Mandela movie review: Madonne Ashwin’s film is a balcony view of the darkly amusing times we live in

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Against the backdrop of the upcoming assembly elections, Mandela is a film that will remind us of our priorities. It will encourage us to think about our rights as people and our power when we’re together.

What can a single vote do? What will politicians do for that single vote? Mandela, Madonne Ashwin’s debut directorial, seeks to answer these two questions — two sides of the same coin. Set in the village of Soorangudi, Mandela is the story of the eponymous hero, a barber, who is treated as an outcast until he gets a right to vote. With a closely fought local election around the corner, how his democratic right affects him and his people makes up the rest of this eloquent film.

Nelson Mandela, called Elichavaayan or Smile by the villagers, is a nonchalant, apolitical individual. The film leaves no room for any ambiguity about his caste position — he is a barber, he is called to clean toilets, he is forced to enter through the back door, people refuse to pay him for his labour and so on. He endures these everyday exploitations and aggressions as though he knows no better. He asks no questions, seeks no justice. All he wants is to save up enough money to open a salon.

Yogi Babu, who plays Mandela, is excellent in the role. He is quirky, without ever reducing the character to a caricature. He is also important in not turning this into melodrama or poverty porn. He carries the film rather gently on his shoulders, his transformation mellow, his awakening silent. It is delightful to see him play a role of substance; Tamil cinema can certainly use more of this Yogi Babu.

The real hero of the film, however, is writer-director Madonne Ashwin. He presents an idealistic yet level-headed portrayal of modern-day politics in Tamil Nadu. His layered writing lends itself to multiple viewings, each time something intricate to discover. He fills his world with diverse characters, all of whom he treats with care. The old bigamous village leader, whose political influence is waning; his two bigoted sons; wives, who are just as bigoted, cunning and greedy as their husbands (why not!); Mandela’s assistant Kirutha; the beedi-smoking man; the new postal officer; the election officials — each one of them, however little they appear on screen, give us a slice of the biting reality around us.

In drawing a scarce sketch of these characters, Madonne Ashwin trusts his audience to identify and know them. They’re not unique in any way. They are pedestrian. They are you and me. The film seeds our connection to its characters in clever ways. Mandela is called Elichavaayan, for instance: an ingeniously apt name for the character — a word almost impossible to translate literally, though subtitles come close with ‘jackass’ — making us instantly think of all the Elichavaayans we know. The postal officer, an incredible Sheela Rajkumar, begins her work by sweeping the floor and fixing the doors, for instance, reminding us of women who often go beyond their call of duty to straighten up the system.

It is rare that a writer who invests in the details of his characters also gets the larger picture of politics straight. He places this small local panchayat election within the context of larger state politics, with an MLA and his sidekick uncaring of the people in pursuit of their greed. All kinds of politicking are represented. There is a centrist who stands for nothing. There is a cynical foreigner who comments on all proceedings but has no stake in anything. Government officials who offer no help.

Madonne Ashwin also gets it right when he decides not to make one person the hero or the villain. The two men who lead all conflict in the village aren’t traditional Tamil film antagonists — killing them would do no good. There is a scene where Mandela threatens to vote for NOTA. One of them sharply replies: So what if you do? We’ll send one of us to contest in the next elections too. Mandela understands that it’s the system that needs changing, not simply the men in it.

While the film aims to satirise politics, it doesn’t use the genre’s tropes like exaggeration or ridicule. It hardly even stages and delivers jokes. Mandela isn’t a funny film. It’s simply a balcony view of the darkly amusing times we live in.

Against the backdrop of the upcoming assembly elections, Mandela is a film that will remind us of our priorities. It will encourage us to think about our rights as people and our power when we’re together. For long after the elections are over, Mandela will stand as a thoughtful and optimistic view of democracy, for one and all.

Mandela is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —

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