The film directed by Madonne Ashwin bagged awards at the recently announced National Film Awards
Last Updated: 03.27 PM, Aug 04, 2022
While Bollywood and other major south Indian film industries continue to churn out mass films that mint hundreds of crores at the box office, a few low-budget films that are reflective of the society and the times we live in, exist on the periphery. Thanks to OTT, these films are now getting the due they deserve and are being recognised for their fresh content and not merely for star power. One such film is Madonne Ashwin’s directorial debut Mandela, which bagged two awards at the recently announced National Film Awards.
Set in a village called Soorangudi, Mandela revolves around a forthcoming local election contested between two men of warring caste groups, the Vadakkoorans (Northerners) and Therkkoorans (Southerners). The two candidates, Rathnam and Mathi, are half-brothers and sons of the present head of the village panchayat, Periyavar. The winner has been promised Rs 30 crore by a corporate in return for granting permission to set up a village factory. So, Rathnam and Mathi put their best men to work, and try to manipulate voters of their respective castes through all possible means. However, a few days before the election, they realise they are one vote short of gaining a majority.
At this point, the film’s focus shifts toward the protagonist. He doesn’t have a real name or a proper address. People in the village call him Elichavaayan (Jackass) or Smile. He is a barber and does all sorts of menial work for the ‘higher-caste’ people. He is considered an outcast who is only allowed to enter a house through the back door. In order to open an account at the local post office and apply for ID proofs, he renames himself Nelson Mandela (which itself is symbolic). The turning point in the film comes when Mandela procures a voter’s ID. When Rathnam and Mathi learn that it is Mandela who would decide their fate, they try to woo him by offering all sorts of gifts, from food to clothes and TV to a salon. Will Mandela fall for the freebies or will he try to better the living conditions of the people in the village that doesn’t even have one public toilet?
The highlight of the film is its characters. Ashwin, who has also written the film's screenplay, deserves praise for developing relatable and varied characters. Every role is important — be it the village head who marries two women from different castes in order to come across as neutral and unbiased, the postal officer Thenmozhi, the outsider who comes to Soorangudi only to pass irksome comments on the rival groups, Mandela’s sidekick Kirutha, and even Esaki who is always on the lookout for some free money. These characters make the film more interesting and enjoyable.
Most importantly, the film is a commentary on the deep-rooted problems that are prevalent in our electoral systems such as freebie culture and vote-bank politics. Soorangudi is, in fact, a microcosm of the whole of India, which, unfortunately, is divided by caste and religion. Mandela’s story will resonate with the audience even if it was set in a remote village in North India. When Rathnam and Mathi bid crores on Mandela’s vote, the election officer exclaims, “When you filed your nominations, you declared your assets as 50,000 rupees and a rickety old bicycle! But you are pouring in crores now!” Politicians not declaring their complete assets is not new to Indian politics, and Ashwin has intelligently included all these situations in the narrative.
Yogi Babu delivers his career’s best performance as the titular character in the film. We instantly establish a connection with his character and are compelled to empathise with him. It’s also a change of pace for him as he has mostly played secondary comedy roles in films before Mandela. Sheela Rajkumar is likable as Thenmozhi. The film also features Sangili Murugan, G. M. Sundar, Kanna Ravi, Senthi Kumari, George Maryan, and Deepa Shankar.
While there is no dearth of films revolving around social and political issues, Mandela stands out due to its execution of the messaging. It isn’t overtly preachy nor there is too much melodrama. It is a film that makes one laugh as well as introspect.