by Drishadwati Bargi
Director Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy: An Un-Fairy Tale (2021) belongs to a historical moment when anti-caste cinema and in extension an anti-caste audience have already acquired a vibrant presence in India and the diaspora, thanks to the works of Nagaraj Manjule, Mari Selvaraj, Pa. Ranjith, Neeraj Ghaywan among others. What is perhaps unique and exciting about Maadathy is the strong evocation of feminist politics and hence a feminist lens in the presentation of Dalit lives and the unspeakable violence that determines their everyday existence. In the following review, I tease out the ways Manimekalai achieves this feat and briefly draw the consequence it has for understanding caste-based “invisible” labor.
I suggest that Manimekalai achieves this through a surprisingly simple and brilliant trick. She turns her lens into that of a devotee’s gaze, and her protagonist Yosanna into a goddess, a presiding deity who watches over men, longingly and mischievously. Strategically forfeiting the scientific lens of the secular intellectual, a lens that aims to tell everything, and show everything, Manimekalai deifies her subject and lets the audience adore her, be spellbound by her powerful and vulnerable presence. The result is a splitting/doubling of gaze: that of the devoted filmmaker and of the outcaste-goddess. This effect is created multiple times in the narrative. For instance, think of the very first few shots. Two men are collecting woods in the forest. Suddenly, red fruit is thrown at them from above. They don’t know where came from. The audience knows that it’s young Yosanna’s mischief. Thanks to the wide point of view shot, we as the audience partake in this mischief from above, as the two men stand there completely bewildered and confused. Rather than sharing the men’s confusion, we enjoy Yosanna’s secret and solitary power that is paradoxically derived from her status as an “unseeable”.
This deification is repeated when Yosanna swims in the river. As her body deftly wades through the water, a very low-angle shot captures her body, briefly blotting out the beams of sunlight in the water. When she comes out of the water, her magnificent hair eclipses the sun briefly. Immersed as she is in the elements of nature, she also seems to exceed them with her body and her gaze. In another sequence, this commanding presence is emphasized when she steals the fruit that was offered to Maadathy and eats them with monkeys, seating atop the hill. Like an omniscient being, she watches from above the devotees as they return to the village and the latter of course are oblivious to her presence, and the irony that the food offered to the goddess is being eaten by a Dalit girl. This is followed by a “cow-boy” shot. It not only emphasizes her full physicality but shows that it is as impressive as the surrounding mountains, or the fields. The splitting/doubling of the gaze into an outcast goddess and a devotee is achieved in this sequence. First, we see the men from her point of view, i.e from the hilltop, above them and unbeknownst to them, just like the goddess watches over her people. We participate in this casual but significant transgression of eating a goddesses’ fruit and gazing from above. In the very next shot, the audience is displaced from this privileged gaze. Via a cow-boy shot, we confront Yosanna, her eyes gazing past us, slightly lost. Her posture however is imposing, and it sits parallel to the mountains behind her. As if, like the mountains that surround her, she is beyond the pale of human communication.
The greater ethical significance of this cinematic deification comes out in the sequence when the young girl is repeatedly raped by five young men in the dark, as she accidentally treads into the village, involuntarily drawn by the songs sung for the Goddess Maadathy. The camera unabashedly gazes on the men and their legs, as they drink together. We witness a kind of male-bonding, rarely acknowledged in popular Indian cinema, let alone anti-caste films. A conversation about the exploitative side of the village headman moves seamlessly into disturbingly familiar rape jokes. Old feuds are forgotten over booze and shared phallic pride. As one of the men suddenly finds Yosanna in the dark, he first calls her a “thief” and then rapes her. As this is repeated by all the men, we no longer see anything except Yosanna’s eyes. A pall of nightly darkness descends on the screen, and the soundscape of the film becomes more and more significant. Yosanna’s whimpers are drowned in the wistful song of the village women, who sing an ode to Maadathy, hailing her as their mother goddess. The lyrics are significant here. They not only convey the painful irony of the situation; the cultural practice of simultaneous deification and defiance of women. But these songs achieve something more. The paean to the goddess performs the work of “restitution.” When cinematically juxtaposed with the painful sighs of Yosanna, the songs restitute the outcaste girl into the company of the devotees and their goddess, who is hailed as their mother. When she is most alone and helpless, dehumanized and beyond the pale of communication (she merely whimpers and sighs), these songs respond to her cries. We witness Yosanna’s frightened eyes staring at her abuser’s body and hear the women sing, “She has one-thousand eyes, our mother goddess”. Through the songs, a momentary bond is created, and a new member is accepted in the community of the goddess and her devotee. This is the first moment when Yosanna is directly hailed as Goddess Maadathy, not by any character in the film but extra-diegetically, via the juxtaposition of the scene with the women’s songs. The sequence cuts into that part of the village where the women singers are dancing around, holding their hands and ululating with joy. They appear to be possessed by the goddess. We can no longer share their joy, for we know what it takes to become a goddess. In one of her interviews, Leena Manimekalai says that the temples are the icons of our guilt. It is in this section that we are made to confront this truth. A familiar and joyful sight of women dancing in a possessed state around a goddess has been made to bear the burden of a frightening experience, indeed the two become co-constitutive in Manimekalai’s version.
