Manusangada Review: A powerful film at an important time
Manusangada is a terrific film, a mirror held to society over the issue of equal burial rights
Minutes into Manusangada, Kolappan (Rajiv Anand) receives a phone call. His dad has passed away at the crack of dawn. He is shocked, tears breaking out, but first, he has to take care of the practicalities. He asks the person on the call to get an ice box and promises to be there as soon as possible. Kolappan gets up from his bed and disappears off camera. We hear the sound of water first and then the howl of Kolappan. The camera then dutifully follows each of Kolappan's four friends as they wake up and disappear off screen, much like Kolappan. He is a grown man, who cries under the shower. He is a man ashamed to cry in the open.
This sense of shame has driven much of Kolappan's waking life but we don't get a backstory here. It is implied. His is a village that is four hours away from the heart of Chennai; it’s a village without a bus stop, where you have to request the conductor to stop. Could this be because of caste discrimination? Or is there something else at play here? The film does not dwell on it.
Cast: Rajiv Anand, Vidur Rajarajan, Sethu Darwin, Manimegalai
Director: Amshan Kumar
But it makes no bones of whose story it is telling. It is the story of a man, who for having been born into a lower caste, cannot be buried in the same place as that of the upper caste. Death is the great leveler to human life, but even in death, there is no level-playing field in caste-ridden Tamil Nadu (and by extension, India). It doesn't matter how much his son fights and boy, does he fight! He follows the rules of the village as he approaches the local police station and then the Revenue Division Office, both of whom urge him to use an alternate path that is earmarked for Dalits to bury them. Shame slowly manifests itself into anger over the course of these conversations but anger isn’t enough to win you equal burial rights. The law will help the oppressed, says annan Gowthaman, the man revered amongst the lower caste community as a champion of their rights. Gowthaman believes in Ambedkar and in turn, the power of law. In homes where the entrance is adorned by a god of one's religion, Gowthaman's is that of the iconic lawyer.
There is a scene in Manusangada where the handheld camera (the film's greatest weapon), held at a low angle, focusses on Gowthaman and Kolappan as they are travelling back home in a car after a victory in Madras High Court. Gowthaman sings Samarasam Ulavum Idame from Rambaiyin Kaadhal (1956). It is not the iconic bronze voice of Seerkazhi Govindarajan here, but a voice as powerful in its delight at having won a battle.
Anger, however, is its own devil. Back home, after hearing of the law in their favour, the beats of the thappu ring loud; it’s music to the ears of the bereaved who have only heard of oppari till then. To the thappu dances Shakthivel, a man whose mother died months back but wasn't allowed to be buried thanks to the upper caste members in the village. Kolappan joins Shakthi as they both dance their hearts out, the dance of death. A dance for dignity in death. But what exactly is dead here? The question raised in Pariyerum Perumal is extended here.
This film at various points reminded me of Court (2014), Thithi (2016) and Ee Mau Yau (2018) but the treatment here is completely different. The handheld camera that keeps lingering that extra second on emptiness draws your attention to the problem of space and land at the heart of this film. While a Merku Thodarchi Malai (2018) used the camera as a fly on the wall, the handheld camera in Manusangada is at once voyeuristic and visceral. That the film has a documentary feel is probably thanks to the background of the director Amshan Kumar, a documentarian himself.
The film fades in from black with a Nelson Mandela quote, "To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity", and back to black with, "Every 18 minutes, a crime is committed against a Dalit." Between these quotes lies this terrific story about the death of humanity.