A question that has featured more than once in Tamil writer-filmmaker Komal Swaminathan’s work is whether independence has made things better for marginalised communities. In Thaneer Thaneer (1981), Swaminathan poses the question through a story set in a drought-stricken village in Tamil Nadu that has not seen water for nearly a decade. In the 1983 film Oru Indhiya Kanavu (An Indian Dream), Swaminathan sets the narrative amidst the tribals of the Javvandi hills in Tamil Nadu and implores us to revisit the question.

“The news of India’s independence reached us five years after 1947,” a tribal chieftain tells Anamika, a student from Chennai who has come there to study the problems facing the community. “Once, a government contractor came to our village to tell us that a minister wants to conduct Independence Day celebrations here. He gave us each Rs 10 and said that if the minister asks how we like independence, we should say we really like it.”

Satire that stings deep was Swaminathan’s forte, and Oru Indhiya Kanavu serves a delectable quantity of it. Like Thaneer Thaneer, Oru Indhiya Kanavu too is an adaptation of Swaminathan’s play of the same name. But unlike the former, which was directed by K Balachander, Swaminathan is in the director’s chair for the adaptation. Starring Suhasini, Lalitha, Vathiyar Raman, Poornam Vishwanathan, Rajeev and Omakuchi Narasimhan, Oru Indhiya Kanavu won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil in 1984.

Oru Indhiya Kanavu (1983).

While in the hills, Anamika (Suhasini) gets close to Gangamma (Lalitha), a young tribal woman. Through Gangamma, Suhasini gets to know the rest of the community and slowly discovers the horrors plaguing them, particularly the women. She learns that the women are regularly raped by government contractors and feels helpless when she sees a woman being dragged away one night.

Overcome by a feverish desire to help the community in any way possible, Anamika decides to stay in the hills amidst the tribals. Her father (Vathiyar Raman) and Agni (Poornam Vishwanathan), a veteran journalist, encourage her. What ensues is a long struggle to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Unlike Thaneer Thaneer, which offers no hope to the drought-affected village, Oru Indhiya Kanavu champions the idea that concerted efforts can indeed bring about change. Swaminathan reposes faith in the power of the collective and its ability to effect justice through sustained protests. Anamika rallies the tribals to ask them just how much more they will tolerate. They have lost their land and their livelihood. Will they sacrifice their women too?

While Anamika embodies a sweet Utopian optimism, Swaminathan gives the acerbic and witty lines to her father, thereby ensuring a balance. Throughout, the writer and director peppers the narrative with ample satire to goad viewers towards a demand for justice.

What stands out is the film’s uncanny ability to communicate with India’s present. Whether it is the astute study of the government machinery, the atrocities committed against the tribals or plain and simple bureaucratic corruption, Oru Indhiya Kanavu packs India’s nightmares into a single narrative.

The rationale behind the title of the wonderfully performed film becomes clear towards the end, when Swaminathan fills the screen with people marching to demand justice. True Indians, for Swaminathan, are the tribals. It is their liberation that, for Swaminathan, is the real (and unfulfilled) national dream.