There is something different about director M Manikandan that sets him apart from his peers, if his body of work — Kaaka Muttai , Kuttrame Thandanai and Aandavan Kattalai — were to be considered. His debut film Kaaka Muttai was a masterpiece: a children-centred film that uses a Satyajit Ray-like humanist realism to make a searing point on consumerism and class differences. Aandavan Kattalai was a light-hearted take on aspirations, but also depicted its story and characters as close to reality without giving up on humour and cinematic sense. This writer hasn’t seen Kuttrame Thandanai but just the two other movies were enough to whet the appetite of viewers who had to wait months for the release of Kadaisi Vivasayi (The Last Farmer), Manikandan’s fourth film and perhaps the most poignant of the lot.
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As the title indicates, Kadaisi … is a take on the state of affairs in Indian farming today. The trope is familiar; very few in today’s rural India see merit in farming as a viable vocation and rare is the villager today who aspires to keep engaged in the rough and tumble that comes with agriculture. But what sets Kadaisi … apart is the treatment given to the subject, and that is where Manikandan’s craft comes into play.
Similar to his Kaaka Muttai and Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai , the key roles in this film are not played by actors, or at least by those who are familiar to audiences. This is clearly done for the purpose of authenticity. Except for Vijay Sethupathi and Yogi Babu, both of whom appear in cameos, there are no other prominent faces. The central character, Maayandi (Nallandi), is played by a person who cannot be anyone else but an inveterate farmer himself. Other supporting roles are also essayed by locals of a village near Usilampatti, where the film is set in. What differentiates these characters and actors from typical Tamil films with a rural backdrop, is that these are not simply bystanders or spectators who occupy screen space, but look and behave like real people.
The dose of realism imbued to the characters and the settings is what sets the stage for the message being delivered by the director: that farming as an activity requires the protagonist to put forth the hard yards to keep it going against heavy odds. It is no surprise that every other landowner-farmer in the village has sold their holdings for a quick buck; one of them even buys an elephant and uses it for remunerative purposes.
Maayandi is not just the “last farmer” in the village; he is a simpleton untouched by the comforts of modernity, as evident from the absence of electricity in his household or mechanised equipment for farming. A loner, he sticks to his profession not just as a means of livelihood, but as his way of oneness with nature. It is no wonder that when some village elders decide to appease the village deity by performing rites with the presence of all communities, they put the onus on Maayandi to provide the fresh offering of grains harvested in his small farm.
Maayandi goes about his job with his typical fervour, even as land grabbers seek to buy his fecund land holdings only for their offer to be resolutely turned down. They try to fix Maayandi for this. A case is pinned on him by the police for killing peacocks. The magistrate who hears his case is easily convinced of his innocence, stuck by Maayandi’s desperation to go to the field and tend to his life-bearing crops. But the long arm of the law doesn’t spare him. He is kept in remand for days before the police take their sweet time to fix their bureaucratic mistakes. It falls on his fellow villagers and a police constable (due to a reprimand by the magistrate) to take care of his crop and without Maayandi’s knowhow and nurture, this task is clearly not easy for them. Finally, when Maayandi is released from remand, the entire village transcends its bitter casteist divide, and even the magistrate is moved by his dedication. They take part in helping reap the produce with a happy ending.
It is the process of how this transformation occurs within the village that drives the second half of the film, and the director tugs at the heart of the viewer as much as that of the fellow villagers and the agencies of the state to realise the importance of the kadaisi vivasayi . It is not just realism or emotional intrigue that are used by Manikandan to make his point. He relies on surrealism in Vijay Sethupathi’s character as Ramaiah. Ramaiah has issues with mental health and has lost his moorings because of a personal tragedy. Unlike other villagers who regard Ramaiah with amusement or mirth, Maayandi sees it to be perfectly fine in breaking bread or sharing his emotions with him. This is in sharp contrast to his interactions with others which are laced with biting wit, a bit of derision or indifference. It is as if Maayandi is as out of tune with reality in his insistence on dedication to his craft as Ramaiah is, but their innate humanity and bond with nature binds them as kindred spirits.
To this writer, Maayandi, Ramaiah and other characters in the film are not too different from the farmers from Tamil Nadu who went to New Delhi a few years ago to register their pain against the Government in bizarre ways. For the Indian peasant, an oneness with nature, expressed in monsoon cycles, soil, reliance on domestic animals and even the presence of wild birds such as peacocks is a given and faith in divinity, is tied to their dependence on nature.
Manikandan expresses this not through the typical cinematic method of dialogues and messaging, but through a combination of realism and surrealism. This might seem incongruous to urban viewers, but I suspect it will strike a chord with the villager in rural Tamil Nadu — who is the key audience that Manikandan seems to target in his ode to the old-fashioned farmer.
Kadaisi Vivasayi will release in theatres on February 11