The story is about a family of three that belongs to a caste that's forced into washing blood-stained menstrual cloth and wraps of corpses for a living.

Maadathy An Unfairy Tale This Leena Manimekalai film shows an ugly caste reality
Flix Cinema Monday, November 11, 2019 - 18:20

Leena Manimekalai's Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale is a disturbing film on the Puthirai Vannar community which is still regarded as 'unseeable' - people who are pushed to the margins of society to such an extent that they are deemed unfit to be even seen. Shot in Tirunelveli, the film mixes the supernatural with stark reality, offering an origin myth for a subaltern village deity.

Sudalai (Arul Kumar), Veni (Semmalar) and Yosana (Ajmina Kassim) are a family of three belonging to a caste that is forced into washing blood-stained menstrual cloth and wraps of corpses for a living. The Maadathy legend unfolds within the frame story of a young woman desperately looking for a sanitary pad or cloth because she's suddenly got her period. This normal, biological phenomenon has so much stigma, so many taboos and superstitions that it would take a goddess to shatter all of it. And as the film reminds us, the shame is such that it has turned into a form of structural violence as misogny intersects with caste. 

There is little dignity in what the family does, but while Sudalai prefers to look the other way and drown his sorrows in alcohol, Veni finds it exceedingly difficult to stomach what the future holds for their daughter. Yosana is a free-spirited adolescent who loves to go off by herself to explore the world around her, despite the inhuman restrictions that are in place. With her long, flowing hair, her capacity to love the earth and its life forms, the gentle music (Karthik Raja) accompanying her embrace of a hostile world, Leena builds her up like a goddess, waiting patiently for monkeys to grab fruit from her actor's hands, the fish to glide across her legs, the parakeet to settle on her shoulder (in the fashion of goddesses like Andal worshipped by upper castes). Yosana is also mischievous and likes to play tricks on the people of the village while remaining invisible, much like mythological tales where gods and goddesses test ordinary mortals.

It's rare to see a film where the male body is subjected to the female gaze. But unlike mainstream cinema where the camera typically reduces the female body to a piece of meat, in Maadathy, the man's physicality is never divorced from his personality. One must also be cognisant of the power dynamics at play - Yosana is clearly attracted to Panneer (Patric Raj) but though she stalks him, he is never in any danger from her, given the gender and caste equations. It is, in fact, she who will pay the price if she's discovered.

While there's always a touch of whimsy to Yosana's acts, Leena doesn't romanticise her circumstances. The film juxtaposes the tranquil natural beauty of the village with the violence of its inhabitants. However, there is no single villain in the story. The violence is so normalised and systematic that it wears the garb of justice and everyone accepts it, the men and women. If one group is exploited by another, there is someone higher in the hierarchy who is out to exploit both. Caste is propagated through the bodies of women and it is they who bear the scars. There is no rousing, emotional background score when there is a brutal rape taking place on screen (the camera's focus on the victim's face is deeply discomfiting); it's presented as routine, happening in a matter of minutes, with the survivor having no recourse to justice and not even speaking about it to anyone.

Instead, the unspent anger of the women turns them against each other - Veni is forever abusing her daughter for no fault of the latter's. She lashes out against the young girl because she's unable to come to terms with what will eventually happen to her. Unlike Sudalai who is mollified by what the villagers will give him, Veni never makes peace with it. Though her sharp tongue is never quiet, she is unable to articulate the horrors that she's gone through. That terrible silence stays within her, making the unbearable love she has for her daughter spill out as hate. In the final frame, as the camera pans across the hills and rests on the still, upright image of Yosana, you feel awe rising within you as if she really is a goddess come alive.

Leena isn't from the Puthirai Vannar community herself. In her interviews, she's called the film 'people-participatory cinema' because she spent time with the community, documenting their stories and weaving a script from it. How authentic is the portrayal? The dialect used and its flow? Will the representation be of any use to them or will it stigmatise them even more? Is this voyeuristic cinema? It's not the place of anyone but people from the community themselves to have the final word on this. But as a viewer from outside the community, Maadathy appears to be a sincere effort to tell a story hidden in the shadows - not to the shame of the community but to the rest of us for remaining ignorant and indifferent to the ugly realities around us.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.