The silent scream: in conversation with National Award-winning director Amshan Kumar

A scene from Manusangada. Photo: Special Arrangement

A scene from Manusangada. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Amshan Kumar on making films that articulate the plight of Dalits and their eternal search for social acceptance

The final journey out of this strife-ridden world doesn’t always come about peacefully. And, as in the case of the Dalit protagonist Kolappan in the hard-hitting film Manusangada (Cry Humanity) by National Award-winning director Amshan Kumar, it is possible to experience death several times before the actual interment.

“Man can bear any injustice and live with it, but he cannot tolerate any disrespect shown to his dead kin. In reality, unfortunately, caste disparities continue even after death,” says Kumar in an email interview with MetroPlus. He will be attending a screening of Manusangada in Tiruchi tomorrow (December 16) on the invitation of the Tamil Literary Society.

A fictionalised account of true events, the 93-minute film follows the travails of Kolappan (played by Rajeev Anand), a Dalit steel worker in Chennai, who wants to conduct his father’s funeral with full honours in their village. Part of this involves taking the cortege on the main road, a move that is opposed by the higher caste families there.

After much deliberation, Kolappan and his relatives succeed in getting the Madras High Court to legally allow the funeral procession.

But will the powerful higher caste clans concede to the rule of law?

Horns of a dilemma

Shot with a hand-held camera, and using a cast of theatre-trained actors, there is an immediacy about the action in Manusangada. Though the dialogue tends to get wordy at times, the film shows a world where death, despite being a leveller, cannot bring respite from violent oppression for the downtrodden.

In the final scenes, for example, the camera focuses on the dilemma that both the empowered Dalit and law enforcers face in India today: while the mourners are bundled into a police van forcibly, a team of policemen sneaks away with the corpse on the ‘accepted’ road.

There has been an increasing awareness of the continual presence of caste discrimination in India, especially in films like Sairat, Fandry and Pariyerum Perumal. But they are largely set in the context of emotional romances.

“Every year there are a dozen films about triangular love stories, but how many talk about basic human rights?” asks Kumar. “Dalits don’t have proper burial grounds, and worse, their dead bodies aren’t allowed to be taken down the streets where higher caste people live. Manusangada shows a protest that took place very recently in a village in southern Tamil Nadu. Quite unlike protests staged for economic welfare or land acquisition, this one is about human dignity and the right to equality.”

Conversely, movies glorifying caste pride are not doing any good either, says the 64-year-old director. “Films purportedly against casteism accommodate mainstream ingredients and lose their power to assert. Many Indians, after seeing Manusangada, innocently had asked me, ‘Do such things still happen here?’ But they were dumbfounded when I told them that the movie is based on a recent event. If this film creates awareness, then I can count it as a success,” he adds.

Documenting lives

A native of Tiruchi (he graduated in Commerce from National College), Amshan Kumar gave up a career in banking to become a full-time filmmaker in 1997, and is currently based in Chennai.

His love for reading and the movies led him to write the Tamil book Cinema Rasanai, which introduced readers to film appreciation, and became a part of university curricula in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

After a brief stint in advertising, and inspired by the training he had received from acclaimed dramatist Badal Sircar in a workshop, Kumar made a documentary on his radical plays titled Third Theatre.

Kumar has helmed over 25 documentaries of notable figures in southern India such as C V Raman, U Ve Saminatha Iyer, Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi and Manakkal S Rangarajan. His 2015 documentary on Thavil maestro Yazhpanam Thedchanmoorthy (Music Beyond Boundaries), won the National award for the best arts/cultural film (the first Tamil non-feature film to be given this honour).

On the anvil

Caste issues were at the forefront of his first feature film Oruthi as well, based on a short novel by Tamil writer Ki Rajanarayanan. The 2003 movie was selected for the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) as part of its Panorama showcase, and won a special award from the Pondicherry government. Manusangada was also part of the IFFI’s Panorama in 2017 and had its international premiere at the Cairo International Film Festival.

“My next film may not be about the plight of Dalits. But I’m sure you can find coherence in my approach and vision in whatever I do,” says Amshan Kumar.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 9:22:58 AM |

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