Indeed, what does it take for an outcast to become a goddess? And given the violent history, why must Manimekalai resort to deification?
For the first one, the answer is “theft”. Arguably, theft is as significant a motif in the film as menstrual blood. The young Yosanna “steals” multiple times. First, she steals the fruits offered to the goddess. Then she steals/ rescues the man’s donkey and then she steals the man’s shirt. With the last two, she falls in love. When she wears the stolen shirt and runs down the road, elated and free, it is at that moment that her grandfather hails her as the goddess! From the little life she is given, we know that Yosanna is yearning to cross her given life. She asks her mother if she could visit their relatives. When she hears a radio blaring a Tamil film song, she gets so curious about the song that she falls off the cliff. She curiously watches the men swimming in the river. She meets her fate only when she strays into the village, where she is not just seen as an untouchable but also a thief. Her grandfather’s gesture then is symptomatic of the predicament of the border-crossers, or transgressors. They cannot belong to the community called Indian village. If they were to enter these spaces, they can only enter as permanent transgressors, separate from the commoners. Thus, Yosanna’s dead body, carried by a rescued donkey, is found in the temple, a fact that simultaneously desecrates the site and reveals the exceptional status of the girl and her family. The village as the site of ordinary activities and communication remains outside their reach.
Then why deify? Perhaps the answer is that deification is the only legitimate form of constructive participation in this fatally sealed structure. In the story, the deifications of goddess Maadathy are performed by a host of characters, and it is always marked by gender and caste. Dominant caste men take the active role in laying and deciding the path of the deity. Through these traditionally legitimate roles, they determine her movement as well as the movement of the devotees. When the same deification is repeated cinematically by a feminist filmmaker, the constituents of the so-called eternal Law, i.e. Sanatan Dharma are brought into sharp relief. We are made to witness the fact that deification is preceded by transgression and punishment. By repeating this traditionally sanctioned deification, Manimekalai displaces its agents. What Yosanna’s grandfather, a Dalit man, and an ascetic, bows down to is not a lifeless idol but a free-spirited young girl, donning another’s cloth. We as the audience are made to adore the girl’s momentary freedom, despite its stolen status. Devotion here does not perform the role of sacralization. Yosanna’s intrepid response, “I am Yosanna, not Maadathy!” humanizes the goddess, renders her as any other young girl, curious and eager to explore the world. And we adore this being, for her singularity.
As a cinematic reconstruction of a contemporary experience of a Dalit community in Tamil Nadu, Maadathy stands out for its eye for micro-rebellions. On the river-bank, when Yosanna’s mother lashes out at the dominant caste women for “pouring buckets of menstrual blood” and tears up one of the saris in her rage, we witness the constitutive degradation of caste-based labor and the way it appropriates or colonizes the Dalit’s body and mind. Yosanna’s mother is raped by the men and all she can do is go back to her work as nothing has happened. The “double degradation” of Dalit women is revealed when Yosanna’s father leaves his wife in the middle of their work to drink with the men, his “lords,” men who eventually rape his wife. A critical lens on subaltern masculinity enables Manimekalai to foreground the micro-power of caste: A Dalit woman repeatedly pays the price of male-bonding across caste. Far from being transgressive, this male-bonding is predicated upon the subordinate status of the Dalit man. He cannot say “no” to his lords and his wife pays the price for his conformity.
In her important work The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India (2009) contemporary historian Anupama Rao foregrounds a crucial aspect of this labor: The Dalit man’s social control and Dalit woman’s sexual control are the two sides of the same coin of caste domination (Rao 235). Manikmekalai’s film seems to be dramatizing this open secret of caste sociality. However, it achieves something more. It highlights the fact that straddling between what Rao has called the two economies of marriage and respectability on the one hand and economy of sexual violation and pleasure on the other is the fact of invisible labor of the Dalit community, especially Dalit women. The film shows that the Dalit family must remain unseeable and the labor they perform must remain invisible. It is this collapsing of the identity of the laboring body, the person, and the unclean matter that constitutes their location in the graded structure of caste. Although unseeability and a counter-visibilization are part of the aesthetics of the narrative, this is ultimately a politically enabling gesture. This points at a host of other Dalit laboring experiences, like that of the manual scavengers, the works of ayahs, cleaners, surrogate mothers, sex workers, etc. They form the laboring bodies that are forcibly not recognized by society at large, and hence their belonging is disavowed on an everyday basis. Although “invisible labor” as a concept is a contemporary invention of Western academia, Ambedkar’s description of caste as an involuntary social unit, marked by absolute separation, may help us detect the constitutive unseeability that marks the laboring bodies of Dalits. It may help us detect another iteration of invisible labor, working both outside and inside a capitalist economy. In his essay “Caste and Cass”, Ambedkar writes, “Each caste is separate and distinct. It is independent and sovereign in the disposal of its internal affairs and the enforcement of caste regulations. The castes touch but they do not interpenetrate. The second feature relates to the order in which one caste stands in relation to the other castes in the system. That order is vertical” (Ambedkar eds. Rodriguez “Caste and Class” 2002, 103). Although each caste obeys the same hierarchy and gradation, they relate to each other through a sovereign separation. This is an impersonal and involuntary structure because the sanction comes from religion. He writes in “Untouchability” that the Hindu can never totally abandon untouchability because tantamounts to the total abandonment of one’s basic religious tenets (98). This Ambedkarite conception of a structure that simultaneously separates and yet ties every unit into a hierarchic totality may help us grasp the unseeability of the Dalit community that Maadathy foregrounds. Their unseeability is the “common name” that the caste has ascribed to them. It is a mark of their involuntary separation (Ambedkar 102). Even if there is an interaction among caste members via labor and service, they remain separate. Invisibility and unseeability are guaranteed by the “religion of the Hindus”, a phrase Ambedkar uses to describe caste-sociality. Hence, the relationship remains deeply asymmetrical and irreversible. Sanctioned by the religion of the Vedas, caste “legislations” produce unseeable bodies and invisible labor. The story ends with the Dalit family leaving the village, with Yosanna’s father carrying her dead body on his shoulder, their separation from the village rendered permanent.
