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Tamil film on the explosive subject of vegetarianism is surprise hit

In a state where not eating meat is associated with Brahminism, it is remarkable that the film has not attracted charges of reinforcing casteism.

A Tamil film espousing vegetarianism is not only running to packed cinemas across the state, but also winning critical acclaim in the regional press. Titled Saivam, the film was released on June 27 in more than 220 theatres in India and abroad.

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.

Sensitive subject
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.

The plot
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.


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Celebrated architect Hadi Teherani tells us what luxury in the living space means to him.

Hadi Teherani is best known for designing iconic buildings in Germany including the famous Dockland office in Hamburg and the Kranhaus in Cologne. But he’s also left his mark on the landscape of Abu Dhabi with the Zayed University, and has designed a luxury residence that will soon grace the skyline of Mumbai—Lodha Altamount. We spoke to him about the challenges of designing luxury living spaces in India.

Q. In your opinion, what is the definition of luxury specifically in the area of private residences? Is it a lot of fresh air, space and daylight? Is it the room composition? Or is luxury something completely different?

Hadi Teherani (HT): For me, luxury is first and foremost to have space, not just enough for what you need but enough space to really thrive. And luxury has always been defined that way. If you look at Art Nouveau houses, those rooms have incredible heights. So yes, space is definitely an important factor when it comes to luxury. In Europe people pay attention to every square metre and here in Mumbai it is the same. There are slums where 4 people live in one room and just across the street somebody is living by himself on 1000 square metres. Once you have space, luxury can be in the features, in using certain materials, and there is no limit. Some things, of course, are simply not available here: the luxury of fresh air and a clean sea. No matter how much money you are willing to spend, you cannot get those. Therefore, you are limited to what is available.

Q. Have you incorporated this concept of space into previous projects?

HT: Yes, in different ways, no matter if you are working on government-sponsored housing projects or in the luxury segment. Usually our projects are more in the luxury segment, where space is crucial. We are currently designing a building where luxury can already be sensed at the parking level. You reach with your car and you are already supposed to have the feeling that you’ve arrived at a hotel lobby. This is how far luxury has come. That the arrival in a garage already gives you the feeling as if you are coming to a palace—you get out of your limousine into this stunning lobby and this feeling continues as you go up into the apartment where you have a bathroom that is 20-30 square metres and not just 5-10. The idea of really designing your bathroom or kitchen has not yet reached India. Bathrooms are still rather compact and practical since the idea of spending quality time in your bathroom doesn’t seem to exist yet. Customers definitely do not request a spacious bathroom when we discuss their projects. For me, personally, a great bathroom is extremely important, as it is the first thing you use in the morning. Afterwards you go to work, and you come back home. But I believe the areas that you use most need to have enough space for you to move and thrive in.

Q. Do you have any role model in the field of architecture? Maybe a building or a person?

HT: The Bauhaus is still my role model. Back then they designed products for day-to-day life, affordable for the general population. But those products have become classics today like the lounge chair by Le Corbusier. Those were project works but Bauhaus thought further ahead. The idea was to give people light, air and space, and to free them from elements that were poorly designed and uncomfortable like big stucco ceilings. The focus needs to be light, air and sun. For them, architecture and product design were always very fluent concepts. Le Corbusier, for instance, designed fantastic buildings as well as whole cities, but on the other hand also designed furniture. Gropius had even designed a car once and furniture, too. This school of thinking has influenced me, and once you have all those “tools” and this way of thinking, you get very far. With this “toolbox” of modern design, you can create anything and influence society. The times back then aided this development; everyone was opening up, living in and with nature, not hiding away in little holes. And the world evolved from there. And today you can see they are daring even more spectacular things in Asia than they used to in Old Europe.

Q. You have already gained quite some experience in India. Is there something that you would define as a typical “Indian palate”, and if so, how does it differ from the international projects? You already mentioned the differences in bath and kitchen design, but are there, for instance, taboos like colours you wouldn’t use or something in room composition?

