“I travel to rural areas often as part of my work and whenever I do, I talk to villagers and ask them about their pressing problems. I was expecting they’d tell me about the lack of infrastructure like schools, hospitals, connectivity and lack of facilities like good drinking water, etc. But to my surprise many of them invariably said that they wanted good burial sites,” begins documentary filmmaker Amshan Kumar.
“Now this did not mean that they had other facilities. Maybe they had learnt to live without them but the humiliation that they undergo every time someone dies is far more berating, far more pressing. When someone dies, there’s fear in their minds. Where to bury the dead now? Caste pursues them beyond the grave,” he further explains.
Amshan’s upcoming feature film Manusangada, only his second in many years, is based on this very problem, of denying those from lower caste groups access to burial grounds. “They are made to walk several kilometres. There’s a fight every time. They have to choose a longer route, wade through water, agricultural fields, etc. and finally bury their kin in some unknown place. This is not the case in just one village,” he tells us.
Filmmaker Amshan Kumar
An acclaimed filmmaker known for his national award-winning documentary, Yazhpanan Thedchanamoorthy Music beyond boundaries (2015), Amshan tells us that the idea for making this feature film came to him almost a decade ago.
“I always had this idea at the back of my mind, but in 2016 when I was working on a screenplay adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth I came across several news reports on such incidents. Even a few days back a similar incident was reported from a village in Thiruvarur. This is not an old practice, it is happening even today. So I set aside whatever I was doing to work on this feature,” he says.
Manusangada, inspired from Tamil poet Inkulab’s song ‘Naanga Manushangada’, is a fictional narrative of true events. Shot in just 22 days with a handheld camera, the film’s cast includes theatre artists Rajeev Anand, Sasi Kumar, Manimekalai, Sheela, Vidhur and Anand Sampath. Produced by S Thara and Gana Natkunan, it has camera by PS Dharan, music by Aravind-Shankar and editing by Dhanasekar.
Manusangada, therefore, is the story of a young Dalit man who fights against the oppressors who deny his father a proper burial. Amshan tells us that he deliberately chose to tell his film from a Dalit’s point of view. “Usually the approach in Tamil cinema has been top to bottom. The upper caste are shown having a clash against the lower caste and in the end the upper caste are shown to be reformed. Films like Unnal Mudiyum Thambi are a forward caste experience. But that is a not a Dalit film.”
Amshan Kumar’s Oruththi, his first feature film that came out in 2003, was based on a Dalit woman’s life and the film was narrated from her perspective. He tells us that he has employed a similar point of view in this film as well. “A Dalit film should project a Dalit person’s point of view. I deliberately wanted to do away with the usual depiction,” he shares.
He goes on to add that recent films like Pariyerum Perumal have digressed from this narrative. “It is an interesting change and a welcome one at that.” Amshan also tells us that the hero in his film reflects the current state of mind of the Dalits in the country. “They don’t take it lying down anymore. They put up a fierce fight. They confront. This angst is new in the present scenario. They are not at the receiving end anymore. They are questioning the authority. I am seeing it in real life also,” he tells us.
As someone who is well known for his documentaries, why choose to make a feature film instead? “It does make a lot of difference! If it were a documentary I will have to be very specific about the communities. Whereas in a feature film it is not required to reveal the caste identity,” he says adding, “When people (forward communities) feel that they’re not being directly attacked, they will think. When we tell them (forward communities) that they’ve done such things as a community, they might get defensive. My intention was to not pit one group against the other. Also, this problem is not specific to a particular community.”
Manusangada was one of the films selected for the ICFT UNESCO Gandhi Medal award. Subsequently, it participated in several international film festivals, including the prestigious Cairo International Film Festival. Last month, it won Best Feature Film Award from the Government of Puducherry at the five-day Indian Panorama Film Festival. The film is releasing on October 12, almost a year after its world premiere at the 19th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.