ManMandela’s opening scene has an impactful shot that, for me, goes straight into the most daring frames of Tamil cinema. We see an old village president’s dirty party towel stained with his faeces, the colours of the flag signifying the dominant, warring castes of his village. The shot suggests quite simply that caste and political pride is sh** when we have people fighting for basic needs. Though this sequence sounds too dark to exist in a film featuring Yogi Babu in the lead, the clever writing of Ashwin balances this with a roaring gag the very next minute.
The opening shot itself is followed by a face-off between warring castes vying to use the village’s first toilet. The said toilet gets destroyed soon into the film by vandals eager to make a point about privilege; similar destruction happens to the only school in the village as well. And yet, Ashwin picks the demolition of the toilet, not the school, as the starting point of this story. The film strikes a fantastic balance between feeling funny when the issues are looked at macroscopically, but poignant when examined closely. It’s like the film is playing a ‘laugh and shock’ game with us, as we swing between both emotions in each scene.
Mandela isn’t the first film to stress the importance of casting a vote. Sarkar, a film with contrasting sensibilities, and one which featured Yogi Babu as well, saw its protagonist bring down an entire government for his lost vote. But here, the focus is refined, and the story revolves around a simple village president election, and a singular, neutral voter, who has the power to decide the winner of a constituency. This intriguing premise is backed by an engaging screenplay that hardly leaves you distracted, and performances that amplify the vision of the film. If you liked Yogi Babu’s Anand in Pariyerum Perumal and wished to see more of the seasoned performer in him, his lead character here called Smiles/Ilichavaayan/Mandela is your answer.
The actor sells naïveté and shame in a way that makes you forget all those films in which he was simply cast as a prop on which insults could be rained. Rather ironically, Smiles, who’s the kindest man in the film, is considered the lowest and weakest of them all not unlike in the real world. The film is a wakeup call to those who ask, “Ipo laam yaar sir jaadhi paakura?”. Though the film doesn’t spell out the caste of Smiles, that he’s a barber by birth says a lot. Barely minutes into Smile’s story, the embarrassment and humiliation he suffers begins to feel personal, as the discrimination ranges from denial of entry into homes to even disrobing.
But Yogi Babu’s Smiles is not your average victim-hero yearning for sympathy. He also checks the masala hero to-do list in the most interesting ways. He lands, like a superhero, on the very car that got him beaten up, and goes on to even play mind games with his nemesis to get his mission done. I particularly liked how he finds the simplest ways to find peace during those initial portions, even without the power and intellect he gains as the film progresses. The homeless Smiles sleeps in a DIY saree hammock hung from a banyan tree and enjoys music from his favourite radio. The hammock could be thought of as his mini-heaven, an escape from the cruel society; it’s his way of rising above his oppressors, quite literally. I also enjoyed Smiles’ transformation to Mandela, aided by Thaenmozhi (Sheela Rajkumar in her element), and the name game in which they consider naming him after Tamil cinema’s pop culture characters like Friends’ Nesamani and Giri’s Ganapathy Iyer.
The comedy in Mandela is right up there with the best in recent years, with the debut filmmaker playing around with dialogues and improv. The portions in which the party workers go about threatening the elderly voters are sure to leave everyone in splits. I’m confident that comedy channels will be playing these scenes for a long time to come. Mandela is full of relatable, simple people who are interestingly flawed in their own ways. The ambitious Periyarist (Sangili Murugan) president who sets out on a mission to abolish caste during his young days, engages in polygamy. The ration shop worker who tries to come off as an anti-casteist gets caught for adulteration.
The film’s big villain is actually the sort of bully who we see a lot of, but when looked at from the perspective of the weakest, most-exploited people, he begins to breathe menace. Even the not-so-popular actors like Kanna Ravi and GM Sundar work wonderfully in this film to get us invested in their characters. The film is never short of metaphors for the socio-political situation of the country. In one scene, Smiles knocks on the doors of both party leaders trying to make a deal to save his dying companion. The dying boy feels like a symbol for the nation and Mandela, the face of all the helpless voters who are forced to settle for the least dangerous candidate.
Despite many such merits, Mandela’s convenient end means that you can’t quite call it a perfect film. In a film with such great writing otherwise and effective performances, the ending is probably its weakest aspect. Such a film surely deserved a more organic final act that does not feel as rushed. Given his reputation from the short film circuit, Madonne Ashwin’s feature film debut has been longawaited, and it is heartwarming to note how well he has handled human emotions and how he has portrayed the voice of the oppressed. While his National Award-winning short film, Dharmam (2014), felt like a sucker punch to the gut, his debut feature, Mandela, feels gentler in comparison, but this time, he goes for the head.
Cast: Yogi Babu, Sheela Rajkumar,
Director: Madonne Ashwin
Streaming on: Netfl ix