“Brahmins, Thakur, Shudras… These castes are to categorise men. Women are different. They are beneath them all.” These lines from Sonchiriya stayed with me as I watched Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy. A haunting story of societal injustice, there’s a lot to unpack in this film. First, the gender. The free-spirited protagonist, Yosana, is an adolescent girl firmly held by the chains of patriarchy. Then there’s caste. The film’s narrative emerges from the collective experiences of the Puthirai Vannar community from Tirunelveli. They are often referred to as the ‘Dalits of the Dalits’ and thought ‘unseeable’. This means Yosana is at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy ladder. Maadathy is important on several counts: one, it documents and platforms the pain in these hitherto ‘invisible’ stories. And second, it once again reminds us why feminism is incomplete without intersectionality.
Madaathy exposes many hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies of these oppressive systems in gut-wrenching detail. In the early minutes of the film, Yosana and her mother hurry back to their house in daylight, frightened of being seen by the villagers. They scamper behind trees when they see a man coming their way. He swears at Yosana’s mother, and spits in disgust, after knowing her caste. But this ‘disgust’ doesn’t prevent him from checking her out as she walks away hurriedly. It doesn’t stop him from forcing alcohol down her husband’s throat and then forcing himself on her. Rape is often about power; it’s about teaching a lesson, showing someone their place. It’s disturbing how the victim just goes back to her life after the assault. The breakdown happens when she is working. She doesn’t discuss her pain, but simply grunts through it. Her life, labour, and pain are all invisible to this wretched society.
We often touch upon voyeurism when speaking of showing sexual violence on screen. In fact, a short story by popular Tamil writer Sujatha has a ‘decent, genteel man who wouldn’t look at a woman in the eye’ going to an international film festival with his friend so that he can watch uncensored nudity, even if in the form of sexual violence. The male gaze is notorious for making sexual violence, a titillating spectacle. But Madaathy is cautious. When a young girl gets assaulted, it happens in the dark. Except for one frame where the camera zooms in on her face, which the film does to register betrayal. The sensitivity is refreshing.
Menstruation and menstrual blood also play an important role in Maadathy. The Puthirai Vannar community is considered ‘impure’ because they wash the clothes of the dead and the menstruating. While mainstream cinema romanticises a woman’s puberty, Maadathy chooses the mundane and the ugly. The opening sequence has a woman looking for a pad. It shows a woman washing menstrual cloth. The folklore is painted on small white cloths similar to ones used by women. Goddesses and folklore play an important role too. Yosana, who is brutally killed, is worshipped by the same oppressing community as a goddess to escape her ‘wrath’. In interviews, Leena calls it ‘an embodiment of collective guilt’. In the modern context, we can see why women are constantly deified.
But Maadathy’s clinching victory is contextualising the female desire in this complicated web of sexual violence and vulnerability. Yosana is infatuated with a man whom she spots bathing in the river. In this sequence, the camera caresses the male form with admiration that is usually only reserved for the women on screen. It is not that women don’t desire. But there is a very real possibility that they could be violently hurt, or even killed if they express that desire. Female desire is encumbered by patriarchy; caste makes battlegrounds of their bodies. Where is the space for female desire when, as comedian Hannah Gadsby put it, women are still viewed as flesh vases for men’s d*** flowers?
Maadathy is a hard watch, but it is mandatory viewing. It is surprising how little is known about the community and the horrors they continue to face. And I am forever grateful to Leena for telling this story. The colours might have faded a bit, but the social fabric still carries the rot of oppression. As Ambedkar once observed, “No civilisation can be guilty of greater cruelty.” It is a pity we need constant reminders of this.