The elaichi's tears

Updated: Jul 26, 2020, 08:03 IST | Meenakshi Shedde | Mumbai

In a splendid initiative, both have an FFSI Online Film Festival, showing Indian and Asian independent films in various regional languages, with English subtitles, for free

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeThe film Merku Thodarchi Malai (MTM, Western Ghats, Tamil), written and directed by Lenin Bharathi, manages the near-impossible. It makes the life of a landless labourer in the Western Ghats, fascinating, even moving. A strong debut feature, this socio-political drama is also a coup: it is produced by top Tamil star Vijay Sethupathi (Super Deluxe, 96, Vikram Vedha). It is deeply gratifying that younger filmmakers are also making fiction features based on the real lives of indigenous people of 'the other India'. You can watch this 2018 film on Netflix, and this and other films have been showing for free on the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI)'s and/or FFSI Keralam's Facebook pages. In a splendid initiative, both have an FFSI Online Film Festival, showing Indian and Asian independent films in various regional languages, with English subtitles, for free.

MTM opens with the gentle, naive Rangasamy's (Anthony Pangu) routine, as he goes to the tea shop, then labours, carrying heavy sacks of cardamom along the Western Ghats, to the plains. Then, a drone camera swoops up to show us the magnificent Western Ghats where he works—the labourers look like ants in the vast landscape. The first half works like an observational, even anthropological, documentary, with revelatory details of a trusting, generous, closely knit community. They live close to nature, and have simple needs—to find work and get paid, to get married, to own a piece of land. The places have names like Koambai and Kariyanampatti. A tree on the hill is God, and you offer him pebbles. Rangasamy pays for his land in cash; the money lender returns it when the deal is cancelled, nobody signs any receipts. The director also plays with time—the first half of the film mostly mimics real-time, yet, Rangasamy gets married and raises a son in the course of a single song.

The second half cranks up the drama, as communism and capitalism—as well as the church—battle for the labourers' souls: each helps and ruins the community differently. Bharathi underlines how, when a labourer who climbs mountains daily, is reduced to becoming a watchman, he's still able to feed himself, but an entire way of life and knowledge of the hills and forests will vanish. After the communist party unionises the labourers, Rangasamy is jailed for his involvement in party murders. On his release, Logu the fertiliser seller, who gave his wife goods on credit during his jail term, and now owns many companies, claims his land to clear his debts. And his wife, unable to cope during his jail term, gives up their son to the church. The climax is gut wrenching.

Remarkably, Bharathi refrains from judging his characters, but Theni Easwar's camera speaks volumes. Although Bharathi's direction is uneven, it has many moments that stay with you. As the cast are mainly non-actors, they are authentic, but Pangu is too low-key to carry the film. Easwar's cinematography is wonderfully eloquent, and Ilaiyaraaja composes lovely songs. Communism is a key fulcrum of the film. Indian cinema has a history of films addressing communist ideology, including Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Mukhamukham and Sidhartha Siva's Sakhavu (Malayalam), Mrinal Sen's Neel Akasher Neechey and Padatik (Bengali), Pa Ranjith's Kaala (in essence; Tamil) and Raju Murugan's Gypsy (Tamil). MTM is a welcome addition.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshi.shedde@mid-day.com

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