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A tale rooted in the soil

Amshan Kumar's "Oruthi" was included in the Indian Panorama and screened at the International Film Festival recently held in Delhi. S. THEODORE BASKARAN discusses the merits of the Tamil film.

Casting has been given much attention in "Oruthi".

THE NEWS that "Oruthi" (Tamil) a debut film by Amshan Kumar from Chennai, had been included in the Indian Panorama and screened at the International Film Festival of India, in Delhi, last month, went largely unnoticed in Tamil Nadu. Introduced in 1978, the Panorama showcases 21 best films made in the country, selected by the Jury of National Film Awards. Many landmark films in Tamil cinema have been adaptations of known literary works. Jayakanthan's "Unnai Pol Oruvan" (1964) and Mahendran's "Uthiripookal" (1979) are two examples. In "Oruthi" also the filmmaker starts with an advantage of having a literary gem on hand. The film is based on a Tamil short story, "Kidai", by Sahitya Academy award winning writer Ki. Rajanarayanan. It is a powerful and intense tale rooted in the soil of Southern Tamil Nadu.

Amshan Kumar translates the story into a series of images, conscious of the spirit of the literary work he is handling. By choosing to shoot the film in a village set in the parched landscape of south Tamil Nadu he has ensured the authenticity of the people and the place. There are scenes in which the black cotton soil covers much of the screen. Some sequences take place in cotton fields.

Set in the late 19th Century rural Tamil Nadu, the story revolves round a Dalit girl — a goatherd — in love with an upper caste boy, an avaricious zamindar, a village elder and a visiting British official.

Portrayed as humane and considerate, the officer acts with enlightened self-interest. Sevani wins the goodwill of the officer by providing a timely remedy when a vicious insect bites him. She frees the villagers from tax burden imposed by the zamindar. However, when she pleads for justice and says that she would like to marry the upper caste youth, the village elders are stymied. Rejecting the solution suggested by them, Sevani goes back to her people and to her work. There is a suggestion at the end of the film that she would seek freedom through education.

Being a writer himself — he was active in the little magazine movement in the 1970s — Amshan Kumar has always displayed sensitivity to both literature and cinema. This is an essential prerequisite for a filmmaker attempting to adapt a literary work. He has taken certain liberties with the original story, a common practice while filming literary works. Satyajit Ray did it with the works of Tagore. Amshan Kumar depicts the caste dynamics by understanding it.

The virtue of this film is that it brings out the persistence of caste oppression without any suggestion of anger or hatred towards the dominant castes. He exhibits a confident style and with economy of words moves the action forward with ease.

Casting has received close attention. In addition to known artistes such as Chandra, Jayakumar, (both honed in `Koothupattarai') Bharathi Mani and Balasingh, all of who are convincing, he has Poorveja, new to the stage and screen. She plays the lead role of Sevani and steals your heart with her fetching presence. Except Thomas Ober, the British Officer, who appears rather self-conscious, every one gives good account of themselves.

However, it is Bharathi Mani as the village elder who dominates the film with his electrifying performance. It is a treat to note the manner in which he delivers his lines. L. Vaidyanathan's background score is evocative of the mood of the film.

A historical film is a rarity in Tamil cinema. I am not talking about the king and queen stories, set in a geographically unspecified place and a historically unspecified period. We have had many of those — Chola soldiers in Greek headgear and Pandya kings in Marathi outfit. But period films? Making a period film is like tightrope walking. In addition to being good in your history, you should have a sense of the period. Otherwise you fall into the pit of anachronisms. I can think of only a very few films such as "Sivagangai Seemai" (1959) and "Bharathi" (2001) that pulled this off successfully.

Amshan Kumar manages to capture the flavour of the period through the costumes and with minimum props, quite effectively.

Interestingly, this year the Indian Panorama had another film set in the same period — Adoor Gopalakrishnan's "Nizhalkuthu" (The shadow Kill).

Sitting in the lawns of the Siri fort complex, eating my dinner of rice and rajma served by the Kashmiri eatery there, I asked myself which image from the movie lingered most in my mind?

When the man she fancies gets married to two women (a common practice in that period) from his own caste, Sevani goes about her work, of tending goats, as usual. It was more poignant than a jilted girl crying. The image of the girl in the arid expanse with her goats haunted me... .

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