This everyday separation and invisibilization are demystified in the film by making the menstrual blood of a savarna woman the essential link between the two worlds, one visible, and pure and the other invisible and impure. After all, it is only because the woman gets her period that her husband has to make the stop near the temple of Maadathy and, is then made part of the goddess’s victims. The menstrual blood on the body of the savarna couple connects the two worlds and reveals a fact of their social life that they would rather disavow, relegate to secrecy and privacy. Crucially, this turns the menstruating savarna woman as the survivor of Maadathy’s wrath, and hence the privileged human being who lives to listen to the fairy-tale, whose author remains nameless. This is an intelligent maneuver of the problem of representing Dalit women when one is not one herself. The survivor is not the active storyteller but the passive recipient of the tale. In making menstruation a part of the plot of the narrative where a character swears at the savarna women for “pouring pots of menstrual blood!”, there is a moment of acknowledgment of one’s own complicity and embeddedness in the asymmetrical structure. In her interviews, Manimekalai stresses the fact that her film is the product of the collective labor of the community. The actors are mostly from the village. The central characters are played by amateur or activist actors. One sees the commitment against commercialization in the project, that one misses in other big-budget and super-hero-centric Tamil films. All in all, the film is not only an essential addition to the existing repertoire of anti-caste films in India but also an intelligent move towards thinking of the specificity of Dalit labor and Dalit laboring bodies in contemporary India.
I would like to thank Leena Manimekalai and Bhavana Goparaju for sharing the film with me. I would like to thank Richa Nagar for inviting me to write the review. I would also like to thank her for reading the drafts of the review.
Drishadwati Bargi is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. She works at the intersection of Cultural Studies, Religious Studies, and Political Theory. Her dissertation is tentatively titled, For a Life in Common: Interpreting the Acts of Conscience in Dalit Literature and Cinema in Contemporary India. She has written for Economic and Political Weekly, Voice of Dalit, South Asian Review, philoSophia: A Journal of Transcontinental Feminism, and Dalit Camera: Through Untouchable Eyes.
Bargi, D. 1 Dec 2021. “‘She has one thousand eyes, Our Mother Goddess Maadathy’: Exploring separation and invisible labor through Leena Manimekalai’s strategic deifications.” AGITATE Now! https://agitatejournal.org/she-has-one-thousand-eyes-our-mother-goddess-maadathy-exploring-separation-and-invisible-labor-through-leena-manimekalais-strategic-deifications-by-drishadwati-bargi/
 For a nuanced understanding of “deification” and anti-caste cultural politics, see Rege (“Interrogating the Thesis of Irrational Deification” in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol- 43.7, 2008, pg- 16-20).
As the director notes in her interviews, she wanted to dismantle the ways the male film-makers have so-far depicted women’s sexual violations in Tamil or Indian films.
 Rao, The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India (2009), New Delhi: Permanent Black.
 See for instance, Cherry, Miriam, Marion Crain, Winifred Poster eds. Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in Contemporary World (2016), Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
 For an analysis of Dalit women’s labor being both outside and inside capitalist economy see the work on surrogacy by Lewis Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (2019), New York: Verso.
 Ambedkar, ed. Valerian Rodrigues “Untouchability”, “Caste and Class” in The Essential Writings of B.R Ambedkar (2002), New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
 Ambedkar eds. S. Anand Annihilation of Caste (2016), New Delhi: Navayana.
 Here I am drawing upon Marx’s famous statement about the “bloody legislations” of 1530 England that created a particular class of proletariat. This newly proletarianized section could not immediately adapt to the disciplines of capitalist economy. As large number of beggars, robbers, and vagabonds were created out of this sudden change, the legislation treated them as voluntary “criminals” (Marx ed. Mendel Capital Volume 1, 1976, 897. London: Penguin.