behaviour of one group towards another group reveals how the powerless oppress and torture those who have even lesser power than they do. These Dalits are the law of the land and the forests so they abuse and misuse their power over the ‘unseeables’ as, when and whichever way they can. They are also not rich but better off than the “unseeables.” We discover that drinking country liquor, other than enjoying random sex, is the sole source of entertainment for these unlettered and remote people and this comes across right through the film.
One must concede that the director allows the story to emerge on its own instead of using it to push forth any agenda or social message. The story takes us through an unknown but tragic journey with Yosana (Ajmina Kassim), a small girl who forever runs away to swim in the waters of the river flowing alongside the forests, or sits down on a hillock to share a stolen apple with a host of monkeys, while her worrying mother, Veni (Semmalar Annam), keeps looking out for her.
The director has intelligently woven the concept of the female gaze through Yosana. We see her aware of her new-born sexuality when she happens to watch Panneer, a young, strong, Dalit boy swimming in the nude from behind some rocks, steals his shirt, wears it and also hugs it not knowing why she finds him so attractive. Panneer, the boy, is not even aware of her existence as he stands on a higher rung of the ladder of caste and class.
The film took in three years of intensive and extensive research and has been shot entirely on location with natural light and natural sound effects as there was no electricity in the areas where they shot. But this has added to the film both cinematically and in terms of realism as what we seem to watch are very real characters wandering across the screen with their faces filled with persistent questions, surprise, confusion and fear captured expressively by the camera.
The camera mainly concentrates on mid-shots and sometimes, close-ups of Yosana’s face enriched with the performance of the young actress drawn from theatre like the actors who play her parents (Arul Kumar, Annam), grandmother (Stella Raj) and Panneer in the film. The others in the cast are drawn either from Community Theatre of the local areas or are actual people living there who have never even seen a camera in their life, much less a film.
The film was shot across Papanasam, and VK Puram villages of Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu in actual forests. Each frame is carefully conceived and the resulting shot executed to sustain the rhythm of the film and its story. Nature is captured in its magnificent beauty as a contrast to the ugliness in the lives of those who live within nature and draw from nature their very source of livelihood. The swaying of tall grass in the winds, the forests through which the locals make their way, the cloud-dotted blue sky that breaks out into thunder and rain, the building of a temple with the forced labour of the ‘unseeables’ are other distinct facets of the film.
The scene of the gang rape of the girl is shot exceptionally well closing up on different features of the tortured face of Yosana and capturing each rape through suggestion rather than in graphic detail. This too is photographed in the night and the faces of the rapists are kept partly in shadow. The sound track picks up the girl’s painful cries and that is the last one sees of this bubbling, naughty and vivacious girl except across the shoulder of her father. The music is understated dotted with the songs of the tribals when they are celebrating a tribal festival. But there is no attempt to romanticise tribal lives to prettify the film.
Maadathy is a film that shakes us to the core through the story of how even a village or folk deity is born only through torture, humiliation, oppression and want. “Nobodies do not have Gods. They are Gods.” This is the tagline which also becomes the bottom line of the film.
Tamil, Drama, Color