When Sarvam Thaala Mayam's poster first released, the composition of the image immediately sparked interest. Launched into the air, looking up into space with a mridangam in hand was actor GV Prakash. And what was really intriguing were the contrasting religious symbols around his neck - a cross and a rudraksha kottai. On either side of the actor stood two temples, pushed to the background, colourised much lighter and yet undoubtedly standing out - much like the caste-blind attitude of the film itself.
Director Rajiv Menon has returned after a hiatus of 18 years to tell the story of a Dalit Christian, Peter Johnson (GV Prakash), and his aspirations to become a mrindangam player. Peter, the son of a mrindagam maker, Johnson (Kumaravel) is a natural musician who grudgingly agrees to help his father in his business. The caste-based tradition of passing on your occupation is initially justified by Kumaravel who says they are protecting tradition and culture but he also makes it clear that their community is not recognised for its contribution. While running errands for their shop, Peter meets Palakkad Vembu Iyer (Nedumudi Venu) and is fascinated by the manner in which he evokes emotion and interest amongst the audience with the instrument. He immediately decides that he must learn the instrument from the noted musician.
But the backlash begins even before he completely understands what he seeks. His father immediately points out that Peter will never even be allowed to enter the gates of the Music Academy but fails to elaborate on whether it is due to his religion, caste or financial status (or all of them?). He then switches to an argument on how musicians struggle to make money in the field. Peter is clearly as unconvinced as we are by the shallow arguments and he proclaims, "I will break the gates and go in".
But unfortunately for both the narrative and the audience, he does anything but that.
While the story as a whole is engaging, the manner in which the narrative portrays the Brahmin dominated Carnatic music field is problematic to say the least. When Peter approaches Vembu Iyer for guidance, he is first stopped by Mani (Vineeth) who makes no bones about the fact that people of his caste will not be accepted and that Carnatic music will never 'enter their heads'. His aggression towards this man from a lower caste who dares to seek coaching in Carnatic music is evident on screen and the director makes it clear that Mani is the 'bad Brahmin'. Except, Vembu Iyer too offers the same excuse, albeit in a calmer fashion, and he is branded 'good Brahmin' in the narrative. The musician says Peter lacks focus and belief in god - a roundabout way of saying he is not worthy?
Does Peter question the guru's stand on this? Never.
Instead, he seeks to make himself worthy - by applying sacred ash on his forehead, trying to walk into temples and agreeing to be a dog to Vembu Iyer, and being content coming at number 2 after his guru. And even when he is accepted as a disciple, it is only because the Brahmin guru believes it his 'dharma' to impart his knowledge. Throughout the film, Rajiv Menon allows the upper caste community to appropriate Carnatic music, failing to ever point out that this is a flawed assumption and based on caste hegemony. The director interchangeably uses the hero's Christian and Dalit identities to protect the upper caste. Like when he is stopped from entering a temple because of a cross around his neck, it is made to look like a religious matter when the truth is that millions of Dalits are restricted from entering temples across the country. To make it worse, the hero pushes his cross to the back of his neck in frustration, almost as if he were hoping that hiding the religious marker would gain him favour. And it's not the last time he does it in the movie.
It is quite frustrating to see how flippantly the matter is treated. When Mani insults Peter at a Carnatic talent show, calling him a servant at Vembu Iyer's residence, none of the other real-life Brahmin judges (Sreenivas, Unni Krishnan or Karthik) question it. Leave them aside, even Peter doesn't fight back. It is only when Mani insults Vembu Iyer, that Peter attempts to hit him.
If there is one person who calls a spade a spade, it is Peter's love interest Sarah (Aparna Balamurali). When she attempts to tease him about eating beef in front of his Brahmin teacher, Peter pleadingly shushes her. The scene clearly shows that the young man has become a victim of Brahmanism in an effort to learn the instrument. When Sarah sees this, she has a stereotypical rebuke of her own and says, "You were so brave before and now you have become a 'thayir sadam' (curd rice)?".
At a time when directors like Pa Ranjith are attempting to assert the Dalit identity on screen with films like Kabali and Kaala, this film take the effort back several steps. The fundamental casteist mindset remain unquestioned and we are presented with a film where the hero is expected to succeed by sheer "merit" despite all the social factors that work against him. After an uncomfortable first half, we hope that the director will switch his tone in the second but it was not to be.
The storyline wanders in the second half but comes into its own in the climax which was satisfying in a manner similar to the Karate Kid. Ravi Yadav's cinematography is stunning to say the least and the film is visually appealing. The entire casting was on point with each actor playing their role very convincingly to deliver a seamless story.
The music for the film, scored by AR Rahman, shines in parts and it is indeed ironic that while the tunes are composed by a Muslim, most of the songs are sung by Brahmin singers. Why not walk the talk? The lyrics of 'Varalaama', however, along with the storyline, make us ask why only Carnatic musicians are kept on a pedestal and serenaded in a manner akin to god. But unfortunately, this does little to distract from the picture's overall caste-blind overtones.