Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy is set among the Dalit sub-caste Puthirai Vannar community in Tirunelveli. Through the experiences of the adolescent heroine, played by Ajmina Kassim, Manimekalai calls attention to how gender and caste create doubly oppressive hierarchies. The Tamil-language feature is available on the Neestream platform.
What lead to the making of ‘Maadathy’?
It happened while I filming for Rape Nation, my documentary that is still in the works. Rape Nation tracks the legal fights of five women, Soni Sori, Bilkis Banu, Manorama, Bhanwari Devi and Rahanas and the changes that each of their fights brought about.
I came across an article on the Puthirai Vannar community. It talked about their repeated displacement and the sexual violence faced by the women, how one family is forced to work for a village of perhaps a hundred. Migration becomes the norm as neither can they own land nor is community living possible.
There are varying theories for why they’re called “Puthirai” Vannars. In volume five of his writings, BR Ambedkar calls urgent attention to their status as “unseeables”. I had read Imayam’s Sahitiya Akademi Award winning novel Koveru Kazhuthaigal in my twenties. At that time, it was a work of fiction to me. The extensive research and interactions with survivors of sexual violence for Rape Nation pushed me towards a more critical reading of the text and the need to talk about how caste and sexual violence overlap.
Tell us about your research.
I went to Tirunelveli to meet Oviyar Chandru who put me in touch with Cricket Moorthy [the second village head in Maadathy], who is from the Puthirai Vannar community. He is a first-generation graduate. Even now, not even 30 per cent of Puthirai Vannars have access to education and 90 per cent have no land. To get a caste certificate, they need the same villagers for whom they work to give them testimonials. This, of course, rarely happens because those people do not want them to have access to education.
Moorthy ayya fought the district teshildar for his caste certificate. He took a donkey to the tehsildar office every day and protested saying, take the testimonial from this donkey instead, until the tehsildar finally gave in. His children too have been able to study because of his fight.
We visited 40-odd villages where Puthirai Vannars live. His aunt had been sexually assaulted and murdered. The same community has put up a memorial stone to her and is worshiping it because it’s widely believed that those who don’t die of natural causes linger in the world. They are deified for fear of supernatural repercussions.
Many folk deities in Tamil Nadu, like Maadathy, have their origin stories in caste violence. How does this practice connect with your film?
This memorialisation comes from fear of retribution and is done by the same dominant caste that carries out the violence. Our folklore is full of such people who have been wronged and then turned into gods by perpetrators trying to protect themselves.
In a way, Maadathy is also questioning the idea of gods. The gods we create are proof of our collective guilt. Those we’ve done cruelty to, we make idols of, worship them and try to absolve ourselves.
At other times, the communities that face violence have kept their ancestors alive as mythic figures – as symbols of resistance, as evidence of the wrongs done to them.
Thirdly, history taught within academic systems is mostly written by those in power. A people’s history is buried in the folklore of a place. Their lives have been memorialised through stories, otherwise it has been invisibilised.
How did you work with your cast, many of whom are from the places where you filmed ‘Maadathy’?
I did initially cast a Puthirai Vannar girl. But we weren’t able to continue filming beyond five days. Her parents were anxious about the stigma of acting in a film.
A majority of the cast comes from the nearby Pallar village. Whoever from the Puthirai Vannar community could participate did. When I made Sengadal [her feature film debut on the fishing communities of Dhanushkodi and Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka in Rameshwaram], I was stubborn about casting people only from the two communities the film was about, even if they were not able to act.
Ajmeena, Semmalar [Annam] and several others are outsiders. They’re all working actors who had to learn to mimic how a person local to the area would carry a bundle, stand, even their particular way of cooking rice. Ajmeena doesn’t speak Tamil, she’s also a singer from Kerala. She’d record the dialogue spoken for her in the local dialect and then learn it. There would be three rehearsals: at the dialogue training workshop, mise en scene and on location. Then there would be improvisations while shooting from feedback from the community when they’d come to watch.
You tweeted to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin and Minister of Finance and Human Resource Management P Thiaga Rajan requesting them to watch the film. What does the government still need to do for the Puthrai Vannar community?
We make art to direct people’s attention towards an issue, particularly when there is near total erasure, as in the case of Puthirai Vannars. I’m hoping for state intervention because I can’t just make a film and move on.
It was Kalaignar [M Karunanidhi] who constituted the Puthirai Vannar Welfare Board. Despite this, their demand for one per cent reservation in education within the 18 per cent for Scheduled Castes is yet to be met. There is added confusion at a bureaucratic level. Since there are also some Vannars who are in the Most Backward Community category, they find it hard to prove that they are indeed specifically Puthirai Vannars in order to get their caste certificates. They are forced to go back to the same castes they work for to get endorsements, which most often is denied to them. Secondly, they have also demanded political reservation, for which they again need their caste certificates.
The state needs to intervene to ensure a method for them to be able to get these certificates. There needs to be political will for that. Kalaignar had that strength of will when he ensured a three per cent sub-quota for Arunthathiyars. There is hope that Chief Minister Stalin can demonstrate that same level of will for Puthirai Vannars.
Annihilation of caste is impossible without a revolution at a cultural level. Reforms, constitutional amendments, affirmative action play a critical role, but caste is soaked in to the social fabric. It is equally important to create an upheaval culturally. Art can do that.
The draft Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill 2021 is raising alarms in film industries around the country. You have faced your share of censorship. What are your concerns as a filmmaker regarding this development?
This is a death blow. First they abolished the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal. Now filmmakers will have to challenge censorship in courts, which will be a long, arduous process. To avoid this, filmmakers will self-censor.
Without the tribunal, neither my Sengadal nor Maadathy could have come out. The Central Board of Film Certification banned Sengadal, claiming it would endanger bilateral relations with Sri Lanka. The tribunal cleared it without a single cut. For Maadathy, we had to challenge the cuts.
It’s impossible to show films at film festivals or on streaming platforms without CBFC clearance. Though they’re supposed to function as a certification agency, they continue to function as a censor agency. If the new amendments are passed, there is no space left for filmmakers in this country. The government wants a singular narrative, a nationalist Hindutva narrative.