In just in the opening sequence of the film, Director Madonne Ashwin showcases a lot of things which is wrong in rural India. There is not a single toilet in the village and when one is finally built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan programme, a big fight ensues between two warring factions belonging to two different caste groups in hierarchy as to who will first use the toilet! Rest of the film is about how caste discrimination and the after effects of the same continue to suppress sections of the society.
There have been many films in the recent past in Tamil which is centred around the caste discrimination angle like Pariyerum Perumal, Asuran, Karnan etc. to name a few. While in those films the film makers took a serious story telling route, in Mandela, Ashwin who makes a fine debut in this film, takes the route of political satire to convey the point.
The central character in the film is a man belonging to an under privileged caste who is labelled as Ilicha vaayan aka Smilu by one and all in the village. In a stroke of luck he gets an identity and name as Nelson Mandela and eventually the right to vote. What follows is a comical trail of events where the rival factions who are in need of one solitary vote, go all out to woo Mandela to cast his vote in their favour. Mind you, this is just a local body election. A man who was all along dismissed and insulted in all possible ways as a lowly individual because of his caste now becomes the focal point of both the factions. How Mandela uses this privilege to initially do something for himself but fails and eventually does something big for the village and wins, is the story.
For the most part, the film looks like a take down on the elections in India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular. The election freebie culture, rampant cash distribution for votes, Cash for coupons and all such practices which are now common in Tamil Nadu elections, feature in the film dominantly. Being a satire, the director of course stretches this a bit and even plugs an open auction where the two factions bid competitively for Mandela’s vote! But, I must add here that underneath this satirical take on elections, Mandela as a film has a lot of underlying sub texts which makes it all the more interesting.
While the starting point is the continuing existence of discrimination along caste lines you find other narratives plugged in as well. The issue of open defecation that exists in India even after seven decades of Independence in touched upon nicely. “Corporate Conspiracy”, a pet subject of Tamil film makers also finds a place. Then there is the roasting of the latest obsession in Tamil Nadu – the regressive Tamil TV serials! Not to miss the presence of a patriarch who idolises Periyar and happens to marry two women not belonging to the same caste in hierarchy, just to bring the two caste factions together as he claims! Above all, the one thing which is ignored by all but showcased well in the film is the issue of “discrimination by the discriminated”.
Ashwin who has done the screen play and writing for the film apart from ably directing it, exhibits a fine understanding of TN rural dynamics all through. The picture of actor Ramki hanging from a tree that serves as a temporary salon of Mandela in a star crazy Tamil Nadu is a case in point. The writing though satirical doesn’t evoke laughter as it embedded with wry and poignant humour.
Other than the director, the film belongs to Yogi Babu, who plays the central character of Nelson Mandela. As an underprivileged individual who is shown to accept the treatment meted out to him as normal, he is natural and brilliant. I have never been a fan of Yogi Babu the comedian, so far. But in this film, he owns the character and makes us sympathise with him through his travails by his underplayed emotions. In general, almost all the characters are cast well. The character of Thenmozhi, played by Sheela RajKumar who is the one who holds the torch for Mandela in the film, is also impressive.
The stretch where the two factions start wooing Mandela in a competitive fashion gets repetitive and the film lulls there a bit. Tighter editing would have done the film a world of good. At the end after all the competitive enticement, Mandela does cast his vote. But the director smartly keeps us guessing as to whom he actually put his vote and who did win the elections eventually.
In the opening frame of the film, we get to see a dark and ugly sign board of the village that is languishing in its existence. However at the end, as the winner of the elections is about to be announced, the frame freezes with a freshly painted and bright board of the same village to symbolise that the village has eventually won!
Mandela is now streaming on Netflix and it’s good to see small and simple films like Mandela and KD getting a platform now where many can watch. For being a clean, entertaining and engaging film without being preachy, I would put the film as “Must Watch”.