At one point in Seththumaan, we see a tea stall scene featuring Poochi (Manikkam) and Rangan (Arul Kumar) being handed their beverages in a paper cup instead of the glass given to the “upper” castes. This scene is a regular addition in many such films that speak about the evils of oppression in a civilised society. However, director Thamizh takes a slight detour and makes the protagonist Poochi say a terrific punchline. He says, “Avanga kudicha glass-la naa kudikkannuma nu yosikren.”
It hits us out of nowhere because Poochi, unlike Rangan, is largely portrayed to be someone submissive to his oppressors, including landlord Vellaiyyan (Prasanna Balachandran). Such smartly written dialogues are one of the highlights of Seththumaan, which poses a flurry of questions but doesn’t necessarily burden itself with providing answers.
This is a good thing because Seththumaan allows us to introspect our own prejudices and hypocrisies. Why is one meat purer than the other? Why is a personal food habit a topic of national discussion? Why do we so rarely see pigs on our screens? Apart from dealing with the politics surrounding food, the film also touches upon the politics of caste and education. But essentially, Seththumaan, adapted from Perumal Murugan’s short story titled Varugari, is a warm tale about a man and his grandson. It is on their equation that a sordid story about caste oppression and its debilitating side-effects is delivered by Thamizh and his team.
The premise of a grandfather having lofty aspirations for his grandson isn’t new. It is hope that pushes their lives forward. Even when the odds are heavily stacked against them, Poochi strongly believes that education will provide his grandson Kumaresan with wings. And it is this need that gets denied to students like Kumaresan because the powers that be have other plans that are more lucrative. With the additional plot point of pig meat coming into the picture, even the usual tropes are seen in a new light.
Thamizh painstakingly takes an effort to show how the idea of purity being assigned to anything, especially food, comes from a place of ignorance. Vellaiyyan’s search for pig meat showcases the casual casteism in such minds, and their incessant but unnecessary need to be “pure”. A sidetrack about Vellaiyyan’s “benevolent” nature could be misconstrued as a positive thing but it is to remind us that there is no lesser evil when it comes to oppression.
The final act, which goes on for a solid 35-40 minutes, is a stark reminder of how society remains oblivious to the suffering of the oppressed. The first two acts of the film, which might seem to be meandering initially, make a lot of sense as it culminates into that explosive final act.
When multiple issues are broached in a film, they run the risk of becoming diluted. However, props to Thamizh for handling this well. The education angle isn’t explored as much as the food politics, but both are important documentations on the big screen. Another compelling observation made by Thamizh is how women in the household are also responsible for caste-based oppression. In fact, when the men of the town express their interest in having pig meat, their biggest hurdle comes in the form of their wives. “If you eat those shit-eating animals, don’t ever come back home,” say the women.
Just like how Thamizh shows a mirror to how caste oppression is so ingrained in our homes, he also makes an effort to show how there are sections of the society who are averse to even calling the pig… a pig. That is the reason behind the title, Seththumaan, which translates to “deer in the dirty mud”. This dichotomy about not wanting to name a pig but wanting to taste the meat veers in dark comedy territory, and Thamizh revels in it.
While a lot goes in favour of Seththumaan, including the wonderful work of composer Bindu Malini and the indie vibe of Pratheep Kaliraja’s cinematography, these same factors also act as a deterrent. Although the film operates in the mainstream space, the handheld cinematography of Seththumaan can feel alienating. The expository nature of certain scenes too comes as a distraction even if the core message is one of importance. But every single time the film runs the risk of running off course, the earnestness in the performances of a predominantly inexperienced cast brings it right back on track.
The last image of Nagraj Manjule’s explosive debut film, Fandry, a film that also spoke about pigs, politics, and passion, was of a hopeful boy losing all his hope and coming to terms with his grim reality. When the end credits of Seththumaan roll, we are left with a similar lump in our throats and a tougher question in our heads… Are we going to do something about the crushed hopes and ambitions? If
Cast Manikkam, Ashwin, Prasanna Balachandran, Savithri
Streaming on SonyLIV