HT: I haven’t encountered anything like that. What I do experience is that many projects are influenced by religious thoughts and by Vaastu, something like Feng shui. So the master bedroom has to be in the south-west and the kitchen has to have a certain location. Those rules need to be followed exactly, no matter if it makes sense for the building or not. Here in Mumbai it’s a little more liberal but in other regions, Hyderabad for instance, every centimetre has to be exact as per Vaastu. Sometimes they want a dedicated room for pujas. All this changes while designing a project, of course. But overall the ground plans are not that different. The families might be bigger so houses and apartments are bigger as well, or they are trying to utilize each and every square metre and avoid hallways, for example.

Those projects are also in the centre of a lot of marketing. We are not used to that in Europe but here in Mumbai or even more in other cities like Bangalore, along the entire highway from the airport into the city you only see 50-metre-high billboards announcing new real estate projects. You don’t see anything else! And it’s very creative marketing with catchy headlines and slogans. That isn’t happening in Germany. One more difference: when designing upper class buildings in India, they require a maid or servant room, maybe a separate entrance from the staircase and so forth. Here, you can still afford having a maid. In Europe you might have someone coming by for three hours once a week but certainly not living in.

Q. Let’s talk about the Lodha Altamount. What was the challenge?

HT: The design of Altamount was strongly influenced by being a Lodha project and by its location. Next to Altamount stands a luxury highlight of architecture, the Ambani tower, the most expensive home in the world. How do you want to top that? The Ambani tower is very structural. It shoots through the air, it combines all sorts of crafts and structural design elements with gaps and open spaces. You can’t top that and definitely not with our type of design. That’s why we decided to hold back and instead develop a dark and sleek building. That type of building doesn’t exist a lot here in India. Usually buildings have many structural elements like beams and balconies. By creating a calm building in the skyline of Mumbai, we will make Altamount stand out. Plus, the top of the building is very unique. Many structures are either simply cut off straight or completed by a dome. We have two geometric pointy tops so that the building is properly completed and doesn’t look as if it could grow further. It has a head and feet and is finished. So for us to hold back was our way to stand out. It doesn’t devalue the building design in anyway. It is meant expressively in the sense of “less is more”. And the interior is of course very luxurious: it is designed through and through, there is the green car parking podium, each balcony has a mini pool. So all those luxury features are present but the architectural design is based on the idea of “less is more”.

Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.
Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.

Q. Luxury can drift into the eccentric, depending on the client. Have there been any projects that were very eccentric which you still accepted or projects that you had to turn down because they were too eccentric?

HT: As architects, we create a space. What happens, of course, is that people buy an apartment in a great contemporary building and then furnish it in a baroque style. But that freedom has to be there, of course, because we can’t also tell the client which curtains to use or clothes to wear. At a certain point our job is done. However, when it comes to public buildings, the public is supposed to benefit from, so I have to be strict and dictate. In private buildings you can leave it up to the individual but publicly I have a responsibility and cannot consider each and every taste. I have to do a clean job so that in the end every individual can find himself or herself in my design. Anyway, taste always stems from a certain upbringing, culture and environment, so I also have the duty to educate and that’s what I do with my projects. When a small child walks by a building, she recognizes when the proportions are right even if she has no idea about architecture. But if the proportions are off, the child will pick that up too, because every building also exudes energy, either of unease or comfort. So we have quite a big responsibility as well. I always say doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, but our mistakes will always be there for everyone to see.

With one residence per floor and a host of bespoke luxury services, Lodha Altamount is the epitome of unrestricted luxury. Designed by Hadi Teherani, and a part of the Lodha group’s Luxury Collection that has homes present at only the globe’s most-coveted locations, Lodha Altamount is the last word in luxury in India. For more information about Lodha Altamount, see here.

This article was produced on behalf of Lodha by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff

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