In Tamil Nadu, where vegetarianism is a euphemism for Brahminism and where contemporary politics has been shaped by a social movement with a strong anti-Brahmin current, the film’s success is remarkable because it has so far not faced accusations of caste bias or imposing Brahmin values.
“I hear the film is running to full houses although it is too early to say what the collection figures are,” said AL Vijay, the 33-year-old director. “But I hope Saivam's success will put to rest scepticism about whether a film can tackle an inflammatory subject like vegetarianism.”
The film was made on a small budget. Inspired by the film's message, many of the actors and technicians declined to take fees, said Vijay, who has consistently produced commercial successes of films with unusual themes. For Saivam, the producers have won rights to remake the film in Telugu, are in talks for a Hindi remake and plan to take it to festivals abroad.
While the film does include some of Tamil cinema’s stock elements, such as a teenage love story, songs and comic escapades, it is never crass or preachy, conveying its message with nuance and subtle nudges. It contains laugh-out-loud situations, but no violence or melodrama.
More to the point, it has not attracted controversy probably because it has been able to convey that it is advocating vegetarianism out of a compassion for animals and not a concern for caste purity.
“A big handshake to the filmmaker, who has made a movie of a chicken-biryani family turning vegetarian,” said Kumudam, a popular weekly. A review in Dina Thanthi, a leading Tamil daily, said that the film’s strength lay in expanding a one-word subject into an absorbing tale.
Vegetarianism is a sensitive subject in Tamil Nadu. But Brahmins are not the only vegetarians in the state. Saiva Pillais, land-owning devotees of Siva, and the Vellalars, an agricultural community, also do not eat meat. Indeed, the Tamil word for vegetarian is saivam, from which the film get its title.
But a form of discrimination in the state’s real estate market reinforces vegetarianism’s almost exclusive association with Brahmins. Sometimes, Brahmins looking to rent out flats will say only vegetarians should respond to their advertisements, ruling out the vast majority of Tamils.
But Vijay said his film had managed to win converts. He said he had been receiving texts and email messages from Tamils across the world, telling him how moved they had been by the film’s message of compassion. A leading filmmaker phoned him to say he’d turned vegetarian after watching the film.
Yet Vijay, who is, of course, vegetarian, has not been able to get his own family to stop eating meat. That's not surprising: they are Chettiars, a mercantile community whose cuisine is appreciated worldwide for its meat and fowl dishes.
Partly autobiographical, the story is set in Karaikudi, the land of the Chettiars. A rooster named Papa (meaning baby in Tamil) and several chickens roost alongside goats and cattle in the backyard of a mansion, which is the home of a large, prosperous family.
Over time, these animals will all be slaughtered, many for the regular feasts the family holds, but some, like Papa, to appease village deities. The family patriarch calls his scattered brood back to the mansion for an annual village festival, when a fowl will be sacrificed to the gods.
But Papa is also the object of affection of the patriarch's granddaughter, a 10-year-old girl called Tamizh. Unable to part with the rooster, she hides the bird. The rest of the plot charts her feelings in the run-up to the sacrifice. At the end, the crusty patriarch, touched by his granddaughter’s affection for the rooster, turns vegetarian.
The plot is unusual, complete with bucolic drunks and fowl thieves, village bums cheating on their wives and prosperous village women who cook delectable meat dishes in their huts.
The film’s main theme is animal welfare, but it also touches on the nature of rapid urbanisation, the pressures on agricultural communities and superstition.