by Aswathy Gopalakrishnan
The customary hero-introduction shot in Tamil language drama Kadaikutti Singam (2018) happens during the scene of a rekla race, the traditional bullock cart sport held in Tamil Nadu villages. Before Karthi Shivakumar, the star actor who plays the lead character, makes an appearance, Soori, the comedian who plays the hero’s best friend, takes a look at the bustling arena where bulls are rubbing shoulders with men, and gushes, “How could you curtail this happiness!”
A local viewer would immediately recognise the subtext. Soori’s comment is directed at the Supreme Court of India which had placed a blanket ban on rural biocultural sports like jallikattu and rekla in 2014 based on a plea filed by animal rights organisations and rejected a plea seeking urgent ruling on a batch of petitions against the ban ahead of Pongal, the harvest festival, in January 2017.
In mainstream Tamil cinema, inseparably intertwined with every aspect of life in the region, characters breaking the fourth wall is not unusual. Kadaikutti Singam, produced by Karthi’s brother superstar Suriya Shivakumar, becomes a generic revenge drama in its final 60 minutes. But before that, it is fashioned as a populist response to the new euphoria around agriculture in urban centres, an immediate outcome of the large-scale protest that unfolded in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu, against the ban on Jallikattu.
The protest was unique; more intricate than what an outsider’s eye might perceive. It was spearheaded by young people, many of whom had lived their entire lives in urban areas, who mobilised through social media. Myriad conflicts in social and political life found catharsis on the protest ground by the Bay of Bengal. The foremost cause the protesters rallied under was the state’s staggering agrarian crisis. The countryside was reeling under the worst drought in 140 years. Incidences of farm-related suicides had soared in the state. Banners and posters pointed out the failings of the state and the central governments in resolving the decades-long river water dispute or in helping the farmers come out of the distress. Un-and underemployment were high, especially among the section of the population that had migrated from villages to the big cities to work in IT jobs. A. Kalaiyarasan, Assistant Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, and researcher Shruti Ragavan wrote: “This has created a sense of nostalgia for the rural among young city-dwellers in the state, combined with feelings of alienation and rootlessness—all of which were evident in the speeches and songs heard during the Jallikattu protests.”
In the months that followed, the strains of the uprising echoed in mainstream cinema via images (Mersel’s first poster had Vijay as a jallikattu fighter), songs and narratives that eulogised jallikattu and agriculture (Karuppan, 2017).
But some of these issues had started figuring in commercial films long before the protests, especially at the beginning of the last decade when a powerful new anti-caste cinema—pioneered by filmmaker Pa Ranjith— emerged. The success of socially conscious films about the down-trodden and the marginalised prompted the reigning superstars of the film industry to look for earthy themes.
In A.R. Murugadoss’ Kaththi (2014), starring Vijay, the farmers are depicted as a meek collective, with their hands folded, begging for mercy or in an expression of gratitude, eventually rescued by the hero who is an outsider. This wasn’t the case in the films where the star played the farmer. He was not a subjugated figure but a model citizen, an icon who must be adulated. In cinematographer-filmmaker K.V. Anand’s final film as director, Kaappaan (2019), superstar Suriya plays a National Security Guard who moonlights as a farmer. In Kadaikutti Singam, the hero’s motorbike has Vivasayi (Farmer) written in bold letters on its number plate. In the song that follows the rekla race, he joins the farm labourers on a paddy field, singing: “Agriculture is the sole reason our country eats in any season… The plough is our tool dear, it proves no one is poor dear…”
On the posters of Bhoomi/Earth (2021), Jayam Ravi, brown and muscular, stares at the onlooker, holding them culpable for something. Older farmers surround Ravi, their smaller and darker bodies contrasting against his upper-caste, urbane appearance. In Bhoomi, Ravi plays a scientist at NASA, who decides to fight for the farmers in his native village reeling under a severe groundwater crisis. In a song that describes him as a “leader” of the masses, the camera captures him in low-angle, slow-motion shots as he sows seeds and waters the field.
These popular films refrain from discussing structural challenges like casteism but insert into the framework of Tamil masala cinema the new, limited social consciousness of the film industry. The halfhearted commitment generates severe inconsistencies, tonal and ideological. The female lead actors in Kadaikutti Singam and Bhoomi come from Hindi-speaking North Indian cities, noticeably misfits in the rural Tamil milieu. Film critic Baradwaj Rangan, in his review of Kaththi for The Hindu, points out the irony in the narrative that goes from a tirade against corporate companies and mobile phones to a “lavishly shot song that goes… Selfie Pulla”.
This brings us to two unusual star-backed films: Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai (The Western Ghats, 2018) and M. Manikantan’s Kadaisi Vivasayi (The Last Farmer, 2021), both of them produced by actor Vijay Sethupathi.
Merku Thodarchi Malai exists on the periphery of the mainstream, well-removed from the aesthetics and objectives of the masala entertainers. Named after the Western Ghats, the mountain range that runs through three South Indian states, the film treats the landscape as its protagonist.
