The 2019 sexual assault case in Pollachi shook the state and had political implications all the way till the 2021 Tamil Nadu state elections. But it also had cinematic implications. A laundry list of films based on the case followed. To just name a few that came in the last one year—Chithirai Sevvanam, Theerpugal Virkapadum and Suriya’s recent Etharkkum Thunindhavan. A few more were made and released before.
As if on cue, director Arunraja Kamaraj sets Nenjuku Needhi—the Tamil remake of Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 that was based on Badaun gang rape and caste violence—in Pollachi. It sits somewhere between clever use of a more locally known case that is still fresh in memory, not to mention had the current opposition party functionaries involved, and a lack of imagination in adding it to yet another Tamil film that uses the case to its advantage. He begins by establishing anecdotal shots of generational practices during a school’s preparations for 74th Independence Day function—as India is celebrated, so are its inequities such as untouchability, caste atrocities, manual scavenging and arm twisting by those with caste and political currency.
The setting is glaring in this film because it stars Udhayanidhi Stalin, actor, current Member of the Legislative Assembly and son of the state’s Chief minister. As beautiful and picturesque as Pollachi is, its sunrise is the film’s most used backdrop. He graces the screen by sliding down his car windows to look at the rising sun and proceeds to snap a picture to send to his wife Adhiti (Tanya Ravichandran), a walking, talking, loving India Explainer for the foreign educated Vijay.
Vijay arrived in India with his blinkers on, proud of Ambedkar, Taj Mahal and A.R Rahman but unaware of ground reality. His character is even less prepared for the job than Ayushmann Khurrana’s in Article 15. His wife, a think piece generator, holds his hand through his initial days in the town. All the original’s metaphors are retained—of stepping into the dirt, toiling with either criminal or naïve colleagues, discussing the caste hierarchy among his subordinates with a dollop of levity and the agony wife calls to Adhiti.
The dissonance has more to do with this being a Tamil film. Caste is everywhere but so is an acknowledgement or at the very least cognizance of historical anti-caste movements. Both in daily life and in its pop culture. Vijay’s subordinates learn more about him from the box of books he’s carrying, one by Periyar summarily dismissed by Sundaram, the character played by Manoj Pahwa in Article 15.
As much as the film is well intentioned and works as a faithful remake, it could have done with embellishments laced in cultural and temporal context. So when he asks a local why are statues of Periyar and Ambedkar inside cages or learns from Adhiti if he’s reached the main part of the town based on the statues in front of him, it makes for an inauthentic viewing and inconsistent characterization. Sure, he could be a booksmart intermediate or upper caste IPS officer, but the film continues to harp on its messaging to him or through him. Whenever someone is speaking to Vijay or Vijay is sermonizing, he is talking to the audience sharing all the wisdom he’s learned as the protected and unaffected do-gooder.
But people are smarter than that. A point often raised when it comes to Article 15 is how Nishad, the revolutionary leader played by Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub should have been the real protagonist. Nenjuku Needhi’s Nishad is Kumaran, played by Aari Arujunan. We hear Kumaran’s name and his legend long before we see his face. When he finally makes an appearance, he got the whistles and hoots that Udhayanidhi Stalin didn’t (maybe because Aari is a Big Boss winner, the other actor only won a constituency, who can tell).
Kumaran’s arc follows his Article 15 counterpart’s but who deserves a movie? Is it the sitting MLA, filmed against the rising sun—symbol of his party—more than once, acting in a film whose title is borrowed from his illustrious grandfather’s autobiography, or Kumaran? The audience probably knows the answer and with Udhayanidhi Stalin set to star in Mari Selvaraj’s next film, it might do well to be cynical about some of these politically flavoured features.