Is anyone listening? Two creative works that transform personal tragedies into powerful political statements

This article delves into the artistic narratives of dissent and personal journeys of Mari Selvaraj's 'Maamannan' and Nisha Abdulla's 'We Push the Sky'.

Discover how these artists use their mediums to challenge societal norms and ignite conversations on caste dynamics and religious polarisation that redefine the boundaries of personal and political narratives. They skilfully transform personal tragedies into powerful political statements

In Aldous Huxley’s “Grey Eminence,” the enigmatic character of Father Joseph, advisor to Cardinal de Richelieu, embodies a perplexing interplay between beauty and perversity. Despite composing the spiritually uplifting Les Cantiques Spirituels, Father Joseph resorted to ruthless tactics, including deception and murder. He is said to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of Huguenots, or French Protestants, during the Thirty Years’ War. 

This paradox prompts a profound question: Can art transcend its creator’s actions, allowing us to appreciate its beauty separate from its moral compass? As we grapple with the haunting reality of Father Joseph’s atrocities, his hymns resonate, inviting us to contemplate whether beauty can exist independently of ethical considerations or is intrinsically linked to truth and goodness.

The phrase “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” suggests that truth, Godliness, and beauty are interconnected. Is beauty separate from ethical considerations, or is it linked to the fundamental nature of reality and goodness?

This week, I saw two productions where ethics was not just a theme but the soul of art; they, in a distinctly brave way, search for social justice amid contractions of society. Art is just an extension of the artist; the story they told us is an extension of their life; they steal moments of their life and decorate them into art.

Indeed, if archiving is making ‘the personal public’, then Mari Selvaraj’s Mamaanan and Nish Abdulla’s  ‘We push the sky’ merge the personal and public, private and political, and the audience is not a passive observer but is invited to participate.

Mari Selvaraj achieves this immersive effect through the astute portrayal of his characters, the dynamic cinematography, recurring motifs, and the deliberate use of visible violence. On the other hand, Nisha employs a more subtle approach, gently drawing viewers into her personal world. From the shared moments over tea to the thought-provoking discussions on Uniappam, the boundaries of the stage are extended to envelop the last member of the audience.

In his latest film, “Maamannan,” director Mari Selvaraj skillfully subverts the entrenched caste hierarchy portrayed in the iconic film “Thevar Magan.” In “Thevar Magan,” the character Isakki, played by Vadivel, represents a submissive individual who faces severe consequences for deviating from the established caste structure by entering a temple. His punishment comes in the form of having his hand amputated. However, in “Maamannan,” Mari Selvaraj orchestrates a powerful narrative shift.

The film places Vadivel, who hails from a marginalised community, at the centre of the story as the protagonist. Vadivel’s character embarks on a transformative journey, arming himself with a sword to protect his family and assert his agency. Have we transitioned? No, but the film’s narrative reflects the need to change the caste hierarchies and the storyteller’s gaze.

In the movie “Maamannan,” Vadivelu plays the role of Maamannan, a Dalit MLA from Kasipuram in Salem. Udhayanidhi Stalin portrays Adhiveeran, Maamannan’s son, and Fahadh Faasil delivers an impressive performance as the caste-Hindu antagonist.

While “Thevar Magan” (drew inspiration from “The Godfather”) explores a strained relationship between a father and his son. In the film, the reluctant son ( played by Kamal Hasan) takes the mantle of leadership from his father. Thevar-Magan ( Son of Thevar, a Kshatriya caste ) is benevolent.

Unlike “Thevar Magan,” Mari Selvaraj’s film places the reluctant father (Maamannan) at the forefront as the protagonist, challenging the existing caste equations. Adhiveeran’s silence and his simmering anger inspire his father’s introspection. In this narrative, Maamannan evolves from a hesitant figure into one who confronts and reevaluates the prevailing caste dynamics.

The characters in the film, along with powerful acting and Vadivel’s transformation and body language, make it engaging. Udhayanidhi Stalin’s restrained performance and Fahadh Faasil’s versatility as Supermist also add to its appeal. Mari Selvaraj’s use of motifs, especially animals, and his dialogue and cinematography, particularly his aerial and long shots, have become his signature.

The second half needs a more cohesive narrative thread, and the ending needs conviction. It is as if the director bravely opens Pandora’s box; but struggles to control the beast he has unleased. The female characters could be better developed, and the music is not rooted in the plot.

The film Maamannan is pivotal because it turns the narrative around a community and creates a powerful arc that transforms personal struggle into public dissent. The director portrays the pain of this transformation; it is a story that needs to be told. The film engages the audience and prompts, “Are you listening?”

Nisha Abdulla presents her solo act, “‘We push the sky”, with a banner as a backdrop that reads “Are you listening?” As the audience arrives, Nisha invites them to a conversation over a cup of tea and Uniappam, making them feel comfortable. She promises them that the ‘wait will end’ and encourages them to engage with her. As she draws them into her plot, there are no spectators here- everyone is an actor (or a prop).

The story gently catalogues a series of childhood stories, a glimpse into a child’s life, friends, family and neighbours; personal stories, incidents, and inspirations weave an identity. A woman, Malayali, Mappila, Muslim, Indian Migrants in the Middle East, cricket lover, and non-Urdu speaking Muslim is transformed into a Muslim when Junaid goes missing.

The plot turns the personal into political when the nation turns the narrative into them versus us. The catalogues of complex identity turn into an archive of personal and community pain. Nisha quickly confronts her fears while questioning our cowardice in our prolonged silence; the extraordinary exchange with the audience where she asks if potatoes can be considered desi, then why Muslims who came earlier are not citizens, she lists them one by one, the laugh induced is dark as the protagonist uses the absurdist idea of the home minister coming (like waiting for Godot).

In the climax, which retells the night of solidarity, the women hold their hands at the protest site; as police stare at them, the hands rise to the sky, creating a new space of solidarity, harmony and hope. ‘We push the sky’.

The production was terrific, with exceptional scriptwriting and acting by Nisha Abdulla and lights by the team of Madhusudan and Arun. The set design was by Gowtham and Pardafash designed the sound. Shradha Raj flawlessly managed the production. Ujwala Rao as a director kept the play tight, intense and engaging. The play is a triumph of storytelling and is exceptionally brave.

The Play ‘ We push the sky’ on 9 July was dedicated to Teesta Setalvad.

Truly, in Mari Selvaraj’s Maamannan and Nisha Abdulla’s ‘We push the sky’, we see how artists take a personal moment to create a trajectory in art; art is an extension of the artist, and their dissent becomes archiving in our times. We must, as the audience must, not be mere spectators. Are you listening?

Reach out to ‘We push the sky’ at ​​​​ 

(The author is a financial professional with a master’s degree in economics. I am intensely interested in the arts, academia, and social issues related to development and human rights.)


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