Bharathi painstakingly maps the mountains, the rainforest that produces a major share of the world’s supply of spices, and a village where people have to adjust their routine in line with the itinerary of wild elephants who drop in for a visit occasionally. “I wanted to quell the romanticised notion of the Western Ghats,” said the filmmaker in an interview. He engineers a narrative that blends elements of social realism (non-professional actors, wide shots and a story steeped in the problems faced by the working class) and old-fashioned melodrama in equal poise.
The story is centred on Rangasamy (Antony), a young farmhand who wants to own a piece of land for which he must overcome several hurdles, natural and man-made. Landlessness is an intergenerational problem in India, tied to an entrenched caste system. “Keeping some of the population landless is in the interest of the wealthy class”, Bharathi remarked in an interview. “If they get land, then who will do the dirty, low-paid work?”
Lenin addresses the politics of land and labour while training his eyes on the sensations of life in the region. The intimate relationship between nature and human beings is central to the film’s aesthetic. As the plantation workers trek through the mountain pass, narrating stories to take their mind off the roughness of the route, the camera pulls back and rises to the sky in spellbinding fashion, a sweeping view of the terrain and reducing the humans to a colony of ants. The villagers worship a formless deity that resides under a tree, who safeguards the trekkers from dangers hidden in the mountain and asks for nothing in return, save something as elementary as a piece of rock. They display a profound sense of fatalism in their personal life. In an early scene, when her husband complains that their son, a communist activist, never stays home or agrees to settle down, an old woman replies nonchalantly, “When the boy is ripe for marriage, he will come home.” Nature will take its course.
The village community in Merku Thodarchi Malai is traditional in its immediate nature. The interdependence is not extraneous but organic, a necessity of life. In a song sequence, a group of workers in a cardamom plantation stop by a stream to wash up. As the women help each other remove leeches from their legs, the song goes: “Why should we fret? We are there for each other”. The community is also politically conscious, bound by their adherence to communism. Communist symbols are everywhere in the worker settlements around the cardamom plantation, on the walls of houses, on trees and rooftops. The capitalist and the class traitors get their due, and eventually, the film becomes a lament for the loss of a utopia.
Bharathi looks at the village’s incoming capital rather cynically. In a montage towards the end, a shot of a summer wildfire dissolves into an image of a tree on the village square bearing myriad billboards. Urbanisation has usurped the farming community, severed its relationship with nature, and forcibly integrated it into the greedy outside world. The tragic death of the idyll is engraved into the drying up of a landscape that was once lush and green.
Kadaisi Vivasaayi is devoid of the rage that Lenin’s film encompasses. In evoking the mythology around the farmer, portraying him as a monk in an increasingly materialistic milieu, Manikantan’s film resembles the pop films on agriculture. But its aspiration to hit a metaphysical note separates it from the mainstream.
Manikantan articulates the story like a fable, bringing the characters, the landscape and the gods to the same plane. He sources themes and concepts from different places. The main story—an old farmer arrested by the police for burying a peacock on his farm—comes from a real incident. Using classic Tamil songs, he reconstructs his memories of growing up in an agrarian village. For one, the villagers in the film perform their morning rituals to Karpanai Endralum, an iconic devotional song in praise of Lord Muruga, blasting from a loudspeaker in a temple on a hilltop. The song acts as a profound signifier of a traditional farming community that no longer exists.
The film is centred on Mayaandi (Nallandi), the last traditional farmer in a village where farmers are parting with their land and embracing other means of livelihood that aren’t as ridden by uncertainties. Along with the farmlands, the old customs and beliefs have vanished too. When the elders of the village call for reviving an ancient ritual to please the gods, Mayaandi is entrusted with cultivating the rice to offer at the end of the ritual.
The film juxtaposes images of the octogenarian Mayaandi toiling in the field with that of another farmer (Yogi Babu), roaming the village lanes with an elephant he bought using the money from selling his land. There is a virtue historically attached to working in the soil, which the younger generation has given up. In the penultimate scene, designed to impress the urban audience, the village returns to the farm, and the festivities begin.
Kadaisi Vivasayi, like P.S. Vinothraj’s Tiger Prize winner Pebbles (2020), is set in Madurai district which, at the beginning of the millennium, had become home to a new kind of cinema that discussed casteism using violence as a predominant narrative element. Caste is touched upon in Kadaisi Vivasayi, but not as a deeply ingrained social evil that upsets the rural idyll as it does in Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan (2021). The state, in the film, isn’t an impersonal institution but a collective of individuals who value emotional experiences.
What is palpable in the final scenes is a sense of pride about reclaiming one’s own soil, a metaphor for a shared history and cultural values. The judge, the cops and the villagers who had abandoned their farmland cheer for the old farmer. In the final shot, a peacock, the representation of Lord Muruga, fans out its feathers as the farmer looks on. Unmoored from reality but immensely affecting, Kadaisi Vivasayi is a quiet, seductive fantasy that says a return to the past is not just possible but crucial. A cinematic embalming of the farmer as a mythical figure.
Aswathy Gopalakrishnan is a writer and film critic based in Kerala, India. She regularly writes on Indian regional cinema for Silverscreen India and also has been on the film selection committee of the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival for the last three years. [Twitter] [Blog]