When he is debarred from carrying his deceased father through a common pathway in his village for burial, Kolappan, a Dalit, moves court. “You deny them equality when they are alive. At least give it to them after they die,” declares the Madras High Court judge. But Kolappan’s journey does not end there, as revealed by Amshan Kumar’s powerful second feature Manusangada (Cry Humanity).

“In most Tamil Dalit films, the heroes come out triumphant,” Kumar said. “But it doesn’t actually happen. In reality, they do not succeed. The struggle is relentless and continuous. This battle is lost. But hopefully, the war will be won.” Kumar’s 93-minute feature was premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 12-18), and is looking at a January 2018 release.

Manusangada (2017). Courtesy AK Films.
Manusangada (2017). Courtesy AK Films.

The director’s Yazhpanan Thedchanamoorthy Music beyond boundaries (2015), a documentary on Thavi player Yazhpanam Thedchanamoorthy Pillai, won a National Film Award for Best arts/cultural film. Kumar’s first feature film Oruthithi (2003) too explored the tribulations of a Dalit woman battling exploitation.

Starring Rajeev Anand, Sasi Kumar AS, Sheela and Manimegala, Manusangada is based on a real-life incident that happened in a village in Tamil Nadu. Kumar wanted his film to be styled like a docu-drama. “The script had to be tight and had to have more of documentary realism,” he said. “I wanted to capture the movements in the film instead of purely enacting it.”

Set in the Ammiappan village in Tamil Nadu, the film was shot over a period of 22 days. When Kumar chanced upon a news clipping of the incident in 2016, he set aside a screenplay of a William Shakespeare adaptation that he had been working on. “This story just had to be told first,” he said. “There is no killing on the account of cow-slaughter happening in Tamil Nadu, but just the violence against the Dalits. Also this was a subject to which parallels can be drawn anywhere in India.”

Manusangada (2017). Courtesy AK Films.
Manusangada (2017). Courtesy AK Films.

The film is a frightening blow-by-blow account of the incident, which is accompanied by jerky hand-held camera movements and jarring background sounds. “The idea was to portray the uncertainty surrounding the characters,” Kumar said. “I had to show that in every way through their actions and the camera movements. Only in the court scenes is there is some kind of certainty, and the camera is on a tripod.”

Films on Dalit lives in Tamil cinema have been few and far between. “Casteism in films is usually looked from a top-down approach,” Kumar said. “The upper-caste people look down on the lower-caste people. In most films, the upper-caste characters treat the lower-caste people very badly. Later in the end, they realise their mistake. It is not told through the eyes of the lower-caste people. That is why I wanted to make a film from a Dalit person’s viewpoint.”