Mandela, a political satire directed by Madone Ashwin, reflects the darkly amusing society we live in, while also being extremely conscious of regressive caste structures and faulty political practices. The movie narrates the story of a poor barber whose caste is not mentioned, but Ashwin expects us to know that he belongs to a Dalit caste. Living in a small village in Tamil Nadu, he tries to escape the identity his the village has forced upon him, while simultaneously struggling to create and claim a new one. This article will discuss how accurately or inaccurately it has managed to show the nuances of the world around us.
Mandela, unlike many of the movies that deal with the dynamic between ‘upper’ castes and Dalits, is not a violent movie. It is also not naïve enough to not talk about violence, which the former have faced for generations. Caste-based violence in Mandela is communicated through well-written dialogues, which tell us how brutalities are deeply embedded in a caste-segregated society.
This is regularly displayed as people from the two rival factions — Thekkoran (southerners) and Vadakkuoran (northerners) — are always threatening to kill each other, as is Mandela (Yogi Babu) either in the name of caste pride or to secure enough votes to win. Here again, the caste of these factions is not mentioned, and it is left for the audience to assume that they belong to two separate castes, both being more privileged than Mandela’s.
The film does not explore the conditions that have made Mandela, the protagonist, an outcast or Rathnam (GM Sundar) and Mathi (Kanna Ravi), the respective leaders of Vadakkuoru and Thekkoru, privileged enough to hold clout over fellow caste members in the village of Soorangudi. It dives straight into the day-to-day lives of these people. Mandela, before changing his name, is often called Smile, Podhu (commoner), Elichavaayan (jackass) and other abusive slurs.
Though his assistant-cum-friend Giridha (Sideburn) doesn’t like it, Smile accepts it without a question, as years of shaming and abuses have made him forget his original name. This symbolises how centuries of oppression and appropriation by privileged castes have not only wiped out Dalit history, but has also compelled Dalits to only accept the perspective through which the oppressor caste views them. This fact is also reinforced when villagers refuse to call him Mandela and continue to verbally abuse him.
Throughout the film, Mandela is terrified to even slightly disturb the caste hierarchy. An example of this can be seen when as he refuses to sit on a chair until told to do so, and keeps asking Giridha and Thenmozhi (Sheela Rajkumar), the postmaster who helps him search for a new name, if Mandela is an upper-caste name. His doubts are at last cleared when Giridha says that if he likes the name he can keep it.
The audience not only discovers how the village treats the outcast Mandela, but also ridicules the way in which the two rival castes, who are seemingly equal in caste hierarchy, treat each other. For the male members of these castes, protecting their caste pride is more important than thinking. Midway through the film, a Vadakkuoran says that this is no time to waste in thought as the pride of the caste is at stake.
As caste governs every aspect of life in the film, it also hinders people from using the newly installed public toilet. No member of any of the castes wants to use the toilet after a member of another caste is done using it. In a hilarious turn of events near the public toilet, males of both sides get into a skirmish as they fail to come to a consensus on who gets to take a dump first.
I deliberately say male caste members because while the said fight takes place, women from both Thekkoru (south) and Vadakkuoru (north), along with Mandela and Giridha, watch from a distance as males fight to ‘protect’ their ‘pride’ and demolish the public toilet. It signifies that caste is a system solely run and preserved by ‘upper’ caste males, while women and Dalits watch as silent helpless spectators.
With an acute sensitivity of caste, the film is also replete with several political symbolisms. For example, the veshti that Periyavar (Sanglili Murugan), the village leader, proudly wears and has colours of both the warring castes, is stained by his faeces. This suggests that caste pride is worthless compared to the struggles of basic needs such as a public toilet.
Mandela focuses on the importance of voting in a democracy and how every vote is crucial for its survival. This concept is not alien to the Indian cinema as many Hindi and Tamil movies have capitalised on it to make some fine movies. What Mandela does differently is that it focuses solely on the events in a small village, thus making topics more refined and relatable. But that doesn’t mean that the film is just for a Tamil audience, because by not naming any parties or castes and using accurate metaphors, the film can be attributed to any Indian village or city.
As Dalits in the country have been empowered and recognised by Universal Adult Suffrage, similarly in the film, Mandela is recognised as a voter and not an outcast for the first time when both parties are tied on equal votes. And just like most Dalits in the country, Mandela is only recognised for his vote and nothing else.
The two leaders, Rathnam and Mathi, leave no stone unturned to secure Mandela’s vote — from gifting him a new mirror and free food to surrendering their properties. Mandela, too, is naïve enough to think that he deserves all of it and believes that this is the cost of a single vote. He is shown to be unapologetic that delightfully takes away the saviour complex off the ‘upper’ caste leaders, something that many recent Hindi films have regularly portrayed.
The film shows the sad state of Indian politics today. In a hilarious scene, Periyavar asks the leaders (who also happen to be half-brothers and fathered by Periyavar, more about it later) what they will do if they win the election. To this, Mathi, the Thekkoran leader, replies that he will take his party members to Goa, at which Rathnam laughs and replies that he will transfer Rs 15,000 to each villagers’ account, expecting that they will forget it by the time he gets elected.
It is while demonstrating such depressing, real-life truths with light-hearted humour that Mandela shines the most.
Periyavar, a staunch follower of Periyar, is the supremo of the village who is held in high regard by everyone irrespective of caste or gender. Presumably, he has been the president for a long time — a position for which elections are being conducted. In an attempt to unify both the rival castes, he marries one woman from each community and has a son from each — Rathnam and Mathi. As the feud between the two castes is too deep and intense to be sorted out so conveniently, his plan fails.
There might have been an attempt by Ashwin to show that no matter how benevolent and noble-minded Periyavar is, he is still a flawed man. Perhaps, this was also an effort to show that men who follow Periyar either do not know about his feminist ideals or simply ignore them — something that has been a persistent problem in Tamil Nadu’s politics since Periyar’s death. Whatever the reason may be, portraying women as a commodity and marriage as a quick bait transaction to solve a social crisis is deeply disturbing and problematic.
Another issue with the film is that it blames poor and illiterate people for taking money for votes. In a scene, Thenmozhi, who is shown to be extremely rational throughout the film, bursts out at Mandela for accepting freebies given to him by the leaders of the two castes who expect him to vote for one of them. Mandela says that it is the price of his vote.
Thenmozhi, who by now in the film knows that Mandela has had no formal education, still chooses to scold him. Blaming Dalits and the poor for accepting money for votes is something most of the educated middle class engages in to justify everything wrong with the election system. It takes the focus away from privileged castes and classes who have enough resources to engage in and perpetuate the malpractice. The money received in exchange for a vote for many might be the only amount they get in a long time to sustain themselves, and blaming them for that is sad.
Besides its social commentary, the film is also a great cinematic experience. The film starts and ends with a shot of the board that has the village’s name on it. except for the fact that in the last shot, the board is repaired and new, signifying development. The cinematography is brilliant as is congruent to that of Tamil cinema. The wide and long shots fit perfectly with the chosen aspect ratio. The catchy score does an amazing job at explaining and furthering the plot; it is the songs that take the film from one stage to another.
Mandela was released on April 4, 2021, which was also the time when Tamil Nadu, along with West Bengal, Kerala and Assam, were about to start voting for their respective chief ministers. The film provided the viewers with what to anticipate in these events, and it was fairly accurate.